The Education of Mrs. Clean

For someone who still hasn’t learned how to cope well with change, even after uprooting and inhabiting fourteen different homes in my lifetime, I sure do revel in the drastic changes produced by a much-needed, thorough house cleaning. It’s the kind of cleaning that requires a reserved schedule, an extra large bottle of 409, and a hefty playlist that won’t run out on you when you’re elbow deep in dust bunnies that makes my heart sing. But as a life long neat-freak whose only recently learned how to turn a blind eye to a little disorganization, the mess that precludes a therapeutic cleaning session sets my teeth on edge. Thus, fate must have had a hankering for a hearty bowl of irony when it made certain that some of the people I love most would come equipped with a blatant irreverence for cleanliness.

Besides the sanitary nirvanas I established in my private bedrooms at my grandma’s house, my mom’s old condo, and all three of my college dorms, I spent my entire life wading through my sister’s ever-amassing mess–just a handy byproduct of the money two bedroom apartments can save a parent. Sharing a room with a sibling can be a very beneficial experience as far as interpersonal development is concerned, but when a sibling’s disdain for clothes hangers, trashcans, and any semblance of organization begins to extend to your territory, sharing a room can become a massive source of contention. Thus, I thank God for the zen retreat college offered before I suffered a filth-induced break down and threw away my sister’s excessive sombrero collection for good.

Little did I know, my privacy-affirming stint amidst college recuperation would introduce me to another best friend with the same lifelong affinity for interior chaos: my boyfriend. Hanging out at his house in Savannah (the canvas of his hardwood floors awash with an abstract expressionistic collage of stuff) was perfectly fine in the beginning. I was in the giddy throes of a new relationship and therefore could overlook the daily hassle of tiptoeing around half-empty and cap-less Gatorade bottles, heaps of clothes supposedly arranged according to memorized cleanliness, and antiquated pizza boxes that you couldn’t get me to open even if you blindfolded me and told me you had a surprise from Nordstrom.

Today, over a year later and with a different locale’s palm trees comprising the vista from our windows, things have changed a bit. With the adrenaline of giddiness replaced by the comfort of familiarity, it’s harder to ignore the causal relationship between an orderly environment and a sense of internal stability, and therefore some serious cleaning was in order. But I went about it with extreme trepidation. Pop culture and personal experience have long demonstrated that you should never attempt to change the habits of a man lest you’re in the market for a short relationship, and even more critically, you should never attempt to change the habits of a disorganized person, lest you wish the heaps of wrath to triple out of spite. But having respected these taboo philosophies for years, I can’t help but pose the question: how do two people whose lifestyles differ so drastically in the cleanliness department make a homestead merger work? When both sides of a partnership need very different environments to feel comfortable in their home, is there any feasible solution?

In my experience, the hoarder always wins. Just like the female weight gain plight, creating a mess is much easier than cleaning one up, and therefore we neat-freaks generally surrender before the losing battle’s begun. What’s the point of procuring immaculate cleanliness if the other party will drop their jacket, keys, lunch leftovers, and receipts on the floor the minute they return home? In some memorable situations, I was even chastised for cleaning my sister’s side of the room because it imposed upon her methodologies and added stress to her leisurely lifestyle. Inversely, no one was reprimanded when her belongings began crossing the imaginary barrier that separated our space, seeking refuge in the wide open spaces that I strained to preserve.

When it comes to cleaning your boyfriend’s house, that’s an even bigger taboo. While your sister will presumably always love you no matter how many times you threaten to donate the stuffed animals she crammed under your bed and neglected for years, your boyfriend has the privilege of opting out of the partnership whenever he chooses–especially if the messiness you just vacuumed away and took out with the morning trash made him feel comfortable in his domain.

But at least my loved ones know I’m not a completely heartless tyrant when it comes to the devoid lifestyle I lead. Despite the hoarding genetics I come from, I’ve always been one to throw out unnecessary belongings, a trait my mom employs whenever she needs an insensate outsider to clean her studio. When I prepared to move back to the west coast upon college graduation, however, it was a different story. I didn’t possess much in Savannah, but what I did own I’d accrued over four years and looked to as a source of comfort when homesickness struck or when I needed a reminder of the strong, independent woman that had burgeoned out of my eastern isolation.

I had gifts from family and friends back home, household necessities that catered perfectly to my interior design palate, and emblems of my life as both a photographer in need of antique props and an outdoorsy adventurer who loved finding industrial remnants of bygone eras. When I made ready to leave my short-term home in Savannah, almost all of those possessions had to be thrown away, and what few belongings I could transport were scratched, torn, or completely destroyed by the Transportation Security Administration’s haphazard searches. While both my mental solace and nomadic lifestyle require a trove of few possessions, the Savannah exuviation was a difficult thing to undergo, and every now and then I still get remorseful pangs for that Detective Narratives anthology that I never finished, the heavy-weight tripod I had to part with, and the vintage BB gun that some happy little boy in the fifties probably shot at irate family members.

Via these experiences, I’ve learned a few life lessons when it comes to cleaning frenzies. In some situations, the space you have really isn’t as important as the memories emanating from the objects that fill it. Perhaps my sister kept all those excessive sombreros to remember the Chevy’s birthday parties that had yielded them. And for all I know, my boyfriend may very well stockpile memories in The Mess himself. So while he may disapprove of my sudden need to regain household solace when he arrives home and bears witness to the carpet for the first time in months, he can rest assured that nothing was thrown away beyond half-empty Gatorade bottles, indeterminate wrappers, and endless receipts.

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2 comments

  1. lulu /maman

    Dear Neat Freak,
    Help. I am cleaning my studio AGAIN and I am getting tired of shuffling the heavy bags and boxes of memories around. I need your super powers of insensate purger-meister!

    Love, maman

  2. Emily Moon

    Awww, I wish I could come home and help! I had so much (bizarre) fun cleaning yesterday that I feel completely out of commission now that everything’s organized!

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