Illustration by Anne le Guern

It saddens me to say it, but after years of seeking to come to terms with my own inadequacy, not saying it feels worse: I am, truly and perhaps incurably, messy.

I’ve struggled to clean my room (and later, my house) since I could ride a bike or tie my shoes. Part of my problem is, simply and deeply, I resist putting things away. I want to see my mess in front of me: shoes, a jar of peanut butter and a glass of milk, books and boxes and all. But I’m not done yet, I think, if I move to put something away.

I’m not willfully curating a cluttered space. Rather, I want it impulsively and instinctually—the way I crave a banana in the morning or a back scratch from my husband. I function better in my own mess, at least to a degree. I read more with three books on my lap than I do with one, write more with five tabs open than a single blank page. But five tabs quickly multiply until my computer crashes and I need to reboot it. A handful of things on the floor quickly turn into a huge pile, and as the things proliferate, putting them away comes to feel impossible, beyond my categorization and decision-making abilities. From there, the encroaching crop of things makes it hard to wipe the table or vacuum—such that, even if I’m happy to do both, I’m likely to do neither.

Clutter, though, is only part of my problem. Clutter is messy, and being messy makes it easier to be dirty. But I am also dirty.

I don’t mean that I am what some call “poorly groomed.” I bathe every one or two days, wear “shower fresh”-scented deodorant, comb my hair, brush and floss my teeth, and often chew minty gum before going out in public. I am careful not to force my comfort with being unwashed on unsuspecting passersby, and my appearance is not scandalous. If anything I look a little boring in my jeans and t-shirts and ponytail.

What I mean is that I’ve always had an affinity for dirt of all sorts. My dad tells me that when I was little, I used to kneel on the street and drink mud from the gutters. Outside of school, I walked almost exclusively barefoot – through my backyard chicken coop, on the pavement, between the spoiling, fallen cherries in our side-yard orchard. I reveled in the coat of tar and pulp that built up on the balls and heels of my feet, a burnished armor as thick and shiny as a ripe avocado peel.

I have a soft spot for grime: I love trimming my husband’s fingernails, in part for the pleasure of scooping out the cellular flotsam and jetsam, for gathering the gunk. If I grew up in a monkey tribe, I would be an inveterate groomer, parting waves of fur in search of lice and flaking skin, dislodging old scabs and beads of oil, shuffling a forest of follicles for the pleasure of a rising dust cloud. I love the smell of bird feathers, musty and chockablock with mites, love the rank fumes of a cow pen.

As a parent, I take the lead when it comes to diaper duty and vomit clean-up, and not because my husband’s cerebral palsy restricts his ability to change diapers; it does not. He, too, favors a little clutter and commotion. Our dispositions are compatible, and Michael’s CP doesn’t prevent him from sweeping or taking out the trash; he is not a hostage to my tendencies, but a willing accessory to them.

In general, I’m inclined toward chores others might consider unsavory; I enjoy shoveling manure and brushing horses, along with weeding, picking fruit, and mowing the lawn. I like the dirt stains on my knees, the sour scent of sweat on my fingers, the filaments of grass all over my arms and clothes. Indoors, my favorite chores are the grimy grunt work, like scrubbing the griddle in the sink and letting the oily silt water run over my hands. These chores ground me; their texture and tactile engagement comforts me and soothes my senses.

Maybe it’s because of my love of all things grimy and mucky, but I don’t mind when the dirt finds its way to places it shouldn’t be. I am not bothered when the clothes piling up on my floor are stiff with dirt and sweat and oil; I feel no distress when my counters and floor are dense with crumbs. And really, I’m just as happy letting my mind wander as I sit on an overgrown lawn or in a greasy garage as I am mowing or trimming or sweeping or scrubbing. My comfort with dirt is companionable; it requires no activity on my part.

If I was oblivious to my dirtiness as a kid, other kids were not. Once, during recess in elementary school, a classmate asked me how long I had gone without showering. Other kids stood around me, and I sensed that this was a question I should answer carefully. After a moment I said, “Once, I went on a two-week camping trip and I didn’t bathe at all.” My answer was calculated to suggest that I normally bathed more, intended to hide that I often went a month or more without bathing. It was, needless to say, a miscalculation.

