Visual noise is a term I’ve been looking for all my life. I’ve always hated shopping, even as a child. I’ve always been overstimulated and overwhelmed by too much auditory noise (is that redundant?). I’ve never liked crowds or being in crowded places. One of the most joyful experiences of my life was creating a home for just me. For five years I had complete control of visual (and other) noise in my living space.
Now, looking back through the lens of my practice of minimalism, even that home seems, in memory, crowded and visually noisy, and I’ve let go of much of what I had in that space.
For most of my life, though, I’ve lived with others, and done my best to negotiate a workable compromise between my stuff and their stuff. With adolescent boys, the problem was simple. I reminded myself it was not forever and closed their bedroom doors. Firmly. I could still hear the mutter and growl of what was behind the closed doors (and I’m not talking about the boys), but I could live with it. For a while.
With partners and husbands, my strategy has been to take on complete responsibility for cleaning and homemaking, thereby retaining at least some control of our shared space and what was in it. Husbands got a private room of their own, like an office, that I stayed out of. I took care of the rest.
Living with someone is give and take, we all know that. I don’t mind cleaning and I love making a home, so I’m accustomed to taking responsibility for most of the housework, especially those tasks I know any given roommate cares nothing about. I’ve even come to terms with my efforts largely being ignored or invisible. I’m clear I’m working for myself. (Thank you, self!)
On the other hand, housework is easily dealt with and doesn’t take much time if our home is uncluttered and organized. Every single object we have requires energy, space and time for care. As the clutter builds up, so do dirt, dust, time wasted looking for things, and the burden of housework. Home becomes one more stressor to deal with rather than a haven of rest and peace.
Visual noise, like everything else, occurs on a sliding scale. My current home is much less cluttered than it was when I moved in, and I’ve pushed a camel through the eye of a needle for every bit of that improvement (improvement as defined by me, of course!). I’m still not where I want to be with it, but I’m closer. Still, I periodically feel exhausted by the struggle and apathy looms as my patience and sense of connection to what’s important in life are ground away by my constant battle with stuff.
It also means I’m chronically inhabiting a mindset I suspect many women are familiar with: Am I being ridiculous? Demanding? Controlling? Oversensitive? Unloving? Why can’t I just ignore the clutter? Why can’t I be different, or get over it? Why can’t I focus on the long list of what’s good and does work in my life?
It’s a miserable mindset, and the more I try to control myself and not feel what I feel the more resentful I get.
I’m well aware not everyone struggles with this. On the other hand, I’m not making it up. Visual noise is A Thing for some people, and I’m one of them. I’d find life much easier if I wasn’t one of them, but there it is. Furthermore, we know clutter causes stress and takes a mental toll, at least for some people.
How do I explain my struggle to someone who doesn’t experience any problem at all with four filthy old remotes for vanished audiovisual equipment sitting on a cluttered, undusted living room shelf?
The worst thing about the whole issue is feeling hopeless about finding a solution. Of course there are always choices. I don’t have to live in any particular place with any particular person, after all. The thing is, I don’t want to live anywhere else. I just want to have more power to control my space. Not all the power, but equal power.
Ever since I learned about needs I’ve come back to this point. If my needs conflict with the needs of someone I’m close to, whose needs get taken care of? How does that get negotiated? How do we manage power around sharing space, or raising children, or dealing with extended family over the holidays, or a depressingly long list of other life experiences when there’s a conflict of needs?
I confess I’m exhausted by the prospect of such negotiations. I already feel like I’m shouting as loudly as I can and can’t get heard. It’s a thousand times easier to suck it up, say nothing, and exercise my excellent self-control. In other words, I roll over. Yikes. I hate admitting that. In many ways I’m a stalwart warrior, and if someone demanded I roll over, I’d die before I did it. But when gentle remarks or pushes about clearing shared space gets no response, I just give up for the sake of peace. For the sake of relationship. For the sake of connection.
This is exactly like enabling. In the moment, the easiest thing to do is go with the flow. In the long term, though, I wind up resentful and burned out. The relationship suffers; I just delayed it a little. Visual noise builds and builds until it obstructs my feeling of connection with others and myself and distracts my focus and attention. I can’t hear or see anything else. I begin to feel as though I’m fighting for my life. Here’s what visual noise sounds like to me:
Manage me or don’t manage me. I’ll use you up either way.
We objects are more important than you and real life; you cannot possibly compete with us.
There’s no room for you; you don’t belong here.
You cannot escape us; you’ll be gone before we are.
You are powerless.
I have no answers. Perhaps the issue of visual noise is under the heading of Relationship Challenges many of us experience and is not solvable. I wish with all my heart I could be different, and neither notice nor care about piles and shelves and cupboards of stuff.
I recently read a blog post from one of the minimalist blogs I follow about unplugging from technology for one day a week. Actually, it wasn’t that recent. It was, in fact, in August. I left the post in my Inbox and I’ve been thinking about it.
All right, procrastinating about it.
You see, although it seemed like an attractive idea, I couldn’t unplug in August because I had a family situation that necessitated watching my e-mail closely.
When that was over, I thought about it again, but then I was watching … what? I can’t remember. A possible hurricane down south somewhere? I think so. Anyway, I really wanted to watch it. It was important.
I observed myself both want to unplug for a day and resist unplugging for a day. It reminded me irresistibly of giving up honey in my tea.
