10 Secrets of Keeping a Messy House

Some people might look around my slovenly little loft and think I’m lazy. But no! Withhold judgement. It takes a lot of hard work to keep this place in a state of constant disarray. And while I have many books on the subject of organization, housecleaning and home-making (most gifts from my mother) I haven’t read anything about how to preserve chaos in the home. I’m self-taught. I have outlined, for your instruction, a few basic principles of mess-making and maintaining in the home, laying bare my secrets for the first time.

1. It Helps to Have a Lot of Stuff

I remember once a co-worker delicately told me, “Jennifer, I think you just have too much stuff.” Blink blink. I hear the words you are saying, but I don’t understand them. How can it be “too much” when it is all absolutely necessary? For instance, at the time we had a lot of built in storage. One drawer was devoted to fur collars, cuffs and remnants I had picked up at a garage sale several years earlier. Sure, they were unused and generally unloved, but when would I ever find them again if I needed them? Huh? Never. And you never know when you might need musty fur parts.

Some people devote time to “weeding out” and “sorting” their things. I have even heard of complex sorting systems that involve separate piles for keeping, donating and trashing. I perceive that people enjoy this process, the act of purging. Then they take everything left in the “keep” file and sort and label that. And they enjoy that part too. You know what? I’d rather be writing, or cooking, or laying in the park on the grass looking up at the clouds while I listen to the children play. Or reading a damn book. Or doing other things that increase the mess in my house. So, the only time the act of “purging” seems like fun to me is when the alternative is moving it to another house. Then it’s just moving.

Books are heavy, colorful dust collectors that make you look smart!

2. Collecting Things That Collect Dust

It’s not just having a lot of stuff that counts, it will add to an overall impression of chaos if the stuff you collect is bulky and in need of display. Maybe you collect stamps. That’s very nice, but it’s also orderly, and therefor not a boon to a messy house. Whatever it is you collect, have more of it than you have room to store. For example, I like books. I have bookshelves that are packed, and still, I buy more books, which means I have piles of them everywhere – next to the bed, leaning up against the wall, stacked on top of the bookshelves. To add to the volume, my children have books as well, and they leave them scattered not in stacks, but singly, wherever they feel like it. My daughter has been leaving books on the bathroom floor for years – a resplendently disgusting habit that makes a mother proud. Tchotchkes of all kind are great at collecting dust. I can imagine figurines, antique dolls (creepy!), glass birds, and model airplanes fitting nicely into the mix. Records – as in vinyl record albums for listening on the phonograph player – are especially cunning if you never put them back in the their sleeves, but fan them out all over the floor while you drink box wine and sing Emmylou Harris to no one in particular. That is only a suggestion.

3. The Drug and Alchohol Option

Though I don’t endorse this method, television has taught me that all drug addicts and alcoholics are master slobs. I don’t even think you have to try, it just comes naturally.

4. Confessions of a Clotheshorse

If all my clothes were clean at one time (a purely hypothetical condition) there is absolutely no way  I could

These clean clothes are bound to put themselves away. Child included for scale.

fit them in my full sized closet and two Ikea dressers. Laundry is an ever present threat at our house, with baskets and hampers looming large at all times. Dirty clothes dub as wall-to-wall carpeting and clean clothes remain in baskets, sometimes folded, but rifled through and overspilling. Three key factors contribute to high volume of garments in our house. 1. Kids grow. Any parent knows that at all times, at least a third of the clothes in your kids drawers are too small, and up to one-fifth are too big. 2. The Wild Fluctuations in Weight of the Average American Woman paired with the optimistic belief that It Will Fit Again. And 3. Clothes aren’t for covering the body, but costumes that convey the character and personality of the person wearing them. if you have more than three alter-egos, you’re going to have a lot of clothes.

