By MIA NAKAJI MONNIER
I grew up in a house full of clutter, where I kept a clean room and imagined I would escape all my parents’ shortcomings. I started organizing my papers in filing boxes at an age when my “papers” consisted mostly of hand-stapled books and marker drawings of Sanrio characters. Once a week, I’d take all the kokeshi dolls and ceramic animals off the top of my desk hutch and give them a thorough dusting. When my second-grade teacher taught us to clean the classroom countertops and desks with shaving cream, I brought that technique home too, scrubbing the crevices of my desk with the blunt end of a snapped Q-tip to try to get the foam out again.
My homemaking only became more obsessive as I got older and my family began moving across the country. Every year or two, I’d have a new room in an unfamiliar house, with built-in shelves or full-wall mirrors or, just once, with windows that looked out onto a sprawling jasmine bush. In each place, I’d carefully arrange the furniture and choose a drawer for my valuables: a few diaries, sticker albums, and old tea tins full of Disney cake toppers and dot-matrix paper stars.
During the move between San Jose and Seattle, when I caught a professional packer shoving my full garbage can into a paper box and taping it shut, I realized I’d have to do my own packing too. I approached it with seriousness, feeling stressed when I couldn’t match categories of things neatly to boxes and had to mix books with Beanie Babies. All I could control in these moves were my belongings, sorted, cleaned, and arranged exactly as I wanted them.
This September marked three years in my apartment on a quiet, narrow street in Los Feliz, making it my longest-running home since I was fifteen. If I live there until next September, it’ll be the longest since I was seven. In this apartment, I don’t have to pack up and rearrange each year. I don’t have to fight to feel at home. So I’ve stopped dusting every week, and I have definitely not scrubbed a thing with a Q-tip.
As time went by, I learned that dust builds differently when you stay still. It gathers in the cracks where the carpet meets the wall and it settles on top of the mouldings. Clutter gathers too, in a way that it didn’t when I moved. And with it, so does guilt. The earrings an old friend gave me that feel heavy in my ears. The sweater from my mom that, though it washes me out, makes me imagine her walking the Misses section of Macy’s, thinking of and loving me. These things I clung to though I didn’t use them, and they built subtly, until opening my closet doors made me feel as if I’d mistreated everyone who’d ever loved me, a heavy way to begin each morning.
Lately, I’ve been staring down the dust and feeling an urgency to change. I’ve taken books by the paper Trader Joe’s bag-load to the Little Free Library down the street and filled the apartment’s giveaway table over and over with my life’s detritus. Some things go easily, like an Enrique Iglesias CD I’d like to pretend I never owned. Others, I admit, I’ll squeeze or kiss before I let them go: the beaten up Scholastic editions of “The Chronicles of Narnia” that weren’t bound to last or the convertible green dress that could be worn a different way for each college party.
Each day I look for a thing to clean or throw away so that I can breathe again, trying to edit down to an essence that makes some sense. It’s new to me, this maintenance of stability rather than the maintenance of change. But I’m trying. I’ll even clean that place behind the fridge and dust the tops of the blinds. With sleeves rolled up, one object at a time, I’ll fight the effects of my neglect, a neglect that can come only from a comfortable, steady, background-music love.