Growing up in Texas, I was organized and orderly, which was annoying. I fell asleep at night waiting to make the bed the next morning, and took great pleasure in meticulously washing and drying the dishes by hand and making sure the vacuum cleaner left perfectly proportioned streaks on the carpet.
Somewhere down the line, my daily routines underwent a drastic change. After graduating from college in New York, I began a life of almost obsessive-compulsive homelessness, criss-crossing countries and continents and running away from the notion of fixed residence. I nevertheless continued to accumulate possessions in all these countries, which, given the impossibility of traveling with all of them at once, I set about dispersing them through other countries among lesser friends and acquaintances.
While the chaotic arrangement was certainly liberating in its own way, it also resulted in a scattered sense of self – even as I feigned some sort of control over my universe by jotting down lists of what I left where, for example “LEFT IN BEIRUT: SEQUIN LEGGINGS FROM UZBEKISTAN, 10 KILO BOOK OF PERSIAN POEMS BY DUDE IN ISFAHAN, ETHIOPIAN BOWL-THING, STRAWBERRY PATTERNED SOCKS FROM SARAJEVO, RAINBOW DRESS FROM SUPERMARKET CAMBODIA”, etc.
But when the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020, it was no longer easy to avoid imposing order in my life by staying in constant motion. With my old world confined, a 12-day stay in the Mexican coastal village of Zipolite turned into a month, then six months, then a year. Yet I continued to fervently reject any suggestion that I actually “lived” there.
Rather than using this opportunity to mentally fend for myself – to experience living one life in one place, as opposed to many parallel lives in different geographic areas – my solution was to scatter in place. Swinging in my hammock in Zipolite, my thoughts flickered at high speed between memories of other cities and countries, as if I was in competition not to live in the moment.
There was also a lot of physical scattering, as I continued to accumulate material possessions that I could not then unload on other people. Thanks to the internet, I’ve hoarded all sorts of inexplicable, useless items — behavior I guiltily classified as “coronavirus capitalism” — like three pairs of high heels. This despite the fact that I couldn’t even walk in high heels and at Zipolite I generally didn’t use shoes at all.
Every morning, I watched longingly as the villagers went about their morning ritual of sweeping and raking anything that could be swept or raked: houses, yards, streets, beaches, dirt. I started hoarding brooms and other paraphernalia in hopes of one day pioneering such a seemingly therapeutic routine myself, but it remained in the realm of fantasy and the brooms simply gathered dust.
The only routine I was able to maintain, it seemed, was that of mass disorder – which I pursued almost as if it were an art form. Scattered all over the surfaces of my house were notebooks, pens, bathing suits, clothes I never wore because I always wore bathing suits, empty wine bottles, face masks, Mexican pesos , chipotle peppers, pieces of paper reminding me in capital letters to clean up , bug spray, plastic bags, an empty box that I had labeled “plastic bags” in anticipation of an upcoming organization, and a oversized stuffed pig that I had saved from an attempted disposal by a neighbor.
Then there was the ubiquitous dirt and sand, which I not only tracked from the beach, but also penetrated on their own – as the windows had to be left open at all times in order to avoid suffocation by heat.
As gruesome as the whole scene was, there was also something fascinating about the challenge of remembering what pile of running shorts my tweezers were under or what plastic bag hid my Sri Lankan bug bite remedy. ‘insects.
Certainly, the mess also defied the prospect of permanence that I found so terrifying.
Eventually, however, it became unsustainable, especially once I started traveling again – first on intra-Mexican getaways, then on a two-month excursion to Turkey and Albania. On each return to Zipolite, suitcases and duffel bags would remain unpacked on the floor, adding to the already numerous obstacles to middle-of-the-night bathroom visits and providing even more attractive accommodation options for scorpions.
The clutter began to consume me and I felt increasingly prisoner as I attempted to work on my latest book while sitting on my couch wedged between packets of Turkish tea, sunglasses, sarongs, electronics and the plastic shelves I had ordered. from the Internet, but had not yet assembled. As usual, everything including me was covered in a layer of sand.
I was spending less and less time writing and more time worrying about what the whole mess meant psychologically. A quick Google search yielded predictable titles such as “How the Environment We Create Reflects Our Mindset”, “The Psychology of Space: What Does Your Home Say About You?” and “Clean your room to clean Your mind”.
My house is me, I said to myself: relatively tidy on the outside, disastrous on the inside. And yet I still couldn’t bring myself to clean up, impossible to know where to start.
It was only after not one but two friends threatened to tie me up somewhere and clean the house for me that I woke up at 4:30 a.m. one morning and started sweeping – first frantically, as it seemed I would never put a dent in the disarray, then more temperately, as sand and dirt obediently gathered into manageable mounds.
I still have a ways to go – and I doubt I’ll ever reach the point of making the bed – but at least the words are flowing again.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.