To be fair, most of the house was a mess. I come from a people who are nothing if not cluttered. Who keep things long past the point of utility, who value material possessions.
My bedroom took things to another level, though. The bed in one corner, covering toys I had outgrown and crumpled elementary school worksheets. A nightstand behind it, its lower compartment crammed with books and loose papers, drawer filled with mementos and party favors. My collection of stuffed animals. A dresser on which none of the drawers would close all the way for the sheer mass of stuff (only about half of it clothing) I had crammed inside. Another corner littered with half-completed art projects, books, games, and other miscellany.
Every now and again, I’d feel motivated to clean it all out, but even on those occasions when I did get started, the sheer immensity of the project had a tendency to overwhelm me before I made much headway. Or I’d get distracted by picking up the charge of one of those discarded art projects. Or the volume of dust would overwhelm my sensitive allergies, and I’d have to give up to tend to the flood of mucus flowing from my nostrils or my itchy red eyes. And so, the mess prevailed for a period of years, compounding upon itself, threatening to leave room for nothing but sleep if it reached much further.
I’m not sure what straw broke the camel’s back, but there came a point where my parents, and more specifically my father said we needed to clean out my room.
To contextualize this moment, my father taught me how to read. He schooled me in advanced algebra before school would get to it. I learned to drive under his tutelage. These were, collectively, some of the most demoralizing, hurtful experiences of my life. Though I developed essential skills through his teachings, they’re also the core moments of my upbringing that, though I’ve mostly made peace with them, make me believe I’ll never have an entirely fully functional relationship with him.
But there were a handful of other moments when my father taught me things in far less conscious ways and the lessons actually stuck, sans the psychological scarring. My father sat beside me, poring through scraps of the blue-and-red-grid-lined paper my mother would bring home pads of from work, and he said, “When you have a problem, you can’t just look at it.”
He went to explain the point in greater detail. That problems demanded action. That you’d never make progress without taking steps, as small as those steps may be. That, to appropriate the Chris Gardner quote I didn’t hear until decades later, “the cavalry ain’t coming.”
I’d have to be reminded, or remind myself of this lesson at different points in my life, from the immediate years to follow to recent times. But that may be the most important sort of a lesson of all--not the ones that we know, instinctively, to be true, but the ones that we must remind ourselves as the need arises. And the ones for which that need will inevitably arise time and again.
I looked at my messy room. When I learned that I needed to do more than look, everything changed.