The Wisdom of the Pack Rat

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Image by Diego Cupolo*

Our culture prizes neatness. We try our best to avoid clutter—in our homes, in our workplaces, and, most importantly, in our minds. We coin pejorative names for people who don’t toe the party line, labeling them “pack rats.” Many of us can’t even begin to work on a project until we feel that our office is sufficiently organized and free of excess stuff. These tendencies are perfectly legitimate—mental and physical tidiness do have their place—but would it be radical of me to suggest that clutter might, in fact, be a cornerstone of creativity and imagination?

Before I get to the larger principle I want to convey, I’ll offer a couple of illustrations from my own life. As a father and educator, I’ve become over the years an obsessive collector of not-so-rare artifacts: the questions and comments of children. One recent morning, one of my young sons asked, “Dad, do you know what my favorite stereotype is?” I was stumped. “Sony,” he responded, pleased with his own linguistic facility. This playful exchange with my son reminded me that language is slippery and deceptive, and must never be taken for granted; in other words, I learned something significant from the seemingly childish game.

In the natural order of things, it’s easy for adults to dismiss the words of kids; after all, we’re supposed to be their teachers—not the other way around! But I operate from the basic conviction that even though our sophistication grows as we get older, our basic misunderstandings are always those of children: we never stop struggling to get along with each other, to figure out the workings of the world, etc. So listening to children often means hearing honest, direct articulations of the very problems we still face as adults. This is one reason why I make it a point to take the thoughts of young people seriously; I store them away so that they can bubble to the surface whenever I’m in need of clear, simple wisdom.

One more brief illustration: as a former dancer and athlete, I am fascinated by kinesthetic meaning as well as linguistic meaning. I draw some of my understanding of movement, however, from an admittedly unusual source: a rich collection of mental images arising from my close observation of battery operated toys. Inventors of the mechanical dog whose simple movement connotes warmth and connection, for instance, have constructed a movement phraseology very clearly built around just one or two simple aspects of physiological motion. While some parents quickly hustle their children off to the food court when they see one of those mechanical toy “corrals” set up outside the toy store, I gravitate toward it and often have to be coaxed away.

My “treasure trove in the mind” (78), full of the statements and queries of children, and the flips and waddles of their toys, exemplifies the imaginative practice that Eric Liu and I call “Hoard Bits” in our book, Imagination First. “Bits” can be anything—objects, concepts, ideas. When Steve Martin was an up-and-coming comic, he collected in his mind all the things that worked and didn’t work at each night’s performance, and used them to improve his act. Innovative theater and film director Julie Taymor studied cultural anthropology, and accumulated diverse images and artifacts from her travels that she later incorporated into her own art. Following the Disney Imagineers’ mantra, “Gather, store, recombine” (76), Imagineer Owen Yoshino literally crowds his office with what others might perceive as junk: “old cartoons, propaganda posters, erector sets” (77). The point is that our brains like to put bits together and synthesize them, so it is our responsibility to provide as much raw material for this process as we can.

It’s all right for us to want to keep our lives orderly and uncluttered; having too much stuff, in our heads or in our physical spaces, can be overwhelming. But as long as we maintain a sense of perspective and sense of humor about it, hoarding can be fun and rewarding. Our bits may lead us in undreamed-of, imaginative directions.

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*There is a Creative Commons license attached to this image.

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