Ode to our messy house (freeing the birds)

29 01 2015

Today, the sink is full of dishes and dirty water; it isn’t draining right again, I gave the plunger a good try, and I’ve given up for now. Today, I told myself, I’m getting laundry done and letting the dishes fall by the wayside. Maybe tomorrow I’ll switch. That type of terminology–using a word like “wayside”–conjures images of an empty expanse, as if the slimy dish-pile were alone there with some crickets and tumbleweeds, when in reality it’s a crowded metropolis of pushed-aside chores and projects; it’s the actually-getting-done list that makes the lonely, singing sound (although since all forms of “sweep” and/or “vacuum” are in there with the dishes, the metropolis has more than its share of tumbleweeds!).

Today, while the baby took her extra caused-by-being-up-all-night nap and the toddler was at nursery school, I could have done what I do most days: hack away at whatever is possible. I could have worked on the plunger problem, done dishes despite the water, washed a few things in the bathroom sink instead, picked up some of the thousands of small toys scattered everywhere, done some of my class prep, or for God’s sake at least swept some of the tumbleweeds and onion skins off the kitchen floor, but instead, I sat down, ate the remains of a chocolate bar, read the newest issue of The Sun, and daydreamed about intentionality and half-planned projects. Each little mess is part of something, after all: something one of the kids likes to play with, something one of us has started working on but not had time to finish, something one of us wants to work on but can only do in slivers of time, so the pieces need to be handy when those slivers appear, something we mean to do someday but haven’t found a place yet to put the supplies for, a piece needed to fix something we’ve misplaced. In the daydream, they became a flock of chattery birds, dark against the winter sky, clustered in the trees of walls and countertop and bookshelf, singing about their glorious impending completion and what good they’ll add to the homestead. Each time I plan a thing, intend to start, make, finish, clean, acquire, create, it’s like another bird flies from my hands, settles in the branches, and sings a little to the others. Fortunately, they’re pretty agreeable as a group, despite the mixing of species. They don’t argue much between themselves for primacy; they all seem to understand that the flock of intentions is going to grow forever and that resolution is a rare, bright-plumed but fast-flying bird instead. And those go, as soon as the transformation occurs; it’s the intention-birds that hang around, sometimes for an hour or two, sometimes for years (there’s one around here named “kitchen bead-curtains” and another aptly called “bird feeder” that are both older than Evanny).

Growing up, I had a favourite page in the bird guide we kept by the wide kitchen window: the inside cover, a silhouette illustration of a telephone pole, its paired arc of wires, and the gathered identification-outlines of 30 or so different birds, all shapes and sizes, no other features to recognize, just blackness, togetherness, and basic forms. My birds are like that: there are small, quick wrens and sparrows, the diapers I meant to put away yesterday, the socks I’ve walked past three times and haven’t yet put into the hamper; there are statelier robins and harping starlings, an unpaid bill, the beanbag chair Caleb asked me to clean a number of months ago; there are the grand, patient birds of prey, the kitchen remodel that might never happen, the rug and paint we bought to pretty it up after remodeling, the gymnastics classes and Montessori schools I know we can’t afford for the girls but we haven’t completely given up on.

It’s a valuable visualisation for me; I’m liking how it’s settling into the corners of my thinking. If everything were done–and everything will never be done–there would be no birds: the finished ones don’t stay. And a house without their chatter of forward-looking intention would be lonely, devoid of drive and inspiration. It’s why people get old and quit caring, right? They have enough time to finish everything that needs done as it needs doing, and if they don’t start big projects anymore, they’re surrounded by silence and bare branches. No songs for company, no cheerful chatter to wake up to of what’s to aim for, what’s to come. It means that the mess isn’t indicative of failure; it’s a marker of activity, of future accomplishments, big and small, mine and others’, of art and responsibility, maintenance and creation.

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