To say that I am organized is an understatement. Neurotic might hew closer to the truth. I was the only twelve year old I knew with files. My cassettes were alphabetized; my stuffed animals ordered by size.
On a recent trip to my mom’s, I gave my son a box of dog-eared comic books that had been mine at his age. He dug in. A few days later, he presented me with an index card listing the comic titles, condition and of expected value of each. Oh no, collecting and cataloging like his mom? Poor thing. But upon closer exam, I discovered the handwriting to be my own overly-neat first tries at cursive. It was I who had listed Mighty Mouse #169, Sept 79, $2.50-6.00, perfect and Richie Rich #92, $1.50, less perfect.
My father was the master “organizer”--as in he spent hours shuffling and re-shuffling papers, typing folder labels and making logs of activities. I can see him so clearly, hair sprayed into neatly combed tracks, licking the pad of his thumb and leaning his sweatered paunch over a tall stack of papers, a look of determination on his face. He sorted things in lieu of making an actual living. Always appearing busy but actually getting very little done. I vowed to not be like him.
But, like radiation, my early exposure to obsessive organizing has left some lasting effects. My husband and I have a recurring argument wherein he tries to organize our spices by “frequency of use” rather than by name. His argument? Pepper should be handier than marjoram. My argument? Yes, but “M” comes before “P”--as I elbow him out and reshuffle the cabinet.
My mom is fond of saying that I’ve always needed “my ducks in a row.” It’s a great image, all of the facets of my life as little happy fuzzy ducklings lined up neatly and marching behind me wherever I go. But more often than not they are straying off to play video games or crying about the knots in their hair and leaving a trail of dirty, inside-out clothes behind them.
The truth is more complicated than my need to have pencils separate from pens; it’s my craving for stability. Yes, I like the simple pleasure of knowing where to find things and of a clean room and of an up-to-date calendar with everyone accounted for. They all put my mind at ease. But my underlying need is routine and knowing what’s next--the things I lacked in childhood. I go overboard trying to create them now.
Friends are always surprised to discover how deeply these desires run and how ridiculously important order is to me. They seem at odds with the parts of me they know well. I happily dance in the living room with my kids, trash talk their friends during board games, stay latest at a party, whip up impromptu playdate cookies and engage in nerf gun wars. I maintain that these free sides of my personality can flourish only because the other areas of my life are so controlled.
But what happens if those areas of order collapse? What if my metaphorical ducks just up and leave the building? This fall, all of my efforts at creating predictability were crushed under the heel of some big changes. Our home went under construction; our missing kitchen left my blog on hold because of the lack of baking to write about; my husband accepted a new job entailing longs hours and lots of travel; and I spent almost three months really sick.
At first, it all felt like freedom. Eating out every night. Not having to write. My husband out, opening up quiet evenings for my own reading and writing. Even bedrest offered its own exemption from the day to day drudgery.
It didn’t take long to tire of Subway (one visit) and Potbelly’s (more); and having my home filled with people who called me “Mrs. Rothbard;” and of doctor visits and prescription refills and testing; and of being a single parent. Surprisingly, the thing that might have affected me the most was my hiatus from writing. I used to always joke that I didn’t know what I was thinking until I wrote about it; it turns out that it’s true. I began to feel totally out of touch with myself which caused me to pull away from family and friends.
At one point a friend dragged me to lunch “to talk.” She’s a therapist who also does volunteer work for a charity called, “A Home Within” that seeks to help foster kids learn to rely on their own inner strength through their ever-changing situations. As we’re talking, she invokes that language to remind me that, despite my morphing environment, I need to find my “home within.” I say, “Yeah, I think it’s my kitchen.” She reaches across the table and takes my hand and says with all seriousness, “I think we need to be a little less literal.” We both start laughing and it feels great--a bright spot. It’s the first step back to my lost light-heartedness.
Next, I know I need to write. In general, my ducks have to be in lockstep for me to compose a single sentence. You will never find my home cleaner than before a deadline. I will paint a room and upload thousands of photos that have lived on the camera for months, all in the name of preparing to write. Now, sitting down amid the chaos, I flounder. The words don’t come.
After almost four months, the workers trickle out and the kitchen is done. But I feel disdain for our new space as it reminds me of upheaval--like the pang of hearing the song that was playing when you broke up with your first love. My infatuation with the kitchen is over. Who was the girl who used to bake then jot down thoughts about food and life, puzzling through her own anxieties and desires? I don’t know her anymore.
As the rush of the holidays takes over, I push away thoughts about baking and writing and focus instead on getting through the season. By rote, I order gifts and attend parties and pack for our trips. Then comes the first night of Chanukah. I haven’t made a challah, or even dinner. We light candles hurriedly and without feeling, another thing to check off the list before the quickly-approaching bedtime. Gifts are doled out.
After opening his present, my son says, “Wait right here Mom,” and disappears upstairs. He comes back holding a very clearly wrapped-by-him gift and hands it to me proudly. Before I can even open it, he gushes in his eagerness, “I hope you like it! I picked it out and ordered it myself and made sure you didn’t get the mail when it came and wrapped it up and paid for it out of my own allowance money.”
I unwrap it to find a cake decorating set. He has hand-picked fifty-three pieces of Wilton magic, “the perfect foundation for any decorator.” I realize then that even though my perception has been skewed lately, to my son I’m still the same. He looks at me, happy and expectant, and asks if I can decorate a cake right now.
Eight o’clock on a Sunday night and I’m running to the store for cake mix (blech) and canned icing (double blech) because I haven’t even bothered to unpack my baking stuff yet. By the time I’m actually decorating the resulting cupcakes, it’s almost ten and my son is there asking me to try a ribbon, a leaf, a basket weave. We are working together in the new kitchen. It’s a joy. I’m touched by my son’s forethought, his consideration, the generosity of this gift.
In all of the disruption, I somehow overlooked that my constants were there all along. I’ve worked so hard to give my kids the stability I lacked as a child without realizing that that’s what they offer me. How can I not write about that?