If Your House Is a Mess, Nature Is Healing

A new way to think about the chaos of your household

Photo: Thomas Northcut/Getty Images

Buried beneath the piles of psychic distress caused by the actual Covid-19 pandemic, there is another — and for many of us, more immediate — epidemic: mess. Specifically, the mess spreading through our homes.

As Anna Solomon, curator of the Unkempt Real Life Instagram project, wrote in the caption for a photograph of an impressive heap of laundry: “The scene here I’ll be the first to admit is not unusual for me… What’s less usual is my feeling of despair about it. Maybe because every other form of order in my life has exploded.”

Friends of mine in a Facebook group moan about the most upsetting messes in their homes: “The ever-full kitchen sink. The noise, the mess, the multiplying dishes… I hear it, I see it, I lament it all the time.” “Basement playroom. I can’t go down there. You can barely even walk on the floor.” “My husband piles things everywhere. Every once in a while I lose my shit.”

But — and I say this as someone who is truly, viscerally distressed by disorder — our perpetually messy homes are actually normal. Healthy, even. The layer of Legos and puzzle pieces spread across the floor? It’s like the understory of a forest. It’s meant to be there. A mess tells a tale: a narrative of people who are busy doing other things besides cleaning. Entropy taking over, the way the universe desires.

Embrace the chaos, or else it will embrace you. And then once you’re done embracing, start to cultivate it — because a proper mess has a lot of benefits.

Embracing the mess can lead to creativity

Allison Hirschlag writes in Forge that messes can actually lead to innovation. She cites the artist Austin Kleon, who has said of his messy workspace, “I intentionally cultivate my mess. Creativity is about connections, and connections are not made by siloing everything off into its own space. New ideas are formed by interesting juxtapositions, and interesting juxtapositions happen when things are out of place.”

For most of us, we’re in month six or so of working (and schooling) from home. It’s likely that we need novel ways of making connections and coming up with new ideas. Stepping on a Lego on the way to a Zoom call might cause pain like you’ve never known before — but it also might spark an epiphany.

Bad housekeeping can be subversive

Everyone I know who is driven crazy by mess right now is a woman, and most of them are mothers. Forge senior editor Kelli María Korducki wrote early in the pandemic that “the drudgery of domestic labor — overwhelmingly, disproportionately, and often invisibly — tends to fall to women. This is not a fluke; it’s the logical, inevitable byproduct of an economic system that was designed to run on the free or cheap labor of women.”

If your home is a chaotic mess in a way it wasn’t in, say, February, I’m willing to bet that this means a woman in said household has opted out (or been forced by circumstance to opt out) of the once-invisible labor that kept things running smoothly pre-pandemic. And if the mess is allowed to grow and bloom like the hearty life-fungus it is, this might just force a useful shift in gender roles.

A mess left for someone else is a subliminal assignment. Don’t pick up the slack; use this opportunity to sort out divisions of labor more deliberately.

What’s more, we’re no longer hiding evidence of our many responsibilities outside of work. Logging on to a Zoom meeting while a quorum of teddy bears wearing ski masks enjoy a Play-Doh buffet in the background is just the way we live now. It’s a move toward greater transparency and honesty, and it gives others permission to embrace their messy lives, too. And if you don’t have children, just a heap of teddy bears, then, well, it’s about — something else.

Cleanliness was always a scam

The idea that houses should be tidy is a relatively new phenomenon. Livia Gershon wrote for JSTOR Daily, “‘Housework’ became a thing starting in the mid-1700s with the rise of factories, wage work, and urbanization.” She quotes family science scholars Nancy Rollins Ahlander and Kathleen Slaugh Bahr, who write that starting in the 18th century, “Cleaning became a moral duty, and it was not uncommon to judge a woman’s moral state by the orderliness of her house.”

We fall into that trap ourselves. We’ve equated a tidy home with a successful family life to the point that a sloppy home can evoke shame and despair. So it makes sense that our messes are especially upsetting to us right now. We’re trying to keep it together in a world that pelts us with strange and sad news every day.

The right kind of mess

What we need in our homes right now is a nice clean mess. Yes, the coronavirus calls for more regular cleaning and wiping of high-touch surfaces and potentially poo-flinging toilets and the like. As one of my Facebook friends grumbled, “My house can either be clean or neat, and I’ve chosen clean. There’s mess most places, but it’s reasonably clean underneath.” I want you to feel unjudged for riotous housekeeping, but Science, that buzzkill, is pro-disinfecting in These Times.

So, yes, attack the germs. But the clutter? Assemble that into a configuration you can live with, and enlist the other people in your home to abide by whatever this is. Are you a stasher? Great, throw shit in a closet and open it in 2022, when it will be like an amazing time capsule. Perhaps you’re a pile-artist? Super — ever seen sand dunes? What are they, other than piles that allow the rest of the beach to stay relatively smooth? If it’s good enough for Cape Cod, it’s good enough for your living room.

Because those middens of clothes and toys and Signs-level accumulations of glasses are actually just proof that one person isn’t martyring out, following everyone around like a cleaning-up robot. They are an acknowledgement that life right now is really messy. And they are evidence of people, alive, in a home together. Which is, after all, a good and normal thing.

Senior Editor, Forge @ Medium // Bylines: New York Times, Oprah, Slate // Latest novel: Unseen City https://bookshop.org/books/unseen-city-9781662028106/9781597

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