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Friday, October 17, 2014

Ask a Cleaning Lady -- How to Tackle Scary Cleaning

Do you remember when you were a kid and your parental unit made you clean your room? That particular time your room was such a huge horrible aftermath that you couldn't even imagine how to start such a task? You probably said "but I don't know how!" and if your parental unit was a decent sort they would have said something to the effect of "just start small and go from there"

And even though that was good advice and you know what they meant *now* you didn't understand what they were talking about at the time? Because as I have often quoted Dr Seuss, "this mess is so big and so deep and so tall, there is no way we can clean it, no way at all" And you thought "when I'm big, I won't have to do this." Right?

And now you're big and you still have to do it.

There have been times (in my earlier, pre-medicated days) when I have had a cat-in-the-hat mess that I just sat down and cried. Because... mess. Eventually I would get up and start cleaning, something, anything, just to feel like I tried. Lots of people give up after a few of those "something anything" moments because they realize that even something, anything, isn't enough to make a dent worth pursuing, but I am one of those people who can’t stop once I get going. While I clean, I often find myself getting angry or resentful about the work I have to do. “How does this happen?” I wonder. When I was younger, pre-family, I thought I was going to make sure this sort of thing didn’t happen, yet, here I am...

It's one of those days when it all starts so innocently; the kids (or the spouse, or the enclave of friends) have a project they are working on while you're busy doing something Adult-y in another area. Then, when you check on things, you notice the mess but figure its no big deal, nothing you can't handle later on. Then something happens, something kind of awful, that makes the mess go from manageable to dreadful. But you know you can handle it, its just a mess after all, right? You go on doing your Adult-y things and figure you'll get to it later.

Then the next thing you know, you're back in that room looking at what appears to be the effect of a series of demonic interventions and you can hear Billy and Sally chanting the Dr Seuss pronouncement "there is no way to clean it, no way at all."

Then, of course, something ELSE happens that you couldn't have possibly foreseen. Someone gets sick. Someone trips and spills a bowl of stew. Someone forgets the top isnt' screwed on their OJ when they start to shake it. Someone wants something from a high shelf not knowing there is the remnants of an older person's miniature painting foray on top of it all. Then you aren’t just looking at a mess that is cat-in-the-hat proportions, you’re looking at a breath-taking conglomerate of fearsome chaos.

You don’t even know where to start; the nasty disgusto mess that was thrown on top of everything? The disordered clutter that makes everything look messier than it probably is? The things you want to throw away? The things you want to save? The things that must be salvaged even though they are covered in I-don’t-want-to-know? The things that the other humans cherish and will rage if you get rid of?

There is a way to clean it all. The first order of business, however, is to make the very real firm choice to do it. Make a commitment to getting this done. Whether you resolve to tackle it throughout the night or you decide you need to call on reinforcements, the point is that YOU are in charge of making this happen and so you must put on your adult-y pants and start getting drill sargeant about it.

Once you know you are not going to procrastinate anymore - and for me that means imagining that someone is coming over to my place RIGHT NOW - you need to pick a priority and get started. Here is a list to help you figure it all out (feel free to adjust it to your liking).

1) Anything biological in origin gets dealt with first: blood, vomit, feces, garbage, dirty dishes, whatever - do it FIRST and do it to completion.

2) Take out the garbage. Do not do anything else until there are at least two garbage receptacles free.

3) All paper trash goes next. I call this kippel. It is all the paper that seems to accumulate on its own. Most of it is stuff you don’t care about and will never miss. A thing to keep in mind is: if there are layers of kippel, then the deeper in the pile you go, the less likely you’ll need, want or miss it. Therefore, the deeper into the layers you go, the more you should be automatically throwing stuff away without even looking.

4) As you are grabbing paper and throwing it away, you will come across little items you had forgotten about or didn’t even know existed - put them aside in a pile. if you have a bowl or basket, use that. try not to get distracted by the little things - you can squeal with delight over finding a long-lost tchotchke later, right now, just get it off the floor or table

5) DO NOT stop to clean something in depth that you happen across unless it is an object you can immediately use to clean more. Do not decide now is a good time to wipe down the counter when there are dishes all over it. Do not start organizing your books when you haven’t dusted the shelves. Do not scrub the dining table before it is completely devoid of objects on it. Just clear a space if needed and keep moving.

6) Move around the room in an orderly fashion, taking a trash can with you and any gathering items you might be using. I’ve seen people sit the gathering item in the middle of the room and just toss things into it but that isn’t such a great idea unless you have a perfect lay-up shot. You want to fill the gathering item, not create an identical mess on the other side of it.

7) Once you have one subsection clear, resist the urge to fill it up with things from other areas.

8) Making piles is a great way to organize as you clean but you must be very rigid about adhering to that system - do not get up in the middle of organizing and start putting things away from one pile - you are bound to find things that don’t belong in that pile AND you will be walking all over the place making yourself tired before you are halfway done. Just keep piling until there’s nothing left to pile. Then begin sub-piling. One pile per corner of each room (or one pile per room depending on how big your rooms are) any time a pile is big enough to fall over? Make sub-piles.

9) Have a special place for sentimental items. DO NOT LOOK AT THEM. just put them in the place they go until you are done. The sentimental pile is LAST. Always.

10) Enlist help as soon as possible. Have specific jobs for your help or else they will mysteriously disappear (the help, not the mess).

Cleaning a mess, no matter how scary, is a job and like all jobs, it can be tackled with efficiency and energy. Remain calm, take stock of where you are (every so often), stick to your plan of action and do not give up.

And afterwards, reward yourself. Wine. I hear wine is really great.

A middle-aged mom who cleans houses in order to pay for her education habit. She is currently single and available for dates or tributes. Chocolate, flowers or cruise runs are all happily accepted. While she writes our popular Ask a Cleaning Lady column, she writes about all topics with sensitive wit on

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