In search of the perfect mess

February 10, 2012|Alicia Notarianni | Making Ends Meet

My urge to clean up is a force to be reckoned with.

I can't write when my house is messy. I can't watch TV, read, eat or sleep, either.

I even have trouble leaving the house when it's too messy, because I don't want to come home to that. Sometimes as we are rushing out the door and I stop to straighten the throw pillows, my oldest children shake their heads incredulously.

"OCD, Mom," they say.

Thankfully, I don't have obsessive compulsive disorder. But I do have a strong penchant for order in certain areas of my life, and those close to me like to have fun with it.

I have a friend who enjoys messing with me by, say, moving my coffee table an inch and three-quarters to the right when she comes to visit, just to see if I'll notice. I do notice. And try though I might, I can't continue our conversation until I fix it.

I am not what you might call a "clean freak." It's not so much the dust in the corner I can't see that bothers me. It's the papers scattered on a table, the toys and DVDs strewn about a room and even the haphazardly tossed throw pillows that get on my nerves.

I have a few theories regarding my appetite for order. One has to do with my particular mind, which is profligate with multiple tracks of whirlwind, colorful activity. Thoughts of consequence, like "How will my son with a serious pre-existing heart condition get insurance someday?" overlay a running loop of songs like, "How Many Toes Does a Fish Have?" With all the commotion in my brain, I need some order in my environment.

Not to mention that with a husband, four children, two jobs and a home, I need to know that things are where they are supposed to be to keep things running smoothly.

I have a pocketful of arguments for order and organization. At the same time, I know and admire people whose concern with cleaning up and maintaining order registers somewhere between minimal and nil. They are good with piling dishes high in the sink and clearing a space on the couch for a visiting friend to sit.

I've noticed that these types sometimes have prodigious families who, rather than making beds, spend their time collectively training for triathlons, playing Bach inventions in string ensembles or digging wells in Third World countries.

Which begs the question, what amount of time, money and energy spent on order and organization yields an appropriate return?

Eric Abrahamson, co-author of a book called "A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder," suggests that people should do a sort of cost/benefit analysis of order and organization. For example, while I want efficiency, I don't want to be the kind of person who spends so much time organizing her desk that she doesn't do any work.

If you devote all your time to organizing, Abrahamson says, you won't get anything done. But if you don't spend any time organizing, the resultant mess will bog you down.

"When you find the ‘sweet spot' between messiness and order, then you have a perfect mess," he says.

I tried to give that idea priority in my mind. But it whizzed by along with "Someone forgot to hang up his jacket," "Scholarship deadline Friday" and "Do sheep shrink in the rain?"

I'm gonna hang up that jacket.

Alicia Notarianni is a reporter and feature writer for The Herald-Mail. Her email address is

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