Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The Black Dog Remembers

For the life of me I can’t settle to anything except reading at the moment. And walking Millie; Millie-walking is obligatory, if I had the choice I’d probably shirk that job too. Just look at my ‘writing’ desk (as opposed to my ‘computer’ desk). There are invoices, receipts, official letters remaining unopened after a week, private letters gathering dust, bank statements, yellowing newspaper cuttings, ticket stubs, programmes and even orders of service for two funerals. What is happening to me?

I was always tidy; the need for tidiness was drilled into me from a very early age, like an act of faith, never to be abandoned. “You’ve dropped something, pick it up this minute!” “Have you finished with your book? Put it on the shelf, don’t leave things lying around.” I had few indoor toys but I knew better than to play with more than one at a time. I was a mainly silent child, reading or inventing stories which took place entirely in my head and never ended; neat and tidy, they could be picked up and put down again without leaving a visible trace.

This compulsion for order could have a nightmarish effect. I can’t have been much more than six when I had to go into hospital to have my adenoids removed. This was in the early years after the war, there were few fully functioning hospitals in rural Germany and I had to spend the night on the women’s ward. I was the only child there. Having come round from the anaesthetic I dislodged a piece of paper from my bedside table, which sailed to the floor. I knew I had committed a cardinal sin, I’d made a mess. My thoughts ran along familiar lines: I should not have reached for the paper in the first place and thereby caused it to land on the floor. In the dim light the white square gleamed malevolently. Somehow I had to pick it up. But I had also been told not to get out of bed. My cot had bars and I didn’t dare climb out. The only thing I could do was to stick my arm out and grope. Alas, the harder I tried the more the bars rattled. The sheet of paper stayed just out of reach. Perhaps being poorly and fresh out of the anaesthetic had something to do with it but I remember being terror-stricken.

The woman in the bed next to mine stirred. “What’s the matter,” she asked, “ is something wrong?” How could I tell her that I’d been really naughty? I mumbled no. “Then stay still now,” she said. There was nothing I could do. I lay there, fully expecting to be told off in the morning.

Mum came to fetch me home. “Has she been a good girl?” she asked the woman. “She was a bit restless at first but then she settled down,” the woman answered.

The sheet of paper had gone, a nurse bringing me a drink first thing had bent down and picked it up without a word.


  1. My grandmother use to say... cleanliness is next to godliness. I've never been much of a godly type but I do pride myself on being passably "clean." However, like you, I've noticed of late that me and dirt have reached an understanding.

  2. I can relate to much here. I have a writing desk, and a computer desk covered with papers that must be dealt with. I also was never allowed to leave things out of place. Thankfully, I don't have a dramatic story such as yours to illustrate an early memory of making/leaving a mess. Now, the clutter in my life makes me crazy, but somehow, I can't make order of it all. I think it is because I am too distracted.

  3. I think you are telling my story having been neurotically raised in the same way. I still find it hard to be the least bit messy, but I make a real effort to be, although it causes me some anxiety. My mother always predicted that I would grow up and have a household like on Jan Steen's paintings.

  4. The story of your hospital visit and anxiety about the piece of paper made me sad for you, and the child you were. One thing I've admired in my foster dogs, and tried to take on board for myself, is the ability to live in the moment and relinquish emotional baggage.
    As to obsessive tidiness, I will never be that soul who, upon being hit by a truck, is eulogized for having spent her last living half hour washing dishes.

  5. Broken A4.

    I wrote this and thought it was worth posting.
    But I dropped it and it broke.
    When I picked it up the letters were all
    in a tangled mess at the corner of the page.

    efdgmkjio .bfeckj?
    efdgmkjio .bfeckjhytm?
    bnxcgsdghdjsuawqjig .irQdRYTmYUxWEY\
    cdghjkuiyuddfgbgmhxgdgsghdfgsdssdgdgsdfhdfhdfhdfhjdffgp .
    !Drjrsthklooiutad\wbnm,oioyitrrvdrgn\nnmjhgbdrty .

    Reminded me of this

  6. By God, do not mess up the spices in my kitchen. They are in a drawer, labels up, in alphabetical order. And I'm the only one who knows how to put dishes in the dishwasher properly. I cannot garden because I wasn't allowed to get dirty when I was growing up. OCD can come in handy sometimes. Rarely do I misplace anything.


  7. I, too, was in hospital when I was 6 and it was one of the traumatizing experiences of my life. Poor you Friko.

    I do hope that old BD shuffles off. I go to bits when he's around and my desk would be a contender.


