Higher and Deeper

— DeMisty D. Bellinger

The piles of papers and books, postcards from publishers, and pens on my desk at work worries me. I have a file box of papers that I never look in on top of my desk, too, that I put there when I first started at the university five years ago to keep the clutter down. I have three file drawers filled with folders. What’s in the folders? Student work, handouts, stories and poems I read online and printed (as if the bookmark function on my computer does not work), and letters. There is one drawer with boxes for electronic office equipment. I have another file box that keeps evidence of the work I’ve done for tenure review.

My desk at home bothers me, too. Once a season, I clean it off because between cleaning sessions, shit accumulates on it until my keyboard and mouse have to fight for space. I have an actual, physical corkboard where I pin notes, possible story and poem lines and ideas, phone numbers, paper keepsakes (such as the tag that lists my name, house, studio, and genre when I was at Vermont Studio Center two years ago), ornaments, kids’ drawings, a copy of the picture my husband took for his passport, and business cards.

Business cards have become a nuisance. At conferences, people give me their business cards and I give them mine. Sometimes. This doesn’t happen too much anymore because of smart phones, but when someone gives me a card, I take it and bring it home. Often, these are beautiful cards, impressive, enough to cause Patrick Bateman to drool with envy. They are little works of art. So they collect dust in a pile about four inches thick, kept together with a scünci.

In my home office, the papers commingle with other clutter. Clothes that no longer fit my daughters are piling up for donation or repurposing. Crafting and scrapbooking materials are in boxes, on the book shelf, on the step ladder. And there are more papers in four file boxes. There is a box of sheet music, too.

And all this stuff scares the hell out of me. “School teachers,” my mother said, “and professors are the worst.”

My parents clean up after hoarders. Mostly, it’s my mother, but sometimes, my dad would chauffeur her around. He used to go into the houses too, but his health prevents him from working now. Yes, it’s the heavy lifting that he cannot do anymore—the weight of junk, the weight of papers, is surprisingly hefty—but it’s also the danger of stepping in a trap of debris that may shift below you and cause you to slip, or under precariously placed pieces that could come cascading down over you. And it’s the smell. When the television show Hoarders first came on air, I was intrigued to see what my mother does for a living being broadcast throughout the world, but I was also a little disappointed that they didn’t show how bad it can really get: people living in cars because they can no longer get into their houses, debris piles you’d have to climb over to get into a house, or the tears and indignity of those whose houses you were, essentially, invading by state order. Or family order. Maybe they showed the tears.

The smell cannot be depicted on television. This is good. When I worked with my mother, the smells of some of the sites were so offensive that I could not enter a house or the vicinity of the house. While cleaning years of food collected in kitchen cabinets, I have had to run from the site gagging. The masks didn’t help. The warnings from my mother, “This one’s really bad,” didn’t help. There were houses where roaches roamed like kings and houses so horrendous that the roaches had vacated. There were houses where, sadly, animals were also hoarded. Cats and dogs, yes, but also snakes. Sometimes, the animals had moved on and my mother and her help would find their remains in freezer chests. The animal waste was a problem, too. When there were too many animals, they gave up finding places to defecate.

Human waste is not unusual in hoarders’ houses, either: clogged toilets, urine-filled beverage bottles, feces and urine-filled buckets, used adult diapers abound. Again, the smell. Smells so atrocious, the burliest of my mother’s helpers would run from the house gagging and screaming obscenities. On the coldest days, all windows of the house—the windows that could be reached—were open wide to let in fresh air.

And, my mother told me, school teachers and professors are the worst. When she first told me this, I shivered. Back then, I was an aspiring professor, having returned to grad school for a PhD because I didn’t want to take over the family business of cleaning up after hoarders. Truthfully, I could not take over the business because I could not stomach it. So, when she said that, I vowed not to be a hoarder, to keep a pristine house. I break that vow daily.

I am a slob. Growing up, I kept a disheveled bedroom, which my mother described as a pigsty. Once a season, maybe (not much has changed), I’d clean my room and it would stay tidy for a week. Then I’d fall behind: laundry would collect, papers would take over, my books would pile up on every surface, my jewelry would go where there was room. I didn’t find this odd because all but one of my friends were slobs, too. For instance, one of my girlfriends always had stuff on her bed. Clothes, CD covers, sheet music, makeup cases were all strewn across her bed. I asked her if she cleaned her bed each night and she told me no. When I spent the night for the first time, I saw what she meant: she scooped out a clean area on her bed, then went to sleep.

Even though I kept my room littered with my own stuff, I never really liked clutter. The rest of our house was filled with striking antiques that my parents acquired through rummage sales, flea markets, and auctions (they, too, are antique dealers). My parents covered every area of the house with antiques. Furniture, hanging art work, statuettes, and knickknacks. Every so often, my mother would go around and dutifully dust. Even though they had a lot of items on display, she always kept it clean.

There was one room in our house that was ultra-modern. Well, it was fifties/sixties modern. All the furniture was black and white. The style of the furniture depended on basic shapes. The materials were ebony, glass, white leather, and metal. I loved that room. My baby grand piano, painted white with a thin gold trim, was in that room. It was missing keys and strings from its harp, but it was a gorgeous instrument. What attracted me to this room was its sense of emptiness. No clutter, no mess. It was what I wanted for my own home when I grew up. I still haven’t realized this; my house is a hodgepodge of stuff my husband and I have collected over the years.

