Herding Cats: Dancing with Chaos


In second grade, my (beloved!) teacher Mrs. Schnieder gave us a baffling and challenging assignment: she asked us all to write down and share something that we liked about ourselves.

My second grade self scrambled to find something that followed her assignment without overdoing the self-love thing. (The fact that I found this assignment baffling and challenging and that my young self had already learned that it was really bad to brag or to feel too good about yourself is the subject of another post. And it bears noting nonetheless.)

So after much mental gymnastics, here’s what I wrote down: I’m organized.

Even then, my 7- or 8-year-old self (or however old I was when I was in second grade) knew this about myself and saw it as a positive thing. Life as a kid felt chaotic (or at least teetering on out of control), and my little self saw my organizational skills as a good way of keeping myself safe and loved.

Life, as it turns out, does not get less chaotic in adulthood. And while I know now that my safety and lovability are not reliant on my ability to organize, I still solidly lean on the skill.

And yet some times, no matter how I try, it eludes me.

Right now, as I write this, my office is filled with piles of (unread) books, an overflowing folder of Buddha Cat marketing materials, a pile of unwritten political postcards, a basket of my prints, another of art postcards and a box of book-signing materials (no books, though, I’m waiting for the second printing!). On the coffee table is a scatter of art materials, a stack of square paper, two rulers and a box of envelopes for sending those books (just as soon as they arrive).

It’s a crazy-town mess.

The root of the mess is all good, non-traumatic stuff. It’s self-imposed chaos, disorder, and stress but there it all is, nonetheless.

In the midst of this, I gratefully read Leo Babauta’s post, Herding Cats: A Simple Method for Working with the Disorder of Our Lives. After writing a book about a cat, I’m well-acquainted with the untamed feline temperament. (For evidence, this is the picture Rebecca George took when we were attempting to get Phoenix to sit in meditation with me.)

Leo’s post and the metaphor of herding cats perfectly describes the way my life feels right now. He speaks in this piece directly to my feeling of drowning in my attempts to keep everything neat and tidy and efficient and … GAH. I can exhaust myself with it all.

His wise invitation is to count on the chaos rather than try to fit it into perfectly stacked and sealed bins. Know that chaos will happen, is always happening and not to see it as a bad thing. Rather, Leo suggests to gently nudge the sprawling mess into the general direction we want to go. (His post is wonderful and not long, so I hope you’ll read it.) He says,

When things go astray, it’s not a problem. There’s never a problem, it’s all just beautiful chaos with a loving intention.

Which is something I think I need to tattoo on my forearm and forehead and paint on the walls, so I’m reminded over and over. Right. This is the nature of things. Any attempts to keep it from swirling are futile. So relax and breathe and dance with it.

Do you feel this in your days? Do you feel the swirling spiral of erratic uncertainty? (What is it like to read a post full of parenthetical asides?) What would happen if you breathed all of that in, allowed it to be and gently scooted the cat’s butt in the direction you want it to go?

That’s what I’m practicing. Some days go more smoothly than others, and luckily the supply of crazy chaos is endless so there’s always an opportunity to practice again. What happens if, as Leo suggests:

The wild flow of our lives is a thing of heartbreaking beauty and joy.

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