I Need To See Your Messy House

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messy house

Here’s something I never thought I’d miss until Covid took it away: getting a tour of people’s houses.

I’m talking about the kind of informal walk-throughs that happen when you drop your kid off at a new friend’s house to play and the host asks, ”Do you want to a tour?” and you say, “Yes, sure,” every time.

Perhaps is it just my overly voyeuristic nature or maybe it’s an idiosyncrasy of city living, where you never have enough space and every square foot costs roughly a gazillion dollars, but I never tire of exploring other people’s living spaces.

Part of the allure is design-based: noticing how they made the room look so much bigger by putting the couch against the window, or how handy it is to have pots dangling overhead. But my favorite part of a house tour is glimpsing the proof that real people live there — the clutter of toiletries on a bathroom counter, the disorganized pile of papers on a desk, the unmade beds.

The mess.

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For a year and a half, while Covid raged, I’ve avoided entering other people’s homes, and social media has served as my only window into others’ domestic lives.

Much has been written about what happens to us collectively when we over-curate our lives to make them picture-perfect. I have nothing new to add to the conversation.

Except to say: I am forever peering into the background of photos to see if I can catch a hint of authenticity — an overturned box of Fruity Pebbles on the floor, or a sink full of dirty dishes. The domestic equivalent of showing your slip.

It rarely happens. Mostly what I’ve seen on social media are expertly-filtered photos of homemade bread and slow-roasted meats arranged on a spectacular table, wood gleaming, every candle thoughtfully placed.

I’ve seen gorgeous renovations resulting in rooms painted the most charming shade of azure, shelves lined with books arranged by color, so they resemble a literary rainbow. Every pillow has been plumped. There has been zero mess.

I’ve turned my face from my phone screen to my own home and my eyes have been met with a positively post-apocalyptic scene. For a year and a half, my apartment has looked freshly ransacked at all times.

Take two parents, add two sullen teenagers, one wildly energetic kid, and a brand-new puppy, then shove them in a 1,300 square foot space for four hundred days, with only short intervals outside. What you end up with is an immeasurable, possibly irrevocable, mess.

Suffice it to say I won’t be giving tours of my home anytime soon.

But not long ago, I found myself on the receiving end of a tour for the first time since Covid struck, when I dropped my nine-year-old off at a friend’s house.

“Come on in!” my host chirped as she answered the door. “Let me give you a tour!”

They’d recently moved, and she was excited to show off the place. I followed her around the small row house, admiring wallpaper, running my hands over velvet upholstery, agreeing that there was plenty of light in the kitchen, even though it was in the basement.

Then we reached the second floor, where the living room was located, and she apologized for the pile of clothes heaped onto the sofa. They were clean, she explained, she just hadn’t gotten around to folding them yet.

It wasn’t the most dramatic a-ha! moment of my adult life, but it registered as a revelation. It was like that time I realized that I am not the only person who, for most of her adult life, thought the word “misled” was pronounced “miseld” for no apparent reason.

“This is our eternal problem!” I told my host. “Where to put the clean laundry before we fold it? Sometimes it feels like all we do all day is move piles of clean laundry from one surface to another.”

It is true. The pile of clean laundry has become my Sisyphusean rock.

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We always have clean laundry, waging war with the hamper daily, but while tossing the clothes in the washer and the dryer only takes a few minutes, folding them requires a full eon. None of us are ever prepared to do that.

So we heave the clean clothes out of the dryer and carry them over to the dining/ kitchen table, one of the only surfaces large enough to contain them. And then inevitably, dinner time rolls around, for which the table is required, so we gather up the clothes and move them onto the only other surface large enough to contain them — my bed.

When, not long after, we want to go to sleep, the pile of unfolded clothes gets heaved right back onto the table. Back and forth the clothes go, with the pile getting larger each day until someone gets fed up enough to sit down and fold it all.

This is not an efficient system. It’s not an elegant solution. But since I lack the operational know-how to improve this situation, the best I can do is to hope I’m not alone in my dilemma — that I’m not the only parent who’s failed to master the basics of domestic life.

And that day, in the middle of the house tour, I realized I was not.

“What amazes me,” I told my host, ”is not that I haven’t solved this problem but that anyone in history has.”

“I know,” she said. “Kids are so much work.”

“It’s really hard to manage it all,” I agreed.

A rare and precious moment of fellow feeling — brought to me by the pile of wrinkled clothes, sitting on the couch where guests should have been.

We’re all just doing the best we can. Sometimes that best is beds so aggressively unmade that you find bags full of snacks in the sheets. Sometimes it’s a cruddy pan ignored so long, the crud starts to seem like it belongs there.

Sometimes it’s a mountain of clothes that renders your dining table unusable. You may never see it on Instagram, but keep your eyes open the next time someone gives you a tour of their house and you just might get lucky.

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Nicole C. Kear is a professor of writing. She has been featured in Medium, The New York Times, The Washington Post, HuffPost, Psychology Today, New York Magazine, and more. Follow her website or her Twitter.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.