Life-changing magic, more or less

I’m a mess. I always have been. My hamper is overflowing, my pantry is chaotic, and my closet houses much unseen sequins. I heard all the fuss about Marie Condo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and I thought, finally. Someone who can fix me.

For those of you unfamiliar, Condo’s method of purging and tidying has to do with what objects bring you joy and what don’t. She writes, “Visible mess helps distract us from the true source of the disorder.” This message resonated with me. When I’m at loose ends, my shelves and floors fall into neglect.

While getting my masters degree at the University of Texas, I took a management class wherein I learned to negotiate. The first thing I tested my skill on was a dresser. The dresser is hulking – it’s so tall that I can barely see what’s on top of it – but I love it, in part because it’s emblematic of a newfound confidence and power.

Confidence and power are all well and good, but my lack of control over the top of that dresser has become problematic. When I get home from a long day, I throw my cash on it; I sprinkle bobby pins on it; I keep unread novels on it; I ferret away half-used lipsticks on it. Because it’s not fully in my sight-line, it’s easy to forget about the stuff on it. For months now, I’ve been putting stuff on it, and taking nothing off, except in harried moments of desperation.

Recently, I haven’t been able to put anything else on the dresser. Its overflowing shelf-space gives me twinges of stress and guilt. My beautiful symbol of independence has become a junk drawer: a garbage can for the refuse from long days at work and long nights of play.

So this week, I decided to tackle the dresser top with Marie Condo in mind. Does it spark joy?

I started by putting obvious things that I love and need in their place. That new orangey red lipstick went in a lipstick drawer. The sunscreen went in a crate with other miscellaneous hygiene products. The novel went next to my bed. The wine went in my mouth.

What next? A couple of small items given to me by mentors. Once, they gave me joy, knowing someone cared enough about me to pass on small tokens. Now? They stressed me out. Keeping them felt like an obligation. They met the trash can.

A lot of these items I needed: a spray bottle to squirt my cat when she gets crazy. A lint roller, also cat-related. Dollar bills for skeeball. What did I end up feeling joyful about? The things that reminded me of other people. Perfume from Zelda. A picture of my mom when she was on her honeymoon. A portrait I did of my hero, Virginia Woolf.

So how best do we balance the things we need and the things we love? Marie Condo, who I mostly ignored during this process (I got through about ¼ of the book), has a very rosy outlook on the things we own. Being a person of smaller means, most of my objects are utilitarian or low in monetary value or importance, and I guess in their own way, they do spark joy. There was a time in my life when I couldn’t afford flea medication, or tall candles, or a stash of dollar bills for an arcade game. Like the dresser, my necessities sitting atop it are a reminder of growing confidence, a growing life, and the ability to care for myself. Putting these things in an order, making room for new little treasures and more carefully-acquired necessities, gave me the joy that Marie Condo talked about.

There are already bobby pins on the dresser. Oh well. That’s just me, isn’t it? As Virginia Woolf said, “No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself.”

Meditation and Mary Berry

When I was really little, I had crippling insomnia. I stayed awake waiting for vampires and when I finally fell asleep, I dreamt of all the vampires I was likely missing with my eyes closed. One day, my dad brought home what I thought of as a “hypnosis tape” – hilarious to me then and hilarious to me to this day. It was a version of the yoga nidra method of meditation, where you systematically relax your body parts until you are so relaxed, vampires can’t kill you. It’s true, read a book.

Years after my father’s failed attempts at being Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I began to think of meditation as my silver bullet for mental health problems and stress. Before bed, I’d lie down with my body as relaxed as possible and methodically focus on letting the tension out of my feet, my calves, my stomach, and so on. Shades of worries and stress would melt away as I slid into dreams.

Something changed in me over the last five years. As I listened to the soothing tones of my yoga nidra track, my body remained tense. My mind wandered relentlessly, hanging out in pits of anxiety, chilling with bad memories from long days. Maybe this was the difference between the “stresses” of English papers and that of holding down a job. I started taking sleep medication to combat night terrors and insomnia, putting my all-natural silver bullet to sleep in its weapons vault.

Determined to take care of my darn self a little bit better, and to rely less on medication to get me through long nights, I downloaded an app called Buddhify. It has little five-minute meditations for every situation – illness, walks, work breaks, etc.

This has been my re-entry into meditation, mostly when I’m getting ready for bed, but also throughout the day when I’m feeling overwhelmed. I’ve done desk meditation, car meditation, and bed meditation, and it has worked about as well as sternly telling my brain to shush, which is sometimes enough but sometimes… very ineffective. One night, while browsing google for new meditation apps with robust brain-quieting abilities, I grew bored and turned on the Great British Bake Off. Watching Mary Berry quietly, politely cluck over puddings, I thought less about work trips and rent checks, more about the sounds of voices and the consistencies of bakes. Slowly but surely, I was letting the show wash in and out of my consciousness, focusing on nothing in particular, as the soft clip of British people being nice to each other put me to sleep.

So, how effective is meditation? I can only say that, in my adult life, the Silver Fox himself, Paul Hollywood, has shown a much stronger ability to ease my restless mind.