I’ve never been a neat person. Living at home, my mother would nag me incessantly about the pile of dirty clothes ruling over my chair, the trail of notebooks I would leave around the house, the army of mugs assembled on my desk, half-filled with forgotten tea. We’d constantly feud about the disorder I allowed to creep into my life—and the lives of those around me—while cleaning fell through the cracks of my to-do list. It’s not that I didn’t try to stay on top of the mess. I’ve always wanted to see myself as someone neat and organized—I believe it suits my personality better than messiness. But, to tell the truth, I’ve always unintentionally allowed myself to slip into disarray. When wrestling with homework, laundry and dishes suddenly become all-powerful monsters; my mind shrinks away, unable to even play with the idea of picking up a sword (or a sponge).
This year, however, has been different. I’ve suddenly found myself tumbling headfirst into the habit I’ve looked towards longingly, but never been able to form—cleaning. Doing dishes, wiping down tables and countertops, tidying up in common spaces; these tasks have seamlessly built themselves into my morning and night routines. Suddenly, my brain has deemed tidying, something I’ve never been able to tackle, essential.
Part of this stems from my desire to make things nice for other people. It is infinitely easier for me to convince myself to tidy public spaces. I feel a little like a rebellious mouse in a Disney movie, filled with adventurous thrill as I scuttle around late at night or early in the morning, creating a comfortable space for others to wander into when they’ve awakened. When I don’t quite know how to care for others, I turn to caring for the space they inhabit, hoping that some of the warmth will transfer and warm them also.
But that paints the act of my cleaning as far more selfless than it truly is. In reality, this may simply be my way of tricking my brain into allowing me to do something nice for myself. I am not a neat person by nature, but in an unfortunately ironic twist, I also can’t tolerate living with mess. My perpetually overcrowded brain needs my external world to be at least a little cleaner than my internal one, or else I risk losing myself in the clutter. Dragging other people into the issue is just a way of justifying the waste of time, as I allow myself to steal away to straighten the couch cushions and sweep the floor.
Either way, I have come to relish these half-hour chunks of so-called productive procrastination. Chores are an acceptable break—one I need not feel guilty for. They are an excuse to take time for myself, to pause, to take a breath.
Yet there is something vaguely shameful about admitting to loving domesticity—somewhere deep inside me, the child who scorned pop songs and makeup and the color pink turns up her nose in misplaced not-like-other-girls disdain. I fear that I am allowing the gender-based expectations of what my role in a house must be, drilled into me from childhood, to subtly rule my life. By admitting that I enjoy these quotidian tasks—cleaning, cooking, grocery shopping, running errands—I am, this voice in my head insists, somehow a bad feminist.
Or, perhaps, what this voice really wants is for me to stop wasting time on tasks that cannot be neatly packaged and marketed to the world. What is the purpose, it screams, of taking the time to fold your laundry or wash your dishes, when there are readings to be done, essays to be written? And, often, I give in, especially when it comes to my private or semi-private spaces. My dorm room is currently sporting its very own dirty laundry chair monster, and my clean, decidedly dry laundry has been sitting on the drying rack for several days too long. As much as I long to battle it, and restore at least my little corner of the world to order, sometimes, the voice wins. I simply just don’t have time.
Most probably, I am overthinking this. There is really nothing subversive or subservient about wanting to keep things neat and clean. Chores are simply chores, tasks we must all check off in order to keep up with the sometimes-tedious obligations of keeping our physical forms alive. Yes, I need to go grocery shopping, cook dinner, then consume it. Yes, there are dishes to be done, laundry to be folded. There is nothing at all special about these everyday tasks, these ordinary obligations.
Yet the fact remains that I’ve come to love them anyway. The soft tranquility of the night in the silent kitchen as I scrub at a mug at four in the morning, allowing myself to fade out of my mind for just a moment and exist purely in the menial task at hand: soap on the sponge, scrub the dish, rinse, feel the hot water envelop my hands, watch a soap bubble drift through the air, set the mug down on the drying rack, softly, with kindness. The crisp autumn air biting my cheeks as I walk briskly to the grocery store, my 20-minute excursion cast in a different light by the excuse of a destination, music playing through my headphones as red leaves rustle overhead. The cinnamony-sweet scent of disinfectant that fills the air after wiping down a countertop.
Once I turn in my last midterm, I’ve planned a treat for myself. I am going to set aside a few hours to fully reset my space: do my laundry, water my plants, tidy up my table, and generally set in order everything I’ve been neglecting in the past few weeks. I crave the calm I find in soap bubbles drifting toward the ceiling and freshly-washed laundry, and I genuinely can’t wait for the moment I get to access it.