When Curly Fries came home from her grandparents’ house, where she had been sequestered during the course of this cleaning, she wandered into her bedroom with an awestruck look in her eyes.
“It’s clean!” she declared. She does this every time someone cleans her room, but this time she could see the difference. “Who cleaned my room?”
“Your mother and I cleaned it,” I told her. “It looks good, doesn’t it?”
“It’s so neat,” she enthused breathlessly. She immediately went to a corner where we had corralled her zoo of stuffed animals into a methodically structured menagerie. “I mess it up again,” she declared as she began chucking animals with two-fisted enthusiasm.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, although I certainly acted it. “Stop!” I shouted. “Don’t do that! We worked hard on that!”
“Why?” she asked.
“Because we need to keep the house looking clean and orderly.”
“Because people who might want to buy our house want it to be neat.”
I often get exhausted with the rolling whys, but this had me stumped. Why indeed? Why is order the superior state for a home? Of course our house won’t sell if it’s a mess, because no one wants to live in a messy house. But why not? What’s so bad about a messy house?
I’m not entirely clear as to what is so bad about clutter and mess. I am clear that I fully believe for myself that clutter and mess is bad. I hate it. I’m not a neat freak; I certainly tolerate a small amount of clutter and disorganization in designated areas of my life. My desk, for instance. And my closets and drawers. But having a baby and toddler introduces an entirely new level of clutter and disorganization. The house has been in a constant state of chaos since Curly Fries came home from the hospital. And I hate it. No matter how much straightening and organizing and putting away of things I do, there is a pocket of mess somewhere in our house. Even in those rare moments when there isn’t any mess, there will be as soon as the toddler hits the floor. As soon as she saw how orderly her room was, Curly Fries went about destroying the order. What is that about? Why doesn’t she appreciate order the same way the rest of us adults do? If we were selling our house to toddlers, our lives would be a whole lot easier.
I think it’s about control. That’s the name of pretty much every game we adults play: controlling the chaotic mess that is the world around us. Our health, our money, our social networks, our identities: we expend tremendous amounts of energy trying to order and control our universe. “A place for everything and everything in its place,” right?
Man, wouldn’t that be nice. My poor three-year-old, she hasn’t learned to yearn for this yet. In fact, she seems to be longing for the very opposite: for toys and blankets and crayons to be everywhere. She’s not interested in that kind of control. She’s interested in agency and creativity. And those things are messy, at least for a three-year-old. She doesn’t need the world to be organized. She does need for it to be safe, secure, and trustworthy. But orderly? Please. How do you play with order? The point of order is to disorder it. Children only build block castles so they can knock them down and thrill to the way they make the pieces tumble differently every time.
The universe probably doesn’t have a place for everything, and if it does, it will be a long long time before everything is in its proper place. My little girl doesn’t care. To her, the place for everything, in any given moment, is wherever she’s playing with it. After that, who cares? She’ll come back to it if she wants. This in-the-moment existence won’t sell a house. But it sure does make for a much more open, curious, authentic way of encountering the world. If she wants to leave her coloring books on the couch, she does. If she wants to wake me up at three in the morning to tell me she’s decided to sleep in the floor, she does. If she wants to bring her dried acorn collection into the house, she does (or tries and then cries when I won’t let her). She grabs bugs and worms. She colors her hands green. She tries on all her mother’s shoes. She runs around naked. She’s a mess and she loves it.
Despite how neat our house looks right now – or maybe even because of it – my life feels like a mess. The air is thick with transition: new jobs, new cities, selling houses, finding a new place to live. The universe is messy. Why do we think that’s bad and needs to be avoided? Curly Fries loves it. Why can’t I love it half as much as she does? Is it because I feel the need to be her safety net? Or because I have grown up to need my own safety net? I don’t know, but as much as her unruly messiness drives me crazy, I could definitely learn from the wisdom of just letting the toys of the world be where they are and learn to love sleeping on the floor just for the hell of it. There can be something fun in messiness. It won’t sell your house, but it might help you find a home.