Zen and the Art of Clutter

Learning to let go of perfection as a goal

"Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe."

Clutter. Disorder. Disarray. I have come to respect these words, in the same way that one enjoys a Lewis Carroll poem.

I have a friend who is an incredible housewife (stay at home mom and domestic engineer). Everything is always in its place: Floors were swept; bathrooms spotless; dishes done after every meal. She has a beautifully landscaped yard, and cooks dinner, from scratch, every night. Her children's clothes have no holes in the knees, and are always clean, wrinkle-free and put away. Her needlework projects are always finished, and are prominently hung around the house. She is always home when her kids get home. There is always something simmering on the stove and friends are always welcome.

Well, at least I'm home!
I, too, am always home when my four children are. That's generally where the similarities end, though, between me and my friend. Somehow, our clothes rarely seem to make it past the dryer, and I generally wash the dishes from breakfast and lunch after dinner. The lawn is mowed enough so that the neighbors don't call the alderman. I chose to continue doing my "day job," not unlike many women in this day and age, the only difference being that I chose to stay home to do it. It allows me to spend much time with the children, but leaves me very little time for housework.

So, I have developed my own "Ode to Housework", otherwise entitled, "Zen and the Art of Clutter." Don't be fooled, there is an art to it. It takes a long time to learn to leave well enough alone. There are many righteous people out there now, telling us to "simplify." Get rid of our stuff, our debt, our desire for things. I like my stuff. So I decided to simplify my mind. As Henry David Thoreau said, "Simplify, simplify, simplify," and as Bob Newhart said, "Wouldn't it have been simpler to only say it once?"

First things first
When considering housework, one must establish priorities. Is examining a bug with your three year old more important than the breakfast dishes? Or how about the baby bird that just fell out of the tree? Is the article you're writing or the proposal you're working on more important? Undoubtedly yes, and probably much more interesting (except maybe the bug!). In fact, in my house, almost anything is more important than breakfast dishes, but I digress. Believe me, the dishes will be there, and then they will be there again.

Ask yourself: What can I live with? With a household full of active readers, my office in the house, and who knows how many craft projects, science projects and birthday presents in progress going on, I long ago decided that piles of books and magazines were acceptable. It's ok for the bookshelves and cabinets to be a bit disheveled and for the kitchen table to be a virtual "inbox" for the plethora of papers that make their way into our home. However, the dining room table is always clear, and ready for the next meal, and I do not tolerate left over crumbs, food left out, unswept floors, etc.

Mostly, housework can be done on an as-needed basis...and don't be afraid to get help. It goes much faster. Most people are amazed when I tell them the things that my kids do to help. My 6- and 7-year-olds do very simple chores that save me loads of time, and teach them what it means to contribute to the family. They do not get paid for these chores--sweeping, wiping counters and tables, picking up toys, folding laundry, sorting recyclables and taking out trash, wiping down bathroom fixtures, etc.--anymore than I get paid to do the dishes or scrub the tub. Many parents feel that it's easier and faster to do most of these things themselves. Of course that's true, now...but at some point it will be second nature to them, just like it is to you. No, maybe Junior won't sweep properly behind the piano, but he probably got everything he could see, and if he can't see it and you can't see it, why look for it?

There are some days when I am just frustrated with the whole idea of housework. Why bother? There will just be more tommorrow. It seems to never end. So, I decided on a couple of things.

I am now happy when there are enough clean dishes for the next meal (we don't have a dishwasher besides me yet!), and I'm happy when everyone has something clean to wear. When kids start telling me there are no clean clothes, then I know I've ignored too much!

The lowdown
I guess the Art of Clutter really all boils down to this:

  • Don't be afraid to declare a family personal day, keep the kids home and go to the beach or a museum.
  • Don't be afraid of your piles of stuff. If you know where it is (and there's nothing growing in it!), you're doing great. If you don't know where anything is, you'd better declare a "sacred housecleaning day" and start new piles!
  • Don't be afraid to make your kids work--they contribute to the mess, they can help clean it up. And don't feel like you have to make cleaning some kind of fun "Barney" game, cleaning isn't fun, but it has to be done. Get it done quickly and you can do really fun stuff later.
  • Work on simplifying your brain and relaxing before you worry if you have too much stuff. Stuff is just stuff. Sure, we can do without it, but if you like your stuff, keep it...if not have a yard sale.
  • Have time. None of this "making time" business. You can't "make" time. We don't get anymore than we're given. So leave the dinner dishes and take a family walk. If the dishes don't get done now, they'll get done later.
  • Say "no." The kids do not have to be in soccer, baseball, basketball, debate, ballet, karate, piano, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts--at least not all at the same time. And you don't have to lead it all. Maybe there won't be a team. Oh well. Take the kids to the park and play soccer, go camping as a family. It doesn't have to be organized to be fun.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frummious Bandersnatch!"

Embrace your clutter, respect it...then go live your life.

Michelle Kennedy is a freelance writer and the mother of four homeschooled children.