Clean Philosophy

“I don’t think that’s ever been cleaned before.”

My co-worker stopped and stared at me, scrubbing away. I looked up out from my methodical task, and commented mildly “Well, there’s always a time for a first.”

She says I have OCD. I might. That’s neither here nor there. The truth is, I was bored, and when I get bored at work, I clean everything that’s ever been cleaned before, and when I run out of that, I start in on the stuff that’s never been cleaned yet.

Some people mark the new year by cleaning up. I never much seem to notice the new calendar year, but I have my own personal new year when I clean deeply and set things in order–regardless of what the weather is doing or the position of the heavenly bodies.

Cleaning makes me philosophical.

I am working (ha) on two different theories right now. The first is concerning our dual desires to be free and to be home. Being free is the enemy of clutter. Being free means you could suddenly take a train to goodness-knows-where and never miss any of your stuff. Being free means not feeling the need to keep things “just in case”. Being free means your possessions don’t own you.

But being home means you are rooted and grounded. Being home means you have memories. Being home means you have what you need right at your hands. Being home means you have time to settle down and ponder things and try things–things that tend to accumulate.

The idea is to keep them in balance. You can’t be so utilitarian that you throw out every single last little thing that you’re not using RIGHT NOW. But you can’t keep everything under the sun, either. The problem is when the two war. The concept was thoroughly pictured when I came across a pattern for a knitted baby sweater. The design didn’t particularly stand out to me, and baby sweater patterns are a dime a dozen, and anyway, I don’t know of many babies in my life at the moment. I almost dropped it in the “chuck it” pile, but suddenly stopped, recognizing it.

It was the pattern my Great-Grandmother (now deceased) had used to make a baby sweater for my mom when my oldest brother was born. My Great-Grandmother who first introduced me to the concept that People Can Make Things With Yarn. I’d inherited a lot of her sewing and crafting stuff, and while a lot of it doesn’t appeal to me. . .every piece I throw away makes me feel like I am throwing away a piece my great-grandmother.

So I stood there holding the piece of paper and trying to decide. Junk–a pattern I wouldn’t use and didn’t need? Or worthwhile–a memory of a loved one? Free or home?

I kept it.

I didn’t keep the piles of manuals on how to re-upholster chairs and decorate your entire house.

But a lot of stuff from her for me falls in the gray zone. I don’t need it; I wouldn’t use it; but I can’t quite bring myself to throw it away. Somehow there seems like there is part of a person connected to it. It’s the same reason I have troubles throwing away old letters (even if I’m long out of touch with said person), true printed photographs (even if the pictures really weren’t very good), fabric scraps related to favorite projects (you could get quilt pieces or something from that!) or any number of useless, space consuming objects. In many cases, the person I feel like I’m throwing away is me.

I haven’t figured out how to reconcile this struggle yet, but I suppose defining the struggle is the first step.

The second theory isn’t mine, and I just spent a good deal of time trying to find the article where I first–years ago–was introduced to the theory. I couldn’t find the original article I’d read, but the theory is older than I am. It’s referred to as the “Broken windows” theory. “Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows.” The idea is about norm-settings. When in Rome, do as the Romans. And if the Roman’s don’t have any problems with broken windows, break a few more.

In some ways it makes me think about how our surroundings influence our actions. But the whole goal of the theory wasn’t just to describe what was happening; it was to reverse-engineer the problem. If dirty streets leads to petty crimes leads to less petty crimes leads to a whole city of poverty, depravity and chaos. . .can cleaning up the streets help fix the problem? (Not sure if anyone else can recognize the article I was thinking of; it was a while ago.) Because then expectations are changed. Because people are herd animals, and we tend to go with the flow, up or down.

Some of us recognize this in our own surroundings. “Just can’t work in cluttered spaces! Don’t think my best while I’m still in my PJ’s. Have to get up early in order to get anything done.” We acknowledge a bit of an avalanche effect. Granted, things avalanche down much more so than up. But the fact remains: where clutter exists, more clutter is encouraged. Where orderliness is present, orderliness is expected. Come to think of it, isn’t that one of the reasons why military organizations demand such order?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting nor desiring military-like order in my living quarters. I did say there needed to be a balance. But I do marvel at my whole response–not just restoring order, but even to adding beauty (or things of aesthetically pleasing nature, if the feminine word ‘beauty’ derails you). I am more productive in productive spaces, yes. But I’m happier in happier spaces, too.

I don’t know if cleaning previously-uncleaned things at work makes much of a difference. I do know one of the reasons I come upon boredom at work is because I tend to be pretty good at staying on top of and anticipating things; pretty soon I’ve worked myself out of a job, so to speak. So that right there clouds the picture; but I do know that everyone was hopelessly behind before I started working again, and, peculiarly, within a few days of my being back at the helm, people caught back up. But I will admit that the fact that I cleaned the model of the spine is probably merely circumstantial evidence, and not the cause. . .

One Response to Clean Philosophy

  1. Ug. I need to clean.

    I need to declutter.

    This post prompted more thoughts than these, but they’re the dominant ones.

    (Thanks for nothing!)

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