At work

Photo by Salome Alexa on Unsplash

Or, how Marie Kondo and The Great British Baking Show are the antidote to American angst

Today I am thinking about work. The work I have to do, the work that is waiting, the work I want that is around the corner, perhaps, the work that is long down the road. Writing is part of that work, and yet it’s hard to concentrate when all of the large and minute tasks of the day and week and forever are dangling around in the back of your brain like marionettes. Controlled in theory by that same brain, but the prestidigitation is deft and damn if it isn’t sometimes difficult to tell who has agency and who is held up by string.

My dog is sleeping next to me, and the windows are open, because it is now warm and crisp like mid-fall or maybe late spring, even though three days ago it was so cold outside the city issued alerts instructing its citizens to layer their clothing. That always strikes me as funny, even though it’s good advice. Wear a hat and gloves, say city authorities. Stay warm by layering clothes, reports the weather service. Government as mother. The same advice from our childhood is echoed in our adulthood. Something about it makes me smile.

But yes, the windows are open and the sounds of the street, the life of that air passing through the window screens like molasses, feels something like vacation. Perhaps it is just a vacation from winter.

The work I am thinking about is not really work, because it wonderful, and that is an indelible privilege. Taking a great leap, testing those marionette strings, is an intrinsically joyful and harrowing choice. And it is a busy business. Making things, marketing things, selling things, making platforms and virtual spaces that allow for such things to be seen, achieved, possible. It is all creative work, but it can be hard in the middle of all of that busyness to remind yourself that the most important work, the reason you stopped the other madness and catapulted yourself toward a foggy horizon, can only be done in the quiet. With a pause. And training your brain to forget the marionettes for a moment, to not set them down but simply hold them in stillness, well, that is an act of great meditation. I have been only mildly successful.

Making sense of physical objects can help make sense of the intangible ones, the vibration of strings at the back of your brain.

As an escape from the strings, the tasks, the work that is not work and the work that is, I have been spending time on something that really only adds to the ever-expanding list in the back of my head, the universe we call thought. But that something is a new kind of busyness, and so it at least mimics a pause.

I am Marie Kondo-ing everything. Along with the rest of North America, I am gathering and considering and tidying every single discernible object in my apartment. There are moments when it feels like chaos, but then different kinds of strings weave together to make something beautiful and calm, and then there is a swell of pride because I’m the one who sketched it out and succeeded in making it real. Like all creative projects, the process will take you somewhere new, the result will resemble your imagined compositions but will ultimately turn out to be something else, and that’s exactly why we devote ourselves to such crafts. We want to see where they take us.

Still, it is interesting that there has been such an intense reaction to Kondo’s new Netflix series, and previously to her books, to the idea of “sparking joy.” I think we crave it.

The effect of merely existing in America in 2019 is stress. That applies to the great majority of the world, I’m sure, if not the whole of it. We are overwhelmed. We are fatigued from the fight. We are buried in the ethereal but in fact very real digital objects that ping our phones, infect the radio waves, befuddle the brain waves. We are pummeled daily with terrible news. News that makes us harden or news that makes us weep or news that makes us so angry we turn to darker forces to alleviate the sting. Maybe what we need is a digital quarantine. Or maybe we just need to … tidy?

I think the surging popularity of The Great British Baking Showin the U.S. stems from that same thirst. Both shows (and shows are, like it or not, how most Americans digest reality these days) are light, airy, easy. They focus on taking action to make something good. Maybe it’s a biscuit. Maybe it’s a home that helps you to feel at peace.

I doubt it would be the same if the mantra, “spark joy,” was absent. I’m not sure we’d all be scrambling to organize our homes for the sake of organization itself. It’s not really the orderliness we crave, although it is nice. We want the joy.

It reminds me of the coping tools we employ during or after a loss. We stay busy. We find something productive to do. We give ourselves a task, because to do nothing is to drive ourselves insane, and yet we know we can’t fix what is broken. Not on our own, if at all. Not today. So we find something we can fix.

That, I’m sure, is what has compelled me to unpack and realign my home, with no intention of moving. Not that I am so brokenhearted—no more than anyone else—quite the opposite, really. But making sense of physical objects can help make sense of the intangible ones, the vibration of strings at the back of your brain. And, in a roundabout way, it can help you get back to work.


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