Mommy vs Messdor

A Meditation on Mess

I've spent the past couple of days going through closets and cabinets sorting out things to give or throw away. It's possible, of course, that this is simply procrastination. According to my original plan for this week, I was supposed to be getting started on the next chapter of my book, but when I woke up on Tuesday, I simply couldn't face going into the office knowing that I had not done the clean-out that I had put on the to-do list for last week. Or maybe I just couldn't face going into the office and decided to clean closets in order to give myself something more urgent to do. Either way, my melancholic-ness* gets to express itself: balking at beginnings plus needing things tidy.

But why should I--or anyone--find mess so intolerable, particularly at the beginnings of things? My family likes to joke that they can always tell when I am worried about getting started on a new chapter or article. Suddenly, all the clutter that was, if not invisible to me the week before, then at least tolerable becomes impossible to ignore and I start raging around the apartment demanding that everyone pick his things up and take them to his room. (It's always, of course, somebody else's fault that there's a mess, not, ahem, mine, no, not at

It's even possible to gauge the degree of the hurdle that I'm facing in my work by how much tidying I find it necessary to do. An article typically demands that the living room be put back in order. Chapter one of the current book required the purchase of a new bookcase, plus a thorough sort and realphabetizing of all of our books (all seven cases worth, not counting my husband's work books and the books in the hallway). This week's activities have included sorting through the hall closet where I keep all of my old clothes, going through my son's toys and books (he actually volunteered on that one), clearing out the bathroom cabinets, and washing all of the drapes and curtains. My son and I took eight bags of clothing, stuffed animals, picture books, purses, and decorative pillows to the Salvation Army yesterday; this morning I threw out a whole garbage bag full of old make-up and other toiletries from the bathroom. And on Friday, I've arranged for someone to come clean the sofa and love-seat.

"Cleanliness," it has been said, "is next to Godliness." I wonder. Is mess actually evil? Part of me says it's so. A few years ago, I was teaching a course on "Spiritual Exercises," and one of the assignments that I gave the class was to make a prayer without using words. I can't remember exactly what we were reading that week, but I think it was Loyola's Spiritual Exercises. In any case, the practice itself was riveting. How--I asked myself as I rode my bike into campus that morning--would I make a prayer without words? Perhaps, I found myself thinking, I should make an offering of something, maybe some flowers, maybe some food, maybe my cat, maybe--oh, horror of horrors!--my son (whom I glimpsed at just that moment in my bike's rear-view mirror**). At once, I had a whole new appreciation of what Abraham must have gone through. But if I was not going to sacrifice my son, however right it might seem to offer God such a prayer, what should I do? Ah, it came to me as I put my kettle on to make tea, I need to clean!

I was not the only one. Several of the students in the class reported the next day that their "prayers" had taken the form of cleaning: sweeping the stairs, washing windows, sorting books. Somehow handling these material things, caring for them, removing the dust and the grime, and putting them back in order felt like a prayer. Why? My husband, who is in a somewhat atheistic mood at this stage in his life, cleans things for a living, but he knew the answer almost immediately when I asked him this evening about why cleaning and sorting should have such a powerful spiritual effect. "It's claiming the things in your life as your own, caring for them, and choosing which ones are actually valuable to you," he said. "It's the way God must feel at judgment, you know, sorting the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the tares."

He was joking, but I do know what he means. Cleaning shows that we care for our things--the things that exist with us in this material world, the world that God has created for us to live in. Dust is a sign that we have not been paying attention, not caring for our things. Dust accumulates on things that we do not touch enough. And the sorting? It's hard for me because I always worry (melancholic second-guesser that I am!) that I might find some use for these neglected things, might wear the old clothes again, might want the mirrors off my old powder compacts for some project, might want my grandchildren to be able to read these books. But there is also a great feeling of relief in letting go of things that I no longer really want, not to mention the comforting thought that someone else might actually need or want them.

Things deserve our attention, it seems. Indeed, ironically enough, it is worse not to attend to them but simply to leave them to accumulate, unwanted, in closets. Not that we should worship things, that's not at all what I'm saying, nor that we should strive to accumulate as many of them as we can, for how could we care for them all? It's what my husband deals with day after day: he works as an objects conservator in a museum and, yes, it is a full-time job keeping a collection well-cared for. Tomorrow, appropriately enough, he and his colleagues will be doing their annual top-to-bottom "deep clean" of the collections storage, from the light fixtures and the tops of the shelves to the floors underneath the storage units (think about the dust that accumulates behind your fridge; right). It's the kind of cleaning most of us do only when we are moving house, and they have to do it every year simply so as to keep the objects in their care properly, yes, cared for.

So now, on reflection, I'm not actually sure that what I've been doing these past couple of days is procrastinating. It's as much a part of the process of being able to write as making notes or getting up the courage to write the first page. While I'm writing, I tend not to notice the dust or the clutter, but when I stop, as now, the things in my life call out for attention--and so they should. I have chosen them and it is my responsibility to care for them and to make them presentable to God.

*"Melancholy" would seem to be the correct word to use here, but the point is not that I'm sad or depressed, just temperamentally "melancholic."
**You don't have one? A mirror, I mean. You should. And by the way, don't ride against traffic. It's actually the best way to get hit. No, the cars can't see you any better: they're not expecting anyone to be coming the wrong way, now are they? Think about it: do you look both ways when you're driving before crossing a one-way street?


  1. I used to have a mirror mounted on my helmet but was having trouble getting used to it so I temporarily removed it. Now I'd like it back to try it again but (ha!) I can't find it in the mess in my apartment. Would you post a photo of your bike someday? I'm a (very) amateur mechanic and enjoy seeing photos of people's rides.

  2. The mirror I have is mounted onto the left-hand handlebar. I've never tried one of the helmet mirrors, but either is much better than riding the wrong way down the street. The reason bikers think they're safer riding against traffic is that they can see the cars coming, but the drivers of the cars really aren't expecting something to be coming against the traffic in this way. Much better to have the mirror and ride on the right side of the road. End of sermon. Yes, I can do a photo of my bike, but it's nothing special in itself, just a Schwinn.


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