Inner Order

Transforming a cluttered Ghent apartment into clean living space created with a new sense of peace and purpose.

Early in March, as Old Dominion University’s spring break was approaching, I thought a lot about what I should do with my week off from teaching. The winter of 2011 was difficult for me. Perhaps I suffer from seasonal affective disorder; perhaps I’m in a rut—or maybe I was in the midst of a real spiritual crisis.

The thought of getting out of town was intensely appealing to me. A change of scenery can do the soul a world of good. But then I had this epiphany: The change of scenery I truly needed was in my own living space.

For the last three years, I’ve been living by myself in a one-bedroom apartment in Norfolk’s Ghent neighborhood. It is a nice space—a fourth-floor walkup with lots of windows; in the afternoon, on a nice day, the living room is bathed in warm, golden light. It’s not very large, but when I moved in that actually appealed to me. It suggested the possibility of a simple life. But entertaining intellectual ideas is one thing; living a simple, clean and wellordered life poses more formidable challenges— for me, at least. At odds with my attraction to simplicity is a tendency to accumulate clutter. For starters, as I noted in my last column, I have a lot of books— close to 1,000, I think, in my one-bedroom apartment.

Bookshelves line virtually every wall of my residence, and I still don’t have enough shelf space. I also have lots of CDs, vinyl records, half a dozen musical instruments, sports equipment, framed photographs and tchotchkes lining my window sills—snow globes, baseballs, cool rocks and all sorts of other things that hold both aesthetic and sentimental appeal for me.

All of this stuff is manageable within my small living space, but I have another problem: I’m not very good at keeping up with housework. When I pull books from their shelves, for example, to find a meaningful passage, find inspiration or simply read for enjoyment, I rarely put them back in their place—and before I know it, I have books in loose piles in virtually every corner of the apartment. I also tend to let papers and junk mail pile up. And I have a bad habit of keeping old magazines.

Reluctant as I am to admit it in public, I also tend to let laundry pile up in my bedroom and dishes pile up in the sink. And the truth is, I don’t dust, sweep and clean often enough. When I let my apartment get into this state, I’m reluctant to have people over. As a result, I lose out on one of life’s greatest pleasures—welcoming cherished friends into your home for drinks, dinner, music-making or whatever. But I realized recently that there is a bigger issue here: My external mess both reflected and reinforced an internal disorder and lack of spiritual cleanliness. My brain, heart and soul were cluttered with all sorts of scattered thoughts and emotions that I couldn’t fully understand because I couldn’t see them, anymore than I could find books or objects I was looking for amidst the material clutter. Covering all of this internal clutter, moreover, was a layer of dust, as it were, as a result of neglect.

Living amidst chaos and unclean surfaces, in other words, was an outward sign that I wasn’t properly caring for my soul. I decided that I’d had enough of this.

THE FIRST ORDER OF BUSINESS was to clear the floors and furniture of clutter so that I could begin deeper cleaning. I threw out bags full of papers and magazines and gave away some books. As I was doing so, I came across all sorts of things: old photographs, handwritten notes from dear friends and practical items, like an old pocket knife that I thought I’d lost. I also found a lot of dust. The good news is that I began to enjoy the simple act of sweeping the floor. In Zen monasteries, sweeping and other forms of domestic work are sacred acts. They connect one to the present moment and serve as an important reminder of the importance ofcaring for things. By that I don’t mean clinging to material possessions. I just mean paying attention.

The next order of business, beyond dusting and sweeping, was actual cleaning. I have a bad habit of not wiping up spills in the kitchen right away, and as a result my countertops were covered in coffee stains and such, and my stovetop was soiled with crusted grease. (Yeah, this is embarrassing, but I’m trying to be honest here.) For the first time since I’ve lived here, I actually removed the stovetop entirely and scoured every inch of it with Lysol kitchen cleaner. (Previously, I had just made halfhearted attempts to wipe it down with a wet sponge.)

As I write these words, I still have a long way to go: a kitchen floor to mop, laundry to do, clothes to bag up and give away and more papers to toss. But I’ve made remarkable headway, and it feels great. Ah, but before me lies the real challenge. I don’t want to mistake this burst of cleaning and organizing for true, lasting transformation. Time will tell whether that transformation has actually taken place. My greatest desire right now is to change those fundamental habits of neglect and procrastination: to learn to put things back in their place after I’m done using them and to clean on a regular basis. If I can learn to do so, I hope—and fully expect—that I will find a greater sense of inner order and peace: a mind, soul and heart where I can reside, free of old regrets and futile worries that need to be tossed. What remains will be cherished memories, useful observations and important desires, all of which I will be able to see and understand more clearly than I have in years. Wish me luck.

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