Over spring break, on our magnificent train trip out west, we visited Alcatraz. The island has been on my bucket list for many years, and it did not disappoint. Here and there, the parks department had posted signs and placards with tidbits from the United States Penitentiary Rules & Regulations book that every inmate was issued upon entering his cell for the first time. The more rules I read, the more I realized that these rules are actually pretty good for those of us who aren’t incarcerated for committing heinous crimes. At the end of the tour, when we were dumped into the gift shop (as all tours now tend to end), I felt compelled to purchase a book of 24 Rules & Regulations postcards so I could remember them.
Regulation 1, for instance, says:
Good conduct means conducting yourself in a quiet and orderly manner
and keeping your cell neat, clean, and free from contraband.
That first part is what I’d like the girls in my scout troop to learn. They don’t do anything quietly or in an orderly fashion. Ever. In fact, I think they go out of their way to be loud and disorderly. We had to implement rules and regulations for our inmates scouts that, upon reflection, may have worked well at Alcatraz, too: no shrieking, no cartwheels, and keep your shoes on. Although the administrators who put together the USP Rules & Regulations book probably classified cartwheels under being orderly in general, we found we had to be quite specific. “No gymnastics” could be interpreted, by some, as “cartwheels are okay because even girls not taking gymnastics lessons do those, so they aren’t really gymnastics.” They are wily, those scouts.
When I worked in a cube farm, I would have very much appreciated if my cubemates kept their desks neat, clean, and free from contraband. Contraband mostly being the stinky remnants of their fishy lunches. I would have liked if they didn’t cut and file their nails there, too. Ew.
Really, the person I would most like to apply these rules to is my child. She could use some good, old-fashioned, penitentiary-style raisin’. She is mostly quiet and orderly (save when she gets around a gaggle of her peers), but she most definitely does not keep her cell neat and clean, and she relishes her giant collection of contraband.
I had no idea how much kid contraband is out in the world until I got one myself. A kid, that is. Then the crap level in my home exploded exponentially. There are bits and pieces – her stuff – everywhere, all the time. Right now, without even being home, I can guarantee that there is a pair of sky-blue slippers, size 4, sitting on the floor of the great room somewhere in the vicinity of the couches. I don’t know that she ever actually wears them, although I sort of suspect that she might as they do move around. They never move into her room, though. They always hang out by the couches, and are usually lurking in places where I will trip over them. At any given time, the kitchen counter is home to: sunglasses, piano music, pencils, bookmarks, earrings, books, Hoot, candy, water bottles, school or camp papers, and a variety of bags in which she carries all of the above in random combinations. After weeks of clutter, I finally cleared the entire island counter the other night. There wasn’t a thing on it. It shocked me every time I walked by or looked that way. The great expanse. A huge plane of blessed emptiness. It lasted less than an hour, basically until she came out of her room again.
I don’t even want to look in her closet. That closet is the nexus of the contraband universe. We (meaning: me and I) go in and clean it out every few years, and she’s decently good at letting me get rid of stuff. She is not as good as her mother who would take the entire contents of said closet and stuff them into garbage bags for trash pickup Monday morning, but she does let stuff go. I have cleaned out Valentine’s from last year and countless trinkets gathered at the annual school picnic that she is thrilled about winning that day and then forgets she ever laid eyes on by the next morning. Plastic slinkies and googly-eye glasses and tiny prism kaleidoscopes and flags and capes and a flamingo hat that she can wear for only five minutes at a time because it makes her head hot. There are enough stuffed animals to staff an army of fur. Most of her bears have wardrobes far more extensive than my own. She does not have a food stash, probably because her militant parents have threatened her with solitary if they ever catch food in her room. And also because she doesn’t have siblings who steal her candy, so she can keep it in the giant candy bag in the pantry that also requires a good clean-out every year or so.
