I’m not a particularly tidy person. I don’t clean as often as I should; my desk and counters are usually cluttered. But… to a point. I get overwhelmed by too much clutter, or by clutter that doesn’t make sense to me (a pile of paperwork on my desk? fine; skincare products I don’t use or understand on my nightstand? not so much).

I’ve been noticing this experience lately where one of my partners will spend the night and I’ll come into the bathroom and be immediately overwhelmed by the amount of stuff on the vanity. There’s usually a flash of annoyance, bright and brief, and then a very conscious decision to ignore it, do what I came to do, and spend as little time in there as possible.

When I noticed this, my first impulse was to reach for “hey, can you not make a mess in my bathroom?” Identify needs, establish boundaries, and communicate them clearly and compassionately to partners — that’s what one does in a healthy relationship, right? Instead, I forced myself to really look at the vanity, and was struck by a realization: there wasn’t really that much more stuff in my bathroom than usual, and none of it was really stuff that didn’t belong there. Some makeup, a toiletry bag, some lotion… and this is what I was freaking out about? Why?

Because, as it turns out, I’d already been living at capacity. The stuff that I had on the counter when she wasn’t around — all my stuff — was already exactly at the limit of clutter I could tolerate. There wasn’t really a good reason for much of it to be there — the extra toilet paper could live under the sink just as well as next to it, etc. But tidying the space up never occurred to me when I was in it alone (because I hadn’t reached my clutter limit), and it never occurred to me when I was sharing it with someone else (because I had exceeded my clutter limit and felt overwhelmed by it). Thanks, brain.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to counter space. We’re creatures of cognitive convenience, after all, and we live in an economic system that’s driven largely by the cycle of work>exhaustion>paying for convenience. That is, both our intrinsic wiring and our extrinsic environment conspire to make us live our lives at capacity, at the exact ragged edge of our tolerances. If I lose half an hour of sleep, that’s a problem because I’m already sleeping as little as possible; if I have to eat out one more time than I’d planned, that’s a problem because I’m already spending as much as I can afford. That’s a bad plan because the world is unpredictable and we should be trying to build our lives to be at least a little shock-resistant, but it’s an especially bad plan because it turns many benign and even delightful interactions into stressors or sources of anxiety.

At the same time, if I had asked her to not clutter up my bathroom… well, what what was she supposed to do with her things? I had already filled up most of the space with my junk. When we invite people into our homes and our lives, we also invite some amount of their stuff — that’s what an invitation is — so it’d be some combination of stupid and cruel not to have ensured there’s room for that stuff.

I’ve always known that holding emotional space for people was a condition of the possibility of intimacy, and I’d like to think that I’m pretty good at that. This experience, though, has reminded me that that’s also true of physical space, and of temporal space, and of social space. Which seems super obvious in retrospect, of course, but it was something I had managed to overlook.

So when I get home from the coffee shop in which I’m writing this, I’m going to clear some space in my bathroom. And then I’m going to try to make a practice of periodically looking around to see where I’m living at capacity — what other dimensions have become full up without my noticing — and where I can build in a little buffer. Even if I don’t end up needing those buffers, I’ll have a tidier life and more room to invite others into.

Lawyer and translator of legalese into plain English. Also a cishet white dude trying to unlearn a bunch of baggage.

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