Your cupboard is not a metaphor for life

photo-37It’s a perennial New Year, New You topic: how to organize your possessions. Real Simple’s January issue promises a year of organized living, starting with your kitchen cupboards, and moving on to a new hot spot every month. The reason for devoting so much real estate to organizing? As the organizing expert (whose name I can’t recall because — irony alert! — I just purged my old magazines) noted, when you look in your cupboard and see mismatched mugs, it will make you feel, on some level, like “my life is a mess.”*

This narrative — your possessions as metaphor for life — is a common one. I suspect it’s why every women’s magazine has at least one decluttering feature per month. The promise is that if your junk drawer is organized, your life will be organized. Outer order leads to inner calm.

It makes sense, and the human brain likes stories that make sense. My life was a wreck, I got rid of the unmatched mugs, and every time I opened my cupboard, I felt a sense of Zen. Soon my whole life was Zen, too. My children magically got their own breakfast each morning with no complaining and tromped obediently to the school bus right on time. We spend much time organizing our emails under the same assumption. If my inbox is clean, my work life will be a well-ordered experience.

But is it actually true? I’m not so sure. There are other things a cupboard full of mismatched mugs could say about your life, other than “my life is a mess.” For instance, it could say that you’re so busy doing important things — building a career, raising a family, helping your community — that your brain doesn’t concern itself much with the colors of your mugs. Indeed, you spend very little time in your kitchen cupboards in general. Your mugs function as a vehicle for transferring your coffee from the pot into your mouth in the morning, fueling you up before you go conquer the world. That’s it. Indeed, given the amount of time that creating and maintaining a perfectly matched kitchen requires, I’d be more inclined to think one’s life is a mess if matched mugs rise to the top of the priority list. What are you avoiding to devote your limited time on this planet to the pursuit of chucking that photo mug of your kids your spouse made on Shutterfly?

Your cupboard is not a metaphor for life. It’s just a cupboard and a mug is just a mug.

In other news:

Sheila from The Deliberate Reader reviews What the Most Successful People Do on the Weekend, writing that “At $2.99 I think it’s an inspiring and motivating read, perfect if you’re looking for a jump-start to fresh habits in the new year.”

*I think this is the exact quote. It really bugs me not to know for sure. Guess I should have held on to that issue!



26 Responses to Your cupboard is not a metaphor for life


  1. christie says:

    Yeah ! I love your post. Stories about simplifying your life with all white towels seem quite silly to me. Routines, organization, and schedules are important but they can only do so much. I need my Brain to feel organized and calm, not my towels.

    • Laura says:

      Also, I feel like if I had white towels I would spend much more time stressing about how dingy they look! At least in my bathroom.

  2. oilandgarlic says:

    Love this post and needed this reminder. I read that issue of Real Simple and suddenly felt the need for an organized kitchen and mug hooks.. Luckily the feeling has passed as I have more important things to do, like plan some fun weekends!

  3. Laura says:

    I love my mismatched mugs. In fact, I have relegated the matching set to an unused area. I love picking which size, style, and design I want to use every time I have a hot drink. I’ve cultivated my mismatched mug collection on purpose and hardly think that makes my life a mess! :-)

    • Ana says:

      I feel the same way! We don’t have matching mugs…just a collection we’ve picked up over the years, each with a special meaning (including the $0.50 ones my husband and I bought from the grocery store as one of our first purchases together!) I usually stick to “my” mug, and my kids know which mug belongs to which parent!

      I stopped subscribing to real simple a couple of years ago, because, come on…the images they show are not “real” and the prices of the items they recommend are not “simple”. And I am so over the idea that physical clutter is the root of all that ails us. Yes, I love a good purge as much as the next girl, but I’m not going to build my life around it!!

      • cmwp says:

        I totally agree with you about Real Simple. It’s like the house-keeping equivalent of Glamour or Cosmo. They are definitely selling an illusion. Oddly, it used to be one of my favorite magazines, but I suddenly lost interest in it a few years ago when we actually bought our first house.

    • Christina says:

      This is exactly how I feel. Different beverages need different styles of mugs (or they do to me) and I know people in my family have different preferences. I like that they can chose the one that works for them. Much better than having them all match. (And it’s a perfect excuse to pick up other single mugs that I like since a new one won’t ruin a set.)

