Opinion: Clean your heart like you’d clean a room


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Cameron Gorman

When we used to be sent downstairs to the basement to clean it, my mother impressed a certain belief onto my siblings and I. Groaning and grumbling, not wanting to really get down into the work, we did the classic kid-clean of surface level wipedowns and shoving things out of sight, gathering up loose ends and closing them into narrow closets.

Inevitably, my mom would come down and survey the handiwork, taking what we had done apart and putting it back together in a way that only she could. The place never looked as clean when we did it — only her hand made it look really put-together. What was that special parental secret? It was nothing, really. My mom told me the simple facts: if you really wanted to get the room to be clean, you couldn’t just polish it from the top. You had to go the bottom, pull all the grime and stuff out, and deep clean it. In other words, it was going to look worse before it started to look better.

If you wanted to organize something, for example, you’d first have to empty all the storage bins or the spices from the spice cabinet — take them all out and then start over again, remaking the system, reorganizing the space. You couldn’t just shove them behind a door and call it done. You had to really get in and change things. You had to face the dirt in order to clean it.

As I’ve gotten older, I haven’t forgotten that lesson. It’s still true, and it always will be, especially when cleaning the college-life disarray from my desk drawers or from my backpacks and bags. But I’ve also discovered that the saying runs deeper than Windex and file folders. It’s true too for people, for emotions, for happiness and peace. If you want to make something better, to fix a situation or to come to terms with something, you have to face it.

When something bad happens, it does no good to be quiet about it. To pretend it never happened and shove your emotions down into a box. Sure, it works in the short-term. It seems, when you step into the room, that everything dirty was whisked away somehow. There’s nothing ugly to look at, you think, as you survey your surroundings. Everything seems as if it’s been smoothed over. But — don’t open the closet. Don’t look under the bed. Because if you do, the very same problems will be staring you in the face, the problems that were never dealt with and instead boxed up and shoved into the dark.

Instead of cleaning the dirty dishes, we ignored them, and now they’re worse than before. (So that’s where the mold was coming from.) It’s tempting to pull down the bedskirt once more, to relieve ourselves from having to look at whatever is festering in the corners of our minds. And, I’ll admit, it is easier.

Yes, it’s easier, in the short-term at least, to step away from the problems, to polish them up and to hide them away. But it can’t work forever. We run out of space. The mold continues to spread until we can’t ignore it, until it’s in our faces, until the room is bulging with the weight of a thousand undone dishes. We have to unpack it. We open the closets and move the bed aside, we lift up the rug. Out come a million ugly things. Things we wanted to forget about, things we

thought were unpleasant to consider. There they are, spilling over and making the room terrible. God, is this awful. What have we done?

We’ve taken the first step, is what. We’re facing it. It’s all out on the table now, in the full, harsh sunlight. The room was never clean in the first place, was it, if all this was just under the surface like a golf course on a landfill?

It hurts to see the place like this. But have heart. Have courage. This would all be here, whether we wanted to face it or not. And we are. And it looks bad now, maybe really bad. Maybe ugly. It would be easier to spray the Orange-Glo on the closet than to empty it out. But here we are, shaking out a garbage bag, taking a deep breath. Here we are, knowing that mom told us it has to look worse sometimes before it can get better.

 Cameron Gorman is an opinion columnist. Reach her at [email protected]