Every morning after I get dressed, I open my jewelry box and select items to wear that day. Sometimes, if it’s a weekend and I’m not going anywhere, I might pick just a watch. On a work day, I’ll also pick a necklace and earrings. Less frequently, as when I attend a wedding or other special event, I might add a ring or a pin. Then after work when I’m changing into knock-around clothes, or later as I get ready for bed, I remove it all and replace it in the jewelry box.
When I went into my jewelry box yesterday after work, I noticed that several of my necklaces had become tangled. They were a half-dozen sterling silver chains with pendants, all of which had been placed in one compartment and had over time been jostled around such that they were no longer lying neatly side-by-side, ready to be plucked and worn.
The problem, I realized, was that I hadn’t worn any of those necklaces in quite some time. As I went into the jewelry box each day to remove an item or put one back, I didn’t notice that this group of necklaces was getting a bit messy. Unfortunately, by the time I realized it and began removing them to disentangle them, I found that they were worse than I thought. Each attempt to pull out one chain seemed to tighten the snarl, until all that was left was a clump of metal, each piece inseparable from the others.
Have you ever tried untangling jewelry? Straightening a single fine chain that gets wrapped around itself is difficult enough. Try dealing with six. And that’s what I did: try, for about 15 minutes. In that span of time, all I succeeded in doing was to separate out the inch or two of each chain that held a pendant. The rest of all the chains were more tightly intertwined than when I began. I knew what was in that mess, but sorting it all out seemed impossible.
Sometimes, you have to walk away from a problem, if only to steel yourself to face it again. So I took a break, checked email, folded laundry, and had a snack. Then I grabbed my reading glasses and tweezers and headed back to the task. It took another 15 minutes before I finally got one of the chains separated from the knot.
Getting the next two out was an ordeal of almost an hour. Many times I thought about junking the whole knotted jumble. I could have easily cut the chains to salvage the pendants, which weren’t all that valuable, and the chains themselves were even less so. Only one had even minor sentimental value. But each of the chains was unique in its own way, and I did like them. I pressed on.
I lost track of how much more time I spent and how often I thought I was approaching the end, only to end up in a foiled once again. My head started to hurt and my neck stiffened up. But I finally got them all separated. I laid them carefully back into the jewelry box and closed it, pleased with myself.
Afterward, I laughed at how much time I had spent on something that didn’t have to be done right away, if at all. This was not expensive jewelry; none of the pieces was a family heirloom or otherwise emotionally important to me. I could have thrown it all out. I could have left the clump in the jewelry box and worked on it another time. It was probably the stubborn, slightly obsessive-compulsive part of myself that made me determined to finish what I had started. But as I persisted in my task, I began to think of it as a metaphor for life.
Oh, the tangled messes we can make of our lives, and how easy it is to do! It’s easy to let work get in the way of family and friends. It’s easy to let anger and resentment poison our relationships. Sometimes, others make a mess we have to sort out, and it’s easy to lay blame instead of doing what we must to make things better. If all else fails, it’s easy to simply ignore the mess, to put it back in the box and pretend we can go back to the time before we realized how bad it was.
What isn’t easy is to face it, to acknowledge it in the first place. It isn’t easy to take the first step toward sorting out and untangling it. It isn’t easy to persevere when the task seems impossible, to have faith that all the effort, as futile as it sometimes seems, will pay off and we’ll emerge on the other side. But what’s most difficult is to acknowledge when, as is sometimes the case, we’ve done all we can, to admit that not every problem has a solution, to accept that not everything that is broken can be fixed, or that it should be.
If only the strands of our lives were as inconsequential as a silver necklaces.