This past weekend I caught a glimpse into the focused mind – a brain capable of tuning out and zooming in on whatever task or idea sits before the body. Ben, old Ben, changed but unchanged, with a sprinkling of gray hairs on his young head, stood a little straighter, dressed a little neater, walked a little faster than I remembered. He welcomed me with open arms to his new Alma Mater, Stanford University, granter of his future Doctorate in Computer Science. We walked through the campus; I saw everything and nothing.
But he unlocked the door to his office, which he shares with another PhD student and I began to pay attention. It was a narrow room with a large window at the end wall providing a refreshing vista of Stanford’s campus. “I like the view,” he said, and I nodded, knowing the need to look up from one’s screen sometime and wish to see something far and natural, like a tree, mountain or glistening lake. But whatever respite the eyes require, the focused brain at work can stop only for a minute, if at all.
The focus I speak of manifests itself in surprising ways: a dirty dry-erase board with a mysterious “Daruma” written on the top left corner; a messy desk nearly smothered by half-empty coffee cups and Gatorade bottles; conference papers spilling out of paper grocery bags and onto the floor. It was intoxicating. I imagined myself standing in a still life: “Genius at work”. I was lucky that the genius stood there with me, but had he been somewhere else, I would, by the contents of the room itself, have been bathing in the aura of genius.
His is not the only office I have seen that paints a passionate, concentrated mind at work – my lovely professor, the Nabokov expert, has a similar workspace. Every shelf crammed with books (all with creased spines indicating they have been read and reread) and every inch of flat surface covered with papers both his and his students; mine, the product of hours and hours of sporadic, half-hearted research, floating lightly on top, weighted down only by the ink and paper rather than solid ideas. In both offices, dust coats certain areas, but it does not matter – the true activity takes place in their skulls.
Contrast those still lifes with another of my room: consistently spotless; my desk, my closet, even the bottommost drawers of either, everything neat as a pin. Never an item out of place; the only thing on the floor are the legs of my furniture and a rug, which, if wrinkled or flipped, immediately straightened and righted. This is not only the sign of a budding (or full grown) obsessive compulsive, but also a dead giveaway for an unfocused, wandering mind. The brain that can’t focus must generate the illusion of being able to do so by making the physical environment seem orderly.
A decade ago, I was the same way, my symptoms in some ways more acute. My aunt asked me, after marveling at my various systems of organization, why I felt compelled to keep everything so neat. I thought for a long while, mulling over a suitable response before settling on a fact: I was, at least to my young self, quite “messy” inside. I understood my need to clean and wipe and stack and fold as an outlet to some inner rumblings – the confusion that comes with being as optimistic as I was, yet also painfully self-aware of potential limitations.
I wanted too many things, pursued too many interests, swam in a million shallow pools so that I would never have to get my hair wet. By keeping my room neat and my belongings pristine (for some reason, I was never one of those kids who wore out the soles of her shoes or came home with muddied, torn clothing – even after long afternoons spent in trees) was a precaution – I was creating a safe haven for my body to return to in case the clutter of my mind somehow reared its head and emerged. It’s the root of my many evils, this desire for superficial perfection, and rather than promote productivity or creativity, it constrains, corrupts, and desiccates whatever streams I might have flowing within so that I cannot write or read or do anything worthwhile without fretting that my clothes are not in order or that my desk drawers are not perfectly partitioned off. Staples here, paper clips there, empty stationery for letters I will never write, here.
I am getting better. Better at letting little things go here and there (people are now allowed to sit on my bed) and no longer worrying about letting papers pile up or books topple… but even these little allowances seemed forced, as though I am testing myself to see how long I can go before I reach out to straighten, no, completely reorganize everything in one long, dusty afternoon. But I am learning. I am learning to apply these methods of organization to my mental state. And I am writing. It is hard for me, but I do it.
As we strolled through campus, I asked Ben if every morning he walked to his office.
“I do,” he said, “I drive sometimes too, because I do get lazy, but I like to walk. It takes me roughly thirty minutes to get to my office and in a way, the walk saves me time.”
I nodded, about to say something about not having to go to the gym, but he continued.
“I like to use that time to process my thoughts. It’s a good time to think and organize. I can’t really do that effectively when I’m driving.”
So this was his reason – a far cry from mine, which had everything to do with the body and nothing to do with the mind. This was before he showed me his office, and already I was in awe. Later, we stepped out of his office and into Hoover Tower, a Stanford landmark which, I was pleased to see, was less aesthetically pleasing than Berkeley’s Campanile – but the view was pleasant, despite the greyness of the sky and the chill of the wind.
I remarked how lovely it was to see matching Spanish tile roofs. “So orderly here,” I said, “Unlike Berkeley, where the buildings don’t match.”
He looked at me for a minute, “Really? I like that the buildings in Berkeley don’t match.”
In the two years I’ve spent at Berkeley, I learned to find my pockets of neatness and order. There are certain houses I like to look at because the paint is not chipped, the windows are whole and clean and the lawns are not overgrown to the point of resembling a small jungle. I smile at these houses and wonder how they can stand to neighbor the more unsightly edifices. Walking to campus, I prefer the right side of my street to the left because the sidewalk is more even and the row of houses more favorable to me than the over grown students’ garden. Certain restaurants top my list not only because of the food, but because the tables, floors and bathrooms are clean and well-lit. I hate the smell of garbage, piss and shit (all of which occur in abundance in Berkeley) for the same reasons as everyone else does, and also because these odors transcend the membrane of my nostrils and threaten to sully my insides. The homeless, even though I feel for them, truly I do – I too, would talk to myself and yell obscenities – invade my vision. They remind me day after day of what I am not capable of cleaning.
I’ll end here, at the top of Hoover Tower, where it was strangely quiet despite the wind and a group of laughing Chinese families. I gazed out across the red tiled roofs, feeling happy and sad, composed yet on the brink of disintegration. Dear Ben with his gray hairs and kind smile that masked a gleaming mind and I with my shiny hair, my bright orange scarf – the first carefully brushed the second carefully selected – with my muddle of thoughts. A jumble of millions. The buildings with the matching roofs calmed me a bit. I stole a glance at Ben, who smiled at me. Tumble tumble crash crash. I wanted nothing more right then than to clean something.