When I came to Maine, I changed my lifelong, mostly plant-based, low fat, low sugar (by this I meant, you know, white sugar) diet to eating keto. More about that journey here, here, here and here. I had, at that point, started every day of my adult life with a large cup of green tea sweetened with a spoonful of honey. It was an important daily ritual. I looked forward to it, counted on it, needed it. On the road, camping, or at home, I had to have my green tea and honey in the morning. I could do without sleep, hot and cold running water and food, but my morning tea was nonnegotiable.
Honey, that delicious golden elixir I used to buy by the gallon in spite of the cost, is a carbohydrate. Our bodies do not distinguish between plain old white sugar, honey, agave or any other kind of “natural” or “organic” sugar. For me, this means inflammation, autoimmune disease and chronic pain.
I was determined to regain my health. The daily dose of honey had to go.
I have an extremely hostile relationship with addiction, as my family of origin is affected by it and I know I’m genetically and behaviorally predisposed. I’ve stayed far, far away from any substance or behavior I thought might potentially become addictive for me. At least, that’s been my intention.
However, life is going on while we’re deciding who we will not be and what we will not do, and although I was aware of how much I depended on my morning cup of tea, green tea is good for you, right? No harm in that habit.
Except I realized, after day two or three of tea without honey, the tea was pleasure. The honey was addiction. I needed it. I craved it. I was miserable and angry and deprived without it. My body needed that first hit of carbohydrate in the morning, needed it desperately because I was basically chronically malnourished and addicted to carbs.
I was completely chagrined. Life is very humbling sometimes. Have you noticed?
Me being me, all I needed was to feel how much I depended on the honey to become determined to give it up. I was building a new life, including eating a massive breakfast of animal fat, meat and eggs every morning immediately upon rising. I went right on drinking tea, but I stopped using honey. I stopped needing honey because I’d finally figured out how to feed myself appropriately. In time, the craving went away, along with the majority of carbs in my diet and chronic pain and inflammation.
Make no mistake, though. I whined and complained and bitched every step of the way. For a time, I considered giving up tea altogether. I would never enjoy it as much again. The honey enhanced the flavor, and it just wasn’t the same without it. What was the point? Getting out of bed was no fun. The morning was no fun. Never again would I have a big cup of Earl Grey tea with lemon and honey and spend an hour sipping and reading a good book on a snowy afternoon, etc., etc., etc. It was pathetic and maddening. I hated myself and everyone else, and I resented my physical need to delete carbs from my diet.
I couldn’t help noticing how similarly I felt about unplugging from technology for even one day, in spite of priding myself on not being captive to it. I have a cell phone I hardly ever use. It’s an effort to turn it on every three days or so and check for messages. I don’t use social media. Left to my own devices, I’d never watch TV. The only tech I really use is my laptop, but I use that for many hours every day. I’d love to be able to honestly say all that use is writing, but it’s just not so.
I check the headlines on MSN, even though I know it’s all click bait and I rarely believe much of what I read in the “news.” Then I check the weather forecast. I check my e-mail accounts. I read the Google news headlines, not as sexy and sensational as MSN and slightly more reliable. Maybe. I bank online. I run the blog online. I do research. I check on local movies. I play solitaire.
I play a lot of solitaire.
I loved the sound of unplugging from all this for a day. It was such a good idea I wondered why I hadn’t tried it before. As soon as I looked at my calendar with the intention of planning an unplugged day, I began to recognize resistance.
A lot of resistance.
I didn’t want to admit it. I use less tech than anyone I know. I’m smug about staying away from GPS, social media and the need to have a cell phone surgically attached to my person. The truth is, however, that I’m just as caught in the addictive net of tech as anyone else.
My choice about all this was to leave the post about unplugging in my mailbox, where I’d see it several times a day (because I check my e-mail countless times a day), and sit with my chagrin, my resistance and my recognition of my own compulsion to remain plugged in. I’ve been doing that for weeks now, alternating between resentment and amusement.
For some reason, late Saturday I decided I was going to take the bull by the horns and stay off the Internet on Sunday. Not off the word processor, but off the Internet. No after-breakfast check on the headlines, etc. while I drank my morning green tea (unsweetened). No first solitaire game, during which I thought about where to start working. No e-mail.
I needed to know I could do it, no matter how uncomfortable it was.
Minimalism is an amazing practice. It starts externally with objects, but once I began to look at my life in terms of what really matters and all the stuff that obscures and distracts from that, the internal work took over. My small experiment with unplugging from the Internet was a perfect illustration of the dynamic of unconscious clutter.
Sunday was the most spacious day I’ve had in months. I looked at the clock twenty times in disbelief. The day seemed to have about four extra hours in it. It was a beautiful autumn day, a day off from work, a day in which I didn’t have to go anywhere or do anything. I got out the crock pot and made a keto version of spaghetti meat sauce with no pasta. I did some good writing. I read. I stripped the bed and did laundry. I put on some music and exercised. I prepared for the work week ahead.
On Monday morning, I came up the stairs to my attic workspace and opened up the Internet to see what I’d missed.
I had more spam than usual in my e-mail, because I hadn’t checked every hour or so and deleted it as it came in. My bank account was just as I’d left it (darn it!). The headlines were the same old headlines. The autumn weather managed to exist without me having read the forecast. I’d somehow navigated a whole day without sitting down to play a game of solitaire while I thought about the next step.
It was an eye-opening experiment that will now become a weekly habit. It’s hard to think about totally unplugging and going screenless for a day, but not as hard as it was before Sunday. I am a writer, but writing is still possible the old-fashioned way, with paper and pen.
As I’ve worked on this post the last couple of days, my partner sent me a provocative article about our relationship with our smart phones. I’m not the only one rethinking my relationship with tech and clutter in general.