Clutter Is My Kryptonite

In week two, I learned about the cats. I am so allergic to felines that my allergist told me I "shouldn't have friends who have cats." It's no slight to the character of cat owners, but I am so sensitive to the little critters' dander that I react to the amount folks typically pick up on their clothes. For the most part, visiting the homes of cat people is right out. Five minutes in and my sinuses are simultaneously stuffed up and dripping, my eyes are so itchy they're tearing up and making it hard to see, I'm sneezing, and I'm starting to develop tiny hives on any exposed skin.

As you can imagine, then, learning that the former occupant of my new apartment had cats (yes, plural) went a long way toward explaining why I've been in a constant state of allergic unpleasantness since I moved in. Also, he's a guy and lived alone. So it's not like fastidious cleaning was at the top of his hobby list.

Don't get me wrong: My landlords are the kindest and most well-meaning people I can imagine. It just never occurred to them that evidence of Cat-Man and his Feline Followers couldn't be eradicated with a good scrub-down and a steam-clean of the carpets. And, due to the lack of attention to detail shown by the realtor in listing the rental, I was under the impression that the no-pets clause in the lease meant that the prior tenant also had no pets. So I didn't ask about prior furry residents. Whoops.

The Great Kitty Kachoo is just one of the things keeping me off kilter right now. People talk about creative types and how they thrive on chaos and disorder. Art allows them to create order from the chaos. They love the stimulation that comes from being surrounded by color and shapes and such.

What. Ever.

I'm certainly no minimalist, but I am a big fan of curated displays. From order and organization, I can absorb the information I need to inspire and inform creative efforts. (I'm also wildly allergic to dust and dust mites, second only to cats, so I really appreciate order, organization, and displays that are neatly housed behind glass or doors, or in drawers or boxes.) 

The bane of my existence is open shelving. And in this lovely little place I now call my own, open shelving is everywhere. Despite having lovely blue and green Ball jars to corral small items in Pinterest-worthy fashion, and despite all of my small kitchen appliances being fashionable stainless steel or empire red, the open shelving drives me bananas. And that's the part of the apartment that's organized, not still filled with opened storage tubs or stacked with things to donate or sell.

So what does this all mean? Well, on the surface, it means I haven't been able to relax since I moved in, because there's stuff everywhere. In the next two days, I'll be revisiting the Salvation Army store to drop off more things that I don't need, but might make someone else very happy (matching set of of Coke fountain glasses, I'm looking at you). And I'll be swinging by the local animal shelter with an armload of fleece blankets. And I'll be making a special delivery of cardboard to the local transfer station, because winter has fallen from the sky and I refuse to make the garbage collectors heave stacks of frozen, wet boxes into the trucks when I can just as well heave dry, unwieldy boxes into my car and from thence into a giant dumpster. 

At a deeper level, it means that I am forced to confront the concepts of need and want in a very physical way. As a Baha'i, I pay what is called "the right of God." This isn't the same as the tithes paid in some other religions, and it's not the same as a voluntary contribution to keep a building open or the lights on. In fact, it's more like a spiritual tax that's used at the discretion of the Universal House of Justice (the elected, global Baha'i leadership council) to pay for things that improve the well-being of communities around the world and that protect and provide care for those in need of assistance.

Adult Baha'is periodically tally up everything we own (cash, investments, property, real goods, etc.). We subtract the value of necessities, such as household furnishings, and we subtract a sort of "standard deduction" (there's a tax term for you). Then, we pay about 20 percent of whatever remains into this pool of funds. The next time we go through the exercise, we only calculate the 20 percent based on new wealth that we've gained since the last time we did the math, so we don't pay twice for the same vinyl record collection (hipsters) or kayak (me).

Like many Baha'i laws, much of the execution is left up to the individual. How often we pay is up to us. Some people do this daily, others every pay day, and still others only every few years. What counts as a "necessity" is open to interpretation, too. It's perfectly fine for Baha'is to acquire wealth; but a wealthy Baha'i is held to the same standard as a poor Baha'i when it comes to calculating the right of God. So both may say, "I need my car." But one may own a brand new sports car and the other a used pickup truck, and that's fine ... a third person may decide their car is a want because they live in a city where they could take public transportation everywhere they go. Ultimately, the "standard deduction" is the same for everyone, though, so the wealthy person will pay 20 percent of their significant wealth, while the poor person will pay 20 percent of very little wealth (or may not have to pay anything at all).

As I said, it's a spiritual tax. So a person has followed the law if they have made the calculation, even if they find they don't need to pay anything. Of course, if a person does possess enough wealth that payment is due, then that person has to hold himself or herself accountable for paying. There's no Baha'iRS (see what I did there?) chasing anyone down. The reason it's the "right of God" is because we see that money as never belonging to us to start with, so by giving it up to be used for the good of others, we "purify" what remains.  

What does this have to do with clutter? For me, clutter makes it very hard to calculate this number. I've moved so many times, and am so sentimental about the things that I've picked up along the way, that I have a ton of stuff. Much of it lacks any financial value at all. Case in point: Much adored, totally threadbare and squished Teddy who inhabits an interior corner of my hand-me-down cedar chest. Household furnishings comprise another chunk. Having grown up in a house with plenty of love and fantastic experiences, but without lots of conveniences that my peers took for granted (ahem, waffle maker), I wrestle with what counts as a household furnishing and what is really just a want in sheep's clothing.

The more stuff there is to sort through, the harder it is to figure out what's needed or wanted, or why it's there at all. And, the more likely it is that I will start comparing my own abundance (ahem, waffle maker) to the situation of people who are without a home or food. On one hand, that's a good awareness to find. On the other hand, our realities are different, and I have earned the funds to pay for some conveniences and luxuries, so there should be no guilt associated with owning them ... although perhaps I should be cautious about how many more things I acquire. There are many ways to share the wealth, instead, whether modest or extreme. It's a fine balance.

As a writer, my issues with clutter and the valuation of needs and wants are showing up in my current stymied state, too. The madcap research adventure of the last two years has left me with stacks of information to be organized, sifted, augmented, and molded into the story I'm trying to tell. Some of that is info is needed and some is just extraneous detail. The writing isn't the hard part (legions of writers just flung projectiles at me, I'm sure). Processing the research is the bigger challenge for me. Right now, the information wants and needs require some un-jumbling.

Little by little, I'm making my way through the physical clutter of this new place, so that I can wade through the information clutter that stands between me and a story that needs (finally) to see the light of day. And somewhere in all of that, I'll find a way to de-catify things, too.