Yesterday, I did a whole bunch of things I shouldn’t do with my right arm, including moving some furniture. I can’t support anything for any length of time, but I was able to coax out bursts of strength that enable me to heft a few things here and there. I knew I’d pay for it via substantial pain increase later (that would be today, as a matter of fact), but I had to do some reorganizing after a friend came over last week and put together a new shelving unit for my kitchen.
It is a testament to the new order of things around here that I permitted him to pull everything off of the old shelf and put it on the new one however he liked. Other indicators include the fact that I waited until the day after I got back from my trip to unpack my suitcase, and that I left the old shelf standing in the middle of the room with nothing on it overnight, rather than staying up until 1 a.m. messing with stuff until I figured out where I wanted to put it and what I wanted to put on it.
I’m the kind of person who is no fun at a dinner party because she keeps staring at the plates once everyone’s done eating, squirming in her chair because we’re done eating! We need to get these plates to the kitchen! We can’t just leave them here! What about bacteria?!
I used to derive pleasure from mercilessly organizing everything within my reach. I only have one hall closet, which houses coats, linens, cleaning products, and the vacuum cleaner. I put vertical shelves in it, and everything is carefully arranged to provide access to all of the items with minimal effort. Even my off-site storage unit is diligently managed, something a friend commented on when she was helping me put boxes in it last month. “You know no-one else’s storage unit looks like this, right?” she teased.
I load flatware in the dishwasher separated by type in an exact right-to-left layout: knives, serving spoons, forks, teaspoons, other. My shoes are kept in labeled shoe boxes indicating style, color, and heel height. Canned cat food is sorted by flavor on top of the fridge, and cans are dispensed in the exact same flavor order every day. Books are arranged on my bookshelf in subject categories, and then within those categories in alphabetical order by author’s last name. I have a roll-top desk with mail slots underneath, and each one has a label: Finances, Bills, Receipts, Misc, Urgent. There are power strips with surge protectors at every outlet, and every cord that plugs into them is individually bundled and secured with a twist-tie. Jeans and pants are folded into stacks on a shelf in my bedroom closet; each stack is marked: Skinny, Bootcut Short, Bootcut Long, Twill.
This is how I live my life. Organized, planned, efficient, neat. Or rather, how I used to live it. I’ve started to slip. I no longer separate my schoolwork by subject. I throw away magazines I haven’t read rather than keeping them filed by date (yes, I used to do that). I let other people put my things away in the wrong places. Food, ice, and ice packs are jumbled in my freezer instead of segregated into dedicated sections (yes, I did that, too). Other people vacuum my rugs willy-nilly rather than in an orderly progression from the front to the back of the apartment. They miss spots. I don’t care.
I don’t care that my car is dirty. I don’t care that neighbors see me in a t-shirt and no bra, or worse, a robe and yoga pants. I don’t care that people come over and behold my clothes hanging on the room-divider to dry. I don’t care that my furniture is covered in cat hair. I don’t care that my junk drawer is so full of junk that I can’t find anything in it and half the time it won’t even close. (Why do we bother looking in junk drawers for things? Things we actually use are never in them.) It just doesn’t matter. Why was I so worked up about all of this stuff before? Who was I trying to impress? Because now, after a day of reshuffling my kitchen and living room, everything hurts, all out of proportion with the 100-calorie-serving of satisfaction I get from the new, artfully ordered array.
I’m still trying to escape the pattern of habits I cultivated in an effort to look put-together. It was a lot of freaking work, and now it seems silly. Perfectionism is a bug, not a feature. Perfect people are intimidating, not to mention suspect. What are they compensating for? What was I compensating for? Did I really think that the folded towels arranged by use and size was all that was standing between me and my true self, a flake with an inferiority complex, terrified that people will discover she has no idea what she is doing?
Isn’t that everyone? Everyone who thinks they know what they’re doing most of the time, raise your hand. You, sir, in the back. Go away, you are an aberration, and probably fooling yourself. Life is like building an impossibly complicated machine with no instruction manual. Unable to live with that uncertainty, I exercised obsessive control over what little was under my purview, the entirety of which was encompassed by my appearance. My shell. Which now seems a ridiculously fragile barrier between myself and life’s inherent entropy, one that required an enormous amount of energy to maintain – far more energy, incidentally, than I ever reclaimed upon admiration of the latest patch job.
No wonder I was exhausted all of the time. It wasn’t just that I was too busy – although I certainly was that – it was that I expended so much effort hiding the seams. (You should see me wrap presents.) And now I can’t. And the holocaust that I expected as a result has failed to materialize.
I used to look down on people who went out in public with mismatched clothes. Who pulled bumper stickers off their cars and left the sticky shreds rather than attacking them with a hair dryer and a bottle of goo-gone. Who were less than unfailingly polite. Who let dogs ride in their backseats and didn’t bother to vacuum and wipe down the windows afterwards. Who took their sticky kids to the grocery store with unbrushed hair and clothes they probably slept in. Who left their empty trash cans on the curb days after the garbage collectors had emptied them. Who didn’t buy paper towels and toilet paper made from recycled, post-consumer materials. And so on. And on. And on.
Little details uncaringly overlooked, I used to think. But my disdain doesn’t seem so well-justified these days. Details require energy. Life is full of choices to be made about things in which we invest effort versus things that we let go. I suffer from life-prioritization-disorder; everything is in the “urgent” category, and nothing is in the “when I have time,” “if I have time,” or “just not gonna happen” categories. But this nerve injury, with my resulting diminished capacity, has forced me to recalibrate my approach. My car is not going to get washed, waxed, vacuumed, and windexed on a regular basis. Oh, well. I have to pull half of the items out of my freezer to find the frozen yogurt. So what? It’s not like I’m pressed for time. I don’t look so perfect any more, but go figure, all of my friends are still my friends. In fact, this experience has brought some of us closer together.
It turns out my perfectionism wasn’t just holding life’s uncertainty at arm’s length – it was holding life itself at arm’s length. And despite my diligent maintenance, or perhaps even partially because of it, I succumbed to an incredibly rare and debilitating nerve injury. So rare, in fact, that there is no usual prognosis or “normal” recovery sequence.
So much for beating back uncertainty. The tsunami has arrived and washed away all of my elective importances, leaving only the necessary ones. It’s a strange sort of blessing, to be relieved from the burden of keeping up appearances. But I needed an excuse to let myself go. If this injury hadn’t happened, I don’t think I ever would have been able to.
My sister’s wedding was in a lovely arboretum with a fountain. Halfway through the reception a favorite aunt, after a few cocktails, pulled off her shoes and nylons and dangled her feet in it. I can still see her sitting on the fountain’s edge with a big grin on her face, raising a glass to the photographer. I remember thinking there was no way in hell I’d ever let anyone take a picture of me like that. But now, rather than seeing it as beneath me, I realize it’s above me. I aspire to not giving a rat’s ass about what I look like in pictures.
It’s just not that important.