I’m witnessing my behavior change after 2.5 years of the good life here on the hill with my cohabitant. My mood swings are subsiding and my obsession with cleaning seems to be dissipating. Maybe it’s because everything here is clean by now. But it could be that the experience of living a sweet, simple, stable life is changing my brain chemistry. And it’s not just me. He swept the kitchen floor. So, something inside him is changing, too. The last time I saw him sweep the kitchen floor was a couple years ago. He pushed the pile of sweepings into a corner and just left it there. When I asked if he intended to pick it up, he said, “It’ll be there when I get to it.” In my mind I heard him say, “Don’t push me.” I didn’t push. I’ve not pushed him to clean because I know intuitively that would be the end of us.
We have different needs when it comes to householding. I clean. Compulsively. Obsessively. Hourly. He plays. No complaints. I like our division of labor. He does many things for our home with a good cheer that’s in stark contrast to my moodiness. And he accepts me for who I am, even when I’m pushing on him to change. We both have mental health issues that we need to manage.
My cleaning disorder began in 2016 when I sold a home that I loved and dispatched my lifetime of possessions to parts unknown. I’ve written about it many times because it’s such a looming feature on my mental landscape. Fear and loss. Since then, several friends have been surprised to find that when left alone in their house, I took the liberty of “cleaning” and rearranged their pantry, their linen closet, their spice drawer, or their garage. I once rearranged an entire Airbnb apartment, moved pictures on the wall, changed the kitchen cabinets, and took down some crappy curtains. Then I was bummed when they didn’t thank me. Sometimes it’s easier to change our exterior than our interior.
Now I see that I am the anti-hoarder, overcompensating for my past drama. Loss of home. Loss of control. For months I’ve had the compulsion to clean and reorganize the woodshed, a treasure trove of rusty junk out behind the garage. None of it mine. I planned to take everything out, wipe the surfaces, throw away the hideous, and put back the remains in an order that makes sense. Just thinking about throwing things away gets me high like a bulimic purge. I bundled rusty lawn chairs, broken rakes, and the corpse of a plastic hose too brittle to be uncoiled. Then I bagged nasty old muck boots, forgotten rodent traps, toothless saw blades, roofless bird houses and dog-chewed deer antlers. But about halfway through this high colonic, I hit the brakes because I had a thought collision that stopped me in my tracks.
The woodshed had always been a chaotic mess, but it was cool, and I felt like it was becoming less and less cool as I cleaned it. I was killing its character, forcing a structure that had never been there. As if Marie Kondo had become the production designer for Duck Dynasty. A complete mismatch. I saw myself coercing objects into submission. Deer antlers are so much more mysterious when they peek out from behind a stack of crusty flowerpots. They lose their connection to nature in a plastic milk crate. My need for clean was purging the mystique of a room abandoned to the desiccation of time.
Among the chipmunk leavings and spider eggs I had the epiphany that I was dismembering history. My approach to reorganizing the woodshed was sterile and now that artful tangle of stuff was gone. The traces of idiosyncrasy erased. And it struck me that my persistent pressure on my partner to organize the storage of his fishing stuff in the garage was similarly misguided. My idea of order is the alphabet. He rejects order in a splatter of tools, hooks and lures that resembles a Jackson Pollock painting. I thought how my tidying his workshop erases his tracks and disrupts his play and a switch inside me flipped. Suddenly I could see the creativity in his chaos and my need to bring order to the garage disappeared. It’s a very small invisible victory, but I could be letting go of clean.