I still covet such a decluttered, minimalist-decorated home. I still want to not be a slob, but there is the matter of my desks.

I understand how academics can fall behind in cleaning. I see it in my own life and in the lives of my colleagues. At the beginning of semesters, we start like New Year’s eves’ dreams, resolving to keep on top of things: grading, reading, socializing, cleaning. But as the semester wears on, our resolutions are broken. We don’t socialize as much. The bookmark stays in the book somewhere near the middle for days, then weeks, then the book gets buried, literally, beneath the papers we’re grading, we’re reading, we’re reviewing. Or beneath the mail. Our orderly, immaculate desks become various piles of stuff. Our lives succumb to the demands of teaching and committee work, research and writing.

This year, like so many previous years, I will spend spring break cleaning. I will clean my desks and find places on the shelves for all the loose books. I will promise myself that I will do as I tell my daughters to do: clean up as I go along. But I won’t. Come the end of the semester, in mid-May, I’ll be back to two cluttered desks.

Yes, Mama, teachers and professors are the worst because our lives are so full. Without summers off, we’d probably perish from too much stuff to do and too much stuff to organize and clean. Summers, winter break, and spring break are periods we use to catch up on reading, writing, researching, prepping for other classes, spending time socializing with family and friends, but also the times we use to clean.

I don’t think I’m a hoarder because I abhor a messy place and desire order. I don’t want the crap that collects. My mother tells me that some of her clients need disorder. “They want to keep some of their stuff—they don’t want clean tables.” Sometimes, she’d leave the client with a little, manageable pile to keep them happy. A stack of letters. A pile of magazines. Something that makes them feel like they have something. Sometimes, she’d have to go back a year or even six months later, declutter and clean the client’s home all over again. Maybe their lives too get overwhelming and the mess accumulates.

And, I don’t think I’m a hoarder because I’m not a shopper. I don’t buy things just to buy things. I don’t try to get the latest electronics or clothes. Recently, I went through my stuff and got rid of the clothes and shoes I no longer or hardly ever use. These were clothes that I cannot fit anymore. These were shoes that were threadbare. This was a painful but necessary task.

But I do hoard papers. I am a mother of young twin girls, so I have art work that I don’t want to throw out. I have report cards and homework assignments, such as one daughter comparing herself to Harriet Tubman replete with a Venn diagram. I have poems that my girls have written, the beginnings of their unfinished stories, homemade cards and loving notes. My husband draws and writes, so he has notebooks everywhere. I write, so I have notebooks. And we have receipts, paid bills, medical papers, correspondences, Christmas cards, birthday cards, cards for New Years decades old, different copies of the same piece of music, material (my husband sews), tools we never use, picture frames, chairs we no longer sit in, tables we don’t use, and we have books. We have so many books.

When I finished graduate course work at the University of Nebraska, I got a job teaching at my alma mater in Wisconsin. We were moving from a pretty sizeable flat to a small house, so we had to get rid of some of our stuff. A lifelong lover of reading in a loving relationship with a fellow reader for many years, we have obtained quite a few books. I knew that all of those books could not come with us. I thought of jettisoning books, and I was malaised. Knowing that I had to cull some books was difficult enough, but knowing which ones to cut was downright painful. We decided to make three donation piles: books we’ve read once or more and never will again; books we know we will never read; and books so plentiful in the world, we can surely, easily buy them again. Eventually, the three separate piles of books turned into one giant pile of five hundred books. I still had a small book store’s worth of books to take to Wisconsin with me.

Some days, I wonder about the books I’ve left behind—I don’t even remember the titles. Every day, I think about the hundreds of CDs I gave away. At the time, I figured that I hardly used them; I was using YouTube to listen to music. But what I did get rid of were a lot of obscure indie rock and house music. My Casey Scott and the Creeps CD was gone forever. Some underground house music from Minnesota, also gone forever. Even though I know CDs have the propensity to deteriorate into uselessness, I regret giving them up.

When I do a deep cleaning of my home or my office, I go back to the scene in Perry Farrell’s movie Gift, when, after some flashbacks and mourning, he decides to clean house and call the authorities to retrieve his wife’s decaying body. Their place is a neohippy paradise covered in beads, dope, and old food. My places are not covered in dishes caked with old food or ants marching in line, but when I do clean like that, I do it with the resolve that Farrell has in Gift: It’s time to get shit done and it’s time to do it quickly. I toss things without giving them much thought. I sort like a lunatic postal worker. I listen to music loudly, an accompaniment to the madness of cleaning. And when I finish, I don’t miss the stuff I discarded. Not yet.

I don’t think I’m too far off thinking about Gift: often, my parents are called when someone has died and the family finds that their loved one’s stuff was too much. Not only do they not want to deal with the grief of loss, they do not want to deal with the junk that was left behind. Or, if not dead, the loved one is being moved to a nursing home or hospice. Sometimes, neighbors call the cops when they notice an odor, or that their neighbor is sleeping in their car, or the debris has escaped from the confines of the house onto the front lawn.

I’m not dead yet, but I worry about my own children when my mess becomes unbearable, or when I save a ticket stub, a flyer for a reading, a program for a museum exhibit, a subway map for a city I visited, a takeout menu for another city I visited, a printout of a poignant poem, a program for a concert I was in, a poster for an event, postcards from publishers, poems and stories they’ve written and their paintings and their drawings, broken jewelry, mismatched socks, and any other number of things. I don’t want my inability to discard detritus to eventually burden my daughters.

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