Finding meaning in a messy life

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February is full of cultural holidays that celebrate cleaning and decluttering your house. For several years in a row, I tried to use Imbolc, which is at the beginning of the month, as a good deadline to have everything from Christmas and the closed-in winter months thoroughly eradicated. 

Waiting until the last minute to officially finish any project (the days and weeks before a deadline are for puttering, tinkering and worrying) worked in my 20s and 30s before I had children. Now I can’t stay up all night. Even if I could, I wouldn’t; I can’t make myself even want to do things like that anymore. Which means instead of making a big push to finish a large-scale cleaning project, I now seem to get stuck in the “it gets worse before it gets better phase.” 

I’ve learned so much about how to be me in the 44 years I’ve been doing it. Tough love, for example, is not effective. Gentleness and grace go a long way. A little self-induced brainwashing via repetitive internal mantras is also effective. Aspirational gazing at the social media accounts of women who are fantastic housekeepers actually helps me find the motivation to clean. Set too big of a project with too soon a deadline, and I am doomed to fail, though I usually don’t remember that until I’m at least halfway invested. 

A few Februaries ago, for example, in a fit of Marie Kondo-ing, I piled every article of clothing I owned on the guest bed and tasked myself with giving most of it away. The pile sat there for months. 

Eventually, I did sort through it and give a lot of it away, but the result was a minor devastation that still lingers. I gave away the truly ridiculous — narrow-legged pants that neither fit nor had sentiment value, a lovely flowered dress with no zipper that I kept meaning to makeover once I learned to sew. (Will I ever learn to sew? I really want to learn to sew.) So many ideas of who I was and who I still might become captured in the fabric of those garments.

I wanted to move from being to becoming. I still do. I didn’t want my belongings to hold me back. I still don’t. It’s hard to relax in a house filled with all the things you haven’t accomplished. But I still miss, like REALLY miss, a lot of the stuff I gave away. 

Lunar New Year is another holiday that advocates for a thorough declutter and deep clean. I tried to do a deep clean for that this year, too, and though the house did get cleaner, it was by no means clean. Cleared of the clutter the living room appeared temporarily spacious, but there were still piles of dust, pet hair, abandoned hair ties, Legos and slow-moving box elder bugs accumulating beneath the propane heater, the couches, the large comfy chair that’s too big for our small house. Where does it all come from?

It comes from us. All the larger items anyway. The dust sifts down from inside the walls. The bugs creep through the cracks. After 100 winters of expanding and contracting the wood frame and plaster of our home no longer sit snugly against the floorboards. In other words, no matter how much I clean, this house will never be CLEAN.

This week is my birthday. After a few weeks of warmer weather, storms and deep cold are expected to roll our way. It will be a good time to tackle indoor jobs and I’d like to give myself the gift of less clutter and more room to move around. But, I also want to give myself the gift of tenderness. 

Life is messy — always has been, always will be — and while a tidy room is certainly a pleasant thing, so is building pillow forts with kids, making tasty meals and undertaking crafting projects from a bunch of random stuff you probably should have decluttered years ago, but thankfully did not.

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Eliza Blue is a shepherd, folk musician and writer residing in western South Dakota. In addition to writing her weekly column, Little Pasture on the Prairie, she writes and produces audio postcards from her ranch and just released her first book, Accidental Rancher. She also has a weekly show, Live from the Home Farm, that broadcasts on social media every Saturday night from her ranch.

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