Back in May, I fell in love with the city of Portland, Oregon. Forget that it is visually stunning, has miles of biking trails, or that it’s home to VooDoo Donuts. I fell in love with Powell Books; a one square block, 3 story book store that I wandered through for hours. Tucked in the back, I found a small journal style book that asks a different thought provoking question each day. Is that perfect for me or what? It’s set up as a 5- year record of random thoughts, so that on this day next year, I answer the same question and see how I’ve changed. Over the past few weeks, the questions have ranged from: “Write the first sentence of your autobiography” to “If your mood were a weather forecast, you’d be…………” Some days, my responses have been immediate, and on others, I have had to ponder it throughout the day and write my answer later.
Yet, none of the questions have gotten me reflecting as much as one that came from my sister, Barbie. It was a random text that said: “Please explain how silverware dividers get so dirty if all you put in them is CLEAN silverware.” I nearly fell out of my office chair laughing, but I quickly thought of my own need to clean the kitchen drawers. Now, understanding that the obvious answer was that crumbs fall on the counter and then get brushed into the drawer, I came to realize the far reaching implications of her observation.
I have a history of being fairly organized and neat. Each year since my divorce, I’ve become a little less OCD. I have found there are far better uses of my Saturday mornings than ALWAYS cleaning the house. There are bike rides and meeting friends for tea, lounging in bed with the paper, and watching my niece play basketball. Singing in the shower beats cleaning the shower every time. I will never let things get so out of control that I am embarrassed to let someone in the front door but there are times I would never let that visitor open a closet or look under the bed!
The bigger question is: how, if we are living a good life and following the rules, do things get so messy? Why is it we never see the crumbs until they have accumulated to the point of needing to be swept? I mean, I don’t see the mess in the silverware drawer on a daily basis, only when it looks gross. How did I miss what was obviously collecting all along? The simple answer, trite as it sounds, is “Because”.
Because life, at its core, is messy. Because our lives are complicated by emotions and relationships and those cannot be divided like the forks and knives. They are not separate and distinct, but a constantly revolving collection of needs that bump into each other. They rarely nest together in a neat pile and none of us gets out of this life without spills and breaks. But we can learn how to clean up the mess before it gets overwhelming. It is a matter of how we choose to frame the problem.
We don’t know fear if we haven’t felt safe. We can’t know anger if we haven’t previously felt peace. How do we know we feel sick if we haven’t had days of good health? Anxiety does not come without acceptance. And we certainly do not grieve, if we have not loved.
For some reason, when we are struggling, we quickly forget the times when our lives were easier, or at least smoother. All we can see is the problem in front of us. That is the moment when the crumbs sneak into the drawer. Taking advantage of our distraction, they slowly pile up, slightly out of sight, until we pay attention; until we stop focusing on our own misery and look beneath the surface.
I love starting my day with the silly question from my new journal, such as: “Water, ice or steam?” But what I love more is how I am choosing to end my day. In the same journal, there’s enough room to also record something good that happened that day: the movie that made me laugh, happy hour with friends, a walk with Julie or a good workout are all daily opportunities to feel grateful. Those small events add up over time and can balance out the struggles.
I don’t have an answer to Barbie’s question. It is a dilemma well known to us all. I do know that at the end of the day, we do not get crumbs unless we have eaten cake.
Susan Emmerich is the author of A Girl on a Bike: Musings on Life, Loss, and Hot Flashes, now available from Second Wind Publishing and amazon.com She can be found riding her bike around Cleveland OH making observations on a most interesting life.