When I took my car in to get an oil change today, it was well overdue. It seems like there is never a good day to get an oil change. If we lived somewhere with a driveway and a garage, I’m sure we would change it ourselves to avoid having to drive across town, dig out the wheel lock for the mechanics, and sit in the little black plastic chairs watching bad daytime TV waiting. But we don’t have either. We live in a quadplex plus one and share a driveway with four other cars. But between the cars and the dumpster, it often feels like backing a semi down a bowling alley so most of the time we park on the street. That, however, has gotten a little more difficult because of the rock hard pinecones that drop from 40 feet up in the trees overhead. After having to replace a windshield a few months ago, we’ve been more careful about parking away from the trees, so on busy nights, sometimes we have a bit of a hike to our house. But I digress.
Our trusty car that has been with us since we got married and has taken us cross-country and all the way to the Arctic Ocean and back needed an oil change. I handed the key to the guy at the counter, and then we walked out to the car to get the mileage. As we opened the door we were greeted by empty water bottles, a crusty muffin wrapper, a grimy sunscreen bottle, a pile of coats, and reusable grocery bags strewn across the backseat. When you do not park your car near your house, it makes it more difficult to keep it clean. I apologized for the mess, and the guy said,
“It’s ok. It’s A to B.” He had a thick accent, and I didn’t understand.
“The car is designed to go from A to B. It doesn’t matter.”
Sitting in the tiled lobby surrounded by stacks of tires and a life-sized version of the Michelin Man, I had time to think about what he said. A to B. The car is designed to get you from A to B. To get us from our house to my husband’s job in the morning, so that he can do his research and make a living. To get me from his office to the grocery store, so that I can buy food to keep us healthy. To get me from our house to the library so that I can help kids with their reading and writing. To take us out to the desert for the weekend so that we can sit in the quiet and hike around on the rocks and recharge our batteries. To take us to the doctor when we are sick or to a concert where we can rock out and sing along with music that feeds our souls. Our car is there to help us live life. To help us be mobile and do both the things we need to do and the things we love. And a few empty water bottles and a pile of coats are not going to keep that from happening.
There seems to be a big movement right now to keep everything really clean, to be organized, to be efficient, to be on top of your whole life. When I think of this kind of life, I see rows of chevron-covered baskets in cubbies where everything has a place and there is not a used muffin wrapper to be found. Cars have organizers that are strapped on the back of each seat and tiny trash bags hang around for maximum neatness. And there is probably nothing wrong with this spic and span life. I will admit that when things are in their place, they are easier to find and when you are not buried in trash, it is easier to function. But I (and I’m guessing a few of you) spend time feeling a little guilty that my life is not more organized. As I scroll through pinterest, it is easy to see all those chevron baskets and want to throw up in one of them and then just slide it quietly back into the cubby. Everything in its place.
But what really is the purpose of each of the things in our lives? Our car, as the wise, grease-covered mechanic reminded me, is to get from A to B. Our home, a place to land and live and love. To sit on the couch and snuggle under a blanket while we read a book, to sit together and plan our days, to watch our favorite show and laugh until we cry. Our kitchen, a place to prepare meals that keep us healthy. Our fridge, a place to store that food until we have the time to cook it. The shower, a place to get clean and stand for a little too long in hot, steamy water letting the troubles of the day roll off our backs. An office, a place to work. A playroom, a place to do the very important work of playing and creating and growing up. A yard, a place to lie in the grass and watch the clouds go by or the stars pop out of the dark blue sky.
And while all of these things and spaces are probably best utilized at some level of neatness and cleanliness, being neat and clean are not the point. Let me say that again. Having a clean refrigerator is not the point. Having a closet that is color coordinated is not the point. Having a toy room with a spotless floor is not the point. Having a shower with no soap scum is not the point.
The point is not one particular thing, but I think it is probably somewhere closer to having rich lives with the people we love in those places and with those things. You, however, will have to determine your own point. But I can assure you fairly confidently that fifteen bazillion perfectly organized cubbies and a mopped floor is not the point.
I’m not advocating dirty, messy lives, but I am advocating thinking about the purpose of the things in our lives. There is no doubt that staying picked up often makes life easier, but maybe we need to be just clean enough and organized enough that the mess doesn’t get in the way of living. So that we don’t spend hours looking for our keys or we can’t give a friend a ride because there is not a clean seat for them to sit on. But what about when being neat gets in the way of living? When we can’t have someone over to talk because our bathroom is a “mess,” or we don’t have time to stop and read a book because the kitchen could be organized better? How is this really any different than mess robbing us of our lives?
I realize that organization comes more easily to some people. Some of you would probably remember to take the empty water bottle out of your car every time, and I applaud you and marvel. But some of you may be a little more like me and not see them until they are filling up the passenger floorboard. Either way, we each need to find our own neat, even if it’s a well-established breeding ground for dust bunnies. We need to find the place that being organized makes our lives easier, and then we can live inside of that space that works for us—even if it is not pinterest worthy. We need to live in a place where we are free to be both neat and messy and do the things that really matter.
There is no prescription for the right amount of neat—even though the internet and a host of blogs would have you believe that they have found the answer. And again, let me repeat. There is no prescription for the right amount of neat. I had a hard time with this. Things can always be more organized. Things are only clean when they are actually clean (by my standards). But one day someone challenged me by explaining that if someone else thinks something is clean (even if it is not the way I would do it), then maybe it is. Is clean or neat only the presence of no dirt or no clutter? Of course not, unless we all want to be Howard Hughesing it. Clean as a continuum took me a long time to come to terms with, but it is freeing. It is nice. It is so helpful to realize sometimes things are perfectly clean or neat enough for their purpose. And that brings me right back to purpose. If I were doing surgery on my bathroom sink, I’d make sure it was pretty darn sterile. But if I’m using it as a place to store my toothbrush, which is what it is actually designed for, wiped down and sanitary every once in a while ought to be enough to keep me happy and healthy and my teeth pearly white.
Are we living for clean cars or are we living for the people that we carry around in them and the places that we land when we are together? Are we living to be spotless and perfectly organized, or are we just clean and neat enough to really live? How do we bring our lives back to focusing on the purpose of both ourselves and the things that surround us?
I think the road back to purpose is simple and yet sometimes so difficult to actually get to because we have to ask ourselves what really matters and be willing to entertain a list of answers that does not include things that we wish we could control or hold on to. There are things we should throw away like the crusty muffin wrapper, and that two week old kale that’s looking pretty sad in my fridge, but more importantly I should ditch the guilt that my life is more messy than I wanted in my ideal world because that was an ideal that missed the point of being who I am.
But in the answers to the difficult questions I think that we also find there are plenty of things that we should hold on to like the people that we love, the moments that we live in the mess, and the truth that the things in our lives are not us, but they are there to enrich and help us be who we are and who we are meant to be. If I do not spend my life organizing it, I may be surprised that I have time to have coffee with a friend who needs me, a moment to read a book that’s been on my list for years, or time to work on a project that is purely fun and makes me happy.
Even with that muffin wrapper in my car, I can still make an awesome chicken soup with everything my fridge is keeping cold right now, and the cup holder in my car will still hold a cup of coffee—if I shove the muffin wrapper a little further down. Absolutely no harm will be done. I will still get to pick up my hubby from work with the car that was designed to do just that, and we will still get to eat a meal together in our home, the place where we live and love and harbor old kale. And we will be happy, even without a chevron basket in sight.
In the style of Jimmy Fallon, only with a true, heartfelt thanks and no background music—Thank you oil change man for reminding me to think about what is important and for being a little bit of truth on my route between A and B.