Just so: A personal essay

Jericho Rajninger/Staff

My mom and I do this a lot. She’ll pick up an old piece of mail or a fading receipt or some other piece of scrap paper or plastic from my desk and ask me what it is. I’ll shrug. She’ll ask if I still need (or have any important use for) it. “No.” Why, then, do I not throw it away? “I don’t know.” Well, could she at least throw it away for me? Invariably: “No.” I retrieve the object from my mom’s hands and place it right back where she found it. There it will sit, soon to be buried by other pieces of — yes, I’ll admit — junk.

My bedroom back home exists in a state of perpetual chaos, and looking at it, you’d think a tornado had miraculously avoided the entire property only to clip a 10 by 10 square on the far southeast side, bulldozing everything in its path. To move across the floor one must traverse T-shirt mounds large enough to house adult gophers. Heaps of books and papers cover every inch of my desk, save for a small pristine rectangle where my laptop sits. Excavating these depths, I once exhumed an essay written for a class at a school I had since graduated from. More sat fossilizing below.

Excavating these depths, I once exhumed an essay written for a class at a school I had since graduated from. More sat fossilizing below.

Now some people will simply dismiss this all as a meaningless mess, and others might even deem me a mild hoarder — a fair assumption (see ancient ticket stubs), and one you, too, may reach. But perhaps I can convince you otherwise. Here’s my rationale:

  1. Furnishing the surfaces of a room with scrap paper and old boxers is no different than, say, placing sleek glass vases on empty shelves or spreading an expensive shag carpet across the floor. And why should it be? Instead of succulents I have socks, but I chalk that up to personal taste.
  2. The connection I have to the chaos of my desk and floor is to the ecosystem as a whole, not any particular item. In other words, I couldn’t care less what the piles hold as long as they remain. Value lies in the clutter, in a precarious mass of papers, clothing and other items that, individually, appear entirely insignificant.
  3. I see two kinds of “messy”: incidental and intentional. The incidentals — people who harbor extreme laziness or indifference that prevents them from hanging their shirts on hangers — are to whom you should direct your judgements. The clutter I live in, however, is not mere happenstance but a work of carefully crafted chaos. I liken my artistic approach to drip painting. Think Jackson Pollock, only instead of flinging colors onto a canvas, I fling random crap around a room. Artwork through accumulation, I’ll call it. In both mediums, our processes are hardly mindless, yet at the same time they embrace randomness. Like a drip painting, my bedroom remains in a sort of constant and frenzied flux, its every state thoughtfully distinct. I like that.

Standing in a painfully organized space — a room where every item has a rightful place and is, unfathomably, in it — one cannot help but feel as though the room’s inhabitants are rotten liars. Like they’re deliberately hiding something or have unconsciously, and perhaps without realizing, censored their natural condition in favor of another. What they show cannot be the whole story.

And it probably isn’t. When my family entertains guests, we feverishly clean our house in preparation for their arrival. I hang my towel on the towel rack (it is never, never, on the rack) and straighten out the bed sheets (they are never, never, straightened). I pretend that, yes, the chair in my room always looks this way: pushed in, without two pairs of pants hanging across the armrests. I move every small freestanding item into one corner of the room, as if they forever remain so artificially confined. It is on these days of the year, when the drip painting is all but washed away, that my space looks “presentable” (whatever that means).

It is on these days of the year, when the drip painting is all but washed away, that my space looks “presentable” (whatever that means).

But still, for company or otherwise, I am reluctant to compromise the structural integrity of my room — not the beams, windows or load-bearing walls but the heaps, mounds and other accumulations that give the place some life, and reveal parts of my own.

Get “The Weekender” in your inbox!

Creative writing, deep dives, cultural commentaries and art delivered every Saturday.

My space is a piece of art, yes, but even more than that it’s a diary. A tangible, 100-square-foot record of what me and my belongings have done because these pieces of dirty clothing and recycling have a story to display. Clutter, when produced mindfully, can tell a robust and honest narrative: like a 3-dimensional scrapbook, just without all the sentiment and particular attachments that otherwise muddle or distract. What my collages show is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of real, one that seems pridefully incomplete and amorphous — as though my desk, too, is still just trying to figure things out.

Here at UC Berkeley, I’ve come to miss this familiar habitat. Sharing a room with two friends, my visual narrative no longer stands alone. That’s not to say our space, filled with a collective experience and sense of belonging, cannot be real. Only, it’s different. Less personal, less candid, as one might expect of a communal diary.

When I returned home during spring break a few weeks ago, the first thing I did was go to my bedroom (a blank canvas, after months of nonuse), take my shirt off and toss it on the floor. This wasn’t a conscious decision — nor one I fully understood — but it simply felt right. For the rest of the week, I continued to fashion and augment my story, and as my cluttered room evolved, transformed, grew, shrank and, inexplicably, grew again around me, a will and spirit began to pulse. All the while, that T-shirt remained in its place. Or rather its nonplace. Sitting there. Just so.

Contact Jericho Rajninger at [email protected].