A friend of mine recently retumbl’d photos of a house before and after being cleaned. I clicked on the link because I thought the name of the blog, Unfuck Your Habitat, was funny, and because I thought the site might offer some cool solutions I’d never thought of for how to keep your place clean in a timely fashion. I was right! UYH posts tips on keeping your morning flowing smoothly, regular reminders to make your bed, master lists of cleaning supplies, and cleaning checklists you can use to keep your space looking awesome. It also has a ton of before-and-after pictures submitted by readers—and some befores with no afters. This is where the site’s problem lies, for me. I’m really neat, and as I clicked and scrolled through these photos, my skin started to crawl—how is it possible for people to be so, so disorganized?
Why am I being so harsh and judgmental? Well, it started in childhood—I was never really allowed to be messy. I had chores when I was a kid, things like scrubbing the kitchen floor with a brush and a bucket full of soap, washing dishes every single night, washing my own clothes, and putting everything in my bedroom back in its place as soon as I was done with it. I dusted, vacuumed, and was expected to take the garbage out when it was full without being asked. My grandparents weren’t mean or strict, they just wanted my brother and me to learn how to take care of ourselves. (They were also raising us many years after they’d raised their own kids, and were probably too tired to deal with all the Nintendo cartridges and cassettes that came with us.)
Their plan worked: I knew how to clean and take care of my house from the minute I moved out, and I’ve always taken good care of most of the stuff I own. I’m not neurotic about it, and I keep a couple of messy piles of books and papers on the dining room table sometimes like everyone else, but for the most part you could come into my home any time of the day and it would be as neat as a picture in a magazine. I spend a couple of hours every Saturday morning doing a deep clean (bathroom, kitchen, sweeping under the bed, watering the plants, and dusting pictures and stuff), and the rest of the week just sort of tidying up as needed. When I’m busy with work and all the other stuff that happens during the week, I like not having the added agitation of a messy house.
Messiness stresses me out! The reasons for this are numerous, the heaviest being that, in my family, cleanliness was always intertwined with class and race issues. My grandparents always fed me the message that if I looked messy or unkempt, people would think less of me. “When you leave this house, you represent this family,” they would tell me on a regular basis. I think a lot of people of color get this message growing up. One byproduct of racism is that it gives people of color an inferiority complex as well as a very realistic fear of being hurt (physically and psychologically), so there’s extra pressure on us not to act “wrong” and draw negative attention to ourselves. In reality, if someone hates you because of your race, the way you present yourself is not going to change their mind, but I and other POCs I feel a certain amount of pride in looking fly in a culture that devalues us all the time. To my working-class grandparents, dressing their best and keeping their house looking nice was a way to show people that they—and by extension other black people—weren’t really so bad, and they passed this notion on to me and my brother. I came of age in the ’80s and ’90s, when ripped jeans, baggy everything, and thrift store goods were de rigueur—you can imagine my grandmother’s reaction to my of-the-moment wardrobe. If you can’t, I will tell you that she would suck her teeth and say, “People are going to think we can’t afford to buy you clothes!” In retrospect, she had a point: I looked like a walking trash heap.
But my bedroom was always organized and clean. I almost envy those of you who are like, “Who cares if my room is messy? It’s my space and I can do whatever I want with it!” You probably have time to sleep in or to play Flappy Bird while I’m busy dusting and scrubbing. Maybe your parents don’t have a reason to stress out about the condition of your room. Maybe they aren’t afraid of what people might think of them if everything in their house isn’t perfectly clean. Or maybe they can afford to have someone come to your house to clean it, so you’ve never had to think about it. I never had any of these luxuries. But most of me is glad I was raised the way I was. There are very few good things that come from a history of oppression, but I’m not mad that I work to make sure my house always feels comfortable for me. And I actually think that in the long run, not being messy saves me time, because I’m not wasting time searching through piles of junk for my keys or my glasses or what have you. I also buy so much less food, clothes, books, and stuff when I can see what I already have! If I know that I have three or four unread books on my nightstand, I’m not going to impulse buy a novel at the bookstore because I feel like I need something to read. It’s not a guessing game when I go shop for clothes—I know I already have the perfect outfit in my closet, because I just saw it hanging up this morning when I got dressed.
When the physical space around me is clean, it helps my mind feel clear and my thoughts flow more freely, which I need for my job as writer. I know it’s not this way for everybody, perhaps not even for most people: A recent study at the University of Minnesota found that people in messy rooms had more-creative thoughts. But it’s almost impossible for me to create anything when I’m in the middle of a mess, because it makes me think that what I’m creating is a waste of time—look at everything else I should be spending my time on! If it works for you to be messy and creative, that’s cool, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to promote messiness as necessary for being a good artist. I’ve been to artist’s studios that were a mess, and it always made me feel like they didn’t respect their materials—paint is so expensive, so leaving the cap off a $30 tube of the stuff and letting it dry out feels incredibly cavalier, and it makes me wonder how much respect they can have for what they’re making.
It probably sounds like I’m a rigid no-fun-haver, but I swear, I maintain this clean thing because I love having time to hang out and do nothing at all. It’s a lot easier to spend an hour knitting or watching TV when I’m not looking at a pile of things that need to be dealt with. I’m just not equipped to handle that kind of nagging guilt. I also like it when my friends feel comfortable in my house, which is easier to do when they’re not stepping on my old underwear and empty pizza boxes.
When I visit friends with messy houses, I try really hard not to be judgmental. I remind myself that I don’t have to live there or be in that space for more than a couple of hours. I’m still friends with my messy friends, and I’ve definitely noticed that a lot of people become less messy once they’ve lived on their own for a while. But it also makes me wonder what messages they got about cleanliness growing up, and what their childhoods were like. The idea of being comfortable living in chaos is so foreign to me. I see it as a sign of privilege. Sometimes I even ask people, “Did you ever have to clean your room when you were growing up? Were your parents ever concerned that you didn’t wash your jeans enough, or that you were wearing something with a hole in it? Were you worried about being called ‘trash’ or anything like that?” When they look at me like I’m crazy, I have my answer.
Obviously, this stuff is different for everyone. How much mess you can tolerate has as much to do with your upbringing as it does with your random individual predisposition. My grandparents’ need to be tidy came from a different place—an awful place—than mine, which came directly from them. But this is one custom I’m glad they passed down to me. ♦