Tidying Up

I read the most charming book, recently. It’s called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo. The author is a television star in Japan, where she has a show in which she . . . you guessed it, goes to people’s houses and helps them organize their possessions. Helps them tidy up. After reading the book, I watched clips from several episodes on YouTube, in Japanese of course. A lot of what she does is talk to people, and I’m guessing that she’s asking them what they love, which of their possessions are truly important to them. Because Kondo has a different approach to tidying up, one I found interesting and valuable.

The book is charming in part because Kondo is so obsessive, much more than I could ever be. But I’m going to describe what I found valuable in her book, the ideas that stood out to me. Because I need order to work well — I need my environment to be tidy.

I know there have been articles on writers and how messy they can be. Some of them need mess, need disorder — they say within that disorder, they know where everything is. They get angry if anyone tries to tidy up. I’m not like that: I need my environment to be organized. I think it has to do with the way I think. My mind is itself a tidy place, or wants to be. It doesn’t like to be untidy, with important things tucked into the wrong places and forgotten. I do so much, have so many projects at once, that it’s really the only way I can operate. And one of the best ways to tidy my mind is to keep my physical environment clean, clearly organized. I don’t like inner or outer mess.

There are two other reasons I don’t like mess. One is that I need to live efficiently. I have so much to do that it’s frustrating when I have to spend time searching for a set of notes I knew I put somewhere. Or keys. Or change. If I’m working on a research project, I need to know which books I have relevant to that project, and where to find them. And second, I want to live in a beautiful space. Mess can be beautiful, but have you noticed that a beautiful mess is almost always intentional and intensely curated? Edward Gorey’s house was a beautiful mess, but he was an artist. It’s actually much more difficult to create a beautiful mess than simple neatness. So I try to keep things neat.

But I do fall into messiness sometimes, particularly when I don’t have time to clean. When I’m simply too busy.

So here are the central concepts from Kondo’s book that are particularly important to me:

1. You should only have things that bring you joy. This was a revelation, actually. What Kondo does, and I did not do this, is have people bring out all their possessions and put them on the floor. Then, she tells them to hold each one in their hands and decide whether that item brings them joy. If it doesn’t, it goes.

I thought I was being very practical by keeping things I had not worn for a long time, because I might need them again someday. But Kondo would say, while those things were useful to you once, they have outlived their usefulness. They are now ready to go away, wherever they’re supposed to go next. In a way, by keeping them, you’re impeding the flow of both your and their lives. Someone else could potentially use that coat. And then there are things that have outlived their usefulness entirely, and simply need to be thrown away. Old receipts don’t necessarily want to stay with you, to clutter up your drawers. They know when it’s time for them to move on, and so should you.

Did I mention that Kondo talks a fair amount about Shinto? It’s very clear that she believes all your things have spirit. If they’re no longer giving you joy, not only should they move on, they actually want to move on.

This prompted me to go through my closets and bookshelves. I try not to keep things I don’t love, but even I found things I was keeping that didn’t give me joy: some books I had bought because I felt as though I should read them, some clothes that were such a bargain at the time. I took several large bags to Goodwill.

2. Once you have discarded everything that doesn’t give you joy, make sure everything you’re keeping has its proper place. You should have a designated place for everything.

3. And you should make a habit of putting everything in its place. Now, this is difficult for me at the moment. Although I moved into this apartment six months ago, I’m still decorating. So there are paint cans on the kitchen counter, which is clearly not a place to store paint cans. (I just painted three lamps, and next come the shelves in what I glamorously call the walk-in closet, because you can walk into it, but is really a tiny room under the stairs, with a rod and drawers.) But I do try to make sure that whenever I take anything out of its place, I put it back. I notice that if it’s sitting out of place after I used it, I start to feel uncomfortable. This is partly Kondo’s fault: she makes me feel as though everything I own is sentient! As though my socks have feelings. (And how do I know they don’t?) Things like to be in their proper places, she says. And I know mine do.

There is a final concept in her book that I really like. She says that every day, when you enter your home, you should bow to it and thank it, and all the things in it, for taking care of you. For sheltering you, supporting you. Because after all, that’s what your things do, from socks to frying pans. I don’t actually bow down to my apartment (or at least not often!), but I like the idea of gratitude toward your things. That’s where the impulse to keep them neat, to take care of them back, ultimately comes from.

Marie Kondo

Heroine’s Journey: The Dark Forest

I don’t want to leave the Fairytale Heroine’s Journey for too long, because I don’t want to forget what I was writing. And anyway, I particularly want to talk about the dark forest. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, take a look at my blog post “The Heroine’s Journey II“: it will explain what I’m doing.