I wet the bed until I was seven. The act itself embarrassed me, but I had little sense of the physical residue left behind. I usually tried to change the sheets myself before anyone woke up, proceeding to school in clean clothes but reeking of ammonia, something my classmates and the older students noticed, calling me “Leaky Lizzie.” At the time, I assumed one of my older siblings had told on me, not imagining that the evidence might be manifest on my person.

There’s a lot to be said for cleaning. At its best, cleaning can safeguard sanitation and sanity, words that share a meaning: health. Our minds are affected by external stimuli, prone to agitation in the presence of noxious smells or discouragement and heartache at the disrepair of things we cherish. The process of cleaning or making things orderly can be refreshing, even creative work. For a time, I pressed pants at a dry cleaner’s, and I loved my job. Running the press was a pleasure, spreading the rumpled fabrics flat and closing the lid over them, seeing it rise to reveal a surface as smooth as water. I was happy to continue wearing my crinkled shirts, and I didn’t like the smell of detergent on my own clothes, but I enjoyed the hours I spent in the ordered, trim environment of the dry cleaner’s.

As a culture, however, we don’t see cleanliness as a matter of personal preference; it is less art or medicine than religion. We’ve kept alive Francis Bacon’s sentiment, “Cleanliness of body was ever deemed to proceed from a due reverence to God,” and even more so Reverend John Wesley’s revision, “Let it be observed, that slovenliness is no part of religion […] Cleanliness is, indeed, next to godliness.” We tout these phrases in favor of a comely appearance and sparkling kitchens, though I suspect neither Francis Bacon nor John Wesley wore deodorant.

Linguistically, our ties between cleanliness and morality are even stronger. A slattern can mean a poorly dressed, untidy woman, or a prostitute. The adjective dirty can refer not only to a state of grime but to dishonesty or obscenity; we want to wash our hands of all that. Cheryl Mendelson, lawyer, novelist, and author of Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House, is surely not alone in feeling that dust suggests “death, decay, sin, carelessness, abandonment, and loneliness” – not alone in wanting to eliminate “the oppression of dirt.” Dirt and dust become sin and death; we seek dirt on our enemies, though in the end, all of us will turn to dust.

When I hear expressions like “cleanliness is next to godliness,” I sit silently, derelict in my duty to stand up for suckers like me, the ones who are falling far from heaven. If I say nothing, I am tacitly supporting the notion that to be “dirty” and human is offensive and morally repugnant, rather than the result of complicated and often subjective factors — from cultural values to health limitations to personal aesthetics. Saying nothing, I am complicit in the notion that to be dirty is to be inhuman, corrupted. Still, too often, I say nothing.

* * *

Shortly after finding out that I was pregnant with our first child, my husband and I went on a week-long trip to visit his parents, during which my pregnancy sickness debuted. We returned home to our rented apartment after midnight and opened our door to a horrifying smell that sent me sprinting for fresh air to our patio, where I lay retching and writhing on the concrete as my system shivered.

We had left a bag of frozen strawberries on the counter. Michael threw the bag out, but the rotten smell, the strength of which I had only ever encountered in the formaldehyde-infused envelope of my high school biology lab, permeated the apartment like the smoke of a grease fire. We found another place to stay that night, then spent the next few days vacuuming, laundering our bedding and clothes, wiping down walls and counters with lemon-scented disinfectant. After a few days of deep and desperate cleaning, I asked some family to come over as a test, and then the apartment handyman. Pregnancy sickness had inverted my nature, converting my normally aloof self into a needy petitioner. But none of them could smell anything unusual.

Even though our apartment smelled normal to everyone else, the apartment complex’s heavily perfumed hallways and the residual smell (and memory) of berries-gone-bad triggered my nausea badly enough that I would wake up gagging in the night. Finally, in a last-ditch, feverish design to filter the stink, we bought over a hundred dollars of small, pollution-filtering plants, crowding them on the floor and window sills and counters—only to abandon them soon after, along with grubby piles of laundry we started but never got around to finishing, our food spoiling in the fridge and on the counters.

My severe pregnancy sickness—it turned out to be hyperemesis gravidarum, which made me ill and nauseated every day of my pregnancy—dissolved my tolerance for all things stinky, to the point that my sensitivity to smells posed a real threat to my health. We went to stay with my parents, where we remained for almost four months. We’ll finish cleaning up next week, I told myself as we left our apartment mess behind to drive south, underestimating how much pregnancy would soon hinder my ability to climb a flight of stairs or stand up in a shower, let alone drive forty minutes to spend the day vacuuming or scrubbing or sorting. And with that, our attempts to deal with what was ultimately an innocuous smell spiraled into an even bigger mess.

