I’ve never been great at bringing order to my life. Like anyone else, I find myself swept up by aspirations of a cleaner, uncluttered existence; like most of us, I lose steam: Three simple steps to organize your closets / mudrooms / spiceracks! (Simple one time, perhaps, but not on an ongoing basis.) Take control of your inbox! (Said the gods to Sisyphus.) Do this to trim your bellyfat! (Which has been with me since before the internet.) No matter my efforts to embrace the latest hacks, tips, or tricks, my life reverts to what it always has been: orderly only to the extent that I can wade through its clutter with my head above the surface.
If I say that I feel no sense of inadequacy, that I have come to terms with my disheveledness, I am being only partly truthful; I admit to some envy of those whose lives seem blissfully and effortlessly put together. But I have also learned – over and over again – that that’s not me. My path and progress are not so linear. And I have found only one thing that consistently helps get me where I need to go:
No step-counter, no ear-buds, no explicit goal: I try to be aimless, to let my mind follow my body. I don’t exactly try to come up with new ideas, or focus on a problem that needs solving; I have found it’s best just to let thoughts rattle around in my head, and listen for the echo. Sometimes, a new voice comes back, or a refraction; old ideas get broken or bent, and I find a new direction. But only sometimes. Other times, a walk is just a walk.
How long do I walk? Maybe just down the block – if something great pops into my head, I might race home to write it down before I forget. Or, I might walk for an hour, and nothing. But often enough, good things happen, and even what I think of as fruitless is probably part of the process, a reminder that I can’t just turn on the creative spigot when I walk out the door.
There might be some science behind it, physical exercise releasing some chemical in the brain and so on. I don’t want to know. And I’m sure it’s good for my physical health. But it’s not about getting 10,000 steps; it is just about me and my mind and the ground under my feet.
I don’t do it every day. It gets crowded out in the frenzy and tumult of trying to fulfill the responsibilities that constitute a life. And I don’t go out as often in bad weather: Winter is hard, like dressing for combat, and spring is not much better – in New England, spring is less a season than a tease. But gradually, the days get longer: The workday ends, and the sun is still up, and a golden hour reveals itself. And I recommit to the walk.
Mostly, I walk in the woods – a part-time Thoreau, my walk a soft compromise between embracing a simpler life and enjoying all the comforts (and decided lack of simplicity) that modernity brings. But when I lived in the city I would still wander, and let its whole moving, shaking, striving mass wash past me. It wasn’t my surroundings that offered serenity, but knowing that – momentarily at least – I wasn’t trying to get somewhere, that I had nothing more important to decide than which way to turn at the next corner. The city is a great place to be if you don’t have anywhere to go.
So I walk. And I try to view the mounds of clutter that make up my life not so much as a testament to my failings, but as an archaeological record of the path I’ve taken. And I try not to look with envy (or scorn) on those who can take advantage of all the tips and tricks to organize and renew their lives. Their pristine mudrooms and workspaces are their own record.
Most of the time, I can do this, and see my sporadic aspirations to an orderly life for what they are: a fantasy.
What I seek in the fantasy not so different from what I seek on my walk. Both offer an escape. But my walk carries with it a promise to return, to dive back into my own human muddle and see in it something new.