My father did not start out a tidy type, and I am my father’s daughter: most of my life has been a battle between me and stuff, me and dirt, me and disorder.
Oh, I could, and did, endlessly re-label and sort the files in the canary-yellow file cabinet I requested and received for my 13th birthday. That’s not real order now, I realize: that’s low-level OCD masquerading as order. A disorder, manifesting as order. Because while I worked and re-worked taxonomies in my head, on paper, then on the file tabs themselves (this long, long before I knew what “taxonomy” was), I was not preparing myself for work or for thought or for anything; I was soothing myself as best I could in a time (pre-teen) and space (my maternal grandparents’, a.k.a. “Gloomy Manor”, a.k.a. House-o’-Alcoholics and the Enablers Who Keep Them Going) that were very anxiety-provoking for me. (My sister and I also indulged in the sitcom-perfect passive-aggression of singing rousing choruses from “If Mama Was Married” while we did the dishes together, but that’s another nugget of tragicomedy gold for another day.)
These days, I have all but abandoned my poor, poor file folders. Oh, they’re there, and they’re (reasonably) neatly labeled, but there are so few, it doesn’t take long to find what I’m looking for even with only medium-good filing habits. I spend more time keeping the IKEA desktop they support clean and cleared of clutter, because that does seem to help me get my work done. The fewer things I have lying around me in stacks and piles and other smoldering and/or moldering piles, the easier it is to write, to think, and most importantly, to keep my spirits up. I am of little use to myself or anyone else when they are otherwise.
This is why I have added “clean dishes” as my last household task before heading for bed, the bed that is always made 10 or 12 or 16 hours before: it lifts my spirits at the beginning of the day to see a clean, fresh sink just as much as it soothes me at the end of one to slip into a made bed. I feel cared for, I feel safe, I feel hopeful. My friend Gretchen Rubin says this is the #1 change her readers tell her they’ve made which has had a significant impact on their happiness, and I can see why. It’s do-ably small, but has a magically high ROI. Maybe it’s because, as she implies, it instantly creates a look of order. A bed is a rather large thing, after all. But I also think there is something about starting out the day with a small bit of control that is a big part of the benefit. And so, to cap it, for the past several weeks, I’ve been playing around with finishing off the day as Dan Owen does, by making sure the kitchen is ready to go first thing in the morning.
The result? I feel so much better on days that begin with a clean sink that it’s now a regular part of my routine. No matter how tired I am, I clean the dishes. And because I’ve had to do it a few times when I’m very, very tired, I’ve also gotten a bit better about clean-as-you-go maintenance.
I am very aware that without awareness, this lovely, Fly-Lady habit could morph into another manifestation of OCD. My sister and I also joke about how, in the last decade or so of our father’s life, you could not leave your iced tea on the end table while you went to the other room for a magazine, for fear it would be “cleaned up” while you walked there and back. If it’s possible, he decluttered too much; in the end, he had no tolerance for any personal artifacts, save a photo or two that, if I’m honest, were probably mostly there for showin’, not blowin’, as the saying goes.
On the other hand, I have no doubt he held us in his heart, which is where these things really matter. And that is what I try to remember matters to me: what and whom I hold in my heart, and which habits and actions go the furthest towards keeping them secure there.
Making the bed and cleaning the sink are my signals to myself that I am still fortunate enough to be able to exercise some control over my destiny. They are actions that show respect for the space I’m lucky enough to inhabit and the time I have been given to work on what I want. They mark the beginning and end of a day lived the way I want to live: deliberately, thoughtfully, with enough order and support that creativity can flourish. I do not make the bed to bounce quarters off of nor shine the sink to see my face reflected within: I attend to structure, to the vessels, and trust that whatever it is that keeps floating ideas my way will keep up its own good work. We each of us have our part to play.
I am grateful I can make the bed; I am happy I can wash the dishes.
God, or whomever, or whatever, can take care of the drying…