5. Children: Not Necessary But Exponentially Advantageous

I’m not going to say my kids are responsible for my messy house, because truth be told, I was an expert slob long before they came along. However, the character of filth that children add to the mix cannot be understated. Children are disgusting. They excrete a trail of discarded food, broken toys and bodily fluids wherever they go. They think nothing of stashing a crust of toast behind the drapes, or leaving a soiled kleenex at the top of the stairs where you are sure to step on it. And of-course, there are the toys, with all their SMALL PIECES. Legos are the exemplar. You can try to keep them sorted and in bins all you want, but eventually, you will wake up with one under your pillow at two in the morning. Another tip about children: don’t look under their beds. Why would you do that? You don’t want to know what is under there. That is why the monsters live there, because it is a naturally terrifying habitat. Once a year, give your six year-old a gas mask and a garbage bag and lock the door.

6. Pets: The Perpetual Polluters

Pets are a non-stop generator of messes. Dogs and cats that shed are recommended, especially when paired with hardwood floors and an aversion to brooms. Dogs that like to chew and destroy things are superb, as are cats who scratch the shit out of furniture. I had some finches once, and they left a daily spray of husked bird-seed shells in a three-foot radius around their cage, which invariably stank. Yes, pets add that special olfactory element that is the pièce de rèsistance to a messy home.

Just because it is contained doesn’t mean it has to be organized!

7. The Artist’s Way

I think artist’s really do have an unfair advantage in creating a cluttered, disorderly space. Some artists have to keep a neat studio because their materials are particularly hazardous and require vigilant supervision. And if the artist has a separate studio, then they may be inclined to keep a tidy home. But the economy sucks and real-estate is outrageous, so it is likely many artists must work from home. Here are some really good mediums for making a mess:

  • Painting of any kind (requires water, or toxic chemicals, or both)
  • Sculpture (especially from found objects, and especially if you work at a scrap yard, ahem)
  • Collage (scraps of paper everywhere, paired with adhesives of various sorts)
  • Charcoal drawing (charcoal, when combined with dust-bunnies, makes little poofy dust bombs)
  • Sewing (this seemingly benign domestic “craft” creates the biggest shitstorm of mess imaginable)
  • Printmaking (wood or linoleum shavings and effusive output!)
8. Don’t Look at Magazines
Don’t ever even look at Real Simple, Martha Stewart Living, Dwell or any other Clean House Porn. Next thing you know you’re headed to the Container Store, buying a label maker and losing sleep over how to organize your tupperware drawer. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. However you can buy these magazines and leave them laying around the house. That’s okay.
9. No Tresspassing
Entertaining is great fun, but you will feel inclined to create the illusion of order within your home. Avoid it. If you must (as in the case of a children’s birthday party) don’t worry, you can just shove stuff in closets and under beds for the time being, thereby creating a secondary mess to savor at another time.
10 The Power to Avoid
There are people who find it impossible to concentrate on anything else while their surroundings are in disarray. I suffer from this condition in the kitchen, though to a lesser degree. On the whole, I have developed the ability to blur my vision so as to obscure stacks of dishes, mounds of clothes and piles of paperwork. This is a lifetime skill, and if you don’t care to cultivate it, that’s ok, because there is an alternative: just leave. In this way, over-scheduling and social obligations can be a huge asset. Lack of time is one of the easiest and most fool-proof ways to ensure a very messy house. Sure, you might not have time to create more messes, but eating and changing clothes without taking the time to do the dishes or laundry adds up fast. When you come home from a day packed with appointments, running errands and visiting friends you will undoubtedly collapse without another thought. Those dishes can wait until tomorrow!

Boys, Men, and Mothers

I went to a dinner party last night, at the house of a neighbor and friend. I went alone, as is my custom these days, and everyone was already seated and tucking in to one of four kinds of chili when I arrived. Introductions went around and the conversational thread picked up where it had been, apparently, when I came in. A kid in a ponytail and bandana was talking about the Middle East, and suggested the US might do well to align itself with Turkey. I, having been in the house for exactly five minutes and knowing nothing about the subject, expressed my skepticism. I really can be a bore. The conversation then turned to other more lively topics, and it was dropped.