Ultimately, that mess defeated us. I never went back to the apartment. Michael dropped in once or twice, but he was overworked and exhausted himself, only managing to clear off the kitchen counters and pick up a few clothes and supplies we had left behind. I can imagine the carpet strewn with clothes and books, counters scattered with rotting fruit and crumbs and dried-up spills. I imagine that our mattress still bore a beady film from the baking soda we poured on it, hoping to absorb some of the smell before trying to vacuum it up completely. Very likely, the sink was overflowing with dishes, and there were mountains of used Clorox wipes along the walls and counters we had tried to wipe down—and the little plants still in their flimsy plastic holders, dirt spilling out of them onto the counters, the floor, the window sills where we’d positioned them so hopefully, desperately.

We formally vacated a month and a half later and hired my brother and sister-in-law, who were in between jobs and needed some cash, to move our stuff into a storage unit and clean up the chaos. I was relieved to be able to call on people who already knew my unkempt ways. Still, I felt defeated and self-conscious, wishing I could have left things less tarnished and turbulent. It was the first of many times that we’ve needed to hire outside help to manage our mess.

For most of our life as parents, we’ve had cleaning help. For a couple of hours every week, we hire a cleaner (I’ll call her Kendra) to come over and make our living space livable. The cost of cleaning is a kind of preventative medical expense, a way of keeping our kids’ surroundings reasonably safe and sanitary, a payment I would give up only in the most dire levels of poverty.

Alas, we’re still messy, though I think this version of it is not so unusual for a family with young children. For three to six days a week, the carpet is a no-man’s land of detritus, a wilderness where I stay close to my youngest, a toddler, scanning the ground for old sippy cups or pens without covers or a pair of scissors left on the ground. The table is rough with crumbs, and the sink is full of dishes. Only once a week, in the minutes after Kendra leaves, do our kitchen and front room and bathroom gleam, bigger and more open than I thought was possible the day before.

Kendra finds places for things and lets us know where she puts them. She gathers all the dishes and washes them, disinfects the counters, and takes out an alarming amount of trash. She spot checks the floor and mops when she can, and never comments on our mess. With weekly help, I clean more often; some weeks, while Kendra sprays the table and sink with Clorox, I make a few strides in the bedrooms: I might close the drawers bursting with toys and books and chargers I don’t recognize, or gather clean clothes into toy bins and dirty clothes into hampers, trying my best to tell the difference. As I do, I feel exposed and hopeful at the same time, trying to ignore my chagrin, eager to improve my ways as I promise myself that I won’t let the rooms get this messy again next week. I clean more during the week, too. In the day or two after, when I don’t yet feel overwhelmed, I sweep and pick up and scrub the inside of our fridge. Then the day before Kendra comes back, I try to clear off the counters and the carpet, fueled by my embarrassment and gratitude that someone is about to clean up our mess again.

* * *

A few weeks before giving birth to our first child, I was in our new apartment, going through belongings we hadn’t yet unpacked from the apartment we abandoned, when I found an unopened letter addressed to me and Michael from our previous landlord.

I don’t remember the words—I got rid of the letter—but the message went, in essence, our apartment was a mess, and for the sake of our neighbors, we would need to clean up or we’d be evicted. Michael came home a half hour or so later and found me with puffy eyes and red mottled skin, barely able to speak, still holding the letter.

“We were moving,” he said after reading it, heartbroken at my despair. “You were pregnant and sick, and we were moving. They should never have sent that letter!” He had a point; the letter was sent after we gave our notice to vacate, but someone had felt a need to write it in the first place, and nothing could undo that.

If I had let myself believe that the mess we left behind was purely the result of my sickness, I might not have felt so ashamed. Reading the letter, though, I remembered how I felt so often as a child, like there was something irrecoverably wrong with me—the girl who smelled like urine and wiped sticky fingers on her shirt, whose teacher recoiled when I showed him my homework smeared with silly putty, who had always been “weird” and “gross,” even when I didn’t fully understand why. Reading the letter, I thought, of course. Of course, as an adult, I would be the kind of person who could get evicted for being too dirty, who contaminated others with an effusion of filth and refuse.

