The other day I tripped over my post-shower pile of dirty clothes and reminded myself to move it out of the way before everyone else gets home. Then, after a beat, I remembered: No one else is coming home.
For the first time in my life, I live at an address that no one shares with me.
People did live with me – until this fall – but now they’re off launching their own lives. One of my people will be home on college breaks (but not often, and not for much longer). The other is rocking it out in Chicago, her first stop on the way to many more amazing places I’m sure.
Which means, it’s just me and the pile of clothes on the bathroom floor.
I feel I need to add a disclaimer here.
I have not always picked up my piles “before everyone else gets home”. Far from it. I am somewhat famous for piles. Big piles. Little piles. Piles coming in from the thrift store. Piles heading back to be donated. Piles waiting to be folded, washed, and sorted. Piles passing their expiration dates before finally being brought to the post office. Piles I do eventually get to, but perhaps not as quickly as experts would recommend.
Still, good or bad, I’ve always been highly aware of my piles in the context of other people. I’ve always had some level of awareness (guilt??) when my mess has spilled into shared spaces.
So, the other morning, with my dirty laundry staring back at me, I had a revelation. I realized I could literally leave that pile of wrinkled jammies right where it was for as long as I wanted, if I wanted. I could let it turn into a Mount St. Helens of unlaundered clothing. I could let it spread into a quicksandy pit of textiles. It wouldn’t be in anyone’s way. It might eventually block the bathroom door from closing, but no worries. There’s no one around to shut the door for anyway.
No one would care. No one would even know.
No one… but me.
One thing was clear: if my motivation for picking up piles had anything to do with living thoughtfully in community with others, that motivation had packed up and moved away—leaving a question in its place: What would it look like to live thoughtfully with myself?
For the past decade or so, I’ve understood the value of trying to treat myself as kindly as I treat other people. The quest to do so has become pivotal in my life. It’s helped me learn to love myself AND others better. But self-love was a paradigm shift for me, and I’m still learning how it looks.
Recently, as a houseguest with a friend, I noticed how intentional I was about putting my water glass in her dishwasher, wiping out the bathroom sink, and making my bed. I said to myself, “Self, you aren’t this tidy at home. Why are you so tidy here?” I heard myself answer, “I want things to look nice for my friend.”
What would happen if I gave myself that same kind of thoughtfulness? What if I chose to pick things up at home just so things would look nice…for me? Wouldn’t this be a lovely form of self-care and self-kindness?
It was a revolutionary thought. Not enough to motivate me to make the bed, but enough to make me wish I was making the bed.
Which brings me to a second thought. What would it look like to live graciously and patiently with myself?
Before all my people moved out, I’d been curious about how much of the mess was actually theirs. I knew that two-thirds of the clutter on the coffee table would leave with them, but what about the endless stream of dirty dishes? The dustballs in the corners? I wondered if my house would become a shimmering land of glowing perfection after they left. Perhaps all the mess was theirs all along!
Yeah, no. As I write this, I’m trying to avoid looking at the over-filled bags of recycling, compost, and trash that are begging to be taken out. And somehow, my toilet still needs cleaning. So I guess I am part of the problem here.
Or am I?
What if being messy isn’t a problem? What if it’s just human? What if I cut myself some slack for being a bit all over the place and (*gasp*) just not all that interested in cleaning?
What if I could learn to live thoughtfully AND gently with myself? What if I could appreciate the times when I do put my dirty plate straight into the dishwasher, and also not scold myself with judgy disdain when I don’t?
And so, with the option to either pick up or not pick up staring back at me from the bathroom floor, the real question became clear.
I had never noticed how much of a constant narrative was rolling in my head about the people around me – what delights them, what irritates them, what they have planned, when they’ll be back, what they want for dinner. That narrative has influenced most of the big and little decisions I’ve made, for years.
But if I’m going to decide what to do with that pile on the bathroom floor—and every other little decision I’ve come across since then (what kind of milk to buy, what to watch on Netflix, how often to run the dishwasher, whether I should pack up and move to New York City) there’s a new set of questions that matter more.
What do I want? What kind of home do I like? How do I want to live?
I’m aware that maybe these questions shouldn’t feel quite so foreign, but I also know why they do. I mean, first of all, I’ve been nurturing a family for a lot of years. I’m a mom. I’ve been pretty tuned in to what my people need. But it’s more than that, I know. Call me a pleaser. Call me an Enneagram Nine. Call me a recovering codependent. I am all of those things. For a cocktail of reasons, I value connection and peace so greatly that, if I’m not careful, I can forfeit my own desires in an effort to maintain it.
At the lowest points in my story, I have altogether forgotten I even have my own desires, living completely in the world of someone else’s preferences. I’ve come a long way since then, on every level. It’s not like I have no idea what I love. I mean, hello. I have a pink stove and a coral front door, I keep the heat no lower than 72, I don’t settle for relationships that aren’t mutual.
Yes. More than ever, I know what I want, and I’m living it.
But, left unchecked, I know I can merge into the people around me. I can melt into whatever they prefer. And, because I’m genuinely flexible and easygoing, I can be happy with a wide range of scenarios. The trouble starts when I stop paying attention to—or voicing—what actually makes me happy.
Which is why that pile of clothes on the bathroom floor has become so important to me these days. It’s inviting me to pay attention to someone who is sometimes left out of the conversation; someone I want to get to know better: Me.
I do want to do life with someone again. I long for close companionship. But, at the moment, I’m feeling pretty curious about this new person I’m living with right now. I’m really enjoying getting to know this girl who has, sometimes, in some ways, faded into the background to let others shine. It feels important to give her some space to become exactly who she is when no one else is around. I want to make sure I know her well before anyone else joins the equation.
And I want to make sure she sticks around.
Julie Rybarczyk is a freelance writer, fair-weather blogger, and empty-nester mama who’s living alone and liking it . She’s perpetually the chilliest person in Minneapolis—so most of the year you’ll find her under layers of wool, behind steaming cups of tea. Or on the socials at @shortsandlongs.
BY Julie Rybarczyk - October 23, 2018
Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.