Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit (1964, 1970) features a piece of conceptual art that has always fascinated me. “Laundry Piece” proposes that one entertains one’s guests by going through a pile of as-yet-unwashed laundry and telling them how, when, and why each item got dirty. I suppose this interested me so much as a teenager because it was a story I recognized as mine. As each day’s clothes, books, and papers piled up, both literally and figuratively, their successive layers were sedimenting into the archaeology of my life.
In my senior year at university I lived in a cooperative house with 40 other undergraduates. My room was a large octagonal one on the top floor with a semicircle of bay windows. One morning following a late, late night, I sat with a couple of friends watching the sun streaming in through the windows and motes of dust wafting their way down, down, down, to settle at last in a fine layer upon all my things, already accumulating at an alarming rate although I was as yet barely twenty years old. I saw then, with the clarity of youth, how life went by: dealing with the continuous influx of things, things that accumulated willy nilly, so that one’s whole life could be, would be, occupied just clearing them out and dusting them off. It was just like that scene in Alice Through the Looking Glass where, as the Red Queen tells Alice, she has to run as fast as she can just to stay in the same place.
It has turned out as I foresaw then, only I have not been able to run fast enough to keep up with, let alone get ahead of, that continuous influx; to sort through, dust off, and clear out at a pace that maintains a modicum of order in my living spaces. What I have instead, is a muddle. Sometimes it triumphs over me, as on Nikhil’s third birthday, when I was perfectly capable of cooking, organizing games, and making party favors for a dozen or more toddlers, but lost my nerve when I came up against a mountain of unsorted clothes that needed to be folded and put away. I remember throwing up my hands in despair and allowing Maureen and Andrew to move in and work their way through it expertly, in no time at all. No wonder Yoko Ono’s “Laundry Piece” appealed to me: it turned a liability into a distinctive asset. Rather than clearing up my muddle, I could transform it into art!
I suppose that most of my life since then has been characterized by a kind of strategy of accommodation. Rather than running as fast as I can to keep up, I make a virtue, even a bit of a mystery, of my messiness. (And yes, like E.M. Forster in A Passage to India, I’m well aware that a mystery is “only a high-sounding term for a muddle.”) My home may be a muddle, but it’s my muddle. I remember a younger sibling of one of Nikhil’s friends coming over to our house to play and looking around him wonderingly. “Nikhil’s Mom,” he said, “Your house is so interesting!” If I hadn’t loved him already, he would have endeared himself to me for life with that innocent appraisal of my messy home.
Sometimes, though, my home gets too interesting, even for me, who has a high tolerance for things of interest. When that happens, the walls start to close in on me and I am thrown into a frenzy of cleaning and clearing that lasts until I collapse with a cup of tea to rest for a moment and survey my handiwork. But alas, not for long enough; to quote my favorite proverb from Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, “Eneke the bird says that since men have learnt to shoot without missing, he has learnt to fly without perching.” In this topsy-turvy looking-glass world, even pausing is perilous, let alone standing still.