Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Black Holes - We Create Order out of Chaos

They say there’s a lot of give and take in an intimate relationship. I know this is true, and to me it's because no two people are the same. Each partner has unique strengths to share. If you appreciate the differences and value these gifts, you can be enriched by them. Kathleen gave me sunsets, fish, birds, flowers, food, friendships and my karma bowl. And of course a lot more. She claims I gave her wisdom. I also helped bring more organization into her life.

After we were married in 1996 we lived in a small 1950s-era condo in Miami Beach with a killer view of the Biscayne Bay in every room. To this day I don’t know how the two of us fit in that little place. Every two weeks, a housekeeper came to perform her miracle. We enjoyed the restored sense of order, but in truth that result was superficial and in a day or two most of the surfaces were covered with magazines, newspapers, pocket change, opened mail, clothing and other items.

I’m a West Point graduate and a retired Army lieutenant colonel, and too much disorder gives me the heebee-jeebies. I guess I’ve always been this way. As a teenager, I was the oldest of eight children, and I’m sure maintaining order in a household like that was too much for my mother. But after a while, a messy house would get on my nerves. So when the family left for an outing, I would sometimes stay behind and clean the house. I’m not anal-retentive. I just like putting away the things we’re going to keep and throwing away the things we’re not.

Early in our marriage, I concluded that Kathleen was overwhelmed, too. Commercial banking is a stressful profession. There’s a lot of competition, intense pressure to achieve sales goals, quirky customers and not a lot of empowerment. After a day of visiting prospects all over the sprawling Greater Miami area, more than anything Kathleen needed to “decompress.” When she came home, putting things away was not high on her priorities. The organization she had established when she moved into that little place had at some point been overwhelmed by her fast-paced life. I determined that when things didn’t get put away, it was probably because they no longer had a place where they belonged.

This accounts for something I had never encountered before, a strange household phenomenon I call “black holes.”

Back then we had a small antique table by the front door. When Kathleen came home, she would often put whatever was in her hand on top of it. After a while, a variety of items would accumulate there. One day, I decided to put all this stuff where it belonged, and I started by opening the small drawer in the stand. I saw business cards, an unopened letter, several photographs, a button, a cough drop, hair combs, a few stray keys and some small change.

I asked her, “Honey, what should I do with this stuff in the stand drawer? What do you use it for?”

I could tell by the look she gave me that I had crossed over some kind of line. “Darlin,’ leave it be for now. Those are my things. Don’t you have something better to do?”

I understood. These items belonged here because they had nowhere else to go. In order to reorganize that little drawer, we would have to reorganize the whole house. I was daunted by the thought of that project, and I assumed it must have seemed too much for her, too.

There were other areas of disorganization in different spots around the house: tabletops, counters, drawers, boxes. This situation might have been tolerable, but it was painful to watch Kathleen hunt for things she had misplaced, something that happened all too frequently. Without a system, it was easy to misplace things. If an item didn’t have its own special place, in a tired moment she might have put it anywhere.

One day I watched her put her car keys on top of a stack of things on the edge of the kitchen counter. She put her scarf and some mail on top of the keys. She did it automatically and headed for the bedroom to change into something casual. I knew the next time she needed her keys, she wouldn’t be able to find them without a search.

When she returned I said, “Honey, this stack of stuff is like a black hole. All kinds of things have gathered here, who knows what. I think this is how stuff gets lost sometimes.” I recovered the keys. “Do you want to keep this in your purse, so you’ll know where they are? Shall I get rid of some of this stuff?”

“No, leave it alone. I’ll do it later.”

I knew this was going to be a sensitive issue between us. She had a lot to deal with. I would need to exercise a lot of patience.

But the disorder bothered me. I felt I needed to do something about it. I tried humor. Each time I found a new gathering place for odds and ends, I’d say something dramatic like, “Aha! Another black hole! Look at this stuff!” She didn’t seem amused.

I took the initiative and attacked one of the black holes. I started with an easy one: the stand by front door. “Here, Honey, I’m putting this change in your purse. I cleaned out that stand drawer. Do these keys go to anything? Do you want to save these business cards?” She was concerned that something important might be thrown away, but together we disposed of everything.

There were quite a few black holes in our little house. From time to time I’d work up the courage to attack one, but I quickly encountered the same reality that discouraged Kathleen: there was no specific place to put most things. The whole house needed to be re-organized first. The next time she was distressed by a frantic search for something, we had a heart-to-heart talk.

“Honey, I know how frustrating it is not be able to find something. It ought to be where you can find it. But a lot of times the thing you’re looking for doesn’t really have a place, and so it could be anywhere. That’s why it’s hard to find. I have the same problem and it bothers me, too. It’s not your fault. The problem is, this house needs more organization. You know I’m good at this sort of thing. Why don’t you let me take the lead? I’ll get your advice, make a plan and we’ll redo one area at a time. What do you say?”

She agreed, and we began a joint project to create order out of chaos, one closet at a time. We removed everything and put it back in white plastic organizer drawers we bought for this purpose.

In time, everything had its place, which empowered us to put things away. We were also able to get rid of a lot of stuff. After several weeks, the whole house was reorganized. Kathleen was thrilled that the closets had more free space.

I was thrilled, too, because one at a time, with Kathleen’s help, we made the pockets of disorder go away. And I noticed that she laughed now when I called them black holes.

One day, I suggested we attack what I believed was the last one. She looked at me pleadingly and said, “Can’t we leave this one be? I think I need one black hole.”

I agreed. And our home as been well organized ever since.

But preventing black holes requires vigilance. They’re a mysterious force of nature. In their infant state they seem harmless enough: a few opened letters, a finished paperback book, a shopping list, a credit card receipt. A black hole quickly gathers things into itself, and before you know it, it will suck in something important, maybe to be lost forever.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength . (1997 sunset photo by Kathleen Scott, used with permission.)


John Murphy, TMA said...

I have the same problem at my office, so I can't even share the blame with my wife! I'm organized, but I do find that my desk gets cluttered, the file cabilnet just inside the front door get piled up with files, mail and magazines. Sooner or later, I have to call time-out. I go in to work at night and clean it all up. You know, you really do feel more in control when you get a handle on your surroundings.
Good post - it hit home!

Unknown said...

hilarious. I have the same thing with my fiance. he is the organized one. I would be the one saying leave it alone
I can be more flexible
\thanks for the reminder