Once upon a time, there was a sad woman. The woman was sad because her mother had died, and she wasn’t used to people dying. The sad woman did not know what to do with her grief, so she did nothing. Quite literally. No work, very little housekeeping, no cooking. The most she could manage was to ensure her children were safe and well – beyond that care she had no energy for much else. Her house became cluttered, and she was unaware.
But the months passed, and one morning she went to her medicine cabinet to get something for a headache (she had lots of headaches). When she opened the cabinet, it was so packed that all kinds of objects fell out in disarray and onto the already-covered countertop – bottles of vitamins, expired pain-relievers, half-empty band-aid boxes, dosing cups. One bottle broke open, scattering tiny, golden beads of Vitamin D across the bathroom floor.
At that moment, staring at the literal fallout from her time of grief, something inside her cracked open. She looked around in mild horror at the mess and noted how it expanded beyond that medicine cabinet to the counter, the floor, and the closet. Why were there clean socks in the bathtub? Why hadn’t she changed out that broken light bulb? With a lightning bolt of awareness, she understood how much she had neglected, and how she needed to start making some changes.
Our heroine paused to give herself a little grace (it’s not every year your mother passes, after all) and started picking things up. Once she got started, she continued, and it was a little easier. And she noticed how much relief she felt, taking a few small actions…
This story is actually mine (with a few embellishments to protect the innocent) from about sixteen years ago. I can tell it now without feeling too attached because, well…you guys know the rest of the tale. It was one of several defining moments that led me to what I do now. I’m not sharing it as a sob story, but rather as an example of a different way to make sense of a life order conundrum. Obviously getting my organizing game back on took more than just an afternoon of picking up vitamins, but the story illustrates the turning point.
When you have a small success, or make some progress, or even have a concern or challenge, it’s worth noting in an external way. How often have clients told me in a session that speaking their frustrations aloud makes all the difference? Sometimes when I ask where they want to end up, they share that we’ve already gotten part of the way there – purely because those challenges are no longer rattling around in their heads like uncounted spare change.
Creating something with all of that head clutter is even more powerful. According to research by the renowned developmental psychologist Jerome Bruner, facts are 20 times more likely to be remembered if they are part of a story. When we remember, we learn and deepen our awareness of what’s possible.
“Stories are genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance.” – Neil Gaiman
Even if all I did was give my story a title it would be enough to cement it, and give me a touchpoint of understanding how insidiously clutter can take hold. I could call it something like “Pills and Bottles and Grief (Oh My).” If it weren’t already a story, the title would instantly bring me back to the memory and what I learned from the experience: grief can freeze up your decision-making, and you can figure out how to thaw it out.
You don’t have to be a great writer to write a story or creatively put something out into the world. I chose story because I like to write…but it could be anything.
I had the great privilege of being in a workshop with a past poet laureate of North Carolina recently (hey, by the way, did you know that it’s National Poetry Month?). She talked about the concept of “abiding images” – those picture memories frozen in our minds that can be powerful instigators for creativity. The abiding image you have could be the look of your cleared email inbox, your workspace after following through on a big work project, or a stack of papers and books after planning out your dissertation – nothing is too mundane.
I mean, come on – what could be more ordinary than a messy medicine cabinet? If I told my story as a haiku, it might go something like this:
She opened the door
And pills fell like tears, spilling
Time was ripe to clear.
Poetry can bring metaphor and humor into the mix, too…I could go on and on (so perhaps that’s the next post).
I’ve had clients share that they’ve created visual art, or made up a song or jingle that helps them remember how they’ve worked through some of their challenges or limiting beliefs. And no, they’re not professional artists or songwriters or touring musicians. Again, you don’t have to be, and it doesn’t have to be for anyone but you. You’re the person learning and shifting and putting a little mental distance between you and the chaos.
Have you ever put a success or accomplishment into creative expression? If not, what sort of life order story could you tell, and how would you tell it?