For three years before we moved to Philadelphia, Julie and I lived in a spacious, two-bedroom apartment full of light on South 10th Street in Richmond, Indiana. Our landlord and downstairs neighbor was Jim Kennedy, who was a librarian at Earlham College, where we had just graduated a few years before. Jim was a quiet, elderly widower who had supervised me in my work-study job in the reference section of Lilly Library through most of college. Other than the fact that he played the tuba – all spring, it was Pomp and Circumstance – we barely knew he was there. We paid $230 a month, had free cable, and could walk to the Coachman, the gay bar on the Promenade, which we did every Thursday night to share a pitcher of bad beer and try not to talk about our students. We were both English teachers in rural high schools, and Richmond was not at all a logical place to live, but we had searched high and low for something more convenient to our work, and there was just nothing along Route 70 that we could bear.
So every morning, with coffee, cigarettes and pop-tarts in hand (ah, youth….), in our little red Chevette (not at all to be confused with Prince’s Little Red Corvette, although it is quite likely Prince was in the tape player on those rides to school), Julie would drive us thirty minutes west to Cambridge City, where she taught at Western Wayne High School. I would drop her off and continue on another thirty minutes to Eastern Hancock High School, where I taught. At the end of the day, which was often long and involved drama rehearsals after school for both of us, I would drive back to pick her up, and she would drive the remaining thirty minutes home. Without fail, as soon as we pulled out of her school’s parking lot, I would begin undressing – the panty-hose or tights would come off first, followed quickly by the bra. I was a veritable Houdini at discarding uncomfortable undergarments without actually taking off my outerwear first. This used to drive Julie crazy, as did my habit of ripping tags out of the backs of her tee-shirts, leaving a little hole in the crew neck. Before either of us had ever heard the term “sensory defensiveness” I just thought of myself as a little quirky. Julie was less charmed, especially when I was pulling a bra out of my sleeve a block from where she taught.
When Micah was a toddler and started having serious fits about things like “bubbles” in his socks, tags in his shirts, the “arm-pitty” feeling of multiple layers in the winter, and messy or sticky hands, I could empathize, bras and panty hose being just the tip of the iceberg. (The resurgence of hip-huggers has been a God-send to me, because I can’t stand anything around my waist. I love the idea of oatmeal, but the texture literally makes me gag. Ditto rice pudding, tapioca, and okra and eggplant if they are not cooked well. In the car, sometimes when the kids are bickering, and Julie is talking to me, and the radio is on, suddenly I HAVE TO TURN THE MUSIC OFF RIGHT NOW or my head will explode. Just for starters….). When Micah was about two and a half, I started doing a little research and discovered the term “sensory integration disorder.” As it turns out, SID does not describe Micah very well, nor me for that matter, but I learned some things about the various ways folks process sensory input that has helped me understand myself and Micah a lot better.
I would say that I am quite “sensory defensive,” meaning I have poor sensory filters, and am quite easily overloaded by all sorts of sensory input. Micah is similarly fine-tuned to sensory stimulation, but, with a few exceptions, is highly “sensory seeking,” which, for a musically gifted, highly kinetic five year old like Micah, involves a LOT of noise and movement. Micah is his own one-man, Bobby McFarrin-esque rhythm section, and quite talented too. But as you might imagine, all this tapping, pounding, humming, thumping, clicking and “beat boxing” (as we like to call the amazing combinations of sounds he can produce with his mouth, simultaneously and unconsciously) can be, well, a little overwhelming for a sensitive gal like me. (Add to this sensory overload the fact that Micah is an extreme extrovert who is still quite attached to my extremely introverted self, and rarely wants to be so much as one room away from me, and, well ….) Micah is an exquisitely hi-def boy in an analog world that will often misunderstand him, and it’s a blessing that I can empathize enough to understand his quirkiness and help him negotiate his way.
But it takes a toll. Before Micah arrived, I was pretty good at arranging my life around my “special needs,” and making sure that I didn’t get too over-stimulated. It used to annoy me that my house was often messy, and I certainly preferred when it stayed neat and clean, which was some but not all of the time. But when other things had my focus (a tendency to hyper-focus being another quality Micah and I share), housekeeping would often suffer. But I could generally manage. If I needed a calm place to relax and read or write or study, I would just clean one room and close the door. But it seems that there is some sensory input threshold past which my delicate self just can’t endure, and I think that Micah, exquisite and inescapable, pushed me through that threshold (I’m sure that peri-menopause plays a role in this drama as well). Which meant something else had to give. Housekeeping is no longer something I like to do when I have time, but an integral part of my mental health regime, and central to taking care of myself so that I can take care of my family.
My friend Patrick, who blogs at Loose Ends, recently wrote about how hard city life is on his brain, and how important time in nature is to his mental health. In a post titled Resting My Brain, Patrick summarized some research suggesting that the particular sensory stimulation of an urban landscape, as opposed to a more natural one, can be really hard on the human brain. It seems to me that there is plenty of sensory stimulation going on in nature – every bit as much as in an urban landscape – but it also makes a lot of sense to me that nature’s sense of design is one that our human brains – even brains like mine and Micah’s -- have evolved to find calming, and not too over-stimulating. But just as a chaotic, messy urban landscape can be jarring and harsh on a sensitive brain, I’m finding that so too can a chaotic, messy interior landscape. The research Patrick summarized got me wondering what an era of over-crowded, messy houses is doing to our collective brains. Urban landscapes have been with us for a very long time, but until recently most people lived in rural areas with access to natural landscapes, and most people had much simpler and calmer lives inside the doors of their homes. We now live in an era when many more folks live in cities, consumption and the accumulation of stuff is our patriotic duty, and housekeeping, if we attend to it at all, is certainly no longer a respected art; now our interior landscapes – in our homes, and, I suspect, in our brains -- are just as crowded and cluttered as the most busy city street, with no natural or calm oasis in sight. Knowing the toll such chaos takes on me and my family, I just can’t help but wonder about the collective effect of all that chaos and mess, inside and out.
We’re really fortunate that we don’t need a second income and that I love homemaking – a combination that I recognize is quite rare these days. But our current solution is hardly the only way to take housekeeping seriously. I’m intrigued by the diverse ways that folks I know create oases of calm and order for themselves and their families, and I’m hoping to feature some of them and how they make it work in future posts. Do you like to think and talk about housekeeping? Is it something that matters to you, and that you approach with seriousness and discipline? Or, is it something that matters to you, but you just can’t figure out how to make it work? I’d love to hear from you!