“This life I lead, setting pictures straight, squaring up rugs with the room – it suggests an ultimate symmetry toward which I strive and strain. Yet I doubt that I am any nearer my goal than I was last year, or ten years ago, even granted that this untidy world is ready for any such orderliness. Going rapidly through the hall, on an errand of doubtful import to God and country, I pause suddenly, like an ant in its tracks, and with the toe of my sneaker shift the corner of the little rug two inches in a southerly direction, so that the edge runs parallel with the floor seams. Healed by this simple geometry, I continue my journey. The act, I can only conclude, satisfies something fundamental in me, and if, fifteen minutes later on my way back, I find that the rig is again out of line, I repeat the performance with no surprise and no temper. Long ago I accepted the fact of the rugs delinquency; it has been a pitched battle and the end is not in sight. At least one of my ancestors died lunging out of bed at the enemy, and it is more than likely that I shall fall at last, truing up that mediocre mat.
Intellectually, I am ready to admit that there is no special virtue in an accurate alignment of inanimate objects, that a picture hanging cockeyed on the wall and a rug askew are conceivably as effective as they would be straight; but in practice I can’t go it. If it is my nature to adjust the stance of a watercolor rather than enjoy its substance, then that’s the whole of it, and I’m lucky to get even the dubious enjoyment that I occasionally experience from coming upon it and finding it square.”
One Man’s Meat
E.B. White, Copyright 1938
Chapter 1 Removal, July 1938
I too am a sufferer.
The White essay reveals one of those one of those uncomfortable truths which has the effect of holding up a mirror to me and saying, “See? This you.”
It is so. Every word could have been written by me (with the exception of that bit about his ancestor). As with White, I do this straightening-up thing with rugs. Have as long as I can remember.
The compulsion is exaggerated by any substrate which itself has any geometric definitions of its own, such as the floor seams mentioned by White. Ninety degree corners anywhere in the design of the floor further exaggerate the disobedient edge or corner of any rug which fails to conform with the grid below it.
It is a failing of mental processing, I suppose, that these errors and exceptions reach me with an undeserved urgency, or that they reach me at all. The effect upon my life of the failure of one object to align with another should probably not command attention, sufficient to even warrant notice in the course of my navigations about the place, and yet I seem congenitally incapable of not noticing, of shutting down whatever part of my mind and vision which seems wired to register these irregularities as alarms, correctable errors for which I alone have responsibility, which have the power to stop me in my pursuit of whatever mission I was upon, momentarily suspending it in favor of attending to something no sane person should have ever noticed.
This predisposition is but one aspect of a larger category of perception and behavior having to do broadly and generally with order. Location and placement of objects is another manifestation. Vigilance, preparation and readiness still others. Time, place and appropriateness are as well.
At this point in life, I am resolved that meaningful change, a rewiring or dewiring, is probably not possible. The best I hope to achieve on any given day is awareness, some ability to recognize when any of the pointless synapses from my inventory of responses is activated by a perceived need for order, triggered by some visual, non-visual, felt, or imagined state of disarray, as well as the attendant awareness that the autonomic reflex need not be carried out, that I can change from the predictable response, instead realizing that these things do not in fact demand attention or correction at all, and to inform myself that I have at least an equal option to leave things alone. It’s not easy.
On the face of it, White’s essay is an amusing self-revelation, the use of humor to illustrate a quirk, and I can see it in that way, even in myself. But I also see it in another way; it is a behavior which can, on occasion, create complications, even obstacles. If it were confined to squaring up rugs, I’d be content to accept it as a foible and a minor one at that. But there’s more to it.
At some point nearer the beginning than where I find myself now, I seem to have expanded this mindset. Unconsciously I adopted and applied the principle to non-material facets of living, transmuting it into a preference for symmetry in life, in other people, in my work, in thought, in attitude, in behavior, in all aspects of my experience of being human, a crooked perception which omits nothing.
Looking back, it almost seems as though I received specific training on the necessity for order, or that I had been given an owners manual with the family name embossed on the cover, containing a specific chapter on the subject. In my young life there seemed to be rules for everything, specifically a requirement to focus on things that were “wrong”, behavior not in compliance with the family standards, definite ways of doing things right, ways which others did them that were deemed to be wrong. These labels were intrinsic, not malleable, not matters of opinion. Identification of wrong (wrong doing, wrong thinking, wrong believing, etc) demanded that countermeasures be applied. When displayed by other people, it seemed to be my responsibility to “help” them, to inform them of their error, to correct them.
Please note that at no time did any of the subjects of my attention and my attempts to fix them request my involvement. Predictably, this resulted in various degrees of unpleasantness in certain of my relationships, including one divorce.
Rewiring this particular circuit of my mind is probably not possible. The best I hope to achieve on any given day is awareness.
“Fresh weeds appear, this we can see, and our practice allows an opportunity to find balance in how we treat them.”
Inside the Grass Hut
Published July 8th 2014 by Wisdom Publications