Josna Rege

132. My Muddle, My Life

In 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, Books, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States on December 11, 2011 at 3:33 pm

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!

Turning a liability into an asset.  from

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.

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  1. Dear friend,
    I think we all have this malady to one degree or another. There always seems to be something more interesting to busy ourselves with when discipline fails us.
    I seem to have a different problem however, because I find it nearly impossible to work at anything on my desk until it has been tidied up and things are put where they should be.
    Being a natural neat-nik has its downside as well, that is the guilt which plagues me if I do not keep things fairly tidy. Luckily we both have enough good sense to lighten up a bit and focus on what is really necessary and important in life.

    My sister, Cynthia, always kept a messy room in my eyes but she really did not like it when I would kindly go in and tidy it for her. Now she keeps a messy desk but she says she can always find what she needs as long as noone else has tried to move and tidy it up!
    She is able to accomplish an astounding amount and type of work at that messy desk as she designs control systems for satelites and monitors about 30 of them up there floating around. They keep our world working with all our communication needs. So a neat desk is
    really unimportant in her world!

    • I need some of your neatnik tendencies, Marianne! I used to be like Cynthia, a method in my madness, able to locate anything in seconds from what appeared to be a chaotic pile of papers; but now, either I have too much stuff or my mind isn’t quite as penetrating! Now when my environment gets too messy I start feeling scattered and get very inefficient. Every now and then I go into a whirlwind of cleaning and vow to keep up henceforth, but alas, the keeping-up is usually short-lived. For a while, at the recommendation of a friend, I signed up for, until I got tired of all the emails. It was fun, though, and I must say that it did offer a useful structure. I still use some of its strategies.

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