I found the floor in my living room recently. To anyone who is a brilliant housekeeper you may not understand the level of excitement behind this statement but for those of us not gifted with natural organizing abilities, you will likely understand. I was surprised at the level of calm that came over me just from being able to see the carpet. Not that I couldn’t see it before, it’s just I have inherited pack-rat-ism from my grandmother but I didn’t have her level of organization so my house is nearly always in some sort of cluttered disarray with boxes or piles of undone projects lying around.
Even if you are bad at housekeeping there is an art to clutter. You know where to find everything even when it is in piles so I was very nervous to succeed at an actual cleaning session, how was I supposed to find anything? After I spent a few hours shuffling undone projects around that were around the edges of the room, I cleared out the whole floor and now I’m now finding excuses to be in there. I find that I feel relatively calmer in this space than any other in the house without great effort. It just sort of happened. Who knew? (Probably the organized ladies!). I can find things easier now too because I went the extra mile of discarding unused items that were no longer sparking joy for me (thanks Marie Kondo!).
While I was growing up I lived with my grandmother who raised me. Our house was always clean but she had loads of boxes and keepsakes in the attic and the garage and definitely a bunch in our large shed outside. But the living areas were always clean so I grew up with both clutter and clean.
We lived near a ski resort in Montana in my early years and we had a large house with lots of room to run and play both inside and out. I was never very interested in learning how to clean or cook. The only time, really she could get me in the kitchen is if we were making desserts. I loved licking the beaters and the bowl and the spoon (I can neither confirm nor deny if I ever licked any spills from the counter). I realize now there was something in it for me then and that is why I can bake, but I’m not a great cook and even a worse housekeeper.
As I grew up and went on my own I moved from Montana to Washington to live with my mother. My youngest was one at the time and I wanted to be able to create a life for us as I was a young single mom. My mom lived in the outskirts of a big city so there were far more job opportunities. I figured, yay! I can finally do this adulting thing, right?
The first time I moved out of my mom’s house was the first time I was on my own with my kiddo. We moved into a room in some lady’s house who was a clean freak and even though I was paying rent for my room (where I kept my mess hidden behind closed doors) it made her a little nuts to know it was there, lurking, possibly procreating and waiting to seep out like a sludge to dirty her clean house.
We didn’t last long there. Obviously. What I learned though is that it is really hard to keep a space clean when you have more things than you have floor space for or wall space for or… you get the idea. But whatever, I was learning how to do life as a young mom with a young person I was responsible for (responsibility was a pretty new concept). I had bigger things to worry about than an obsessive roommate who was worried about something that was not her business (in my mind at the time).
I decided I had to figure out how to get out of there and I was working full time. At the time I avoided confrontation at all costs so it seemed easier to move out than to have awkward and uncomfortable conversations about my failure as a roommate and probably as a mother for (insert sarcasm here) raising my child in such squalor! This seems like a good place to mention that we are just talking clutter at this point, not dirty dishes or anything like that. We didn’t use the kitchen very often because I tried to stay in the room or gone from the house as much as possible. What I did know is that I got plenty of judgment already for having been a teenager when I became a mom and I was just doing the best I could to get through life and figure things out on my own – and I was a hot mess. When someone got judgy I just moved on because I couldn’t stand the thought that I might be failing at raising this little life I loved so greatly and was so entranced with. But I would always try to figure out what I did wrong and then make changes or make plans to make changes or make plans to learn how to make changes. You get the idea.
So it goes on like this for me through a couple of marriages, a couple more kids, and several living situations. Each time I learn a little more but I can never master the space issue. I always have more things than I could ever house correctly. And it isn’t like these were valuable things, they were just things. My things. My things that no one could take away.
That brings us to the present. I have figured out many things in my life. I’ve been married for 14 years, we have 5 kids, and three of them still live at home with us. The youngest is nearly a teenager and the oldest is 25. I’ve figured out how to stop being late to everything in my life or missing appointments altogether by color-coding a monthly calendar with one color for each member of the house (I’m super visual so this works well for me and has for over 20 years – one of the first things I had to conquer). I’ve learned how to be married properly. You might laugh but anyone who has started out as a hot mess can probably relate. I suspect even some of you who appear to have it all figured out on the outside could probably relate at least a little. (It’s okay to laugh here). I was not very good at relationships before, that whole not liking conflict thing and bouncing when things got hard instead of having hard conversations? Yeah, that’s me. That WAS me. I got really good at starting over which is probably why it took me so long to get to this point in my life where I’ve gotten some roots and I’ve figured out how to have healthy relationships and that it is sometimes okay to walk away but sometimes it is meaningful to stay and hold your ground. There was a whole lot of internal work I had to do here that took a lot of years, a lot of sorting through trauma, a lot of learning to trust myself over others, and my journey through a Masters of Fine Arts at a low-residency program on a Washington beach where I wrote my memoir in a hybrid format. This is a whole other story that I’ve written a lot about so I won’t go into it here.