And I have some good news! I’ve been asked to write an article about this idea of mine, about the Fairytale Heroine’s Journey. I won’t tell you where yet, until the article is written, submitted, and accepted. Then, of course, I’ll make an official announcement. But writing the article will help me develop my ideas.

So, let’s talk about dark forests!

This is one of the steps I described in the Fairytale Heroine’s Journey: “The heroine enters the dark forest.” There is a subset of fairy tales that is about the progress of a woman’s life. “Cinderella” belongs to it, as do “Snow White,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Vasilisa the Beautiful.” These are tales that show the heroine going on a journey, and that journey has certain steps. The steps are not always present, but they usually are. They do not always happen in the same order, and there are of course variations. As I wrote, I think of this as a meta-tale type, a structure that fits a number of the traditional Aarne-Thompson tale types. And one of those steps is entering the dark forest.

We see this in “Snow White” when she flees the huntsman: she must run though the forest. In “Sleeping Beauty,” as I pointed out, the forest grows up around her. We do not see the dark forest in Perrault’s “Cinderella,” but the forest actually comes to Cinderella in the Grimms’ version: she asks her father for the branch of a hazel tree, which she plants on her mother’s grave, and it showers gold and silver down on her in the form of the three dresses and dancing shoes. Most fairytales involving journeys have dark forests in them, for both a practical and a metaphorical reason. Practically, journeys used to involve dark forests: the tales I’m looking at are generally European, and there were dark forests between the villages, towns, and castles, the places of civilization. Going anywhere, even to grandmother’s house, meant going through the forest. And in the forest lurked dangers, such as wolves and wicked dwarves. But there is a metaphorical reason as well. The dark forest is an intuitive image for when we are lost, or possibly lost. It’s the place where we can lose our way and even ourselves.

For us, reading the fairy tales today, the dark forest functions as a metaphor for all the ways we get lost: anxiety, grief, depression. It’s where we can’t see ahead of us, where the trees are too dense. Where it’s too dark under the canopy. We look around and think, “Where am I going?” Or even, “Where is there to go? Is there a way out of here? Is there anything other than dark forest?”

There is, of course. There are kindly dwarves’ cottages, and huts on chicken legs, and castles ruled by white cats. You can get to those places, as long as you keep going. One thing fairy tales teach us is that there’s always a way out of the dark forest. Indeed, the dark forest often comes rather early in the tales. It’s an initial state of being lost. When you’re in the dark forest, most of the story is still to come.

There’s another thing I realized about the dark forest, when I was going through a small patch of it myself. (It was the forest of having a great deal of work to do, and too many deadlines, and not getting enough sleep.) At the time it came as such a revelation that I tweeted it, and so many people retweeted it that I realized it was something people needed to hear. It was this:

The heroine never dies in the dark forest.

Seriously, never. When you’re in the dark forest, you’re afraid. You feel as though it might be the end of the story: you might be lost forever. But it’s never the end of the story, and that’s another thing that fairy tales teach us. The dark forest is where you’re lost and afraid, but it’s not where you die. It’s only a part of the journey, not the whole of it. The dark forest has one power over you, which is the power to frighten you. But that’s it. And that realization can help you keep going.

I should say here that the heroine does die later, but in a fairy tale, death is a precursor to rebirth. Death is actually necessary for the heroine to become who she is. Sort of like the caterpillar becoming a butterfly.

So if you’re in a dark forest right now, and I bet some of you are, because patches of them can appear around any bend of the road, here’s what I want you to keep in mind:

1. You are a heroine.
2. You are on a journey, and on that journey, a number of things can happen.
3. One of those things is entering the dark forest. But other heroines have been on this journey before you, and they have something to teach you about the dark forest. Think of their journeys as maps that you can use for your own.
4. The heroine never dies in the dark forest.
5. The dark forest only has one power: to make you afraid. It’s all right to be afraid. But keep going, keep going.
6. On the other side of the dark forest are all sorts of adventures. You will have to share your loaf of bread with the birds. You will find a tree with golden apples. A talking snake will tell you what you need to know. You don’t know yet what those adventures will be. Keep going and find out.

Illustration for Cinderella by Viktor P. Mohn

(This is an illustration for “Cinderella” by Viktor P. Mohn.)