      But I have to say although I don’t bother much with sets (mugs, towels), I do worry about the organization. I hate a messy cupboard or one where things are not easy to put in or get out. I think that’s more of a personal obsession than organization strategy though!

  4. ARC says:

    I know it’s unpopular in certain circles to disagree, but I definitely feel unsettled when there’s a lot of clutter in my house. It may just be a personality thing. I need clean kitchen counters, and cabinets where I can find stuff.

    I don’t care if my stuff *matches* per se, but I do need to see it clearly and find it so I do spend time clearing things out periodically.

    I don’t think that means I don’t do anything else worthwhile with my time :)

    I do think there might be something to Suze Orman’s claim that the way you treat the money and credit cards in your wallet may also be indicative of what your attitude towards money is, and what shape your finances are in. Sort of the same thing, right?

    • I’m of the same mindset. I don’t think my house has to look like Martha Stewart Living, but I am indeed a happier, calmer person when my counters are clear and my cabinets are organized.

      It’s a very practical thing for me too….I can find things when my cabinets are organized and I can work in the kitchen when the counters are clear.

    • Laura says:

      @ARC – I definitely think it’s a personality thing. Some people are bothered by clutter or things that don’t match. Some people aren’t bothered by these things. I also think there’s a difference between clutter on top of something you see and use (like your desk) which might actually make daily tasks more difficult vs inside a cupboard. But what bugs me about the uber-organization mindset is the idea that whatever is in a cupboard has to be a metaphor for the rest of your life, when to be honest, it really just doesn’t cross my mind at all. Because it doesn’t matter that much to me. I’m not sure I buy the Suze Orman thing either. I have dollar bills crumpled all over the place. My wallet is old and falling apart. My finances are fine.

    • Ana says:

      Anandi I actually do agree with you…I love to be organized and lack of organization definitely stresses me out. I do spend a little bit of time each week making sure things are put away properly, and once in a while I go through and get rid of unnecessary stuff. I also (gasp!) like my email inbox to be as empty as possible & DO file my emails (I know!)
      But mismatched cups/plates/towels do NOT bother me, and the whole idea that you need to invest money & a ton of time to organize your things (am I supposed to BUY matching mugs?) is what drives me away from those types of magazines.

  5. My cupboards, bookshelves, and spices are compulsively organized. If shelving positions at libraries paid the same as economics professor positions, I’d totally do that.
    ***
    I’m not sure if that has spilled over into other areas of my life or not. But I think in my case it’s the same internal OCD that causes my mother to always check to make sure the stove is turned off after we’ve pulled out of the driveway, just channeled differently.
    ***
    Willpower (the book) suggests that if you spend all your effort organizing your spice rack, that it will be more difficult rather than less to organize the important parts of your life. (However, it will also take less time trying to find spices when you’re cooking and you’re less likely to buy duplicates of things you own but can’t find.)

  6. p.s. One of my colleagues notes that children can get their own breakfasts just as soon as they learn how to open a poptart. In our house it’s cereal bars, but same idea.

    • p.p.s. That’s not to say all our mugs are matched– but we’re not that old and we didn’t keep our graduate school corell so we do have a couple matched sets remaining and haven’t gained a ton of mismatched sets. We’re still on our first real set of plates since we moved, though we’ve had to buy additional bowls and glasses because of breakage. (It bugs me that Target discontinued the set we bought– next time we’re going all white for easier replacement.) I solve this by having the matched stuff on one shelf and the mismatched stuff together on a different shelf.

    • Calee says:

      I have a set of matching mugs that I love, but I also love the hideous “I Love YOU” mug that was a freebie with a flower delivery a few years ago and one from the Dublin writer’s museum.

      That said, we began a mission to get rid of 30% of our stuff a few months ago. Two days ago, my husband took our kids to his parents for a sleepover and we spent the next 12 or so hours cleaning out & organizing. It felt great. Then the kids came home and the house looks pretty much the same way it did, but without two pick-up truck loads worth of trash and donations.

      Like many things, cleaning and organizing a home have their place in our tasks, but its not something we place priority on until it gets overwhelming.

