Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Diary of a Mad Housewife: Interior Landscapes

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!


Meena said...

Marta, I completely empathize with your sensitivity. I too have those moments where the folds in the sheets drive me batty and Richard bemoans the lack of music in the car...the noise of the road, the kids and the music compete too strongly in my head. About housework, I find that my counters must be clean and that cleaning my fridge is akin to therapy. While I do not enjoy housework in the traditional sense (I would much rather lay about, drink coffee and read) I adore the depth of gratification that comes from a neat room. I feel renewed by a clean house, cliched as that is. I also have very few "knick knacks" in our home...too many things competing for space and interest. In my rare dreams about a childless life I live in a 1 bedroom apartment with dark wood floors, with three walls of books and one of glass. No curtains, just light. One sofa, one chair, one pair of shoes, one coat. A hook for the coat, a glass for the wine and me.

Rebecca said...

Graham and I are complete opposites in this regard. Where I see mess everywhere, he does not see it at all. He can walk over it and not see it. I used to challenge him that this could not possibly be true, that he was merely being passive aggressive, but after 20 years of watching him I believe it. His office could win one of those clutter contests sponsored by the Container Store. While he and the kids are at Meeting on Sundays, I clean the house. While I don't profess to love cleaning, this time alone is wonderful. And for about an hour or so after I'm done (Meeting is a ways away and then there's always Fellowship and sometimes meetings afterwards) I sit in my house and relish the tidiness (even more, perhaps, than the cleanliness). I do think the need for clean is worse in the winter, when the natural landscape is less accessible due to cold and needing doors and windows to be shut.

Patrick said...

This essay, and the comments above are inspiring all sorts of thoughts... one of them being I might want to take this day off to do some serious housecleaning. In brief though, I will answer your question Marta that I LOVE talking about housekeeping, the how of it, the why of it, the ways my mental and physical landscapes reflect each other (and I often can't tell which triggers which)... oh so much to say.

Eric said...

I find my space on the inside.

Melissa said...

I hate clutter and am surrounded by a lot of it. One of the worst things about family living, IMO, is the proliferation of stuff with nowhere to put it (esp. that donated by well-meaning grandparents!)

My house is cleaner now that I have kids though -- probably because I'm here more often. But I do wish that I was more on top of things. I try to talk myself into cleaning (a la Flylady, "blessing the house") but usually I am just a layabout.

Joanna said...

Have you read The Highly Sensitive Person? As a fellow person with tiny vampire holes int he back of all her shirts, I totally get it.

I was just thinking this morning how important the tidy house is to me and therefore to our functioning as a family, and how it's worth the financial sacrifice for me to keep house (different from being a stay-at-home parent, though certainly there's a lot of overlap).

oop, baby up, gotta go. i want to talk about this more!~

Julie Steiner said...

How accurate on all counts--past and present. And how challenging to be partnered with someone sensory-blunt, who likes (and appreciates!) the clean house, but is ok without; whose idea of cleaning begins with the vegetable drawer and stops...with the vegetable drawer; who spends all day seemingly every day in a swirling mix of adolescent stimuli...and kind of enjoys it.

I am also really impressed by the writing, in a writerly and not just a "good for you" kind of way. I'm glad you have the time and space for it, because the product is worth it.

pam said...

marta, i *have* to carve out an oasis of tidiness as soon as i get home from work and on the days when i am here all the time (most) i spend a good deal of that returning things to their "homes".

tidiness matters more than cleanliness, though a clean kitchen is a must. apparently i can go quite a while with a dirty floor (according to my mom) but i just figure, it's where feet go and some people have dirt floors and get by just fine.

but most important is a clutter free home. i am a reformed pack rat. i recycle, give away, pass on, bag up and send on things as soon as they are no longer useful. it is most definitely a reflection of my inner landscape that i no longer cling to stuff in any way.

it was very interesting reading your essay (didn't know you and julie were rural english teachers!) and the comments that followed, thank you.

jane said...

Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god! Where do I start... I have so much to say and so much running through my overly busy mind. Yes! I remember the apartment that you and Julie lived in, and visiting you there.

I cannot write coherently because I have just read your whole blog and it has triggered so much in me... my own housewifely aspirations, our shared past, our divergent past, my own overly sensitiveness (not verbal, but physical).

You write beautifully.

I think I must come for a visit! xoxo jane

Joanna said...

Oh, and re: the bra removal via sleeve: I can change out of clothes and into a one-piece swimsuit without ever being naked. Girl Scouts, doncha know.

Kate Haas said...

Marta! Just discovered this blog of yours and am really enjoying it. The bra thing cracked me up. I'll never forget the way Bruce's eyes popped the first time he saw me pull one out of my sleeve. I was thinking, Dude - didn't any of your other girlfriends do this? Don't all women?

Anyway, I really like what you have to say about homemaking and your writing is gorgeous.

Anonymous said...

I'm like Jane - I really don't know where to start! I have, hidden in me, a person who wants a perfectly organized house, but who doesn't have the stamina or the organizational mind to get it there and keep it there. Plus, you are the first person I've ever heard talk about a child who is sensory defensive but also sensory-seeking. I have one just like that, and I am like you! I generally am exhausted by stimuli, easily distracted, and get all touched out by him quite frequently. I don't know if I have it in me to be a totally "good" housekeeper. Home keeper? Um, anyway. I beat myself up about it, which doesn't help matters. But I also make fun of myself, which sometimes does :)

Anonymous said...

p.s. I changed shirts in a Grateful Dead show and got applauded. For NOT revealing anything.