Daily Rituals

This morning, I read a blog post by the author Steven Barnes, who was a teacher of mine at Clarion, many years ago. Steve is also a personal coach, spiritual teacher, and martial artist: the sort of person who is always working on becoming a better version of himself, and teaching others how to become better as well. Here’s the post: “Your Life Is Not a ‘Lemon.'” And here’s the part of it that really struck me:

“You need to have a daily ritual of thought, movement, and emotion. Tell me your daily rituals, and I’ll tell you your life. Exercise daily and keep a food journal? That’s one body. No exercise and food unconsciousness? Another. Daily meditation and journaling? One psyche. Allowing the cess-river of daily news, political debate, human negativity and existential angst to flow over you unchallenged? That’s another. Daily checking your Mint.com account to see your finances and net worth? That’s one financial path. Inability to balance your check book? That’s another. Re-writing your goals daily and being crystal clear on what a perfect ‘today’ would be to implement them? That’s one life. Vague or no goals, and hoping for ‘luck’ to bring your dreams to you? That’s another. Daily focus on goals, actions, faith and gratitude? That’s one life. Rooting in the trough of our unfulfilled dreams, betrayals, failures, fears, guilt, blame and shame? That’s another.

“It isn’t fair that we have to take control. It isn’t un-fair. It just ‘is.’ Stand on the beach and scream at the waves that it is ‘unfair’ your shoes are getting wet. Or . . . back away. Or . . . take off your shoes and wiggle your toes in the wet sand.”

Basically, what Steve is getting at is that we can largely determine what our lives are like. Our lives are our daily lives: our experience of them is determined by the daily choices we make. And so we can make our lives good ones, healthy and happy and productive. Or we can make bad choices, and end up with unhealthy, unhappy, unproductive lives. It all depends on the small choices we make on a daily basis. Whether to exercise or not. Whether to eat the whole wheat turkey sandwich or the doughnut. Oh, not every choice has to be perfect! Not every choice can be. But our lives are better if most of our choices are good ones. And that happens if good choices are ingrained, and actually chosen automatically. If they are habits or rituals.

Steve talks about this as a way to deal with problems like depression, and I can speak to that, because I’ve been there. As readers of this blog know, I went through a period of serious depression when I was trying to finish my PhD dissertation. It was very difficult, but I eventually got out of it, with therapy and by building good habits. Now I try to maintain those habits, because I know that without them, I won’t be as healthy, either physically or mentally.

So what are my daily rituals? I have a healthy breakfast. Every day, I do twenty minutes of pilates, plus I walk a lot. Healthy lunch (cheese sandwich on whole wheat bread, apple), healthy snack (nuts, fruit, dark chocolate), healthy dinner (whole wheat pasta or brown rice with vegetables). Every day, time to rest and relax. All right, that last one I’m not as good at as I should be, and I definitely haven’t had enough sleep lately! I need to work on that. Also meditation. But the point is, the way you live on a daily basis affects the larger aspects of your life. The daily rituals are what keep me healthy. They are what allow me to be productive.

Some people say that when you’re depressed, you can’t do those things. That’s what depression is all about. But as someone who’s been there, I say that you can try, and you can start, and they will make you feel better. And for people who aren’t depressed, this is the way to have a good life: develop good daily rituals. These are the things that help me in particular:

1. Eat healthily.
2. Exercise daily.
3. At least once a day, do something that clears my head, that allows me to relax.
4. Keep my space neat and organized. Make my bed, do the dishes; if there is a mess, organize it.
5. Write, so the ideas don’t start clamoring around in my head.
6. Put a list of the larger things I want to accomplish up where I can see it. You know, the life things. Make sure that every day, I work on that list. That I’m accomplishing the larger things as well as the smaller ones.
7. Get some sleep. All right, no, I’m not as good at this one as I should be! But I’m working on it . . .

What are your daily rituals? It seems to me that most people don’t have good daily rituals; they live haphazardly. But you who read this blog — I bet you have them . . .

Tree 1

This is a picture of my Christmas tree. Just because it’s so pretty! It’s a yearly rather than a daily ritual, of course. But it ties me to the year, to time. I think our daily rituals do the same thing, actually. They make life more real for us . . .

Doing It All

I miss blogging.

I used to blog every day. And then I went to several times a week, and then recently I’ve barely blogged at all. It’s because I’ve been so busy. The problem with getting to do all the things you want to, is that you’re doing all the things. And there are still things I want to do that I don’t have time for.

So what am I doing? I have two wonderful academic positions, both of which I love: teaching writing to undergraduates at Boston University and in the Stonecoast MFA Program. This year, I finished a novel, so I am writing, even though it’s been a while since I’ve had a short story come out. I have almost enough short stories for the next short story collection; I mean, I have enough, but I want to write one more. And then I want to write the second novel, the sequel to the one I just finished.

I’m already into describing what I want to do, aren’t I? Instead of focusing on what I’m doing. The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be enough time. In these last few weeks in particular, finishing the academic semester, I’ve been exhausted, not sleeping enough and not eating very well. (I mean, I eat very healthily, or I wouldn’t be able to do what I do. But when I’m up past midnight, I get hungry again, and then I’m eating five meals a day. Like a Hobbit . . .)

