Letter of Recommendation: Mess

The case for being a slob.

Comments: 58

  1. Also this is a wonderful first effort from Helen Holmes, I look forward to reading more items from her in the future!

  2. We have the same mother! Growing up, I figured my slovenliness was an act of rebellion against her. Now that we live on opposite coasts (and I'm well into my 40s), I suppose my lack of interest in spending time cleaning is an act of rebellion against society - unless it's merely habit...but thinking about it, I'm going to go with rebellion. It sounds more glamorous.

  3. Love this. It's not that I'm such a neat freak but sometimes my house is not worthy of a post on Facebook. My husband has a habit of leaving a minimum of 2 baseball hats and 3 sweatshirts on the window seat in the living room. I could let this make me crazy until I remember all of my virtual mess that he lovingly puts up with. Life is too short to live in a Museum.

  4. Helen to Helen: I think I have a soul mate! Can't express how much I enjoyed this -- and can't wait to deploy some of its best points in my next argument with people who STILL haven't stopped trying to convert me from my messy (and night owl) ways!

    Look forward to reading more of Holmes' writing!

  5. I can only function in a very organized environment, and cleaning my house brings me peace to focus on whichever activity I need to perform. I suppose I'm more like the mother here :)

  6. There are those of us for whom order and cleanliness subdue a chaotic world and induce peace and calm . . . like a Zen garden. We simply cannot see the order in your chaos; the ways of you and your kindred spirits feel like course sandpaper, rubbing against the grain of our beings, just as our ways do to you. Fortunately, so long as don't share a physical space, we can coexist.

  7. Women are still hassling themselves over appearance, their own or that of their homes? Oh, I do support them, all of us. It's just that being old, now, and seeing the same issues unresolved that we struggled with in the early days of feminism, well, it gives me pause - and should all of us, men and women alike - to think about the nature of love, how it is given and the part that attraction plays. And how, after all this time, we may be ourselves.

  8. A woman who leaves dishes in the sink is always judged harshly for it. Believe me I know. Thanks for this. Life is too short.

  9. I married my dishwasher. He appreciates my cooking. Win-win!

  10. My dad was the obsessive neat freak in our house. Everything always had to look exactly as it had when it was new, forever. Children and pets notwithstanding. I went a whole summer where I had to climb out the window because you couldn’t open the door to my room for the mess. It was just as well. My dad is still with us as a result.

    I’m always battling with my natural place on the spectrum and where I wish it were. In reality these two positions are very near each other, I seem to just revel in disappointing myself. I don’t expect this will change.

    I invited my dad over for dinner awhile back, after spending the day cleaning obsessively so that I might camouflage myself as two or three shades beyond (my) optimal, and the first thing he did was rearrange all my furniture and tell me my apartment was a disgrace.

    So for now it’s family dinners out and so long as my dog and I both fit on the bed or the sofa, it’s tidy enough.

  11. I love the phrase Domestic spotlessness.....when you describe your place, i thought of my mom. My mom is like you; so when I got my own place I swore I would never be like mom..clutter, dirty dishes, etc... I was proud of my picture perfect place, until I had children, who grew up into awesome teen age boys..who now do ALL the things my mom did...leave laundry, dirty dishes, etc. I love my kids and I embrace every aspect of who they are: laundry, dirty dishes and all. Enjoyed reading the article at work!

  12. I clean up after myself as the mess evolves, a piece at a time, so that it does not get out-of-control messy and overwhelming because when that happens disincentive kicks in. For instance, I eat something, the dirty dish goes right into the dishwasher. That stuff does not accumulate in my sink.

    One more rule, no eating in the car. I hate vacuuming a messy car.

  13. OK - messy, fine. But not dirty. No food, drink, dirty dishes, trash, etc. - anything that will attract bugs or vermin or potentially cause a health hazard. That goes beyond freeing yourself from the burdens of always having your home be "just so" and into the territory of negligence. I understand wanting to back away from always needing to be presentable, but that doesn't mean I don't want a clean (not necessarily orderly) home.

  14. I've done premarital counseling with a lot of couples over the last 30 years. One of the principles I tell people is 'what you see is what you get....don't assume you can change people's basic styles once you are married. So if someone is a slob and the other a neatnik you've got to allow slob to spread out somewhere--you can negotiate which rooms to keep neat, but there's a basic reality here.' I know b/c I'm the slob, and an Episcopal priest. If I sit down anywhere--airport terminal waiting area, hotel room, table at coffee shop--things expand, rapidly. My car? Could be a wild animal in residence. When I was 59, diagnosed w/ADD. Has realization, medication, stopped any of this? Nah. But might explain what others see as disorganization.

