In my last post about “Tidying Up,” I noted that I am the only person in my family who ever tidies. That is no longer 100% true, because, under my guidance, PJ has just wrangled one of the most chaotic situations in her space, which is books.
PJ’s room has for a long time now been a chaos pit. I know all kids’ rooms are messy; but PJ’s was particularly exploded. I would make periodic attempts to organize it, which wouldn’t work because she never understood or bought into the organization. Whenever I suggested tidying up she would complain that after I tidied she couldn’t find anything. I would say, “You can’t find anything now.” She would say that she knew exactly where everything was and that she liked her room being messy. And so on.
I sort of believed her about liking the mess, because I grew up with a mother who really NEEDS for everything to be in its place. Like, needs it with a vigilant, anxious, ruthless NEED. In that situation, a bit of mess is the only thing that makes your space look like something a person could live in. However, PJ is not growing up with that. Mrs. P would like her space to be clean and organized but, when faced with the prospect of making it clean and organized, instantly succumbs to despair. And I tend to get very focused on work and writing and not notice my environment for long stretches of time.
At the last party for her friends that we hosted, there was some horsing around in the closet which turned it into a true disaster area. One day soon after that–the day her giant beanbag arrived, in fact–I went into the blast zone and started trying to salvage it. It ended up with my reorganizing her whole room in a way that finally acknowledged the fact that she is shifting out of childhood. To make room for the giant beanbag, I finally put a bookcase and the foam chair she’s been using since she was a toddler into the closet, where they actually fit very nicely, and turned it into a reading nook.
I was anxious about how she was going to take it. But she loved it. She was excited about that nook in a way that she had never been excited about any other space in the house. She really loved having a little spot where she could sit and read (or use her electronics) and where everything was stowed away in a visible but not sprawling way. I recalled that, after our first conference this year, when PJ’s teachers reported that she was having a lot of trouble remembering to bring her materials to class and keeping track of her assignments, Mrs. P started having nightly meetings with her to go over her homework assignments for that day, and that this half-hour daily meeting somehow enabled PJ to be organized at school the next day. This led to PJ feeling better at school, and to a better experience for everyone. It occurred to me that PJ might not in fact want to live in chaos, but that she could not figure out how to emerge from it without our help–which, because of her general temperament, she would never ask for.
Anyway. The biggest chaos generator in her room is her books. She is a big reader and has two bookish parents plus a grandmother obsessed with children’s books. So last week, because a thing had happened that required a Consequence, I told her she had to organize her books with me.
She was not pleased. She complained. I said, “OK, you’ll like this part: Step One is you get all your books from all over the house and put them in one big pile.”
PJ launched herself into this part of the process immediately and with gusto. Together we built a giant mountain of books in the middle of her room.
Then I said, “Now we knock on the books to wake them up.”
She said, “WHAT? That’s crazy!”
In the end, I could not get her on board with the whole kami aspect of the Marie Kondo system at all. PJ is an atheist. I mean you may think 11 is young for that, but this actually became clear much earlier in her life. At the age of 3-4 she believed in God, but by the time she was about 6-7 she had decided that the Bible was just stories and that no higher being exists. She loves animals and she loves fiction based on mythology and fantasy, but at this stage of her life at least she’s a materialist. Anyway, the “spark joy” thing didn’t really work for her either–it made her self-conscious–so instead I said we would just sort through the mountain into “keep” and “go.” Once we did that–and as I expected, the “keep” pile was much, much bigger than the goal pile–I said we would sort the keepers into categories.
I said, “The reason my organizing your books doesn’t work is that I organize them alphabetically, and that doesn’t mean anything to you. Let’s come up with some categories that mean something to you and we’ll sort them that way.”
The categories we came up with were: Unread, Realistic Fiction, Mythology & Fantasy, Cats, and Miscellaneous.
Sorting the books into categories was the part of the process that she seemed to most enjoy. She would pick up the book and think out loud about which category it should belong to, and we would have a little conversation about it, and then she would decide. We talked a lot about the “realistic fiction” category (she is working on a writing assignment for school that has to be “realistic fiction”) and the fact that there are many different definitions of realism (realistic as “does not involve magic, created worlds, AUs, talking animals, or aliens”; realistic as “could plausibly happen in the real world;” realistic as “based on a plot which is logically coherent and makes sense”). We decided that the first definition (realism as that which doesn’t involve magic or space aliens) was the best to go with. She was very interested to discover that “realistic fiction” was by far the biggest category, even though she often gets more intensely attached to mythology/fantasy books.
The upshot was that we discovered that the large bookcase in her bedroom is just about the right size for Realistic Fiction. The smaller bookcase in her reading nook is about the right size for unread + mythology/fantasy. Miscellaneous fit on top of an unused metal shelf in her closet and Cats fits in a bin on the opposite side of the nook. In the process we also identified about a half-dozen books that had come home from school, some of which had become lost in the maelstrom.
PJ complained about this process from time to time, but she also got invested in it and I believe she genuinely enjoyed it. At a time when she is spending a lot of time watching things online, this gave her a chance to handle her old friends and remember how much joy she got out of them (even if she can’t really recognize or name that as the feeling they inspired in her). She was very thoughtful about the categorization process; and althoguh she keeps saying “you know it’s just going to get messy again,” so far it hasn’t.
I feel like I am doing a good thing for her by showing her how to remake her own space. So far, her room looks much like it did when she was about 5, and when I suggest to her that she could choose her own things to put on the walls now, etc., she never seems interested. But I hope that if I can get her to like sorting through her stuff and thinking about it–something both Mrs. P and I did a lot as children, but which doesn’t seem to have come naturally to PJ–that will eventually allow her to make her spaces more nurturing for her, now and when she’s out on her own.