I stood in front of my newly cleaned refrigerator a few nights ago admiring the gleaming shelves emptied now of past-due holiday detritus, wilted greens, old eggs, cracked cheese, sour sake. All that remained were a choice set of condiments, a carafe of water, fresh vege in the crisper, a bottle of champagne. And olives.
Yes. I was hungry—but I was at peace.
I am my father’s daughter. And my mother’s. German and Danish, respectively, they were bona fide tidy-ers. Perhaps that is why I arranged my stuffed animals by size as a child and my closet by colors now. When I was married, my husband gave me a book called Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House. It had nothing to do with the divorce. Indeed, my DNA was tickled.
These days, Marie Kondo gets all the credit for tidiness touted in books I cannot bring myself to read and videos I cannot bring myself to watch (even if order is victorious at the end, I prefer to turn to The History Channel to watch a messy battle).
But tidying—“picking up,” as my mother used to say—may be a relatively new phenomenon. According to a recent piece at Smithsonian.com, the word “mess” evolved in the 19th-century from a place where food is served to its more negative connotation of disarray and lack of discipline. Over time, “hygiene reformers,”--home economists--advocated for a clean living movement. By 1925, American Unitarian minister, suffragist and civic reformer, Caroline Bartlett Crane posed a still-relevant question: “Are our houses cluttered with disguised liabilities, rooms we don’t effectively use, pictures we don't see (and likely, are not worth seeing), useless furniture and bric-a-brac we haven’t the courage to get rid of?”
Early interior designer, Elsie de Wolfe, was considerably less gentle in her 1911 book, The House in Good Taste. Exhorting “Simplicity!” as a credo, she didn’t hesitate to link neatness to integrity: "homes which cannot free themselves from the clutter of trivial and futile objects are mute declarations of the insincerity of their creator's pretensions to good taste and refinement.”
Well, that’s a little bitchy. Still.
And yes, I know that working people will always be challenged in keeping a neatened-up home space (you should see my disastrous spice cupboard—it so saddens me. But my car is a pigsty and I don’t even care, so I’m not that crazy).
As the daughter of a father who died far too early and a mother distracted by many things, perhaps I’m trying to make posthumous common cause with them: “I’ll be neat and maybe you’ll pay attention to me.” (Well, in my dreams, maybe.)
But I don’t think it’s that. I think that for some people—surely for me—physical order in part mollifies the fear of random existential upheaval. See, the trivial really is important!
For me, it’s kind of like this: if I have pissed-off a loved one, or languished in my to-do list, I can retreat to my (very sparsely decorated) bathroom for a soak in hot water. Then I can emerge to pull a dove-grey towel from a stack of its matching companions. Dry off, moisturize and try again. Basically, words to live by.
I don’t even like the poet, Wallace Stevens, but his line “the blessed rage for order” resonates with me. (That one line. The rest of poem is lost on me, its meaning too messy.)
Some years ago, Martha Stewart Living ran a piece on an architect, John Pawlet, who had a super-minimalist home in a London row house. It was spare and empty, but made of finest marble, wood and careful lighting. In other words, it was my dream home.
In the article his wife was quoted as saying, “It might be nice if there were a sofa. And books.”
And I remember thinking, “She’s right. She is. But just the one sofa. And only a choice few books.”