  15. As a fellow slob I agree wholeheartedly with the contents of this write-up! I have been trying to articulate my messiness (I'm NOT making my bed each and every morning) to other people for years now and this article expressed my sentiments perfectly. Ever since I was a child immaculate spaces always gave me anxiety, just the thought of how much effort went into making the space clean and how all that would be negated if I made the slightest mistake is enough to give me cold sweats. The cost-benefit analysis of cleaning my room always leaned towards cost. I always get into a nervous frenzy if I do not find what I'm looking for after I've arranged my space, I'm actually better off not arranging things in the first place. Time I spend obsessing over MY home's appearance is time I'd much rather spend doing something else. I still don't understand the point of cleaning your room just so you can clean it again the next day again and again. Once in a while I do spruce up my abode but spotless and immaculate my house is not. Being a man I had never even considered the sexist element of fastidiousness and as a feminist I'll now encourage women to throw down your mops and be as dirty as men are allowed to be! (You know within reason)

  16. I applaud your objection to female stereotypes; however...... ANYONE in North Carolina who has ever pushed aside a pile of damp towels on the bathroom floor to uncover a giant Palmetto bug will attest to the value of managing dirty laundry. "Food trash" (my mother's term) must be thrown away in the kitchen garbage immediately after meals and snacks to avoid attracting ants, flies, gnats, and additional Palmetto bugs. Sometimes being clean is more about insects than Instagram.

  17. I am an extremely busy person. Every day I do triage what needs to be done and what can wait.
    There is an aspect to one of the jobs I do that makes me leave things out and not put away. I need to see what I have. I would love to have a glass workshop then everything that I have would be viewable.
    Looking at my stuff is a way of keeping ideas flowing in my mind. I look at an array of paints and colors or minerals or whatever and it reminds me of something that I want to make or need to do or want to improve on whatever it is it sitting there.
    What I have often found is that the people who are the most critical of my messy workshop are often people who do nothing creative. They may have neat homes but I am an enormously creative and extremely productive artist. So I ask people if they come to my workshop or my home, Please don’t comment on the mess because I don’t need their input either to produce more or better work. My mess is an important part of my creativity. And I no longer feel I need to make them feel comfortable in my place. Rather I try to communicate a sense of excitement about the creative process
    Every pile is an area of potential. Something new and wonderful can come from this mess

  18. You could get off social media and then your private life and private messes will be your own, with no stress. Just a thought!

  19. it's pretty hard to market one's writing nowadays without being on social media.

  20. just reading this makes me quesy

  21. I am not alone in my lifetime of mess? I can’t believe it. My mother and now my husband think I am disgusting, but why waste precious time trying to be neat and tidy when you can have fun and read and play music in bands with the guys all over the country? Always preferred the guy things. Jeans and t-shirts are easier to pile on the bed than fancy duvets and frilly pillows. Dogs and cats, horses and animals are my Kids. Don’t care who turns their nose up.

  22. Enjoyed this immensly! Apparently dometimes messy desks produce great writiing.

  23. I suppose it never occurred to you that some people just prefer cleanliness and neatness, without clutter. It must also have never occurred to you that some people might live tidy, stuff-free lives without ever posting a single piece of proof on social media. Sorry, I’m not buying the feminism angle either. Of course woman have to perform domesticity differently than men, but give me a break. Be a slob, no one really cares, but don’t pretend that those of us who can’t abide those conditions are somehow not living authentically. You’re lying to yourself.

  24. @BBB
    The author did not make that "pretend, " merely noted that trap door and steered around it.

    This author celebrates the freedom, comfort, and joy of living what is one's nature/nurture/other influenced and any limitations that are impervious to change, such as disability.

    She describes the continuing process of celebration, comfort, and joy. She insulted no person, type, trend, or sphere of activity but did spoof her own.

    I am unable to discern in this author's words any insult, meaness, condescension, or harm to anyone. Remember before taking aim at my words, the author's downsizing of her uncurated life to her bedroom and that there is no evidence of folks forced to enter her house.

  25. Good for you. If only I could adopt your self worth.

  26. dear helen
    one comes to be
    of just such stuff
    as that on which
    the mind is set

  27. Thanks, but now I need a shower. Seriously.

  28. The way I see it, it's laziness.

  29. "If an active digital identity has become just as essential to functioning in society as paying your taxes, then fine..."

    I'm pretty certain, Ms. Holmes, that an active digital identity is not nearly that essential -- and don't believe everything you see on Instagram. Those photos merely show how people curate/display images that project how they wish to be seen -- photos that may have little to do with their every day reality.

    Maybe the Times could ask Errol Morris to analyze some of the pictures you've come across. Or maybe instead you could provide a counterpoint by posting some well-chosen photos of your own beloved mess.

  30. "If an active digital identity has become just as essential to functioning in society as paying your taxes, then fine..."