So what is the problem exactly? I think it’s the sense that I’m doing so much for other people, and not doing all that much for myself. Not getting enough time to write, but also not getting to connect in the way I want to. In a way that blogging allows me to.

A friend of mine who is a writer once asked me why I do it, because it seemed to her as though it was taking time that I could be doing other work, like writing short stories. But blogging is easy for me, in a way writing short stories isn’t. It doesn’t take as much energy. And it allows me to get ideas out there, talk to people directly. I think I need that. I spend so much time talking as an authority on things. You know, I walk into a classroom and I’m the Professor. Or I’m advising a student on how to revise a story, a novel. Blogging is really the only place where I get to say, Here’s what confuses me. Here’s what my day is like. Here’s what I’m afraid of. (Failure and irrelevance, at the moment. Those are my particular fears.)

It’s the place where I get to speak without an editor.

I don’t know how much I can get back to it. There’s so much else I need to do. But I think that if I don’t get my ideas out, they get stuck in my head, and then it’s as though they’re all backed up, and they get snarled. I think I need a place to speak, and I think it needs to be public, because that’s who I am. It’s not enough for me to talk to friends. I’m a storyteller. Blogging is my way of telling the story of myself, and it allows me to get myself out of the way, so I can tell other stories as well.

Conclusion: I need a way to make sure that I’m writing. Otherwise, I get sick. I start to feel all wrong . . . And it’s important for me to write fiction, but when I can’t, blogging can fill that gap. It can keep me writing regularly, so I don’t feel as though I’ve somehow lost it . . . or lost myself. I need it the way I need to work out in the morning, or take a hot bath at the end of the day — because it keeps me healthy. I suppose the lesson here is that if you want to do it all, people will eventually let you. And then you will be doing it all, and you will go, all right, but I still need time for myself. Even if it’s writing a silly blog post!

Snowy Day

This is me, on my way to class, on the last week of classes. With the first snowflakes of the season on my hat . . .

Making Clafoutis

I posted a picture of my Peach Clafoutis on Facebook, and people asked me to share the recipe, so here it is! I’m interrupting my series of blog posts on fairy tale heroines and their journeys to bring you a little snack . . .

First you should know that I don’t use white flour or sugar, because I’m trying to eat more healthily, even when eating desserts! If you want a standard clafoutis recipe, there are many available on the internet. This is a slightly healthier version. I’ve found that you can use whole wheat pastry flour to substitute for white flour, but it is more absorbent, so you typically need less of it. I also use the brownish sugar that is usually labeled “organic sugar” and is a little less processed than the white variety. It can be used just like white sugar, but it has a flavor of its own, a bit more caramely than white sugar. So the flavor of whatever you make will be a bit stronger.

This is a good time to preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Clafoutis, the way I make it, is basically a thickened custard over fruit. I’ve seen some recipes in which American cooks describe it as a baked pancake, but I think that means they’re using way too much four. It should taste like a custard.

Here are my ingredients for the clafoutis:

1/3 cut flour
3 tbsp. sugar
2 eggs
1 cup milk (I use 2%)
1/2 tsp. vanilla

For the fruit, cherries are traditional. I like peaches. You can also use strawberries, blackberries, and probably raspberries, although I’ve never tried the raspberries myself. In winter especially, when fruit are so expensive, I use frozen fruit, thawed and drained. (The juice will change the consistency of the clafoutis, so drain as much as possible.) When I’m using frozen fruit, I add a tablespoon of sugar to the fruit, because otherwise it tends not to be sweet enough.

Clafoutis 1

Take a baking dish, preferably a pretty one (like the glass pie dish I used here) because you may serve the clafoutis in it. Butter it and then put the fruit on the bottom, arranged however you wish, but in a thin layer.

Assembling the clafoutis is incredibly easy. Just mix all the ingredients except the fruit, starting with the solids and then adding liquids while mixing so it’s not lumpy. I use a hand-held electric mixer.

Clafoutis 2

Then you just pour the clafoutis mixture over the fruit.

Clafoutis 3

Bake in a 350 degree oven until it’s done, which depends on your oven, so I won’t try to give you an exact time. If you’re used to baking, you know there’s a moment when it smells so good, and that’s just before it’s time to take the clafoutis out. Then there’s a moment when you think, I can’t smell it anymore, and that’s it, that’s usually the time. The clafoutis is done when the top is golden brown.

Clafoutis 4

It’s best to let it cool a little bit, but warm clatoutis is a wonderful treat, and it’s just as good cold the next day. Some people sprinkle powdered sugar on top, but I think it’s quite sweet enough as is, so I would only do that if serving it at a party. And here you go, a bowl of Peach Clafoutis!

Clafoutis 5