An Unlikely Lesson I’ve Learned From Living Alone

clean plates sparkle


ince I moved into my one-bedroom apartment three months ago, I’ve probably cleaned it more than I ever cleaned my last apartment, where I lived for two years. My transition from being a generally tidy person to a type-A clean freak happened fast. It was as if, in a single moving day, messes graduated from inspiring mild irritation to mild anxiety. A sink full of dishes went from testing my patience to serving as a litmus test for my ability to take care of myself. Now that I lived alone, the disorder of my home became my responsibility or my fault, and my perpetually guilty self chose the former.

At first, I was bowled over by how much my desire to keep an orderly home demanded of me: Wake up. Make the bed. Tidy the living room. Wash the dishes. Take out the trash. Go to work. Get home. Put my things away. Sweep the floor. Clean the counters. Tidy the fridge. Wipe down the bathroom. Pick up, put away, tidy up, clean out, repeat. I was always cleaning! For a while, I wondered if I could possibly keep it up.

I soon discovered I couldn’t, not always. On off days or weeks, I’d skip my revolving checklist of chores in favor of activities that brought me more immediate satisfaction, like plopping on the couch and staying there for hours. Like staying up too late to binge-watch a show because it gave my mind something to chew on that wasn’t my thoughts. Like skipping my nightly shower to roll into bed at 1 a.m. or throwing my clothes around with abandon while getting dressed because it made me feel carefree in a way I didn’t authentically feel inside. Soon enough, during these periods, my space would begin to resemble how I felt inside: disheveled and uncared for. The connection between my physical space and mental state was palpable. I was living in a metaphor.

Soon though, I’d return to my cleaning routine. Wash, sweep, wipe, tidy, repeat. Of course, I would initially dread the thought. Cleaning is so boring! Standing at my sink for 30 minutes as the tap runs over crusty plates and cloudy glasses doesn’t titillate my senses or pique my imagination. Swiping a wet cloth over my counter top doesn’t stroke my ego. Picking up stray pieces of cat food on my hands and knees doesn’t offer me a new perspective. But as I went through the dull, rhythmic beats, something in me would shift. I began to take note of the extent of the mind-home metaphor: that having a quiet kind of pride in my space could be an analog for having a quiet kind of pride in myself.

My mom used to say, “If you’re bored, you’re boring.” It’s a catchy line that always stuck with me, but I’m not sure it’s aged well. In a time when I can take my phone with me to pee — heaven forbid I stare at some tiles or the back of a shampoo bottle for 45 seconds instead of read up on the latest news — a lack of boredom has become less indicative of my having an interesting personality and more like proof I can’t face the inside of my own head. What would happen if I did? In daily cleaning, I’ve found a consistent opportunity to do that. To turn over the loose change in my head, free of stimulus.

Instead of thinking of cleaning as a responsibility or a way to avoid guilt, I now think of it as an opportunity to be bored, self-soothe, re-enter the physical world on days I’ve done nothing but stare at flashing, colorful screens. Cleaning requires my attention and body. I can’t work, watch TV, be on my phone. And even though pulling myself away from those distractions can sometimes feels as hard as tying on a pair of running shoes, once I do, everything flows.

Years ago, a wise friend shared a bit of wisdom from a Buddhist monk named Thích Nhất Hạnh: “There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.” I’ve spent a lot of time considering this quote, but I’m not sure I really understood it until now. Caring for myself and my space doesn’t need to be a Sisyphean task. If I remove the lens of productivity or pursuing a specific goal, it can become something else.

Cleaning is not productive in a long-term sense. Doing it today does not preclude me from doing it tomorrow. When I do it, I am not learning, working on a hobby, earning money, laughing, smiling, crying, making memories. I am just staring into space. But appreciating that intellectual idleness, and reframing the work itself as the goal, has made it a much more restorative activity. In learning to clean my home for the sake of it, I’ve finally learned to meditate.

Gif by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman is the Features Director at Man Repeller.

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