The point of all of this is, I am finally at a place in my life where I am going to try – yet again – to conquer the dreaded bad housekeeping problem. I mean, I have grown children now who are supposed to do the chores (my daughter is pretty good at her part but the boys definitely are a work-in-progress). So this should be easier now, right?
Well, we live in a tiny apartment – 5 of us. We had to do a cross-state move on a budget and so we thought it would be best to do the apartment thing again (we had been in a rental house). We took it sight unseen and had no idea how small it was until we literally pulled up with our 26 foot U-Haul. I know, you can laugh, it’s okay. Oh, fun fact! We were told it was on the “first floor” which here didn’t mean the bottom floor, it meant the top. (Damn you king-sized bed, I would have sold your ass had I known.) We suffered. Yeah. But we got everything in and we’ve been here figuring out life and I finished up schooling and it has been like 7 years now. Hooray! But there are still boxes all over the place that we packed up when we moved.
Yeah, I thought about throwing them away sight unseen – obviously we didn’t need them or we would have unpacked them by now, right? Weeeeell… When we lived on the other side of the state, my grandmother died. The one who raised me. I inherited a bunch of her stuff and some of it is in those boxes. Some of the stuff from when the kids were little are in those boxes, and who knows what other lovely memories are in those boxes. We have opened each and every one of them to dig through them (because God-forbid we be organized at all about packing!) looking for the things we have needed over the years.
This is where those piles come in. They are usually piles of things that I’m just sure we’re going to need soon or had the thought of “hey! I remember this, I bet we can use this!” Before you know it there are random piles of random stuff all over and eventually reboxed or stacked against the walls.
We haven’t even started discussing the books. I will just leave that to your imagination.
So it occurred to me some time ago that I must be emotionally wrapped up in stuff somehow because on the rare occasions that I tackle the mess with a whip and a plan, I find it difficult to dispose of anything, even if I don’t need it, or even don’t really want it. Usually those are the things that someone gave to us and I don’t want to hurt their feelings (not that anyone would notice because they don’t really visit here – ha!). I started really trying to figure out what it was I was feeling about things as I experienced them. This is a really handy tool I developed as a writer. I like to write a lot about how people feel viscerally when they are having some experience or other and the best way for me to do that is to really pay attention to what my body is doing and feeling when I’m feeling some kind of way. This requires you to be able to sit with your anxiety and sort of observe it as a third party. It gets easier over time but that is a good place to start when you want to figure this stuff out (more about this in another article).
Once I worked through a lot of this emotional stuff, which was really wrapped up in my childhood and abandonment issues and whatever, I became more comfortable with who I was in my own skin. This all happened in grad school. As I became more comfortable with myself, I was able to make some choices about the things I owned. It has gotten much easier to rehome items or throw away broken ones (put down the superglue!). I have not in any way arrived, I am merely standing at the door now and looking in. I see a way forward now, I can visualize a better environment. Getting there will be the trick.
I heard a You-Tuber say to take the thing you hate most about yourself and “monetize the shit out of it”. I laughed aloud and immediately thought of my bad housekeeping. I thought, why not write a blog as I go through this process for others out there who are emotionally wrapped up in stuff. Or maybe you were raised by wolves – or wolf adjacent – and never learned how. That’s a thing, Marie Kondo says so! (We’ll talk about her soon). So here I am, showing you my hot mess in hopes that you can glean some hope and encouragement from this and know at the very least that you are not alone. You are not a terrible person if you have a messy house. You are not a terrible mother. You are not failing. Read that again: You are NOT failing. We all have strengths and weaknesses and it is silly to think we could all be good at this. So let’s do this together. Be kind to yourself. No shame spirals allowed!
Tell me about your story in the comments below, or if you have already figured this out, share your tips here. If you are not a Messy (slang for a messy person) but you have sympathy for us, share your tips here (like beginner tips – Housekeeping 101, or perhaps 098). If you are a Reformed Messy, I definitely want to hear from you. Let me know your thoughts!