I remember, many years ago—long before I had kids and all the things they somehow bring with them when they leave the womb—getting the urge to throw away everything I owned and start over. My husband and I, both students, were living in an apartment and didn’t have very much, especially in comparison to what we have now, but even then it seemed like too much.
I still get this urge—often. And it doesn’t apply only to the tangible clutter. Sometimes I sigh and wonder how much more smoothly my life would run if I could just get a fresh start. I’m not talking about regrets, about getting a giant do-over, although if I ever did figure out how to build a time machine in my backyard there are some major decisions that I might handle differently, knowing what I know now.
I’m talking about the things I’m always trying to catch up on, that hang over my head and cause me stress—the work projects that go on forever, the jobs not done around the house, the letters I owe, the promises to my kids I haven’t kept. I imagine what it would be like if they all miraculously got done overnight.
Maybe the fairies that Child Two is convinced live in the forest in our backyard (I’m not talking about the weeds—although we have lots of those, we really do have a forest in our backyard) would finish the landscaping and all the half-done outdoor projects, while a band of elves would paint and organize and decorate the entire house. And maybe some editing gnomes would wield their little red pencils and finish my never-ending work projects.
A clean slate—it sounds like heaven. If these roving miracle workers came and set my life straight, I would be so together, so organized—the model of a perfect mother, homemaker, and businessperson. I would have a manageable work schedule filled only with interesting projects. I would send my children to school with freshly baked cookies in their lunches every day. I would churn out lovely craft projects. Better Homes and Gardens would ask if they could use my garden paradise for a photo shoot. I would be able to find any object anywhere in my home in two minutes flat without swearing or throwing anything. I would never forget anything, I would never be late or frazzled, and I would have the time to do the things I want to do.
I would be calm, happy, productive, and fulfilled. And this slice of heaven would stay in a perfect state because all the things I need to catch up on wouldn’t be holding me back, sapping my energy, and stressing me out. Right?
Wrong, of course. First of all, nobody—no person or adorable woodland creature—is going to take care of all this stuff for me. There are people who might help me if I asked, but, as my beloved sister-in-law would say, if I want some damn blueberries, it’s up to me to get them.
Second, even if those fairies and elves and gnomes did come out of the forest and fight their way through the weeds to help me out, I know that within a week I’d be losing my glasses and saying yes to too many clients with new projects. Within two weeks, my kids would be finding store-bought cookies in their lunches and I would owe several people letters. Within a month the weeds would be back, I would have several unfinished projects cluttering up the house, and there would be amazing things growing in the back of my fridge.
When I tell myself that my life is the way it is because of things external to me, I know that I’m lying. It’s not the particular circumstances I’m dealing with right now that are holding me back. As soon as I take care of these ones, new situations will come up. I’m holding myself back. I’m the one who takes on too much at once. I’m the one who sets my priorities. If I don’t change how I go about things, then there will always be too much and I won’t ever get those damn blueberries.
Instead of being disheartening, this realization fills me with hope. Yes, events will happen to me that I can’t control and—depending on their severity—they may hold me back for a while. But most of the clutter in my life—tangible and otherwise—is a sign that my approach isn’t working so well right now. And that’s a good thing, because I can change that.
I can’t just chuck everything and start over. I have to deal with the things that are hanging over me. But if, as I do that, I also work on learning to say no and changing my priorities, then I won’t need a clean slate. I will never live in a perfect fairyland, but that’s okay. I don’t think I really want to.