Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Friday, February 26, 2010

Clutter's Little Blessings

Having family living in the New Orleans area for the past nineteen years has enriched my life in many ways.  (And yeah, there's all that other post-Katrina stuff, but we're not going there this morning.)  Not the least of my souvenirs from dozens of trips to the Big Easy are the exotic additions to my vocabulary--like beignet, and cafe au lait, and "Laissez le Bon temp rouler."   Like lagniape.  

Lagniappe is a regular Friday entertainment section in the Times Picayune, New Orleans' main daily newspaper.  It is also a word with a literary pedigree.  One online source reproduced a portion of a scholarly treatise from 1939 which quoted Mark Twain's discourse on the word in his 1883 publication, Life on the Mississippi, which I confess to having missed before today.  Twain's understanding is true to the first of the definitions above, deriving from the practice of shopkeepers demonstrating good will by throwing in something extra.  The proverbial thirteenth donut in a baker's dozen is the most frequently given example of this usage.  

As I have heard it used, its meaning has broadened to include any unexpected good thing.  Life's happy little surprises.  A sunny day in winter.  A chance meeting with an old friend.  The last free seat on the streetcar.  Things that bring a sudden smile, a lightness to our hearts.

Not something you would generally associate with clutter, particularly in this era of clean sweeps and downsizing, where clutter is a dirty word.  But something I have experienced, all the same, as a result of my less-than-orderly housekeeping.

I might also use the word "findings" to describe what I'm talking about.  Not the results of painstaking research efforts.  Not the gold and silver clasps and hooks and jump rings prized by beaders.  But literal locating of things misplaced, thought lost.  Things that surface serendipitously, and change the course of a day, a task, a relationship.  

Examples that come to mind would include letters from my dead father that occasionally drift into sight; a wedding ring from a previous marriage stirred from the bottom of a drawer while looking for something else; a picture of my boys as charming toddlers, left as a bookmark in a seldom-consulted volume.  The kind of things that take us back to old feelings, and remind us of things we meant to remember.  

The items I come across are not limited to the nostalgic.  Sometimes I find something truly useful, or needed, long after I have stopped searching.  Like one of a pair of earrings.  Or a missing screw, a long-overdue library book, or just the very tool to facilitate a repair I'm attempting.  Lagniappe.

It's a little like off-label prescribing, which results when we find therapeutic uses for treatments intended for other ailments.  A beneficial accident.  

I agree that sloppiness is probably not prescribed in any circumstance.  And maybe this is just my way of justifying bad habits, though I am not complacent about the chaos of my surroundings, and continue to intend to do better.  But in the meantime, I appreciate the gifts that come to me from an environment salted with memories and good fortune.

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