We tidied up our house the other day. It was in desperate need, and during the miserable exercise — one replete with whining and bickering and arguments about who was absolutely not going to pick up that shoe or hang up that coat — I noticed something.
We’re pilers. We pile things.
Maybe piling is human nature. Isn’t it natural to seek out a flat space and cover it with stuff? As I write this, my feet rest on the coffee table. Also on the coffee table sit two notebooks, a day planner, four bills, three remotes, a phone, a glass of water, a dog collar, a pen, a hair clip, another dog collar, a candle and two lacrosse balls. This is what’s left after I straightened up.
I could walk around the house and photograph myriad flat surfaces with far more stuff on them than this coffee table has. The problem with having a flat surface in your house is that a flat surface was made for exactly one purpose: putting things upon it. That’s it. That’s why we have furniture with flat tops. The table is for dishes and food. Countertops are for appliances and cat feet at 2 a.m. The desk — always the worst of the offenders — is like a wide valley where creatures such as first drafts, water bills, paper clips, photographs, and lip balm come to graze and play and roam about on the expansive, composite-wood savannah. The desk is a place for piles if ever there were one. And when the desk’s real estate is maxed out, I move to the top of the printer and the top of the filing cabinet and the top of the fireplace (which is always a fantastic spot to lay paper products).
These flat surfaces enslave me. At the end of my bed, I have a lovely wicker trunk, a wedding gift. In it, I store out-of-season blankets and sheets. The trunk has a magnetic hold on me. It’s one of my favorite pieces of furniture. It’s well crafted, it’s summery, it smells nice on the inside, and it’s useful. And it’s so bad for me. The top of that trunk sees the daylight only a few times a year. The rest, it waits patiently under clean laundry, or a suitcase from last October, or, if we’re going by today’s items, my trekking poles, two dog sweaters and a copy of The Catcher in the Rye.
When I clear the trunk off, I’m always so certain I’ll change my ways and keep it neat and zen. I’m suddenly quite sure that the bedroom should be a peaceful place, a perfect feng shui palace, and I vow to keep it thusly. And then, the next day, the wicker surface disappears under a fresh load of my son’s Scooby Doo underwear and 14 throw pillows.
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Far worse than flat surfaces are catch-all pieces of furniture, like chairs. I’ve observed that there is a certain zone around an entryway, and if a piece of furniture is placed within that zone, it will become a catch-all. If there’s a chair within that area, we’re screwed. There’s a recliner about 10 feet from our lower back door. You’d think that would be far enough away, but nope. The Roberts’ zone clearly exceeds 10 feet because, until yesterday, we hadn’t seen the cushion of that chair for three months. We found two seasons of coats in there, a pile of my son’s homework, my belt, a dog leash, a set of sheets and my long-lost bathmats. By the time I found the bottom of the recliner, I knew it had to go upstairs to the living room, well beyond the danger zone of the front door. (The front door zone already has its own chair, currently piled with the contents of an attic trip I’ve not yet taken: a decorative Christmas wreath, a grinning, styrofoam pumpkin head and a gardening trowel.)
What’s worse than a chair? A papasan chair. Truly, they’re the devil incarnate. Whoever invented the papasan chair should be gibbeted. It’s a giant bowl that sits in your house like a Venus Fly Trap and waits for a flannel shirt or a hand towel to buzz into its gaping maw. The papasan chair doesn’t care what it eats; it will consume anything. It’s a black hole, a tiger shark. Headphones, backpacks, drowsy felines … it doesn’t give a hoot. It just wants your stuff. It’s the Pied Piper of Papasan. It plays a mystical flute we can’t hear, but the stuff can hear it, and the stuff comes right out of the closets and dances merrily into the gullet of that tipsy rattan demon.
The papasan chair has bewitched us: we now throw something in it every time we walk by, an offering on the Altar of the Unkempt. We’re cult members in this Papasan Slob Society, so the chair must go to the attic. Formerly, it was a demon foyer-bowl. Before that, it was a demon basement-bowl. Now it’s a demon living room-bowl, and I must exorcise it, no matter how much pea soup it spews on my shirt.
I know you tidy people are out there, reading this on a wide open desk, next to a spartan end table, shaking your heads because you just can’t understand what’s so hard about taking 10 seconds to hang up my Gap jeans rather than tossing them on the ficus tree, and how can there be one ankle boot in the second-floor bathroom and one in the basement boot box? Perhaps you shake your head at my incompetence, just as I marvel at your dedication. You must be a powerful Jedi to resist the siren song of the stuff-pile. I’d ask you to teach me your ways, but I’m pretty sure the Dark Side claimed me long ago.
• Laura Jackson Roberts is a freelance writer in Wheeling, W.Va. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University and writes about nature and the environment. Her work has recently appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, Vandaleer, Animal, Matador Network, Defenestration, The Higgs Weldon and the Erma Bombeck humor site. Laura is the Northern Panhandle representative for West Virginia Writers, a blog editor for Literary Mama Magazine and a member of Ohio Valley Writers. She recently finished her first book of humor. Laura lives in Wheeling with her husband and their sons. Visit her online at www.laurajacksonroberts.com.