    I'm pretty certain, Ms. Holmes, that an active digital identity is not nearly that essential -- and don't believe everything you see on Instagram. Those photos merely show how people curate/display images that project how they wish to be seen -- photos that may have little to do with their every day reality. Maybe the Times could ask Errol Morris to analyze some of the pictures you've come across. Or maybe instead you could provide a counterpoint by posting some well-chosen photos of your own beloved mess.

  31. I have to guess that part of your love of clutter and mess is a survival reaction to what must have been a lot of control and tension with your mother. I had to share a bedroom with a neatnik, domineering older sister who would routinely pull out the many books and magazines and papers I had stuffed under my bed, declaring them 'a fire hazard' and insisting they had to be organized. You can bet I reveled in not having to be tidy once she was gone. My first apartment was pretty bad. I wanted to have fun, not clean. After a party, it could take me days to clean up-- the mess didn't bother me. But after a few years, I found balance. A somewhat organized space makes it easier for me to function, to get out of the house on time because I'm not looking for my keys or phone or shoes. A clean kitchen makes it easier to start cooking. A clean bathroom is just a necessity. The one thing I never do, even though at least once a week some blogger or sponsored 'wisdom' pops up in my facebook feed about it, is make my bed. Leaving your sheets turned down airs them out as well as your mattress. It's actually more sanitary! If your sheets get damp from sweat, covering them up with your blanket and comforter actually encourages bacteria to develop.

  32. @Francois That’s what washing machines are for...

  33. As someone on disability because of bipolar disorder, psychotic episodes whose anxiety makes me paint false narratives, confusion, loss of memory, and depression so crippling I lie in bed unable to move, I used to have sanitation problems. Were my landlord not so kind, I could have been evicted. In January, I went to the hospital to get my gallbladder removed. My friends came into the apartment. I hadn't cleaned in a year and a half. They cleaned my apartment. They took my parrot of 28 years into their family and put my cat in a shelter. When I told the wife I got my cat back, she became enraged and will not speak to me. I have kept my apartment spotless for the sake of my health. I remember feeling comfortable in my own mess because no one saw it, but that comfort blinded me to a symptom of my mental illness: the lack of sanitation. Social media is whatever you want it to be. A lie. The truth. A point in between. But you must control it, instead of allowing your mind to become entangled in expectations that might not even exist. That is a false narrative. The reasons people live unsanitary lives lie behind their broken souls.

  34. Still to be Neat
    Still to be neat,
    still to be dressed,
    As you were going to a feast;
    Still to be powdered, still perfumed:
    Lady, it is to be presumed,
    Though art's hid causes are not found,
    All is not sweet, all is not sound.

    From Simplex Munditis by Ben Jonson

  35. My mom raised me to be a slob, but I don't think she realized that was what she was doing at the time. "When company comes over I'll just close the door to your room" she told me at the age of 4. When I did something wrong, cleaning my room was a punishment. "How long is it going to stay that way?" she'd say when I was done. Any cleaning chores I did around the house was always met with criticism. When I showed some independence as a teenager I'd come home to find my dresser drawers dumped out on my bed to be gone through before I could sleep.
    Now as an adult I have reached my personal mess threshold (like a pain threshold, everyone has one). I have clutter but not dirt. My bathroom and kitchen are clean, I vaccuum and dust, my laundry is done. I'm one of those freaks of nature who enjoys folding laundry. But I don't care about my stacks of books all over or a few knitting projects, or 10 pairs of shoes under my kitchen table. It works for me. After working 40 hours a week I think it's okay to let some stuff go. And like Francois from Chicago I never make my bed, I prefer to air it out, ot sounds like a question for the NYT Well column.

  36. Why must it be either or? Housework can be quite time consuming. Children, spouses, pets, ones own habits can contribute to this. Work outside the home can leave very little time for the housekeeping time needed to maintain a home.
    None of the posts I have read so far mentioned the wonderful option of getting help—which also helps the local economy.
    You can have an orderly, clean space/home and not obsess or stress about it. It just is. Your creative spaces can be left completely untouched.
    Is dirty laundry and dishes really necessary to the creative process?
    Disability of an elder had to come to our home before we engaged this option. That is unfortunate. Over the ensuing 30+ years I have come to realize that any person or couple who work full time inside or outside the home should engage a housekeeper for a few hours a week.
    The budget should be gone through with a fine tooth comb to find the money or a barter might be worked out. It may possibly prevent your disability down the line from trying to do too much.

  37. Ha. An electrician refused to work in my home this week because he said it wasnt neat enough. I’ll send him this articje.

  38. glad you are not a surgeon.

  39. Militants tend to overlook the fact that real life is not all black or white. Living like a slob or a meticulous, old spinster are neither particularly intelligent. Sounds like the life of a 12 year old.

  40. Social media is whatever you want it to be. A lie. The truth. A point in between. But you must control it, instead of allowing your mind to become entangled in expectations that might not even exist. That is a false narrative. The reasons people live unsanitary lives lie behind their broken souls.

