Tuesday, September 20, 2011

O Is For Order


I like and need order.  I have to have clear surfaces on which to rest my eyes.  Pictures must be hung straight, rugs aligned, or I cannot think well.

My ears need order, too:  no background music, no background radio chatter.  Above all, no television noise--unless, that is, I'm watching television

The beings I love all bring clutter into my life.  For decades, spouse, descendants, dogs--not to mention chickens--have been scattering paper and machine parts, shoes, toys, hair, and feathers all over the house.  My days are a perennial muted struggle to maintain some minimum level of order.  The fact that I have added these beings one after another to my life and that they are indispensable to my happiness shows that I'm not completely insane about order.  But I am getting to like it more all the time. 

I did not inherit this compulsion from my mother, who, despite the minimal disruption caused by a neat husband and a single child, was not disturbed by a bit of chaos in the house.  I got it straight from my paternal grandfather, a quiet and reserved man who worked in a bank.  Before he came home in the afternoon, my grandmother would adjust the living room shutters to a precise angle so the light would shine on his newspaper.  Only she knew how to slant the pocket-watch stand on his bedside table so he could see its hands from the pillow without turning his head.  When he came to visit, he would walk straight past us at the door to fix a crooked picture.  That done, he would turn back to us and give us a papery kiss.  One of the few things I remember him saying to me was to please fix the corner of the rug that was caught under my chair.

Most people need order more as they age.  I don't remember knowing any spontaneously orderly children or teenagers, do you?  I myself used to do my high school homework with the radio playing.  But with time the brain loses its ability to screen out distractions, and we shout at our kids to turn down that music and clean up their room, for crying out loud, how can anybody think, much less learn anything, in such chaos!

I believe, though, that there is more to the desire for order than deteriorating neurons.  One could argue that there is a moral element in the wish to attend to each thing fully, whether it be a piece of music,  a book, or a person.  The desire for order also has a strong aesthetic component.  After all, Baudelaire ranked order first among the qualities of his ideal environment: " ...ordre et beaute / luxe, calme et volupte."  Lose order, and there go beauty, luxury, calm, and pleasure.  The French are an orderly breed.

But then, on the other hand, there is Robert Herrick's Delight in Disorder:


A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness:—
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distractiĆ³n,—
An erring lace, which here and there        5
Enthrals the crimson stomacher,—
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbands to flow confusedly,—
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat,—        10
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility,—
Do more bewitch me, than when art
Is too precise in every part.

Must not forget that erring lace, that winning wave.

3 comments :

  1. I create chaos but need order. I'm trying to get better about leaving things about, but it is a hard habit to break.

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  2. It is hard to read this while in an office piled with two weeks of missed mail and manuscripts that need attending to... deep breaths!

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  3. Waxwing, things may get more orderly now that there are no kids in the house, right?

    Indigo, but the trip was worth it!

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