November 1, 2007


Confessions of a Binge Cleaner

by Kate Payne

It is 11:04 p.m. I have just done the dishes, swept the front walk and vacuumed the remains of the disastrous shelf collapse incident from two days prior. All this from a girl who just an hour ago contemplated bombing the place and starting over due to the immensity of the task. Cleaning and I have a very unhealthy relationship. My life piles and stacks and clutters itself into pure chaos. My house is ultimately defenseless against my antics. I am the poster child for what not to do in Feng Shui.

At any given moment I face the imminent threat of being consumed by pieces of paper; whether they have made it to the recycling bin or are strategically placed in a pile for review, I am at risk nonetheless. Newspapers, magazines, words awaiting my perusal, it is all the same: a mounting and ominous feat of viewing pleasure. There is so much to read at any given moment. It is certain that I could fill every spare moment I have and still not accomplish anywhere near the amount of reading I envision necessary to stay in touch with everything.

Magazines threaten my sanity on a daily basis. They keep coming to your house, piling up in their plastic sheaths. I’ve realized that it’s worth it to pay the inflated newsstand cost for a magazine that I’ll realistically have time to read once every four months rather than pay for a deal of a subscription. I keep saying I would like to receive the New York Times on a semi-regular basis... perhaps only on Sundays? My wiser self put the foot down on that idea, realizing that singer/songwriter Loudon Wainwright III wasn’t joking about how long it takes to read the Sunday Times. Let’s not even discuss the unsightly stacks of newspapers shoved in every free spot.

This is nothing compared to my relationship with the refrigerator. For about two solid weeks I am quite on top of it in terms of cooking my meals and eating at home, using the groceries for which I have just handed over a pretty penny. (They don’t call it “Whole Paycheck” without reason.) All of a sudden, there is a shift, and I am at war with the fridge and its contents. It becomes the countdown to use food before it crosses over to the compost category. And then, I surrender. Kate: 2, Fridge: 5. The fridge takes control, and I just use the immediate, front shelf space to store my leftovers and piecemeal added items that involve little to no cooking, e.g. toast and soymilk for cereal. I don’t dare even open the crisper drawer; who knows what the produce has done behind my back?

A huge realization came to me just now as I barreled through another cleaning binge, this one involving the refrigerator. Rather than take on the guilt associated with another week’s groceries heaved into the compost pile, I can treat my shopping trips as if I’m selecting the finest ingredients with which to compost. That way I’m honest from the get-go that some portion of what I intend to cook will end up in the compost, and all these unconsumed purchases will give some extra nourishment to the fruits and veggies I grow in my garden.

Why is it that every facet of life demands your constant attention and care in order to not become overrun like the lawns from hell in this funny Texas summer? Life ebbs and flows naturally, but mine seems to be on steroids. The build-up is millimeters away from sending me over the edge. Each task becomes interdependent upon another task’s completion, and eventually I’m having the “chicken or the egg” debate with my to-do list. Once I put dish soap on the sponge to wash one thing, before I know it I’ve washed an entire house worth of dirty utensils and cups and thrown the dog in the dish tub for good measure. I consider the combination of vacuuming, reading all of the contents of my “to-read” bin, writing a letter, working on this article, and doing yoga as my next step. A manageable step? Not so much.

There has to be a better method of existing that does not involve such a binge lifestyle.

Prioritization and baby steps are key to crawling out of the overly ambitious multi-tasker’s nightmare. I’ve been reading books about Feng Shui and realize that I am not alone in this pattern. On the contrary, many people have a constant battle with clutter. The core principle of Feng Shui is 'clear the clutter so the energy can flow.' I’ve bogged myself down with such clutter, whether physical or emotional, that when the decision-making time comes, I have so many options it is utterly overwhelming. Drowning in possibilities is not a bad position to be in, but finding a clear path towards streamlining and focusing your energy can be exhausting. Thus it is easier to binge, or repeat similar actions that leave you in the exact same comfortable spot, rather than jump ship and do something that requires more energy or a different mind frame.

There are some things that just can’t sit on the shelf patiently until I have enough energy to do something about them. Puppies fall into this category. They don’t “hang tight” very well. In fact, my selfishness in ignoring mine for just a moment actually leads exponentially backward in things like her potty training, which correlates to more house cleaning. Continual energy and attention—this is how I imagine life with kids.

I am learning a lot about priorities via dog ownership. Everything is a priority. Binges just won’t suffice in this case. I can’t give her a whole lot of attention for days and then ignore her for the next week.

Where do you draw the line: “on it” versus “staying the hell away from it?” Moderation tells us that we can do things well; our neurosis tells us that we can do all things well, all at the same time. I’m ready to start listening to moderation, seeing as the other path is exhausting.

My houseplants are faltering; the fridge is back on the verge of taking over. The cycle is prepared to viciously repeat. So, before I resort to drastic measures (like moving to a new city, where these types of things—refrigerators, stacks of paper, dusting and pets don’t exist) I must change my mind about this cycle and put one foot out, one step at a time.

Kate Payne plays with words—bending and stretching and sometimes gluing them. As a poet and freelance writer, she decided to mix the artistic and professional realms by starting a strategic creative business, teakate creative. Her poetry has been featured locally on Austin’s KOOP radio collective and internationally on NPR. Kate moved to Austin, Texas in 2003 upon graduating from the University of Arizona where she earned her B.A. in Anthropology and Sociology. In her spare time, Kate teaches creative writing to middle school children, avoids housework diligently, and gardens with her four-legged children, Isobel and Gino. She can be reached via her website or e-mail.