  8. What neuroses we place on children when we want things tidy and our lives moving smoothly! I would have taken that little girl in the hospital and given her paper to make paper dolls. I am sorry your parents left you there, but it did make you strong. You saw that you can survive something so strange and frightening. I hope that black dog takes a long walk soon.

  9. What you have written resonates here with me. The disarray and how it related to your hospital experience, the compulsion to be what is expected--you are not alone.

  10. I can relate to this one. My brother and I had the job done at the same time and were in beds beside one another. We got in trouble from the nuns for being out of bed and playing!!!

  11. You poor child, worrying yourself over dropped anxious to be good.

    I come from a family of 'file it where it falls' habits....when I worked my papers were where it seemed good to me to put them, including the floor....and some letters can remained unopened for ages as I know I'm not going to be interested in the contents.

    I hope that Millie can chase away her rival for you.

  12. How this resonates. Thank you - and hugs.

  13. Resonates indeed.

    ALOHA from Honolulu


  14. Why so much paper? It's time to go paperless and then you never have to file anything.

  15. Gosh, I feel really sorry for that small child, that must have been an awful experience for one so young. Hope you get rid of that unwelcome black dog soon and restore the order you like to your desk.

  16. What a frightful experience. Toss a paper off a cliff and tell that black dog to fetch it.

    I hope you're feeling better soon, Friko.

  17. Hello:

    Like you, we were brought up to have everything ordered. Today it is difficult to be anything else but tidy. Oh, but the sense of liberation we feel when we go somewhere where disorder is the order of the day. How we revel in it!

  18. What a kind nurse, and how difficult that must have been for you. I hope spring lifts your spirits before too long.

  19. I can understand the placement of articles back in their proper place. Living in a small house with 8 family members, one always had to be tidy and pick thrings up - perhaps that is why I am the same way today. Done with that tool, put it where it belongs jargon still impacts me I guess. End of your story - what a kind, gentle Nurse.

  20. I absolutely love these small moments that lodge in our memories--emblematic of so much. Maybe the state of your desk means you're finally setting your own terms for life.

    Or maybe you just can't be bothered. Heh.

  21. I am also a very tidy person but not because I was raised that way. My family was (and is) sloppy. And I somehow managed to marry a sloppy person. Some days are very, very long. And btw, her desk looks exactly like yours and it drives me mad.

  22. I find myself so much more relaxed when I have a clean home!

  23. As I respond to this wonderful post, I am sitting at the computer desk -- an L-shaped thing. The part with the computer just filled up a little more as Lizzie jumped up on her blanket. The other side is covered with files that have yet to be filed, art supplies that need to be put away, and more pens and brushes and markers than a woman should have. I get it.

    I try to stay straightened up and with some misguided sense of pride I can say, "Yes, that's about an inch down in the pile on the left -- the pile that is underneath the basket and that jar of red buttons." And I'm usually right. But don't ask me to find the camera I put down twenty minutes before.

    Part of it is our lives -- we live busy lives, whether we are out in the garden, at the gym, walking the dog or reading. Yes, reading counts as busy. Why not? It has value. More value than a lot of "busy." I think another part is age -- we lived that neat thing. We deserve to cut ourselves a little slack. And yes, I have my areas where if anyone puts it out of order, I am totally confused. I can tell when something has been moved like an ace detective.

    But I also believe (justification 101) that we are entitled to forgive ourselves and enjoy the day, our space, our world. So long as no one else cares and no bugs are crawling through it (garden excluded), does it really matter if we settle in to our passion for a bit? When it makes us crazy (or guests are coming) we will take care of it. Be gentle with yourself. Every day is precious -- those two funeral notices on your desk no doubt remind you of that. Make sure you are living it in a way that gives you joy or pleasure or peace. One day, cleaning the desk will do that for you!

  24. Well Friko, your post has launched many thoughts in my mind. I will try to remember them when we do eventually get together again. As a hint, I just looked up to see my own surrounding disorder and thought how different my apartment is from the home in which I grew up.


  25. ha. mine is a bit of organized chaos....cleanliness is def not close to godliness...or maybe i am just far from god...ha....reading though...i could do that all day...smiles.

  26. I too grew up with those rules. Cleanliness is next to Godliness and all that. Was it the Puritan effect or that my Dad had three German ancestors. You've pricked memories galore from me with this post Friko. BTW the first thing I did when I awakened from the anesthesia was yell, Mt tongues has been cut off.' It was still numb I think.

  27. When I was growing up we had to learn to be tidy, with two adults and 3 children living in a cottage of 4 tiny rooms. Luckily our parents were never too hard on us about it, so that now, at 68, I've learned to live with the fact I'll never be as organised or tidy as I would wish.

