Thursday, February 12th, 2009

messy (evolution of)

I remember when I was about four or five and my father was trying to get me to put my things away, I finally told him that I didn’t care. If he cared, he should put them away. He called me a princess. I was confused because in the books I read, princesses were always virtuous heroines but by his tone of voice my father didn’t seem to be praising me. I tried to get him to explain but he had lost patience by then.

When I was about ten or eleven I was sitting at the dining room table working on a craft and dropped something on the floor. I was about to lean over and pick it up, when I realised that I didn’t have to. I didn’t need it right away and it was perfectly fine sitting on the floor until I did need it. All I had to do was remember where it was. This epiphany was accompanied by a worried suspicion that I was going to regret my insight.

Anyone I have lived with has, with a single exception, complained about my messiness. With that single exception, none has cheerfully accepted my other contributions to the household as adequate compensation for needing to pick up after me.

When living with that single exception, who did not, after all, pick up after me, rather the opposite, the house was so filthy that when a pregnant friend we were chatting with on the sidewalk needed to pee, we lied and said the toilet didn’t work. I think that was when I faced the fact that there was something seriously wrong. We never discussed it.

In Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, there’s a scene where a pathetic, dependent character breaks something and there’s glass on the floor. This is one more contribution to a discouraging sequence of events, not because she attached value to the broken thing but because “now she would have to remember.” As in, it doesn’t occur to her to sweep up the shards; instead she will need to spend the rest of her life trying not to cut her feet by not walking in that spot. I was shocked to discover that I was a type.

For a couple of years one of my annual objectives at work in my performance review was to clean up my desk. I never really got around to doing a complete job. My boss eventually gave up. For the past four years or so my bosses have been elsewhere — Winnipeg or Mississauga or Toronto — and have not seen my desk.

It’s not that I like being messy. I don’t even like ordinary cheerful clutter; I love a stark, open, spare space. One of the first things I did upon getting a regular job was to hire a cleaning lady. It’s more that it seems too complicated. I like doing laundry, and do it diligently even if it means hauling it to a laundromat, even if it takes all weekend. Laundry is self-limiting. There is not an infinite amount of stuff that could theoretically be put into a washing machine. Once it has been washed, it needs to be folded and put away. Very simple. Not only that, I know where laundered things go. Clothes have drawers and shelves and hangers; sheets and towels have closets; dog blankets go back on dog beds; soft furnishings go back where they came from. If I start to clean a house I never know when to stop: there’s always something I didn’t get to and feel guilty about, always a decision that I don’t know how to make.

Mark determined that part of my problem is that not everything has a place to go. I feel bad when stuff is lying around in heaps, but it’s not as though changing the situation is always a simple matter of putting it in its place. There often is no place for it, so more radical intervention is called for. When he moved in he put a lot more storage in. It helps. 

Still, the other day someone said that if I were an employee, she’d fire me; that if I were a roommate, I would be out on my ass in two days. She doesn’t even know me that well. It’s just that obvious.

My boss is in town for a day. I cleaned off my desk this morning in preparation, which mostly consisted of stashing papers and the binders into which they are some day to be filed, into drawers and bins where they will be invisible to the casual visitor. Still, I feel better.

Mark has been stomping around crossly for the past few weeks, issuing dark warnings that we both need to change if we value the relationship. I’m not sure I can change, exactly. But perhaps I can put “cleaning off the dining room table every Saturday” into the same doable category as “laundry.”


  1. Well, I suspected from the email subject headings that I might have something to do with this, and there ya are! LOL! I ALSO said that I get you to have fun with my kid, and you are definitely fantastic at that, and much valued in that domain. So there! LOL! I have to say that I totally laughed out loud, very loud, several times reading this. And also, keep in mind that a lot of this, a very lot, can apply to me. Right now, “clutter” is part of my online name in several contexts. And yes, I love doing laundry (though not sure about the selflimiting part… I always am thinking: I should perhaps wash the covers on the sofa, and those dusty curtains with spider webs… and then when I take them down, there is the hem that is loose, and the stain that needs treating…

    I am definitely in on the “easier if things have a place”: it just takes a bit of time to pick up if it is just putting things back. It is another thing when the bookshelves are full, the clothing drawers are full, the file cabinets are full, the closets are full, and the wallspace is full so there is not the simple option of buying another bookshelf, file cabinet and cupboard. Then one knows that to tackle the pile on the table means reconsidering the past 20 years of collected books and files and clothing. agh.

    But really, I am totally with you on, it is often easier to find something if it is where you last used it, than if it is “put away”. ;D

    Best of luck with the cross stomping! Valentines day is in two days. Make it worth his while!

    Comment by Leanne — Thursday, February 12th, 2009 @ 23:26

  2. Salut Alison,

    Voilà une histoire qui te ressemble et que j’ai eu du plaisir à lire.

    A l’époque où tu travaillais chez moi, j’ai eu très souvent l’occasion d’observer ce côté de ta personnalité. On aurait dit que tu manquais de structure dans ta tête. Je me souviens aussi de ton côté “computer” qui te rendait excellente pour énumérer toutes les possibilités, jusqu’aux plus subtiles, liées à une situation, mais inapte à évaluer qualitativement, à hiérarchiser chacune de ces possibilités.

    C’était il y a bien longtemps.

    J’aime beaucoup cette phrase : “now she would have to remember.” J’ai pensé à l’environnement, une idée fixe chez moi. Je me suis dit que la pollution n’est en fait rien d’autre que des mauvaises substances échappées, puis laissées là, aux mauvais endroits. À défaut de tout nettoyer, décontaminer, on dresse plutôt des registres de sites contaminés, afin de ne pas oublier où il ne faut pas mettre les pieds. Mais des fois, par coupable négligence, on “oublie” quand même, comme à Shannon.

    Mais, pour revenir à toi, Alison, il me semble que la solution à ton problème est assez simple. Il te suffit d’assigner à chaque objet un endroit de rangement précis et définitif. Faire le ménage devient alors une tâche simple, mécanique, où n’intervient pas la subjectivité : remettre chaque chose à sa place.

    Je plaisante. Pour vrai, si ton problème était si simple, je crois que cette solution, ou une autre, se serait imposée il y longtemps.


    Comment by Luc Séguin — Friday, February 13th, 2009 @ 17:58

  3. We are both messy, mostly it doesn’t bother us. I think if we were more sociable and had people over, we’d be less so but then we’d find having people over to be distressing. It distresses the kitty cats too, one of which is very offended with strange voices wafting through the air.

    There’s a sig that a woman uses on a sewing forum that rather summarizes our household maintenance routine: “Why make the beds and wash the dishes? Six months later you have to do it all over again”.

    My problem putting things away is that things will not tell me where they belong and I mostly do not know. They are rather like kitty cats in this respect (and people wonder why autistics objectify living things and vice versa). No matter how much you ask, kitty cats will not tell you their names, how they feel, where it hurts, or who broke that glass -even if they are not the ones who did it. They never rat out on each other. Therefore with my limited reasoning, objects, like kitty cats, will please themselves and place themselves within the natural order of things according to preference and logic of a self serving construct.

    As such, attempting to wrest order is rather like fighting gravity which is not coincidentally related to Newton’s law of entropy. There, my housekeeping is solidly based on science and therefore logical and justified.

    Comment by K — Monday, February 16th, 2009 @ 09:39

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