This Mess We’re In

“Sorry about the mess. We just, um…well, that’s just how we live.”

When I said that phrase to a friend who recently visited my house for the first time, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. Normally, I would have pretended that our normally immaculate home had recently served as temporary lodging for a band of Visigoths (“friends of friends,” I would insist, “how could I turn them away?”) or that my daughter’s tornado experiment had proved surprisingly effective—and my guest would have politely insisted that her house was even worse or told the preposterous lie that the house didn’t look messy at all. It’s a common script, and most folks are dutiful in delivering their lines—and I’m tired of it.

Here’s the truth: We use our dining room table as a horizontal filing cabinet, and our cat apparently believes that any semblance of order is the dog’s doing and works diligently every night to make the entire table look like the world’s least-organized yard sale table. The cat is wrong, of course, as the dog is a frequent contributor to the mess, be it paw prints, water dish drippings, and counter scraps snatched and absconded to other rooms. Then there’s the seven-year old, who will dutifully put away anything we ask, but without that command, will leave anything, anywhere, at any time – resulting in a hallway table cluttered with band-aid wrappers, naked dolls, half-full water glasses, random crayons and a bike helmet.

Lest it seem I’m passing the buck, I am no better. The back of the rocking chair in the living room is a convenient repository for outerwear, and as the week goes on, the weight of the accumulated jackets and pullovers create a precarious imbalance that eventually has to be addressed as a safety measure – and then the vacant chair back becomes an irresistible magnet for the next jacket removed. My home office looks like the scene of a piling contest, and at any given moment, every contestant has a shot at winning.

And don’t even get me started on dishes. My wife and I rarely do preemptive strikes on the mounting dish pile, and grudgingly begin washing only when silverware shortages make it a necessity. On the rare occasion they’re all clean, we usually order takeout so that we can preserve the kitchen like a museum set.

But the fact is, we LIVE in our house. Live, an action verb, meaning to concentrate on the activity and not the aftermath. I would love for our house to resemble a page from Dwell magazine, studiously austere and symmetrically ordered, but the only way OUR house is going to look like that is if we hire an editor from Dwell to come in every other day and tidy it all up for us. We have animals and hobbies and jobs and junk mail and distractions, and worst of all, we have a television, which, when you look directly at it, allows us to avoid seeing anything else on our list of accumulations.

Yes, we have more “stuff” than we need. But we also have more sentiment than we need, so every tchotchke ever received is somewhere in the house, every painting made by our seven-year old amateur artist is tucked somewhere, every outgrown sweater is stacked in a cluttered closet in case one day we miraculously lose the five inches of height we’ve put on since these aging garments fit.

Yet I’m tired of being embarrassed by the fact that we have better things to do with our life than create the illusion of perfection. We take care of the essential stuff—the cat box is cleaned daily, the fridge rarely has outdated science experiments, and our neglect never escalates to a health concern. (When the dishes do get washed, they’re spotless.) I recall Frank Zappa, in his autobiography, noting that he was attracted to musicians with strange odors and bad teeth because it indicated that they had more important things on their mind than showering and flossing. Well, Frank would be pretty comfortable at our place. (Though he’d likely be disappointed by the gaping hole in the Z section of my CD rack.) I don’t believe that everyone who is tidy has nothing better to do with their time—I appreciate the sense of calm that comes with a clean house, and understand the pursuit of that feeling. I’m simply tired of pretending that I engage in that pursuit on every day except the one when you came to visit.

Giving up the obligatory apologies for a messy house will be a challenge—I’ve had a lifetime of training that incorrectly correlates neatness with virtuousness. Cleanliness is next to godliness? I’m calling bullshit on that adage. God isn’t up there rating our home like a Zagat mystery shopper assessing hotel quality. God knows that I give up my bus seat for the elderly (and nearly anyone else who needs it), God knows my daughter is the first responder when one of her classmates falls on the playground, and God knows that my wife would severe her right arm if it meant her daughter would have a better life because of it. If God is up there giving demerits because the pasta pan sits on the stove for three days, then God needs to find a hobby.

Would I prefer a tidy home where finding scissors isn’t a challenging treasure hunt that often ends in disappointment? Certainly. Should we have told the woman who sold us our house that we had no need for the dishwasher she offered to leave for us? The word “duh” appears somewhere in that answer. But would I trade any of the positives in my life for consistently vacant kitchen counters and a carefully cataloged basement? Absolutely not. And from now on, I’m not going to pretend otherwise.

©2009 wpreagan

  • CLEANLINESS IS NEXT TO GODLINESS – from ancient Hebrew writings… first English appearance in Francis Bacon’s ‘Advancement of Learning’ (1605)… ‘Cleanness of body was ever deemed to proceed from a due reverence to God. Later John Wesley in 1791 pronounced ‘Slovenliness is no part of religion. ‘Cleanliness is indeed next to Godliness.’ Much later on Brent Veysey then said “Get your head out of the clouds silly judgementologists & wallow in cluttered devilishness! (Fun isn’t it?) Man made religion and man makes clutter. As with separation of church and state… I so say ‘separation of church and cleanliness!’ Now, you go God and take care of the more important things than who’s clean or not. Time to get back to making bumper stickers… “God (heart) clutter!”

  • “Separation of church and cleanliness” shall inspire my response next time anyone accosts me for not tidying up the hymnals.

  • I applaud your honesty, and your optimism for LIVING!

  • Thanks Gail. But at the root of it, honesty is easier than dusting.