    I too spent time in an adult hospital ward at 6 or 7 to have my tonsils and adenoids out, in the days when parents could only visit twice a week - on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons! No fears about having been untidy, just intense loneliness and sadness at waking up in pain with no mother to comfort me.

  28. Scant comfort, Friko: I think as we get older we become more relaxed. Or scatterbrained. Absent minded. Call it what you will. My desk is very tidy. As to the rest of my study: Good job I don't have eyes in the back of my head. More is the pity.

    I wasn't brought up on godliness. Mainly because my parents didn't believe in HIM. Though my father did service in the Navy. Dear dog in heaven. He is the tidiest person I know. He even taught me the most efficient way of employing a broom. One law I believe in, and it is a law I have not forced upon anyone (to my utter chagrin), to never leave a room with your hands empty. Washing up can wait. And will. Patiently.

    Don't lose heart, dear Friko. Sometimes life goes a bit pearshaped. Not least when carrying a black dog on your shoulder. A fate which has escaped me. I once had a tonne of a black cat on my lap - RIP. Still, there are days I wish my brother's wife, the Ueberhausfrau of all times, would announce her imminent arrival. It would make me either spring into immediate frantic action or I'd just wait for her to take over and do it all for (and with) me.

    As always, Friko, your narrative so very evocative.

    Not so perfect greetings,

  29. I think we all have those moments where small things loom large in our memories because of their significance to us...just personally to us. Someone else wouldn't give it a thought--never register as important enough to file away. There's something magically tragic about that. :)

  30. Oh
    the same here.
    So difficult for me to sit still
    I can hear the voice
    "can't you find anything to do?"
    Growing up
    I would hide to read my much loved books.
    Do these voices and memories ever leave us ?
    I wonder..

  31. Now, that's a nice nurse, for sure. Here's to untidiness!

  32. I don't remember being especially tidy while playing or reading, but I did put everything away at the end of the day, until mum left us, then I didn't bother and my room resembled the city dump pretty quickly. I'd clean up whenever dad said to, and gradually got back into the tidy each day habit by the time I was a teenager. When I eventually married i kepat a very clean house, but the kids were allowed to play without tidying until dinner time when they would sweep everything down the hall into the spare room and shut the door on the toys for the night.
    I'm sad that you thought a single piece of paper on the floor was such a bad sin! At 6! no one should think of sins at 6.

  33. Well, with creativity like this… I forgive you :) Really, it is funny how things that were once important become less so as we age. I have gone the other route… once a bit messy, now, I like order as I have too much I want to do and de-cluttering is almost out of control!

  34. So sad to think of that frightened little girl...

  35. You'll never know how heartened I was to find that hodge-podge of paper in your photo! You ARE human, after all, not a Tidy Monster such as my Mama would have insisted on as much as yours. I find my pile ups have strata, by which I can retrace a timeline when I finally get around to working from top to bottom of them! LOL

  36. It's the fear of the retribution (that may or not eventuate) that is the real terror.
    Your memoir of this event in your young life reminded me sharply of being out with my mother when I was 6 and obviously displeased her, and I remember the terror of her saying harshly that she would throttle me when we got home and I waited in despair and fear the whole day - waiting for the throttling, that never came.

  37. Wow. I'm all for neatness, but that seems over the top if it made you afraid of getting in trouble.

  38. Oh my this rings a bell. Not to stereotype but perhaps it a German thing (being also of that ancestry) I am of the everything has a place and should be returned to that place (mostly I think so I could find it when I need it) My wife is of the opposite type. Cleanliness is next to godliness so she scrubs thing a lot but never puts them back so often can find them..... Needless to say I can't abide such chaos....:)

  39. My mom is so much like you are. Me? not so much.


  40. At the same age I was busy being really naughty in hospital. In an isolation ward for 6 weeks and not wanting to eat horrible mashed potatoes, I hid them in my locker thinking they wouldn't be found.
    Blessings from Dalamory

  41. As a small child I was woefully indulged by twelve young uncles and aunts so found school a startling place ! But I'm now rather grateful for the nuns' rigid dicipline and mania for tidiness .Without it , I'd probably be surrounded by even more guddle than I am now .
    Though I do think that eventually , whatever the training , we tend to find the level of tidyness we feel most comfortable with
    Sonata ( as always )

  42. When first married - and keeping a 'tidy house' - I felt so guilty about the mess which was my room as a teenager.
    But, years down the line - my house as a certain element of chaos - and it bothers me not.
    That said - a particular best friend has always existed in the chaos that is untidiness (and I make mental (condemning) notes of this as if my house reached the pristine of a show house) and I judge her for it.
    What odd things we are!
    Anna :o]


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