Marta said...

Meena: I'm soooo with you on the one bedroom apt fantasy! lol! Sounds divine!

Rebecca: Julie and I sound a lot like you and Graham. Juile just couldn't care less, which for years felt really disrespectful to me, but turns out to just be who she is. Live and learn. I love that you clean while they are at meeting -- I've been thinking of writing about housework as spiritual discipline (which is probably not exactly your experience, but your comment brought it to mind) Smooch G for me, will ya?

Patrick: All I can say is, I'm so glad I found you again bro! Gotta love Fb! Would you be interested in some parallel play .. I mean blogging ... about housekeeping??

Eric: The inside of what? Oh the possibilities! wink. (you shouldn't have sent me those poems!)

Melissa: clutter is the devils work. That's the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega: TOO MUCH EFFIN STUFF! I'm going to blog about this. Have a great trip to FL!

Jo: We've gotta tawk! Soon? Thanks for the shout-out. You da bomb.

Julie: But dear-heart, if you didn't enjoy those adolescents so much, who would keep me in bon bons? Your passion for those kids stirs all my passion for you (yes, I'm intentionally trying to embarrass you, smoochie smooch!) But really, thanks.

Pam: see my comments to Melissa above. You got it sistah! I'm a total convert to GETTING RID OF SHIT. Gonna blog about it soon, I think.

Jane! Jane! Are you kidding me? Come visit, soon! Sounds like we have tons to talk about. And thanks for your kind words.

Kate! Where did you come from? What an honor! And gosh, I'm blushing, because, you know, one thing I know about Kate Haas is she knows from good writing! How are you, by the way? What are you writing these days????

Barelyknittogether: And wouldn't you know, Jane is a knitter, par excellence! Here's a secret, which I don't intend to keep secret for very long: I have tons of warts, and I'm not sure I can claim the mantle of a "good housekeeper" yet -- but a girl can dream, nu? I'm so intrigued by your boy -- these sensory terms are just ones I'm borrowing, and probably using all wrong, but yeah, seeking and defensive. Quite a combination. Me, I'm just sensory tired. Which is one more than bone tired. LOL about the GD concert!

Andrea said...

Marta, I find what you wrote so very interesting; I know that for myself, being in nature on a regular basis is absolutely critical to the health of my interior landscape. I have often tried to explain to people why a messy house really bothers me, but "dirt" in the wilderness doesn't.
I wonder if sensory sensitivity is more common in adoptees--like Micah, I'm adopted, and I feel strongly that my affinity with wilderness/nature is somehow connected with my status as an adopted person. Any thoughts?

Casey said...

Stopping by from Jo's, and my mind is officially blown. I went to Lincoln HS, and I met Julie years (and years) ago when sisters (Emily & Jessica) were in drama club. Small world.

Marta said...

Andrea: I'd love to hear more about your thoughts on how being adopted fit into all this. My purely anecdotal evidence suggests that lots and lots of not adopted people (like me) have sensory issues, but I also think that being adopted is such an integral part of who someone is, it's hard to overstate the ways it might influence someone. I'd love to hear more of your story!

Casey: No freaking way!?! Julie is going to freak out. I think she might be in touch with Emily and Jessica via Facebook? If not, I'm sure she'd love to be. I remember them so well -- Steel Magnolias and Dracula, right? And Godspell. They were some of Julie's faves. If I recall, they were also in Julie's AP class that started every day with a Prince dance party ... it's a wonder she didn't get fired. Freaky small world, I say!

Sara said...

I'm fascinated and my brain is "busy" with this post - honestly? Some of our housecleaning issues are at the core of why I am separating from my long-term partner. Yes, I read her behavior (as one who just doesn't see mess) as disrespectful of my own needs - and Thank You for the alternate interpretation. (It goes so much deeper than clutter - but the clutter touches off a lot of it.) For years the house has been completely out of control - and it's driving me crazy. And yes, it's all related to having too much stuff around, and being pathologically bad at the process of winnowing it down.

Marta said...

Sara: I'm ruminating on a post about the tyranny of stuff, but in the meantime, I'll share with you what my beloved therapist periodically has to pound into my head: if I have needs that Julie simply does not share, it is my responsibility to makes sure they are taken care of. I can expect her to support me in taking care of them, but I can't realistically expect her to be someone who she isn't in order for her to take care of my needs (accepting this has saved my marriage several times over, housekeeping being only one instance). A clean house is something I need and Julie doesn't. The way she supports me in meeting my housekeeping need right now is by cheerfully embracing my role as homemaker, and earning a living so I can be home. (I'm sure if it were entirely up to Julie, she would rather have more income for things like travel, and a messy house, but that's the sacrifice *she* makes to help me meet my needs.) I know that's not a solution that works for most people. But if I were to work any significant amount of time outside of the home, I would *have* to commit significant financial resources to hiring help inside the home, and I would expect Julie to support that, even if she might prefer to spend money in other ways.