Alternatives To Organization



I’m not proud of the fact that I own “Dayrunner” calendars in three different sizes. Or that I make surreptitious detours to the handbag section of department stores in search of the ultimate portable storage system that will make it impossible to end the week with a random pile of receipts, post-it notes, memos, and phone numbers mingling like compost at the bottom of my canvas caryall. I get delusional in my quest for order. It’s a kind of affliction–one manifestation of the great American psychopathology–the idea that the good life can be achieved with the right merchandise. In my wiser moments I know I have two practical choices: organize or simplify. And these are not only practical, but psychological and spiritual choices.

Thoreau understood the spiritual tradeoffs involved in material abundance, widening networks of commerce and advancing technology. So he moved to the woods, planted beans, built a cabin, and wrote Walden in which he preached simplicity and celebrated the joys of solitude. He watched the railroad advancing westward from Boston and foresaw the way we live now. It often looks something like T.S. Eliot’s description of urban life after World War I: “Only a flicker / Over the strained time-ridden faces / Distracted from distraction by distraction . . . / Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind . . . .”

One of the pleasures of teaching literature to college students is the opportunity my work provides to stay in conversation with the wise, the articulate, and the amused–with people who have learned something about life, reflected on what they’ve learned, and written about it for the rest of us. One of the drawbacks of teaching, however, is the obligation my work entails to spend evenings poring over freshman prose, to field elaborate excuses for late papers, and to sit on “standing” committees whose work seems to be to deliberate, evaluate, discuss, ponder, muse, and eventually table a good deal of business. The pressures of academic life, I find, are often misperceived by corporate 9-to-5 folk.

They seem sometimes to imagine life in the “ivory tower” as a leisurely series of desultory conversations with earnest students carried on in decorous classrooms and quiet offices where afternoon sunlight falls gently on shelves of leather-bound volumes, on a bust of Plato, and on a desk where a manuscript in progress lies open as the professor leans back in a leather chair musing on the ethics of Socrates’ speech to the court of Athens. How often I hear (and am annoyed by) remarks by the more gainfully employed to the effect that it must be great having such long summer “vacations,” or, worse, “only” having to teach three courses a semester. I am tempted to quote in response the maxim that professors are generally either overpaid or underpaid. I know a few of the former kind. I know many of the latter.

College teaching is a kind of work that expands to the limits of 1) one’s devotion; 2) one’s energy; 3) one’s intellectual appetites; 4) one’s love of youth; and 5) one’s guilt. There’s always more to do. There’s little supervision, and no one to say “It’s five o’clock, time to quit.” If one attempted to rise to the level of students’ expectations, the work would (and does) involve not only classroom instruction, but instant replays of missed lectures, attendance at soccer games and vocal recitals, convivial lunches in the dining commons, late-night fireside chats in the dorms, individual recommendation letters to the fifteen graduate programs to which a given student is applying, extra coaching for GRE’s and comprehensive exams, and recurrent advising sessions not only on matters of course selection, but on what to do about 1) mid-semester depression; 2) the disappointments of young love; 3) parents; 4) life; and 5) a printer that won’t work. Not all students are needy. Many are happily independent, interested, and on time (or, as they used to say at my alma mater, “eager, thoughtful, and reverent”). But the odds are that any given day will bring two or three dozen requests for attention from innocents who know not how long the list is to which they are adding one more line item.

The list consists, of course, not only–not even mainly–of students’ needs. The curriculum committee is meeting at 3:00 and begins with approval of minutes of the last meeting which I have not yet written. A textbook publisher wants to know if I will review their new anthology. I am reminded by e-mail that the article I’ve been trying to finish for the past week was due yesterday. The secretary has left me a stack of invoices with a post-it attached inquiring when she should meet with me about the department budget. Our fifteen-year-old needs a ride to her dance class and from thence to a play rehearsal. Sears wants to know when someone will be home so they can install the dishwasher. We’ve signed up to entertain visiting trustees on Friday night, for which event I have not yet cracked open a cookbook. We have no coffee for breakfast if I don’t make a Starbucks run on the way home. And I really do need to reread parts of Moby-Dick.
But I am learning that if I attend to all these things I “have to” do and neglect the things I most want to do, it’s a recipe for exhaustion and depression–at which point I’m no good to anyone. I want to spend a half hour swimming. I want to sit down before dinner and check in with my husband over a glass of wine. I want to walk with him and our dog on the beach. I want to spend a little quiet time in prayer and meditation. I want to practice yoga, write in my long-neglected journal, curl up with the phone and chat with a distant daughter, play the piano, write a poem, or even a little essay–like the one I’m stealing time to write even as we speak.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking better organization is the answer. Hence the occasional foolish extravagance of a new Dayrunner, software package, or portable file. It’s perilously easy to fall into the more insidious trap of thinking more sophisticated technology will reduce the consequences of overcommitment. But though I fall prey to these illusions periodically, I don’t really live by them any more. I have come at great length and at great cost to believe that a peaceful, balanced, satsifying life in the midst of the madness of American culture can only be lived by paradox. The wisest, responses to institutional and social pressures are three counterintuitive bits of advice distilled from conversations with those I have recognized and adopted as my own role models–older women who can afford to be amused, writers and recluses who dare to say no to the seductions of “culture” and even to kind invitations, busy people who seem less burdened because they walk, pray, and play a little every day. No matter what. These pieces of advice are lifelines:

  1. When you’re in a hurry, stop. For a whole minute. Shut the door and breathe deeply. Let go of what you’re clutching at; literally open your palms to receive energy and grace. Remember Ambrose Bierce’s cynical but oddly practical observation, “Few things matter very much and most things don’t matter at all.” Especially institutional drivel. Give yourself merciful permission to cut a corner, be five minutes late, leave something till tomorrow. Recite a short list of what matters most and put those things back in the center.
  2. Attend to the call of the moment. The idea of “vocation” or “call” is a spiritual idea that serves me as well in thinking about the moment at hand as in thinking more largely about how to use my life. To discern what one is really “called” to do in response to any of the multiple demands a day brings involves some test questions: What is really being asked of me here? Is it appropriate? Is it proportionate? Is it important enough to lay aside other obligations? Can I respond out of peace and interest with real assent, or would my “yes” come out of guilt or fear of disapproval? If the demand passes those tests, it deserves my complete attention, not for five distracted, preoccupied minutes, but for five whole, undivided minutes.
  3. “Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable.” This is one of many useful admonishments in Wendell Berry’s poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” which I reread often and recommend highly to the busy, the distracted, and the dutiful. Real laughter that starts in the belly and comes through the heart requires a healthy distance on the preoccupations of the present moment. The wisest people I know have these things in common: they’re compassionate, they can keep their peace, they can keep their own counsel, and they laugh.
    These practices, I think, don’t depend on organization. They depend on giving oneself liberal permission to stay tuned to what’s up, what’s needed, where the surprises are. When I manage to remember them, the day is more like a dance than a march; priorities keep rearranging themselves, plans get reframed, and life leaves room for the unexpected. Some things don’t get done. Others get postponed. But, more often than not, what matters gets attended to.

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