Right now, it is time to do that most dreaded task of mothers everywhere: cleaning out her clothes. Her drawers are stuffed full of clothing ranging in size from 8 to 12 (except for that one bizarrely large size 4 tie-dyed t-shirt she got at a preschool friend’s birthday party and won’t part with because it’s the softest shirt she owns) and for all seasons. Looking for her special Independence Day shirt the other day, we tore every shirt she owns out of the drawers. Both of us were close to melting down and I left the situation in M’s capable hands. He engineered the problem (because that is what he does, which is one of the many, many reasons I married him all those years ago, and because he kills bugs). He found that her drawers were so over-stuffed that, “she had a whole wardrobe of clothes that had been shoved out the back of the drawer and had fallen into the no-man’s land under the bottom drawer.” He found the desired shirt and rescued Fourth of July, and I took that as my cue to suck it up and clean out her damn drawers again. This is a job that takes half a day, infinite patience, and a bottle of wine. The patience is required to argue with the inmate over keeping a tie-dyed t-shirt that is finally too small.
This rule about contraband applies to my child’s parents, though, too. I’ll admit that there is something appealing about the idea of living a life that is neat, clean, and free from contraband. Monks actively choose this life, giving up their worldly possessions in return for room and board and life of prayer and good, honest work. Their rooms are even called cells. The cells in the monastery where I work are a good size, not tiny but not large, either. They are austere. It takes only minutes to straighten up your space if there’s not much in it. The inmates at Alcatraz had a bed, a small table and chair, a toilet, a sink, and two shelves. They were allowed only 12 books at a time. My cell, personally, must have wifi, and I could probably get around the 12-book rule with a properly stocked Kindle. But then I think I wouldn’t need much else. Not really. Neither monks nor inmates have extensive wardrobes; both essentially wear the same thing every day. There is no need to root around under the bottom drawer to find a missing garment. There is no need to argue with your inmate over whether these shorts from last year are suitable or have risen into hoochie-mama territory with a year’s growth of leg. (And, by extension, there is then no need to explain to your inmate what a hoochie-mama is.)
We have things in our house that bring me joy when I see them. This is the rule, right? Only keep what brings you joy. It’s the theory behind the tidiness movement. I have objects that bring me joy. The small pottery bird I found in Ireland when I went on my graduation trip with my father. The clay saki jar given to M by the owner of a small restaurant when he visited on two consecutive trips to Japan. A tiny black Squamish eagle acquired when we toured an aboriginal sweat lodge atop a mountain in Vancouver. These things spark wonderful memories when we see them, and bouts of cursing when I have to pick them up, dust them, and dust around them. I don’t know if I would remember that night in the Squamish lodge without the bird, or if M would ever think about that restaurant without seeing the saki jar. Do I need the rusted buffalo sculpture to recall our first Corvette trip out west, or the train that circled our wedding cake to remember the day we married? Are these items necessary memory totems, or are they just more clutter in lives already overly-bombarded by sensory inputs?
I think a human’s natural inclination is to collect, to gather. That’s why it’s so powerful that the monks choose to relinquish their possessions, and why it’s such a punishment that inmates aren’t allowed to keep theirs. There is a relatively new tiny-house movement that appeals to so many of us. It appeals to me, too. (Except for the composting toilet part. No way am I giving up the conveniences and cleanliness of modern plumbing.) With tiny houses, it’s the idea of freedom that is appealing. Because with possession comes responsibility. With possession comes commitment. A grounding. Roots in one place. I have to stay here, because here is where all my stuff stays. I have too much to leave behind. When I reflect on this, I have to fight the urge to take everything I own to Goodwill.
Here is what I think, though. Ultimately, I don’t want my daughter to always be quiet and orderly. Sometimes it’s necessary to raise hell, to speak out, to shout, even. It’s necessary to do these things to stand up for yourself, and to stand up for others. Sometimes, it’s good to shake things up with a cartwheel. I want to keep the small clay bird that makes my heart sing when I hold it, cool and heavy, in my hands. I smell the damp peat of an Irish October when I hold it, and feel the wind at the Cliffs of Moher all over again. I want to keep things that, when I look at them, flood me with feelings and memories from the places we’ve been, the things we’ve seen, the experiences we have shared. Our home may be cluttered at times, but it’s not cluttered with the latest home decorating trends. It’s filled with evidence of lives well lived. We have done a good job of being very conscious about our purchases. Do we have a place for it? Will this evoke a memory? Does this bring us joy?
And so, I will sometimes raise hell and I will keep my beloved belongings.
I can probably get rid of most of the crap on the counter, though.