One thing too many

I have a recurring problem in my life, and it manifests everywhere. I happen to know that it is a common problem. I call it “one thing too many”. It works like this. I prune the contents of a room – any room, but lets assume my “office” since that was my most recent target. I get it down to the right amount of furniture, enough space to move around without bumping into things, a solid block of blank floor for playing, doing puzzles, or yoga. It takes ages, and I keep doing it again and again. But invariably somebody (frequently me) comes along, sees the empty space, and puts something else into it. And when I have to spend time there, again, I find myself thinking, “There is at least one thing too many in this room.”

This week, after spending the entire winter making do with pine crate shelving (the super-cheap stuff that they sell for garages), I gathered all the books stacked around my office on the floor, on the horizontal surfaces, on the chair, on the table, on the desk, on the couch… and when I had a stack that was 3 or 4 feet tall (these were just the ones I had referenced in the last couple of months), I went out and bought a bookshelf.

Isn't it *pretty*?

Having added a piece of furniture to the room, I did the logical thing and tried to figure out which one to remove. I picked my son’s art table, which rarely houses art, but frequently fills up with stuff. So I wandered downstairs with the art table, looking for a place to put it. All the rooms are full. Then I came to one that had a bit of space in it… not enough to reasonably place the art table, but space enough to put if for the time being while I finished up my office. “Hrm,” I thought, “didn’t this room used to be a lot more crowded? Hey! Where did that big white chair go? Phew. Good riddance.” I did wander the house briefly, looking for the missing chair. Then I shrugged, put the table down in the middle of the room and set back to my task, thus undoing my husband’s previous work in that room (see how this works?)

At the end of it, I’ve got this lovely airy space, full of natural light and space for a yoga mat:

But it’s all a lie! There’s still one of the old garage shelves tucked in next to the couch, and a folding table between the woodstove and the bookshelf. I can feel that it’s temporary; everything’s encroaching. The bottom half of the bookshelf actually looks like this:

When I took a mental step beyond the room, I thought, “There’s no white space in my life!”

Every moment is filled, either with tasks, worrying about tasks, planning for tasks, or trying to figure out how to pay for tasks. There are enough unfinished projects in the corners of this house to occupy my hands and life for at least 6 months if all my other responsibilities vanished leaving me only with the projects. If I have to keep doing everything else, I suspect that I won’t even finish what I’ve already started in my lifetime. Knitting, sewing, reclaiming old furniture, renovations, chicken coops to build, gardens to plant, preserves to make, pruning, taking cuttings… I would need three of me just to take care of the house!

There is also no white space in my schedule. There is something down for somebody every evening of the week. I have to do the driving for most of those. I signed up for post-a-day, and I’m enjoying it, so I don’t want to drop that, although I have started allowing myself some slack, since I just started taking a six-month course that also involves writing. I’m on the board of the new farmers market, and am putting together the website. With this sort of schedule, even yoga and meditation become just-one-more-thing.

And then I realized: it is not that there is no white space; it is that every time I see white space, I fill it. I fill it with stuff, with obligations, with guilt, with tasks, with business, with concepts. I don’t know who I would be if I were not busy, busy, busy, busy, busy. I did this myself. Which sounds like another guilt trip, but it’s not… if I got myself into this mess, I can get myself out.

I have become a fan of Martha Beck over the last year, having come upon The Joy Diet while shelving at the library. The first step in her process outlined in that book is doing nothing for a period each day… setting aside white space, as it were. Space to dream, to develop, and for things to happen. I think so many of us spend our time being busy to try to justify our existences. When we get our schedules down to the point that we find blank space, time to dream, maybe work on our souls, we think that we aren’t working hard enough… so we add on a couple of extra commitments, and we are back to the rat race.

So I did a couple of things differently. First, when I realized what I was doing in the middle of this post, I set it down and went and spent some time with my youngest child. We yelled, “triangulo” loudly at Dora the Explorer, got her to Rainbow Rock, and got him to bed at a reasonable time. Then I went to bed early. Which is why there was no post yesterday (if you happen to be keeping track.)

When I got up, I cleaned the shelf above my desk, which looks like this:

It is supposed to represent priorities, and what is precious. Every now and then, even it gets one thing too many placed on it. I think I need to take my own advice, do less stuff, slow down, allow more space to remain unfilled… but how?

(BTW, dear husband. I agree. A cow would definitely be one thing too many.)

3 responses to “One thing too many”

  1. During my last round of working, working, working to meet a deadline, I saw how comfortable it is for me, in a sick, sick way: I know what I’m supposed to be doing. There’s a weird simplicity to living that way, miserable as I am (mostly) in the midst of it. And it was strange this time to move directly from that simplicity to the simplicity of sesshin.

    My version of doing nothing is going with the Critter to the park or the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Everything else falls away when I’m there. This morning the Critter poured glue all over a rug, ruining it. And then we went to the garden, and I was like, why was I so upset this morning?

    • Oh, it’s so comfortable. I know how to do it; I’ve got so much practice. It makes me feel alive. But it’s not particularly productive to be that busy; leads to multi-tasking and general distractedness.

      I will be going forward with this realization… not sure where yet. But that image of Leonardo da Vinci staring down at me next to the Buddha and the triple goddess are going to keep me in line. As long as I don’t clutter them up with a million other things.

  2. That bookshelf definitely needs more books – I can see wood. So I will recommend a favorite – Peripheral Visions, by Mary Catherine Bateson. It is a wonderful collection of essays about how we learn. One in particular starts off with her describing the objects in front of her on her writing desk. Your shelf made me think of it. (And I can tell you are short on reading material).

    I do so love this post.