  41. @Barbara Steinber

    The lotus arises and blooms from the mud.

  42. I love this article!

  43. If you think an "active digital identity" is "essential to social functioning," you need to get a life. Or better friends.

  44. Thank you. I'm relieved to be seeing several comments of this nature here. If having an "active digital presence" is essential to functioning in society, all hope is lost for me.

    I can't imagine I'm completely alone, though statements like this writer's, packaged to sound like self-evident truths, can certainly make one feel it, if only for a moment.

    Glad I haven't completely fallen into the abyss of oblivion. Yet.

  45. I think everyone should be able to live as they choose, although I don't really understand the author's point of view. It seems as if she is reacting more to her upbringing and societal instagram pressure than her real nature, but maybe both. Is there a messy gene? Many can be artistic and creative and live in orderly spaces and others not. If I remember correctly, housekeeping preceded instagram, no? Many find comfort in orderly, attractive spaces, others do not.
    The time factor also comes into play. Although, I have met many who covet attractive, beautiful spaces and spend all their free time on devices. Want gorgeous yards, but are still on their devices, so maybe each person chooses their level of messiness based on time and inclination? I enjoy an organized space that is pretty. No instagram here, but could be.

  46. On the tidy/slovenly continuum, I as a single person opt for something similar to the writer's choices, but tempered with the knowledge that my landlord's opinion of my living space certainly matters.

  47. Read “Coming Clean: A Memoir,” by Kimberly Rae Miller.

  48. Maybe it's time to shut off photographing everything in your life on social media. It's no one's business what your abode looks like and if you do make it everyone's business, you are asking for the flack it generates.


  49. Good grief!! DON’T LOOK at the social media. Then you won’t have to worry about it. Get a life!

  50. Thank you Helen.
    While I may have missed some essential message in your article I connected with the discussion of being messy. I can mostly live with this state tho my wife does want less mess so my challenge is to find a balance. Your article is timely, personal and well written, thanks very much!

  51. Sorry...not convinced.

  52. Dear editor,
    Thanks for the hilarious essay, "Mess," by Helen Holmes. My mother--and all women I've known who were raised in the 1930s--had a similarly critical eye although she too hated housework. There was a simmering resentment against domestic labor of all kinds in her life, and it was never really resolved, though Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique helped.
    My own liberation is now underway and I am now proud to be a sweaty stinky person as well as a messy person. Perhaps the ultimate liberation is to remain indifferent from smells, as well as sights, that seek to improve us. Instead of cringing at what we used to call B.O., I now revel in my sweat-drenched T'ai chi uniform and realize what I never imagined would have happened: I'm turning into an "athletic type" at age 60!
    Thank you, Helen Holmes, for relaunching the rebellion against female perfectionism, 55 years after Betty Fridan did it for my mom!

  53. Ewww! Helen’s apartment sounds gross. But if she’s happy good for her but please never invite me nor criticize me and similar people. I am naturally neat and organized and love empty rooms and areas. It gives me great satisfaction to view a beautifully made bed w lovely linen and everything put away. It takes me no time nor effort. I am one of those women gliding agreeably through life but happily and gleefully with time to bike, jog, lift weights, cook, take care of grandchildren, view every art exhibit in nyc more and look elegant and lovely each day.

  54. I am a slob as well, and it is also a reaction against the strictures of feminity. House is the myth of Sisyphus, never done. But Slobovia as a country does have a price. I need to. have repair people in tomorrow, and I have to admit I'd rather have e a spotless house to show them.

  55. i take issue with someone proud to be his/her own person by being rebelliously messy. i draw the line when it comes to respecting another persons values. if you want to make a visitor comfortable and welcome them, please tidy up your pig sty. i bend over backwards for my OCD friends, and tidy up just enough for the not so OCD visitor. when no one is around, phony me, will let my apartment wait until i get good and ready to straighten up and fly right.

  56. Excellent and true. I look forward to seeing more from this writer.

  57. Excepting actions which injure others such as creating an army of cockroaches which then might enter your neighbor’s apartments, I fully support your right to live in your own space in any manner you choose. However I feel your editorial goes beyond extolling the benefits you find in being messy, and veers off into an angry rant against those that may happen to thrive in tidy spaces:

    “ insidiously similar rooms… obsessively smooth… blandly mollifying posters…unflaggingly photogenic non-places…”

    Harsh words for what may be seen by others as merely a different aesthetic preference. Why are you so angry? Especially given your experience suffering under the oppression of ‘tidy’, you should understand that there are people who feel similarly distraught by ‘mess’.

    For what I think is a balanced perspective on some of the psychology of mess/tidy, please check out: https://www.verywellmind.com/psychology-of-a-messy-room-4171244

  58. I’m comfortable with messy, less so with dirty and smelly. I respect the right of my friends to live in their home their way.