Friday, December 10, 2010

stacking sartre's shelves

(Note: this post is part of Reverb 10, an online writing project that asks writers to reflect on 2010 and "manifest what's next." Click here for more info.)

December 10 – Wisdom Wisdom. What was the wisest decision you made this year, and how did it play out? (Author: Susannah Conway)

When we first moved in together, Bryan used to insist, when a pen or a gadget or a book was missing, “I have a system for everything.” This was his way of implying that: a. He was not responsible for having misplaced said item, given that he had a system (a system which, in his view, had yet to break down); and b. That I should get my act together and come up with a system. This, he argued, somewhat logically, would prevent such common occurrences as the frenzied search for car keys; the disappearing lesson plan; the forgotten doctor’s appointment; or the unreturned phone call. If I just had a system, I wouldn’t spend a lot of precious energy and time cleaning up the messes left by my disorganization.

Well, duh. The flaw in this logic, I often pointed out, was that in order to have a system, you have to be system-oriented. Otherwise the system, if it is ever implemented, invariably breaks down. I mean, It wasn’t as if disorganization was a quality I embraced. Nor did I shun the notion of becoming more organized. In fact, I had a Dayrunner, and in it I would record all of my appointments for the month, the week, and the day.

And then I would leave it on the dining room table. Or in a bag. Or somewhere (if I had a system, I’d know where).

So when the planner failed to bring me the organization I needed to function in the world like a normal person, I bought a wall calendar as well. Then I bought some brightly colored markers. It worked, a little. But then came motherhood, and with it a new level of scatterbrainedness. How is it possible to effectively keep track of dates, library books, appointments, pencils, when I’m keeping track of them for three (and sometimes four) people?

Other people, I would notice with a sigh, seemed to do this with grace and precision. But I am genetically predisposed to absent-mindedness. Stories abound about my grandmother, who, long before she entered old age, would do things like fry a banana, not realizing until she went to take a bite that it wasn’t a sausage. Or she would lose things: a key, a mug from which she had been drinking only minutes before; a jar of mayonnaise she had just taken out in order to make a tuna sandwich.

What hope could I possibly have?

I found the solution to my problem in an unlikely source. Last year, I was reading a book about the complicated relationship of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Most people who know of these two writers also know that their common-law “marriage” was of an open nature (in certain cases, the two even became involved with the same woman). What I had not realized was that Sartre, though he felt justified in being romantically involved with several women at once, was not open with his lovers about his polygamy (an ethical violation he himself would have termed “bad faith”). Even Beauvoir, who by her own account agreed with their open arrangement, was left in the dark when it came to certain affairs.

How did Sartre manage this? “Compartments,” he said. Each woman in his life occupied a compartment. These were labeled, with names, dates, and times. Compartment A, “Olga,” he might open on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 10-12 a.m. Under special agreement, he might be persuaded to open a particular compartment at another time as well, but for the most part, this was his system. And it worked. At least for a while.

Where is this going, you ask. Don’t worry; it has nothing to do with polygamy (or, more appropriately, infidelity).

I’m aware that any number of self-help books and magazines sing the praises of compartmentalizing (not just in the form of stacking shelves from IKEA) when it comes to organizing “clutter”, and you are probably wondering how I could have been struck by such a simple concept. It’s not that I hadn’t yet come across the idea; it was more that I hadn’t given myself permission to put the various obligations and activities that make up my life into definite and concrete time slots. I have often complained that, when school is in session, I am perpetually preoccupied. Even as I’m reading a story to the kids, I’m thinking about the stack of essays that waits in my bag, or about how I am going to fill up a two-hour class. It’s maddening, and frustrating, I’m sure, for Dylan and Alexa. Last year, Dylan brought a math game home from school, a game he was supposed to play with his parents, keep for one or two nights, and then return. Between Bryan, who was on another high-stress project at work, and me, who was wading through a quagmire of midterm portfolios, we forgot about the game. When I realized, with dismay, the game was still sitting in the living room, Dylan said, “Don’t worry. I told my teacher that mommy and daddy are too busy, and she said I could keep it for one more night.”

Ugh. Time to implement a system. I have always resisted schedules, weekly commitments, rubrics. But in this case, I had to agree with Bryan: it was time to implement a system—le Systeme de Sartre.

Being an adjunct at a university means having my contract renewed every semester. This, I’m sure, has led to my (in retrospect, irrational) tendency to put work first, even at home. There's a certain amount of anxiety that comes with knowing your job might, at any time, be given to a teacher with more time, better qualifications, or a willingness to take on more classes.

How many people had to tell me “Enjoy this time, it passes so quickly” before I was wise enough to put the papers aside? I mean really, did it matter if the essays were returned a day later? Even a week later? If my lesson plan wasn't as detailed as it could be?

I haven't been able to fully escape the preoccupation, but I do have a compartment labelled "schoolwork". Sometimes the drawer is overstuffed, and I can see the papers’ edges sticking out, but for the most part, I slam it shut when Lexi gets home from school. It comes out again for an hour or so in the afternoon, then I close it until after bedtime stories (at least on most nights).

And in reorganizing, I have been forced to be realistic about the size and number of my shelves. I run most mornings. Do I really need to find a space for the gym, too? I can get essentially the same workout at home (for free), in between putting the chicken in the oven and stirring the rice. The kitchen chair makes a great bench for dips. Hand weights can be used while watching Thursday night TV.

Ditching the gym has a secondary benefit: more time for writing.

Some of the compartments—like the ones for Facebook and Youtube—take up a little too much space. That’s something I’ll work on for 2011.

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