Packrats in Love Struggle to clear the Landfill called Home (with a little help from Marie Kondo)

I came home from my most recent Book Group and announced to Sweetheart that I had good news and bad news.

“What?” he said.

“Book group is going to be here in March,” I told him. I was originally slated for August, but a spot opened up and I jumped. I’ve been wanting to talk about “The Orphan Master’s Son” with this crew since finishing it a month ago.

So, for me, this is great news, because now I don’t have to wait another six months. Plus, it means we get to clean the house. For him, it’s bad, because the house is going to be invaded by a horde of middle-aged women, and we have to clean the house.

Cleaning the house is, I am sad to say, an anxiety-provoking activity. If I ever write a screenplay about Sweetheart and I, it will be a romantic comedy/horror film called “When Packrats Fall in Love.”

We both have a fair bit of long-standing baggage when it comes to housekeeping, and neither one of us has figured out a healthy way of dealing with the ways in which our separate pathologies overlap. Think of it as a Venn diagram in dire need of re-arrangement.

It’s definitely a relationship issue, because on our own, we would be able to figure our own ways around it. He would hang out with his clutter, selectively noticing whatever bothered him and addressing it. I would put things in order in the way I wanted to and keep them that way once I got them there, culling and getting rid of things and paring them down and arranging them. And when I couldn’t do it on my own, I’d get someone in to help me with what is hard for me to do on my own.

It’s taken me a lifetime to get to the point of knowing I can do it. I know because I’ve done it. I know why it didn’t last, that those reasons are mostly behind me, and that on my own, I can make it happen again. But I want Sweetheart with me, so this has to be a team effort.

My earliest memories around cleaning are infused with shame, and my childhood memories are of terror. I have always struggled with creating and maintaining order, even as I coveted it. In my marriage to First Ex, the dynamic was very similar to childhood, and not much fun. Second Ex was much more easygoing, which was great emotionally but didn’t make for much in the way of physical change. Also, kids aren’t exactly an asset when it comes to trying to maintain order if you don’t already know how impose it.

So it took all the way until I was living by myself – between Second Ex and Sweetheart – that I licked it. Our neighborhood has an annual Home Tour, and I put my house up as one of the 12 that year. There’s nothing like the prospect of hundreds of people who’ve paid money to tromp through your Abused Victorian (mine was the “in-progress” house) to terrorize you into organizing it.

My "in-progress" Abused Victorian. The new owners have given it a major-league facelift. It does not look like this any more. That's Sweetheart up in the birch, giving it a haircut. (He's a professional. Don't try this on your own.)
My “in-progress” Abused Victorian. The new owners have given it a major-league facelift. It does not look like this any more. That’s Sweetheart up in the birch, giving it a haircut. (He’s a professional. Don’t try this on your own.)

A week before the tour, I’d gotten a bunch done, but there was way more. I called in the troops. Friends ruthlessly tossed junk, scrubbed windows, and planted flowers in front of the rosebushes and peonies at the front of the house. The place looked amazing.

It stayed that way for six months, six of the most glorious months of my life. Not once did I wake up and think, “I have to clean today.” It took virtually no time at all to maintain order, and I loved just sitting at home, gloriously reading or cooking or having friends over or watching movies or hanging out with my dog or doing nothing at all.

Then, I was in a car accident. I couldn’t move or do much. A year later, Sweetheart moved in with a lot – and I mean a lot – of things. I had an extra job at work that added up to longer hours and heavy pressure; I was dealing with accident fallout. Then First Husband died and Youngest Daughter, whose housekeeping skills made my worst efforts look like those of a domestic goddess, moved in. Soon, I was living in the Landfill I Call Home.

We’ve moved since, but by then I was in graduate school. I had a choice to make. I could focus on getting the house in order and doing my job, or I could focus on getting the house in order and being serious about school, or I could focus on doing my job and being serious about school. I could not do all three.

Aside from the fact that I happen to really like it, that job is the engine that runs my life. It was also, through tuition reimbursement, financing a significant chunk of my graduate education. (Anyone who has ever priced grad school knows exactly how big a deal that is.) Cleaning a house might be difficult, I figured, but not as hard as trying to clean up a transcript. So, I consciously let the house slide. Through six years of school that included breaking up my mother’s house – twice – and absorbing her things (some temporarily, some not so temporarily), I did not think about The Landfill I Call Home.

Then, last May, I graduated. (My GPA was 3.9. Thank you, Taxpayers. I tried to be a wise steward of your dollars, and I work every day to put the skills you bought to work on your behalf.)

Anyway, the house is still, I am sad to say, not up to the standards I am aiming for. But not long ago, I picked up a book called “The Life Changing Art of Tidying Up” by a Japanese woman called Marie Kondo.

I love her system, and am thinking of using a week of vacation to try and put it in place. Kondo loved tidying and order from the time she was a wee thing. And I mean “loved tidying and order” the way some little girls love horses or ballet or gymnastics.

She says forget about cleaning and tidying. Go through ALL your things, and handle them. Figure out what gives you joy. If it gives you joy, keep it. If it doesn’t, send it somewhere where it will provide joy to someone else. If it’s not usable anymore, thank it and send it to the landfill or recycling place.

It’s a big, intense endeavor. Just writing about it makes me anxious. But having gotten over that hill once and seen what’s on the other side makes me want, intensely, to take Sweetheart by the hand and make the trip together.

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