Ok. I’ll start by saying that this is not about Marie Kondo, the famed Japanese organizing guru, as a person. Rather, it’s about the contemporary North American fad for “curating” lives, homes, families, selves, etc. It’s a response to a larger movement that seeks ostensibly to get away from a consumption model of living and to move towards an approach that is simple, streamlined, and elegant.
But what, you might think, is wrong with this? Surely, we want to acknowledge the errors of our capitalist consumption-oriented ways. Absolutely. I’m in total agreement. What do we need more stuff for, anyway?
And hey, I’ve been fed the mantra, too. In grade 2, our guidance counsellor told us that if we wanted to get good marks, we should emulate those who had good marks. And those with good marks generally had neat desks and working environments.
Uncluttered. Organized. Structured. Tidy = Joy. Inspiration. Fulfillment. Intelligence. Success.
That day back in Grade 2, I peered into the nest that was my desk and shrugged. That shit just wasn’t going to happen.
So maybe I’m just projecting my own self-righteous spreadery.
Maybe I’m trying to find a way to rationalize the mess that is our house at the very end of term (who am I kidding? this is the mess that is all the time).
Maybe I’m passive aggressively responding to our department administrator’s increasingly pointed hints that it’s time to tidy my office and that she’s going to get in there with dusting supplies. Maybe I’ve amassed too many post it notes in too many places. Maybe my pile of books is too high, my clutter of discarded mugs and plates too large. Maybe I don’t want to look to see if there’s an errant tea bag still floating around in a mug that’s been around so long that it’s become part of the display…
For those of us who work with the past, this messiness, this stuff, is what allows us to understand how societies, cultures, families, worlds… life…. operated.
The discarded selfie.
The notes scribbled onto the back of a receipt.
The doodles drawn during a particularly trying meeting (I’m particularly good at those…).
The school photo that went completely awry?
The kid that weeps all the way to camp (or all the way back to the hotel from Legoland Windsor, as the case may be)?
The frozen Cheemo perogies that you forgot in the car for two weeks when the temperature hovered around zero and tried to revive anyway (oops).
The pile of wrappers, pens, lego, notes, silly glasses, and empty juice boxes under your son’s bed, on his desk, scattered across his floor.
The beginnings of cranky emails that fill your drafts folder.
The mush of dirty socks that never make it into the laundry basket even tough you step over them every day.
This shouldn’t be the stuff we discard. This shouldn’t be the stuff that we clean up, beautify, hide.
This is life.
These are the stories that matter most.
One of the things that has frustrated me most in the course of this current research project has been the absence of materials created by those most affected by colonial policies and practices. The colonial infrastructure was enormous, and colonial officials were organized. They’ve left researchers like me endless documents – ledgers, logs, letters, tables, lists – you name it, and it’s there. All of this can tell me an enormous amount about colonial logics.
But there’s precious little to learn about the lives of those whose names officials listed in their ledgers and logs.
How can we understand histories of migration if we can’t find the voices of those who experienced it, or if we find them only sideways, through hints in formal colonial archives?
This isn’t a problem unique to my project. But it’s a big one.
It matters that we can often only “find” the voices of the enslaved through their resistance.
It matters that the remains of indentured lives exist almost solely in their complaints to ship captains, in their refusal to work on the plantation, in the violence that they enacted towards each other or those in power.
It matters that trial transcripts are some of the only places where we can read the voices of marginalized women.
It matters because while all of this stuff is important, none of it gets us to the everyday. Yes, it matters that the enslaved resisted, that the indentured turned to violence, that those on trial told their stories in those spaces.
But what about their daily lives? What were those like?
What did they eat?
Who did they eat with?
What were they thinking aboard the ships that took them so far from everything they’d known? What were they feeling?
What about the anger, joy, love, despair, longing, frustration, agony?
When I researched the life of Suzanne Necker and later, the stories of those who consulted with Samuel Auguste Tissot, I had all of this. After all, these were privileged folks who wrote letters and confided in friends and colleagues. These were folks whose letters were kept for them, and as a result, folks whose stories are still available to us today. In a world that values the evidence of the written word, these folks had it good. And as a consequence, I had it good, too.
But it shouldn’t be only the privileged whose stories remain.
A few days ago, medieval book historian Bex Lyons posted a short thread on Twitter asking women to write in the margins of their books.
The problem, as she sees it, is that a) we know a lot about men of the period because they wrote in their books, and b) our knowledge systems celebrate the written word over all other. As she points out, there are many reasons why women didn’t – or couldn’t – scribble all over their books. And we do need to find ways of working differently with the material that exists.
But here’s the thing – first we need to have stuff to work with. Not just the curated, tidy stuff. Not just the bookshelves organized by colour (who invented that trend, anyway?). Not just the carefully coordinated paint colours. And not just the stuff that others have organized on our behalf, either.
No, we need the stuff of daily life itself. We need the messes. We need the chaos. We need the false starts, the bad hair days, the unfortunate accidents.
This is the stuff that matters. This is where we tell our stories. And this is where those who come after us will find them.
It doesn’t matter how many filters we apply or how many hashtags we use.
Life is #messy.
It’s #neverneatandtidy, no matter how much we might will it to be.
And so here’s my plea – my #manifesto – for packrattery.
Embrace the chaos.
Revel in the mess.
Write in the margins.
Argue with your authors.
Keep every scrap of paper.
Embrace your failures.
Share your grief.
Take pictures of garbage.
Refuse to clean your room.
Accept the assemblage of random trinkets under your bed.
Laugh so loudly that you make others uncomfortable and then record your joyful noise.
Keep the saggy Ron Weasley sweater that your favourite aunt knitted for you.
This mess is the archive of your life, and I promise that historians of the future will love you all the more for it.
With thanks to Bex Lyons (@MedievalBex) and Will Pooley (@willpooley) whose recent tweets and blog post got me thinking about inspiration, joy, archives, tidying up, and packrattery.