Michael tried to console me as I tucked in my knees, resting my forehead against them, and my agony gave way to a quieter, percolating shame.

I may be a family, genus, and species removed from Macaca munzala, but I care what my tribemates think of me as much as the next monkey. If I were a non-hominid simian, I like to think I’d be esteemed for my inclination to comb through hair with my fingernails and clean ears with my pinky, but I also imagine throwing a furtive look over my shoulder to see if a big honcho and his chums are laughing at me. I imagine running a hand behind my back in case there’s a banana peel drying there, stuck to my fur because I dropped it next to me before a nap instead of throwing it over the bushes.

But I am not a non-hominid simian. At any moment, someone might catch a glimpse of me as a disheveled slob, and my charade will be up.

Once, when I was very little, two girls my age who lived down the street offered me a cup of hot cocoa. I was glad to be invited over, and I took their offering, but it wasn’t cocoa. They had mixed dirt into water and heated it, had given me a mug of mud. It must have seemed the perfect prank: a dirty drink for a dirty girl.

But then, years later, when we were teenagers, one of those girls brought it up, apologizing. “I’m so sorry we did that,” she told me, sincere and concerned. I doubt she knew, then, just how much I had come to think of myself as unapproachable and dirty.

Part of me is still certain I reek, even when I’ve just showered and put on a fresh coat of deodorant. Part of me believes that no matter how clean I am, if there is a colony of gnats nearby, they will swarm around my head, Pig-Pen-style, claiming me as their kind of animal. Sometimes, this shame is as problematic as the habits that spiral into unmanageable clutter and dirt in the first place. Shame isn’t the only challenge I have in keeping a clean house, but it reliably makes my other challenges worse. In the throes of it, I am more prone to shutting down, paralyzed by the weight of so many seemingly impossible tasks.

But while the stigma and shame of being dirty is a delicate and quietly eroding indignity, it is not an unforgiving hardship. It is not being hungry or sick or cold or back-bent from hours of labor. As a parent, somewhere between the struggle of keeping things tolerably clean and the embarrassment I feel when everything is in disarray, I find myself reliving my childhood delights. When it rains, we go outside with magnifying glasses to watch twigs swirling in a pool of mud, leaving rain boots caked with clay on our porch afterwards. In the fall, we go to harvest festivals, where we get dusty and my kids play in corn pits, sinking into the cold, plump kernels. Some days, my oldest takes a stack of mixing bowls outside to sort his collections of rocks and dry leaves and crab apples and grass. One mixing bowl, filled with moss he dug out of the cement cracks in the sidewalk, rests on a shelf where we water it on occasion, the air misting with mulchy scent. Inside, sitting at the kitchen table, we mix together cornstarch and water, letting the slime run through our hands and pinching it to see it harden and crumble.

My kids may not possess the unqualified fondness for dirt I have, and remember having—they like their baths and clean carpets, for which I am grateful. We have a good time washing the car with a bucket of soapy water and rags, or cleaning out the crevices of our couch to find lost coins and forgotten Hot Wheels and crayons. They often volunteer to help me wash the dishes, and my oldest asks me to help him clean up his bedroom regularly. On the whole, they are happier when the house is clean, however much they might like to contribute to its chaos.

After an afternoon up the canyon, or at a nearby family farm, or in a sandbox making little sand huts and trying to bury our feet and hands, the kids are dirty, oily with sunscreen and bug repellent, covered in smoke or dander or dust, and beaming with contentment. We come home to wash up before bed, and I shampoo their hair, running a comb through the suds to strain out gravel and fragments of leaves and pine needles. As I do, I see gritty specks peppering their scalps—little bits of earth I could never fully rinse away.

Alizabeth Worley

Alizabeth Worley lives with her husband and two sons in Utah near Brigham Young University, where she received an MFA in nonfiction. She was a 2016 poetry winner of the AWP Intro Journals Project for her poem, “Kid,” which was later published in Iron Horse Literary Review. Her essays, poetry, and illustrated works have been published in Grist: A Journal of the Literary Arts, Tar River Poetry, Hobart, and elsewhere. You can find more of her work at alizabethworley.com.

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