After slowly and steadily defeating four bowls of chili and two glasses of wine I retreated to the cool night air of the back patio for a smoke. The ponytail guy was there too. I spoke first,

“Hey, I’m sorry for that Turkey comment, for being dismissive. What I said, I really don’t know anything about it. I was just there once and it struck me as patently corrupt. But what government isn’t, right?”  He raised his eyebrows, he smiled easily,

“Oh, no. Don’t worry about it. They are corrupt, but not as bad as maybe China or Russia…” and from there the conversation weaved from politics, to travel, work. I learned that he was 25, fairly well traveled, and wants to be a therapist. He was interesting, and I like interesting people, so I asked questions, made charming and appropriate replies.  The conversation turned towards our mutual friends and how we knew them, and the guests at the party. He said,

“It is nice to meet adults too. I mean, people who aren’t just out of college.” I realized he was talking about me and laughed.

“Yes, I suppose I fall firmly into the ‘adult’ camp at this point. Though sometimes I don’t feel like it. I mean, I’m still trying new things. Like I just sang with a band for the first time this weekend. I didn’t feel very grown up.”

“Yeah, like my friend’s mom, she’s so cool. She’s like my second mom…” At this point he kept talking about this woman, but I couldn’t hear him, because my head was filled with a loud voice saying “HOLY SHIT. YOU WERE JUST COMPARED TO THE MOTHER OF AN ADULT MAN. A 25 YEAR OLD MAN THINKS OF YOU LIKE A MOTHER.” Then he came around to his point, after describing our mutual coolness – me and this other mother – and said,

“She’s just a totally amazing and beautiful woman.” Well, that’s better. I smiled at him, happy in my assumption that I was amazing and beautiful too. Thanks kid. Someone else came out to the porch and he made to leave. We shook hands.

The spring after I left my husband, I dated a few young men – quite young. To say we “dated” would be misleading. It was spring. They were fleeting diversions, but I don’t think they saw me as, um… maternal. Unless they had some very complicated relationships with their mothers. Like, oedipal ones. At the time though, my behavior was not very adult. I was as unmoored as my twenty-five year old self, heady with the freedom and independence of being single, hanging out with people ten years younger than me. In fact, these younger men were often shocked to find out my age, to learn that I was a professional, and most surprised that I was a mother. It was fun, but I started to feel like the creep at the keg party. When I left St Cloud, without thinking about it, I left it behind. A year later, I’m a grown-up again. Ta-da.

During that period, that spring, I met a more age appropriate man, a friend-of-a-friend, named Rick. Rick was a sweet, sweet guy. We did that awkward, apathetic dating thing where we could never trouble ourselves to really get together, but not for lack of trying. Eventually I had to concede it was a spring fling, and nothing more. Last week he died. He was 35.

The news came to me as part of my facebook newsfeed, a post of our shared friend. Shocked, I went to his “wall” to try to find out the details. It became clear by the nature of the comments that he had killed himself. Of-course I was shocked. I scrolled down, reading everyone’s thoughts, the rawness of them, all messages he would never hear. Too late. His mother wrote simply: “I love ya and will miss you and why???????????”  I started sobbing. The mom in me sobbed. I didn’t know Rick well, and I never met his mom, but I could picture her grief with clarity.

That night I laid down with Ivan as part of our bedtime ritual. I watched him twitch and drift off to sleep. I thought of Rick, and how he was this small once. I thought of his mother putting him to bed at night. I thought about Ivan becoming a man. Will he grow up to be sad? So sad that all the lifetime of love I pour into him will not save him? I could not bear it.

I got up and walked back downstairs to my laptop. I went back to Rick’s page and read more of the posts, looked at pictures of him. I saw his last status update, about 3 weeks old:

“Somehow I just had a vision of what the difference is to be old, and to be young. I want my 20’s back because I’ve gotten too good at being old.” Hmm, a little cryptic. A woman typed a reply about agelessness of spirit, etc, and his reply to her read, “…yes- there is something timeless about anyone’s spirit. I was thinking more about a certain joie de vivre. Not physical health- but the spontaneity that comes with youth and lack of experience.”

He is right of-course. You can’t ever re-capture innocence, youth. But it turns out you can still sing in a rock band when you are middle-aged. You can become an adult and still go to dinner parties with ponytail wearing boys. You can practice the act of transformation over and over again, and grow up a little more each time. I am so, so sorry he never saw the joy and gravitas that comes from experience, with age. Something obscured his view. It is amazing and beautiful.