On Cleanliness and Order

I have always been contradictory and ambivalent about cleanliness. I can’t seem to get to the bottom of this—but I keep trying. Am I clean person trapped in the body of a messy person? Or a messy person trapped in the body of a clean person? My husband thinks that it’s just about where I’m at. Sometimes I’m into being neat and organized and sometimes I’m into everything else. Anyone who knows me well has seen how utterly messy and dirty the state of my living space can be, this has at least doubled since being with my husband, and tripled (or perhaps it has grown exponentially) with the addition of our now 3-year-old son.  Part of it has to do with the amount of stuff we own. We have A TON of stuff. And it is spread out in different places all over the world. Well mostly in the US and in Mexico. We are both avid collectors. We are both, and particularly my husband, frequent thrift store shoppers. We can both always think of reasons why we need to buy some particular item: because its part of a collection we already have, or often because we want to use it for some creative project. Or simply because we think it’s beautiful.

I have never been quite able to reconcile the two sides of me. One side abhors messiness (dirtiness is a little more acceptable—I believe showering is overrated, and I don’t own a vacuum and that’s not just because we don’t have enough solar electricity to run it) and lack of organization. I have a deep sense of shame when someone happens to enter into my house while it is in a state of disarray. I want to tell that person defensively: “I don’t think this is acceptable either! I just haven’t had a chance to clean up yet.” And yet, a neat and clean type of person would never let their house get that out of order. I suppose it is all a matter of priority. It’s not that I don’t prefer neat and clean, it’s just that when it comes to living life, I prioritize other things first. Such as: lying on the couch and watching an episode of The Office (American) for the 30th time, or looking at myself in the mirror while I dance to Missy Elliot, or obsessively searching the internet for the perfect jean skirt that I wished I had bought,, or nagging my husband to go and get our 940 ml refillable beer bottles refilled (known in Mexico asballenas (whales)) or writing this blog entry about cleanliness. For a lifetime I have said to myself that I want to be neater, cleaner, more organized. And I become that way. For a little while. And then the inevitable chaos of life slowly sneaks back in. Each person varies on how messy they let their living space get until they just can’t take it anymore. I think I am getting better, in that sense. I think my tolerance for mess is less than it used to be--fewer days go by before I declare: everybody out of the house. I need to get this place in order! Which is what happened today, except my husband took the cue and left with Emilio before I needed to say anything.

Another aspect that is influencing my relationship to organization and cleaning, is what I am learning from the Mexican way: poco a poco (little by little.)  This is the way our house was/is being built, this is the way most Mexican houses are built. When you have a little to money to spend, you create an addition to your house. You start with a roof. And maybe a floor. You don’t necessarily need walls right away--not in Baja. It might not be as pretty or as easy—but it makes it possible to build a house if you don’t have a lot of money. And with cleaning, it’s the same: if I do a little bit every day, or several times a day--it wards off the chaos, even as the chaos nudges its way in. My perfectionist side has a lot of difficulty accepting the poco a poco style because it wants the satisfaction of “perfectly clean.” However, unless you are only a housewife and not trying to do ANYTHING else (or if you have someone you hire to clean your house everyday), it’s impossible to keep up a state of perfectly clean. And the desire to have this unrealistic state creates deep frustration because I have no sense of control . Also, the accumulating mess calls forth my inner critic: “what is wrong with you Zoë? All your friends have fulltime jobs and twice to six times as many kids as you, and they always have a clean, organized house.” My critic can sometimes be overdramatic to prove a point. Then again, I don’t tend to drop by their house uninvited in the middle of the day to see what it might look like. However, if I am in a continuous state of upkeep, little by little, the mess never becomes completely overwhelming, and I don’t necessarily have to kick everyone out of the house. It’s still difficult sometimes to accept that the house will never look exactly perfect. But then again, that is the reality of our house. That is the reality of life. I will post soon on the story of our house.

ADDENDUM (added on September 9th)

It’s useful to view our individual tolerance for neatness and messiness on a spectrum. We can give ourselves a number on a scale as a way of quantitating our tolerance threshold. I am experimenting with a system that uses two numbers, one that represents the maximum level of messiness you can tolerate and the other represents the level of cleanness that you would realistically like to maintain. The scale: 0 = spotless and completely in order, and 10 = utter chaos, with no concern for order or cleanliness. What would your range be? My maximum level of messiness tolerance is at a 6 (before I would start to be upset just to be in my space), and my real/ideal level is a 3. I think it’s helpful to know what level you can stand, and what your goal level would be. That way, we can judge the cleanliness of our space within our own range, instead of judging our space in absolute terms, which is usually rife with our projections of our insecurities. It makes us feel bad to give ourselves a non-subjective standard of cleanliness and order. Judging ourselves never helps us make a change. We are only motivated to change if we give ourselves rewards for our efforts and give ourselves compassion when we struggle. Eventually we don’t need to come up with rewards, because the reward becomes the exciting experience of growth.

Thank you for reading.