This is the trouble with it all. By the time you realise there’s a problem, it’s too late. It has its tentacles wrapped around you so tight you can’t breathe. And you wonder how the hell you got here.
I remember it clearly. The moment I found myself, slowly and deliberately, wiping down the inside of the bin-liner. Bro, said my brain loud and clear, this is a bin-liner. It’s for rubbish. You don’t have to clean it. But it was fresh in that morning, what was I going to do, look at the ragù coating its insides for the next three days. I couldn’t handle that. Again my brain waded in.
Mate it’s a fucking bin-liner.
It was the moment that made me reassess things. To take a step back and a deep breath in and wonder what wrong turns had brought me to this place. As I stood there on that idle Thursday limply holding the sponge-cloth, staring down at the ragù juice smearing the inside of the bin, a question began to form in my head.
How the hell did you end up here.
Hitler was an extremely orderly person, obsessed with cleanliness. When he came to power he embarked on a campaign to ‘beautify the factories’, planting flowers outside and ridding them of vermin with an insecticide. After the factories came the mental hospitals, the gypsies, and the rest.
His disgust was such that in recorded conversations he would refer to the people he exterminated as insects and rats and parasites. The insecticide was called Zyklon; its sister Zyklon B was used in the concentration camps. Disgust is a very strong emotion.
The thing I feared most as a child was a J-cloth. The way the crumbs festered inside the folds by the sink, damp and rank and cold. I hated them. I hated ash trays. The touch of leather gloves. A photo exists somewhere of me aged five posing four feet away from my brother and two cousins. It was the gloves. I couldn’t even spell my own name and here in the grains of an old photograph is evidence of an OCD in full swing.
I could fold my school uniform with eyes closed. I had a special money bank that divided coins up into little trays and I would sit there Gollum-like counting them in the corner. My favourite shop wasn’t Hamleys, it was Ryman. At boarding school mates would move my books off their axis to bait me and I would laugh along like it was no big deal, and as soon as they left I’d realign them.
Ask my exes about my prowess in the bedroom. I can make a bed to within an inch of its life, I have palms like sheet irons. 64% of the students at art school were dyslexic and I had an identity crisis because I could spell and owned a sodastream and knew where everything was in my backpack at all times.
Maybe I evolved the necessary order to combat my brother’s chaos. We lived together in our twenties and had some run-ins about fairy liquid and who should pay what for the cleaner. When I came back one night to find he’d stripped my bed and was in flagrante making use of my sheets in the next door room, I took it as a compliment. All I could think as I lay there on the cold bare mattress was what kind of spin cycle to use the next morning.
Look I’m not exactly Howard Hughes.
My flat isn’t the White Cube gallery. I own things and keep them on surfaces. I don’t oblige you to take your shoes off at the door. Spill something on the carpet and I won’t start hyper-ventilating. I have this thing where I’ll make the bed and throw something on it in a haphazard manner. A strewn jumper here, a tossed scarf there. It’s laid back and spontaneous.
But is it necessary to jump gibbon-like from the shower to the bath-matt to not spill a drop of water on the floor. What’s my problem. What chaos in me requires this round the clock vigil, keeping the fires of order burning to ward off the dark, fighting past trauma with Mr Muscle Advanced Power Kitchen. Being a clean freak isn’t exactly fun. Making beds, sweeping up crumbs, trying to mask it all with a casually flung scarf.
Carl Jung often cited an alchemical text which read in sterquiliniis invenitur. Translated from the Latin it meant ‘in filth it will be found’. Jung believed the darkest parts of our subconscious were hidden from us – The Shadow – and the path to actualisation was into this darkness. What we most need to seek, he said, can be found where we least want to look.
As I stood there sponge-cloth in hand, watching the ragù drip down the inside of the bin, I wondered what lurked in my Shadow self, and how much it had a hold on me. Around me dust particles floated glinting in the sun’s light and something spoke. Go towards the filth.
It was deeper than I’d imagined. I learnt my control was about fear, and I was scared shitless. In the same way my brother didn’t really see mess, I saw mess where it wasn’t really there, in the same way I saw threat where it wasn’t really there. And what I feared most of all were my own emotions, waiting in the shadows to swallow me whole.
When I went to the same restaurant over and over again, I wasn’t dripping the assured cool of a man who knew what he liked. I was suppressing the fear of encountering a new menu. Going to the same coffee shop. Watching the same film. Mapping the same territory. All of it was part of the same safety net. Fear of the unknown and a world out to get me, finding peace in what I already knew because it couldn’t hurt me.
Perhaps acute clean-freakery comes down to calm. Wipe the surfaces, sweep the crumbs, plump the cushions, charge the appliances, quiet the chaos in your heart with order as you wall yourself off from the world, as the control you require squeezes tighter and tighter until you’re strangling yourself with the hose of your own hoover.
The Taoists had something to say about all this. The yin yang symbol meant dualism, how contrary forces were in fact complimentary. They thought the line to tread was between order and chaos. Between the known and the unknown, the mapped and the unmapped. Not too much of one nor too much of the other. Chaos needed ordering and order required some messing up.
According to them, your outside environment and your internal equilibrium were the same thing. You were the spotless kitchen counter and the teeming bathroom closet. There was no distinction between the two. Physicians of Traditional Chinese Medicine would pay a visit and observe the state of your home before diagnosing you.
I feel like my life could do with a light sprinkling of chaos.
I could leave some mugs in the sink I suppose, drip more water on the floor. So when my cleaner comes she actually has something to do. But when duster in hand she tells me of Colombian white magic and how we live out prewritten destinies and helps me understand the mind of women, I’m happy. Escúchalas, Domingo, no hace más falta que escuchar niño.
Speaking to myself and fellow order-obsessives, watch what happens when you break the code. When you take a risk and open a new door and begin to map the unmapped, and find something out about yourself and the world.
Before you know it you’re sat outside the coffee shop you walked past everyday and never went into wiping the froth of a cappuccino off your top lip feeling like a fucking Conquistador. Order brings calm but who wants calm, calm waters good sailors do not make.
Children know the secrets of filth. Every day they seize a new world, a new chance to go exploring and run amuck. We want kids as filthy as we can find them. For their microbiome to be as rich as possible. In filth it will be found, they know it somehow, we knew it once too.
And so they ran roll-sleeve seekers, bounding, squelching puddle-jumpers swilling, woods the woods, hunters, earth-fingered, buzzard bees mud-knees, trudge sludge slip hands earth-return nails stick stack hoot roots worm root trickle fall the muddied hurry beating heart aching heart hurry!
The beauty! The beauty!