It was just Passover, and while other Jews cleansed their houses of bread crumbs, I began to cleanse my life, starting with my room. It’s spring, the standard time for cleaning, and never before has it been so essential that I start taking cleaning seriously.
A couple of years ago, I attended a friend’s stand-up show. One of her fellow comedians told a joke about what a slob she is and ended it with, “Not cleaning your room is a radical feminist act.” This really spoke to me. Who has time to clean when they’re busy dismantling the patriarchy? As Simone de Beauvoir said, “Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.” Well, it turns out, most people, feminists and otherwise, still find more time to clean than I do.
I keep a tight schedule. Everything from work shifts at my three jobs to zine-making time to casual coffees with friends is written down in my Passion Planner. I like to joke that even my meltdowns about being too busy are scheduled, but that’s also kind of true.
My obsession with being busy is rooted in my fear of quiet. I’m afraid of not being productive, of dying before I accomplish whatever new project I’ve set my eyes on, and, honestly, I’m afraid of being silently alone with myself. The only times I am calm are when I’m stuck somewhere. I use this time to do the thinking work that must be done on occasion. The decompressing. Physical therapy? Great, there’s a set amount of time I have to be there focusing on myself. Riding the bus? Perfect! I get motion-sick if I try to work in vehicles, and I can’t make the traffic move faster, so I can finally calm down.
Being chronically/terminally ill, I worry a lot about time. I think I always have, even before I knew I was sick. There’s never enough of it, and I work hard at filling it to the brim. My grandmother accuses me of never being able to sit still, but that’s not quite accurate. I have no trouble focusing or sitting still, as long as I am being productive during that time. When I’m not working, I’m volunteering, or making art, or playing video games in carefully scheduled pockets of time. Even then I usually try to find a way to turn my game playing into something productive, such as writing a review or essay about the game. I don’t “chill.” I have no idea how to “hang.” I’m exhausting to be around, I hear.
All of that is to say: I do not clean my room. The shared parts of the house? Yes, of course, I have an obligation to the people I live with to keep our space clean. But my own space? It’s a nightmare.
Recently, I’ve been talking to a medical professional about my likely OCD diagnosis. You see, “hoarding” is considered part of the OCD umbrella, and I really do “collect” things. This is rooted in childhood trauma, as is my obsession with being busy. Being raised poor, being moved around a lot, being left at other relatives’ houses for days, months, years, and never feeling at home. It’s hard now to get rid of things.
Well, hard is an understatement. It causes me to panic, sometimes to have a full-blown panic attack, to get rid of things. What if I need that flyer I found on the street three years ago for an art project one day? I know this wig is snarled and awful, but someone might want it, and I should find that person. It’s okay that these shoes have a hole in them, I’ll wear them when it’s dry outside.
Then again, I have gotten rid of many things before in manic fits, but then I acquire all new things. People know that I like stuff, and they offer it to me, unaware at how bad it has slowly been getting over the almost five years I’ve lived in this apartment. This is the longest time I’ve ever lived in one space, ever. It is foreign and wonderful and finally feels safe, but I’m pushing myself out with stacks of dozens of magazines on my bed, piles of clothes others have cast off, and stacks and stacks of books I’ll never have time to read.
Things are all interconnected; no one symptom stands alone. Suze Orman said, “If you have debt I’m willing to bet that general clutter is a problem for you, too.” Perhaps there are personality traits that do indicate such tendencies. I’m good at fixing problems in the office. There are clear procedures and steps to take. In my own life, when things become overwhelming and pile up (often literally), I just let them be. Like debt when there’s not enough money coming in, there’s no clear solution when I stare at my collection of things. I decided to take this High Holiday to figure it out.
For the uninitiated, Passover is a celebration of Jewish liberation and a reminder that while others are still in (proverbial and real) chains, no one can be truly free. On a very practical scale, it is when the Jews get rid of their bread. You see, as the Jews fled Egypt they did not have time to let their bread collect the yeasty bacteria in the air and rise, so they baked the bread of affliction, matzo, instead. In order to honor that, Jews now refrain from eating leavened bread for a week and cleanse their houses of all bread remnants or chametz. There are checklists to help you find all the bread, and some Jews use this as an opportunity to do a good spring cleaning of their whole house.
Modern, liberal Jews are pretty big on adapting their faith to work for them, and I’m no exception. I sat in bed the night before Passover, looked out at my kingdom of garbage, and decreed a change must occur. I just turned 25; how bad will my room look when I turn 30? How would I ever live with a partner if I didn’t learn to shape up now?
So, I decided that this Passover would be the beginning of a new year (and, for Jews, it kind of is). After talking with many of my friends about what keeps them clean and what helps them get rid of things, I turned to their resources and experts.
Katherine Whitehorn once said, “When it comes to housework the one thing no book of household management can ever tell you is how to begin. Or maybe I mean why.” However, reading my friends’ recommendations has proven this untrue.
The world has been raving about the KonMari method laid out in Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, so I borrowed a copy and got ready to have my life changed. I also borrowed a copy of Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Gail Steketee and Randy Frost. What I learned from these books is that this process would be long, much longer than Passover, and it would be hard. However, Kondo requires something that has dialed my panic at the disposal of items down to a slight clamminess. When you get rid of something, you must thank it for what it brought to your life.
It sounded ridiculous to me. I’m not a spiritual person. I don’t believe things happen for a cosmic reason, but this helped. Asking myself if I truly wanted each item or if I was just scared of getting rid of it helped. Telling each thing that it had once been important to me helped. I felt a tight knot deep in my abdomen release just a little as bags and bags of previously desired stuff left my room.
The late Jewish poet Adrienne Rich wrote in “Diving into the Wreck”:
First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.
We each must dive into the wreckage of our lives alone. Many have offered to help me, and the cleaning would go faster if I accepted these outreached hands, but I’ve said yes before and then returned to my old ways. I must honor my life, my decisions, and I must learn to move on by myself.
And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.
Equipped with my book of myths, both Jewish and Japanese, I descended into the depths of my room. It wasn’t the physical wreckage I really came for though, not the “story of the wreck,” but “the thing itself,” that is my emotional baggage that has allowed me to live in this state for so long.
So, is everything clean? No, I still have a lot of work to do. But I’m actually looking forward to it. It has felt joyous to identify the things that bring true meaning to my life and to actually let go of the things that do not.
I worry about keeping it this way. As I mentioned, I easily acquire new things. I turned down some free books the other day, so that’s a small start. Kondo swears that none of her customers relapse, and I hope that’s true. Otherwise, I am being cautious and emotionally responsible and prepared to start Cognitive Behavioral Therapy if I return to my “collecting” ways. It’s time for a change, a freeing of my time and space, and I am committed to this journey.
As Rich wrote, it is a solitary journey, and while I believe that many people have had their lives changed by the KonMari method, I will plan my approach as a multi-pronged discovery and grieving.
Happy belated Passover, chag sameach. May you too find the strength to let go of something that no longer brings you joy.