Gertrude has a very nice kitchen table but it isn't often seen because there's a reservoir of clutter covering it and leaving just enough space for people to put a plate on when they visit her table. I look at the stuff she's collected there: Pill bottles, opened rolls of throat lozenges, bowls of beads, a can of old pens and pencils, the puzzle page of a weeks-old newspaper, a Reader's Digest, a box of paper clips.
When I visited today the table had been cleared off and the stuff that was there, now swept into a cardboard box. Instead she'd spread out a jigsaw puzzle and was sitting there flipping the pieces over--little pieces, thousands of them.
All right, I said and I sat down and we worked on the puzzle. She'd done it at least two other times. She had quite a few puzzles in boxes on the top shelf of her coat closet, all with scratched up, tattered pictures on the sides. I marveled that she wasn't bored by doing the same ones over and over. But since I'd never seen it, this puzzle was actually interesting to me. The image in it looked like a natural still-life scene until you looked closer and everything was made of little items like thread spools, combs and graham crackers and yarns and stuff like that.
I said, This stuff that makes up the picture in the puzzle is a lot of the same stuff you had on your table before, only now it's a pretty arrangement.
I think of my house that way sometimes, she said. I use everything I've got eventually. Why make a fetish of neatness?
Well, I feel better when my stuff is neat, I replied. I feel...virtuous.
You have the fetish.
That's what she said, and I knew for sure that she was wrong. She can be so annoying sometimes. She thinks the way she does things is the best. She's stubborn about it. She won't listen to anyone else's ideas. How selfish, how boring.
Puny, negative feelings crept into me and I was hating her.
Now, one thing I have learned about Gertrude over the years is, she's sensitive. Psychic. She isn't afraid of what other people think or feel, but she's well aware of it. She has a way of turning your feelings back on you if you try to blame her. I know it but I tried anyway.
To each his own, I said pointedly.
You say that, but what you mean by it isn't what the words say. Pardon me if I'm wrong... She frowned at me and her eyes glared slightly, taking me aback.
You used that phrase like a tool. You used it to poke at me. You didn't mean you accept that everyone does things differently. What you meant was the opposite, it seems to me. You're judging, using a nonjudgmental phrase. What good did you do?
I let out a deep breath.
I guess the things I pay attention to and let bother me are also a kind of clutter.
Finally Gertrude sat back and smiled. She said,
I bet you thought you were being sane and rational, right? Thinking that neatness was more virtuous and that clutter on my table meant something important. Maybe you will have to let go of some sanity, if it's like that.
After our visit was over, I thought about what Gertrude had said. I lay in bed, my mind whirling and pressure building within me. And finally I felt so miserable with all my fumings, I just had to let them go. I felt slippage in my sense of caring about reality. It made me nervous but I let it happen.
The next day I started laughing more. I saw messed-up things happening and I just went, Okay! --giggle giggle. Nothing bad happened.
Somebody got annoyed at me?
Okay, sorry. Hee hee.
Ignorant driver in the left lane on the highway?
Whatever. Hee hee.
Mean person judging a weak person unkindly?
Oops. Ha ha.
So now when I go visit Gertrude, I try to slip into that new dimension and just enjoy her. She is shaped like bread dough rising, and when she wears red lipstick she looks batty. She's not.