Like to visit yesterday but don’t actually want to live in one

When I was a kid and my room got to a certain state of mess, I would come home from school, sometimes, to find that my mum, at the end of her patience, had dumped everything I seemed to possess, in a pile, on top of my bed. This is your life: sort it out; show it some respect.

Of course, I’d get all indignant for a bit and then I’d spend the next few hours sorting, throwing out, rearranging and putting away. It would take ages because I would put music on and get lost in time and feeling and thought. All the things I’d held on to, for good and bad. Things I really should have looked after better, particularly given my contemporaneous and melodramatic sense of attachment. Rubbish that I’d once thought passed for memento. Actual rubbish. Clothes, books etc, that already had places to go other than the floor and any other available surface… The periodic accumulation of my childhood and early teenage identities, all there assembled.

It was both practical and meditative and, by the time I was ready to do a final polish and vacuum, I had unburdened, reconciled, organised and discovered treasures, both real and self-realising. I always felt invigorated, focused and enthused. Like riding a wave.

The older I got, of course, the less Mum would need or deign to go into my room. I changed my own bed, ironed my own laundry, etc. She would say how grateful she was to no longer have cause and (half) joke about feeling sorry for anyone who might have to live with me, one day.

However, by the time I got my own first flat, clutter would only ever be allowed to amount to one or two small, neat piles, though there was always a cupboard, a drawer that you’d be brave to open, in front of anyone. Still is, three decades later. We all have a cupboard, a kitchen drawer, a pile like that, though, don’t we: places of homeless miscellany and random essentials?

But it’s not about perfection, is it? It’s about management: not letting things get too out of hand, trusting your own judgement; finding peace of mind; being able to recognise when things need attention – when it is better to correct something or to let it go. Things stand and fall by their own merits, when we are more interested in being philosophically honest and a little less ideologically attached to outcomes. It’s about perspective: nebulous romanticism dilutes discernment and hoarding and myopic control are distorting. It’s about preparation: being disciplined and organised, enough that you can free space for reflection and potential and play. It’s about perfecting.

Mum’s lesson has extended far beyond mere housekeeping. Tidy environment, tidy mind, so to speak. I discovered my personal comfort zone between being too accommodating and being ruthlessly expedient. The boundary between the temporary muddle of a neat pile or a couple of items, carelessly slung and the compound detriment of neglect and the overwhelm of perpetual chaos. I learned to spot when things are getting or are likely to become a jumbled, uncomfortable state; to tidy up and reflect as I went. I came to recognise that disseminating information, arranging thoughts, making decisions is easier – safer – when you respect your own mind; when you don’t let other people’s crap stay too long; when you don’t just push pain, guilt, fear and fantasy to the back of your mind and expect them to be either easily forgotten or to play nicely together; when you don’t waste time on misuse and cheap ornament; when you like to visit yesterday but don’t actually want to live in one.

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