      Also–for the last two weeks we’ve been sleeping in to the ungodly hour of 7:30. The 5 year old gets up somewhere around 6. She is beyond capable for breakfast acquisition.

      • Laura says:

        @Calee- that sounds absolutely lovely. Sleeping in until 7:30! My 5-year-old is getting to the point of being able to microwave a frozen waffle (though I do still worry he’ll hit 15 minutes instead of 15 seconds) and turn on the TV. But right now he still seems to want to climb into bed with us instead. Or pull the baby out of her crib and bring her to us, which is another interesting development.

  7. cmwp says:

    The only reason my mugs match is because we don’t have much kitchen space so I have to periodically purge the extras. It makes sense to keep the ones that match the dishes. Other than that, I’m pretty happy when I can open the cupboard doors and nothing falls on me!

    Visual clutter bugs me, so I do try to deal with that — usually by stuffing things into boxes and telling myself I’ll properly deal with it later.

  8. hush says:

    “What are you avoiding to devote your limited time on this planet to the pursuit of chucking that photo mug of your kids your spouse made on Shutterfly?”

    Yes, and another important question I would have is, what on earth is my spouse doing making mugs on Shutterfly? Photo mugs? Seriously, is this 1995 and are we at the mall? See me in hell.

    These days, “matchy matchy” is a term of great derision in design circles. Non-matching tablescapes are in, and a cupboard full of vintage, pastiche-y mismatched cups is arguably the height of style. Real Simple has certainly jumped the shark.

  9. Mary Vanderkam says:

    It’s fun to see which postings get the most comments. This one certainly got a response! It brings back memories of times when children were young and life was somewhat chaotic. I often felt much satisfaction in cleaning out one small drawer or cupboard. There was something I could control!

  10. Karen says:

    I agree it must be based on personality. I like your sentiment. For me it seems to vary from day to day with respect to cupboards. There are times when I’m just too busy to worry about whether my cupboard is a metaphor for life. But I have found that when I step out of the “clean desk is a sign of a misguided career” mindset every now and then, I learn something about myself.

    Where I really wish people would consider your message is with clothing. Clothing is not always a metaphor either. There are so many articles about what your clothing says about you and what it means. And sometimes they’re right. But sometimes the fact that you’re wearing an old, pilly sweater from 10 years ago just means you were cold this morning, that’s what was in your closet, and it matched your pants–not that you are living in the past or that you lack the self-esteem to project a confident image. You just still like the sweater. And frankly, it’s kinda cool that it still fits perfectly even though it’s 10 years old.

    • hush says:

      “But sometimes the fact that you’re wearing an old, pilly sweater from 10 years ago just means you were cold this morning, that’s what was in your closet, and it matched your pants–not that you are living in the past or that you lack the self-esteem to project a confident image.” Amen @Karen! Fantastic comment.

  11. Kelly Damian says:

    I do like an occasional ‘purge and organize’. I find there is great satisfaction in knowing that I have what I need, I use what I have and I know where to find it. That being said, it’s important to know when to stop.

    Something else going on here is people accumulating too much stuff. If you’re not careful much of your life turns into ‘stuff processing’. You go buy stuff. Then you find a place for that stuff. Then you have to organize all that stuff until eventually you purge and get rid of your stuff to make way for new stuff. Better, probably, to just not accumulate in the first place.

    • Laura says:

      “Better, probably, to just not accumulate in the first place.”

      Also cheaper! Though hard when you live with lots of other people who have their own opinions on their own stuff. Yes, we have about 6 stuffed polar bears. I know not why.

  12. gwinne says:

    Do you need to think that your cupboard is a metaphor in order for it to be a metaphor? I really don’t think so. Then again, I’m a poet.

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  14. Louisa says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this and agree with you completely. My only objection is your use of the word “zen” (“I felt a sense of Zen”), frequently misused in the popular press. I do practice meditation, and frankly there is nothing ‘Zen’ about zen. Our minds are unruly messes whether we meditate or not. I wouldn’t use a Catholic or Jewish word to describe a mind-state, unless I were part of that practice, and I don’t think you should either, unless you do practice zen, which I don’t think you do. It’s misleading and annoying.