February 17, 2010

The Contents of a Life

Last week my friend Lacey followed me around with a video camera for a class project. Her homework was to create a ninety second narrated profile of someone she knew. We started at my cube at the Office or Rural Health, ate lunch over pizza, and finished in my attic studio in Architecture Hall.

It started with the prayer flags. I have a small set of paper prayer flags in my cube at work, the ones the Foundation for Tibet keeps sending me although I’ve never given them any money. I like them; they’re cheerful. I have another set in my studio, yet more at home, and I’ve even snuck some into my parents’ house. What were they, Lacey wondered, and I tried to explain. I fear I fail at that, because what they are and what they mean are different things to me. I’m not so metaphysical as to believe a slip of paper hung from a string can actually spread goodwill by itself, but every time I see them my spirits are lifted and I know that affects the world and people around me.

Lacey noticed other things – my oatmeal, my shoes and slippers, mugs, peanuts, my little space heaters, glass bottles waiting to be recycled, the accoutrements I surround myself with. My cube is fairly sparse. It’s small, beige, well-lit, and uncluttered, with only a few reference books and neat stacks of papers on mostly empty shelves and clear desk space. My studio is a glorious mess, with books, papers, model-building materials, electronics and computer accessories, old newspapers, pens, pencils, notebooks, pillows, a sleeping bag, lamps, and rolled printouts spilling everywhere, leaving only a few bare square inches in front of my keyboard where I rest my arms to type. The angled roof, dark beams, and dim light make it close and cozy (or so I maintain).

On Sunday, Lacey came down to get some video of me at the Daily Nebraskan, where I edit for the Opinion Section once a week. That desk I share with Jake, the section editor, in an odd chess game of cluttering and de-cluttering. I am on the side of de-cluttering, my first task upon arrival each Sunday afternoon to clear away any leftover copies of the budget or other papers Jake has scattered about, relegate research material to one neat pile in the corner, stack the books back up in a martial row, and return lost pens, pencils, and notepads to their assigned tray. I wash the coffee mug we share, “Grace,” the name of Jake’s church, and a stark cross in white on the blue ceramic. My tea and his tea are shoulder to shoulder behind his small daily calendar of African proverbs.

In my beige cube, looking at the container of writing implements now as it sits in a neat row with the tape dispenser, stapler, and yellow post it notes, I wonder about this dichotomy. I try to recall where I keep such implements in my studio. I only know they should be in the small set of plastic drawers at my right hand, but in reality I tend to find them scattered about in various places. My desk at home is a hybrid, messier than my cube or the Daily Nebraskan, a little cleaner than my studio with more clear surface, if only because I spend less time there, and shelves full of books and accumulated stuff. Why these places so neat and these places so, well, not?

I can only believe it comes down to ownership. My studio is mine. When I moved in I found only a bare desk, chair, and drafting table. The table I pushed out in favor of my own furniture. The computer is mine and all its accessories. The books are mine or from the library. The papers are for my own use, not data to be referenced and filed according to regulated principles, to be rummaged through by unknown future employees. The easy chair that looks out the small dormer windows is something my parents and I found in an antique store on Leavenworth Street in Omaha. Its cream leather sports an embroidered spur, the brown thread matching the bronze nailhead trim. The black metal task lamp I inherited from my mother who got it from her mother during a clear out.

Yet none of these things matter. I don’t work better or worse in any of the four locations. I do like my studio for the character of the building and because once there I can look forward to not having to go out into the cold again anytime soon. The later changes with the weather.

The prayer flags, I think, are important to me. I hung some over my desk when I worked at Shambhala Mountain Center and again at Rocky Mountain Institute. I’ll have to take the next set of flags the Dalai Lama sends me down to the Daily Nebraskan. They are reminders that no matter where I am or what I am doing, I have the opportunity to be mindful, learn, and help other people. That is important – not what is or is not mine, how clean or messy, or free or constrained I feel. Those are all artificial constructions anyway.

Lacey showed me this, when she showed me all the things I surround myself with, but take for granted.

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