“There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.” Stephen Stills
I’ve been reading Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s autobiography Dreaming of Lions. Near the beginning of her memoir, she tells of her time as a young woman when she and her brother and parents lived with a band of Bushmen in the Kalahari. At one point, Thomas enumerates all the possessions of a Bushman woman.
“…she owned her front and back aprons, also her leather cape and the sinew string which served as a belt, also her digging stick, two or three empty ostrich eggshells in which the people carried water, the grass stoppers for those ostrich eggshells, a leather bag, her necklace of ostrich eggshell beads, perhaps four or five hair ornaments, also a pair of leather sandals, and a tortoise shell in which she carried a sweet-smelling powder.”
Then Thomas enumerates the total possessions of a Bushman man. “He would own his leather loincloth, a leather bag, perhaps a leather cape for warmth, a pair of sandals, also a quiver, perhaps eight or nine arrows, a knife, a spear, perhaps a digging stick, and a pair of fire sticks. He also might own a necklace or some other ornament.”
For both a woman and a man, the total number of possessions was nineteen, give or take one or two. This enumeration put me in mind of when I lived as a vagabond for a few years and carried with me all my worldly possessions. I had many more than nineteen things, but certainly no more than sixty, including my clothing and shoes and survival tools and a few books. Today I am possessed of thousands of things. Thousands.
So…this morning, having put off the task for a year, I decided to clean up and organize the four work surfaces in my office/studio, also known as the Stables of Augeas. This undertaking resulted in my cleaning the entire room from floor to ceiling, and in the course of my excavations I found my good tape measure I’ve been missing for several weeks as well as two unanswered letters (shame on me), seven half-finished drawings, and five beginnings of stories. I also found so many pens, I feel abashed to have bought another box thinking I’d run out.
Yes, I agree that multiple dysfunctional work surfaces and a hyper-cluttered office/studio filled with unfinished, unanswered, unrealized things might be indicative of emotional and creative bottlenecks, and now that I have created these vast open spaces, the question does arise: how will I use this spaciousness? Could I have been avoiding the question of what to do next with my one precious creative life by engineering a physical conundrum composed of mystery heaps and jumbles of stuff obfuscating those work surfaces? Don’t be silly.
I do wonder why I kept a large bike pump on one corner of my writing desk for so many months, and why I stacked several notebooks filled with writing I’d already transcribed on top of a list of people I was planning to contact six months ago about something I felt was important at the time, but once the list was lost to view I forgot about contacting those people, and now I can’t remember why I wanted to contact them. Could this mean the something I wanted to contact them about was not really important, or might this be yet another example of self-sabotage? Oh, please.
These are just a few of the many questions that arose during the clearing process. Here are a few more. Why did I bring five old shoes from my bedroom closet into my office and put them under the table where I keep my postal scale and stamps and telephone? Why did I keep two large cardboard boxes on the left side of my drawing table for nearly a year, each box containing a single book, rather than put those books on a shelf, recycle the boxes, and give myself more room to draw?
An archaeologist generalizing about ancient Californians from the artifacts discovered in the tomb of my office might posit that the two hand-pruners found in Strata 47C on the same desk with pens and papers suggests that pruning and writing were conjoined activities in the olden days in California. A sentence fragment found in a nearby amalgam of disintegrating papers supports this hypothesis. “Pruning a fruit tree is kin to editing a passage of prose, for both words and branches…” Ah but the rest of the sentence has been lost to the exigencies of time and rot. However, the archaeologist feels confirmed in his thesis. These early Californians thought of fruit trees as living essays. Gads what a sophisticated culture!
Having conquered my interior, I stumbled forth from my revitalized creativity complex and found those same early Californians had been at work cluttering up the yard much as they had cluttered up my office. Incensed, I moved five wheelbarrow-loads of seasoned kindling into the woodshed, something I intended to do six months ago before the onset of winter but never accomplished before the rains came and so hastily covered the kindling pile with a tarp, and once a pile is covered, well, out of sight out of mind. Meanwhile, I was making more kindling to be stacked for seasoning, but then the rains came and I didn’t get much of what I cut stacked, and then the grasses started growing and engulfed the unstacked kindling, and so forth.
This is where a list might come in handy: a list of Things To Be Done Soon. I made several such lists, and before they vanished into the yawning maw of the Bermuda Triangle of my office, I’m sure I suggested to myself that I get that seasoned kindling into the woodshed and stack the new kindling before the rains came. And sure enough I found those lists when I sorted through the detritus on my work surfaces; and on three of those lists the first item was Clean The Gutters Before The Rains Come, and beside that item on one of the lists was a triumphant check mark!