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  • Lijing Cobb

What it means to be fortunate

The other day I went to pick up my 10yo from school and chatted with a couple of moms I know while waiting for the dismissal. The topic went to chores and it turned out that all the moms within earshot do the same thing in our respective houses: we leave clean laundry piled up, sorted or not, for a few days before putting them away.


Yesterday was a big laundry day for me: after finishing our skiing outings I was finally able to wash everyone’s outfits, so when all the dirty clothing became clean, they piled up high on my bed. While I picked out the bigger pieces to put away for the next season, the kids were requested to sort out their own and put their stuff away. Because the incentive was electronics, they happily complied, and the mountain of laundry dwindled down to a hill after they swept their things off of my bed. I sorted out the hill (of course everyone left something behind), and they claimed their piles before they went to bed. I had also folded my own laundry while watching a movie with my husband last night, and the folded basket lay quietly on my bedroom floor, the contents of which awaiting their final destination. Perhaps I’ll get to it today. Perhaps tomorrow, I don’t know.


Every night after dinner, if I could help it, I load the dishwasher, clean the sink, wash the cutting board, wipe the table, and get what I need for the morning ready. If I pass out before I could get to all of this, I wake up the next morning to a messy kitchen and try to sort it out, but then all the other things that need to be done always interrupt, and the cleaning and organizing just doesn’t happen the way I would like it to be.


Our three dogs live on the first floor of our house. Two of them are big labs and they shed generously, so every day I run the vacuum on that floor and the pile of debris sometimes clogs the dust bin of my beloved cordless Dyson. When it’s a really outrageous day and one of my children is close by when I’m about to dump the collection of fur and dust into the trash, I call them over urgently to witness, hoping that it would serve as a reminder for them to not roll around on the floor with the dogs, or crawl about on their belly just for fun. They would entertain my request by saying, “wow, mommy, that’s a lot!” And then go about their merry ways kissing their beloved animals in their white and pink pajamas.


And then there is paper. Paper in the form of books, magazines, bills, homework, artwork, post-its, to-do lists, rip away calendars, and everything else that found their way onto our kitchen surfaces. My battle of keeping the paper piles at bay is a daily one, and 9 days out of 10 I lose. But on the one day that I succeed in sorting everything out for our kitchen surfaces to be free of paper clutter, I enjoy the brief moment of victory, like the all too short blossoming of epiphyllum, beautiful but ephemeral.


And finally there is the great big congregation of stuff in our foyer. Shoes, bags, jackets, water bottles, musical sheets, instruments, toys, sports equipment, toys, books, dog toys… our lives are rich indeed and the kids have all kinds of activities throughout the week. If day 1 everything is in its rightful place, day 2, without tending, everything is out of their rightful place. Being the only who cares about right and wrong places, I fight a losing battle on a daily basis.


I write all of these with a calm mind. Believe it or not (and I for one could not have believed it just a short while ago that I’d be sitting here writing all of this. I’m crazy now. I was sane then.), I see the order behind all this chaos, and I see my own efforts in brand new terms.


When I was little, my family scarcely had any possessions other than daily living essentials. There was not much to mess up, and my father made sure to bellow if there was anything out of place. I did not have a single toy or book to toss around and trip over. My mom said that my favorite activity was sitting in a big basin full of water and play with it. Well, that could have only happened on really hot days during summer time, and that could have only lasted so many years before I had to abandon that favorite activity. I have absolutely no memory of it.


My big sister and I shared a tiny bedroom, and aside from our cot, the other big piece of furniture was a wardrobe chest about 4 feet tall, 4 feet wide, and 2 feet deep. The chest was divided into 2 sections from left to right. On the left there were drawers of different sizes, and on the right there was just this empty space with a door to it. By 5th or 6th grade, before I graduated primary school, I had pretty much achieved my full height, so for the 3 years of middle school and 3 years of high school, my sister and I kept every piece of our clothing in that wardrobe. I don’t remember ever throwing out any piece of clothing when I was young.


We kept our seasonal clothing in the drawers, and threw the rest into the big space on the right to wait their turn to be used. As the years went by the pile in the big space grew. I don’t remember ever folding anything in there. When the seasons changed I just opened that big door to dig for treasures. Clothes with wrinkles and the smell of moth balls. That mess of useful things never got sorted out, but just stayed in the closet.


Today when I battle the disorder in my house, I realize that it is a great big fortune to have all these things to organize and sort through on a daily basis. My kids, no matter how many times I remind them, gently or not, are forever creating the same mess for me to clean up, and that’s only because they are not afraid that their actions will lead to severe consequences. They know and trust that they are safe, in their own home, where they can make a mess and not be in mortal danger. All the things they have and activities they enjoy are what I did not have, and all the things I must do now as their parent are not something I ever had the chance to learn when I was growing up. It’s ok that I struggle. I’m learning what it means to be fortunate.


Thoughts and experiences are just like the material possessions I have. If I don’t sort through and organize them, my mind eventually becomes a total mess. My daily reflection in the early mornings help me do just that: clearing out that closet, folding my mental laundry, putting things away in their rightful places, making sense of the space. I sort it out so that the contents would not spill out in a disastrous pile if I open the door. When I open the door I want to be able to see clearly what belongs where, and pull from the place I’m looking for instead of rummaging through the entire pile, most likely missing the item once, twice, or 5 times before I finally locate it in exasperation, or give up entirely out of despair.


So I tell myself that my daily routine of making sense of the physical space in my house is not in vain. It is largely a physical manifestation of my mental state. When I’m aimlessly wandering in my mind, unable to focus, unable to think clearly and find motivation, my house is generally in a pretty chaotic state. When I find myself organizing and cleaning the house, I’m also attempting to sort out things in my head so that everything is in sync. My mind is more at ease and productive when the physical space I live in is put into order.


So today when I empty out that dustbin full of dog hair, dirt, and lady bugs, I’m going to think about the fact that we have a big house, the dogs are happy, the children are safe, and I have a cordless Dyson. Mentally that will hit lots of happy categories.


I’m learning what it means to be fortunate.

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