I have a tendency to clutter up my living space – whether it’s at home, or at work. I just find my world more manageable when my stuff is strewn all over the desk, or the dining table; and, despite what everyone believes, I know exactly where everything is and usually have no problem finding it, buried, as it were, beneath layers of personal debris. I hate it when somebody comes in – the cleaning lady I used to have for my home in Singapore, say – to clear up my things because afterwards, I can never find anything. “There’s a place for everything,” she or other clean-up Nazis would say and I would respond, “Yes, and that’s wherever I left it.”
In Witold Rybczynski’s book, Home: A Short History of An Idea (clearly it’s becoming my favorite book of the season), he says this:
Hominess is not neatness. Otherwise everyone would live in replicas of the kinds of sterile and impersonal homes that appear in interior-design and architectural magazines. What these spotless rooms lack, or what crafty photographers have carefully removed, is any evidence of human occupation. In spite of the artfully places vases and casually arranged art books, the imprint of their inhabitants is missing. These pristine interiors fascinate and repel me. Can people really live without clutter? [...] Where do they hide the detritus of their everyday lives? (17)
I live with someone who likes interior spaces clean and tidy. It’s a bit of a challenge for me. I go through my living space a bit like a tornado does the plains of the mid-west. Immediately after I walk in the door, I kick off my shoes and leave them blocking the doorway, I take off my coat and leave it on the sofa; my bag is carelessly deposited on the dining table, where the clothes that I wore yesterday are also strewn. “Why can’t you pick up after yourself, Kennie!” I would get. “Sorry!” I would apologize and attempt to tidy everything up there and then. Within the next hour, however, something of mine gets left somewhere it is apparently not meant to be. Again.
The common preconception is that messy people are “Creative.” Funnily enough, my room-mate is the creative one ( a designer) and he’s a stickler for everything being in its right place. I’m the one who can’t really claim much in the way of creativity, except in the spontaneous method in which I deposit my things all over the place, in dribs and drabs. I suppose in my ability to “create” a mess, I’m a bit of a Jackson Pollock.
Thankfully, I’m not too fussy about letting guests see my clutter. I hate it when people invite me over to theirs, apologise for their place being “So messy!” when it is actually immaculately, spotlessly tidy. When I invite friends over – and I would do so at the spur of the moment – I also apologise for the mess in my place, but because it really, truly is cataclysmically messy. Traces of me and what I do are everywhere. The home is a bit like an archeological site. Anyone with a sharp eye can read the room, and discover what it is that I do in my free time (read a lot, cook a lot, drink a lot and sit at my computer a lot, basically). My private life is laid bare.
In the last two years I’ve been travelling, I’ve stayed in many friends’ homes. I invariably find that I’m most comfortable in those that have a heavy layer of “human detritus,” so to speak – homes that are a little on the messy and disorganised side. Largely because in these places, there are less rules about how to behave; and so I feel less like a temporary guest and more like an actual inhabitant. But importantly also because when they are out at work or on holiday, I still feel that they are palpably there, embodied in the personal things strewn all over the apartment and in the day-to-day routines that these objects suggest. Moving around on my own so much, I sometimes get lonely and strangely, I find other people’s clutter as comforting as other people’s company.
I’m not trying to argue that one should allow clutter to build up indefinitely – that just results in a filthy and unhygienic living environment. But I do think that some degree of clutter is a sign that one is comfortable in and comforted by the living space one inhabits; that living space is being “lived in” optimally. As I once told a friend I stayed with, who apologised for her (truly monumental) messiness, “It’s alright. It’s your home, after all. You’re just staking it out as yours with your stuff. So that nobody who enters the space could ever mistake this home as someone else’s.”
To homeliness and clutter. Well, some clutter, anyway.