Sticky Floors

October 6, 2011

 

I’ve only been living in my house (above), fondly dubbed “The Blue Door,” for about six weeks now, but it’s strange how much living off campus has changed my college experience.

A house comes with privacy, decorating decisions to be made, room for slumber parties…and also freezers to be fixed, ovens to be scrubbed, a lawn to water. My housemates and I are learning that when a problem arises, we usually have three clear options: ignore it, band-aid it, or fix it.

For example, we’ve been having a slight ant problem in one of our bathrooms. For the first few days, we just scowled and worked around the ants (paying careful attention not to place our toothbrushes in their path, etc). But one night, I heard shouts coming from the bathroom and went in to find my housemate frantically pointing to our garbage can, which was completed coated in ants (turns out they were after an empty bottle of cough syrup). So instead of letting those little suckers be, we grabbed the $2 trashcan and threw it in a garbage bag, and then spent half an hour spraying down every ant we could find. It was g-ross, and the worst part is, we still couldn’t tell where they were all coming from so the problem still isn’t really fixed.

Spraying ants is, of course, just part of growing up. In the dorms when there was an ant problem, you would call dorm services. Sure, they might not get there for a couple of days, but it’s their responsibility.

In my American Renaissance, we just finished Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables, and it has gotten me thinking about houses and humans—about covering up problems instead of fixing them.

Hawthorne describes the most evil character in his novel, Judge Pyncheon, as a sort of house himself:

“Men of strong minds, great force of character, and a hard texture of the sensibilities, are very capable of falling into mistakes of this kind. They are ordinarily men to whom forms are of paramount importance. Their field of action lies among the external phenomena of life. They possess vast ability in grasping, and arranging, and appropriating to themselves, the big, heavy, solid unrealities, such as gold, landed estate, offices of trust and emolument, and public honors. With these materials, and with deeds of goodly aspect, done in the public eye, an individual of this class builds up, as it were, a tall and stately edifice, which, in the view of other people, and ultimately in his own view, is no other than the man’s character, or the man himself. Behold, therefore, a palace!”

I don’t think “men of strong minds and great force of character” are the only one who build themselves up to look like something there are not. Along with palaces, there are plenty of quaint little bungalows (perhaps built with cute clothes instead of gold, quirky habits instead of public honors…) and sturdy wood cabins out there too. And I am scared of building myself up to be one. Because as Hawthorne* recognizes, there is dirt and decay hidden beneath the floorboards of every house:

“Ah!
but in some low and obscure nook,–some narrow closet on the ground-floor, shut, locked and bolted, and the key flung away,–or beneath the marble pavement, in a stagnant water-puddle, with the richest pattern of mosaic-work above,–may lie a corpse, half decayed, and still decaying, and diffusing its death-scent all through the palace! The inhabitant will not be conscious of it, for it has long been his daily breath!”

It’s terrifying to think that we can fool even ourselves with all our busy building.

In the past, anger has been my daily breath—something I only was able to recognize after I was free from it. Now, I think if I were to look hard enough, I would find self-centeredness and perfectionism among the death-scents I breath daily.

Our floors at The Blue Door are constantly sticky and crumb-y. So, of course, I bought slippers (cute, $6 ones at that). Why not just clean the floor? Because I know it will be just a matter of hours before it gets dirty again. And isn’t it the same with me? Why bother to confront my selfishness and my perfectionism (which is undoubtedly rooted in pride), if I know I will just fall right back into it? There are easier solutions: I can mask my selfishness in little acts of kindness that cost me nothing, I can call my perfectionism “a good work ethic” and keep my critical thoughts to myself.

My housemates and I are not stuck in this house forever; we will probably leave at the end of May. But those dirty crevices in my own heart aren’t going anywhere—finding my dream job wont clean them, getting married won’t clean them, having kids won’t clean them. Sometimes I convince myself that all my bad habits will just magically disappear as I get older, and that is a dangerous lie.

Maybe cleaning the floor can help teach me something about growing up—It can remind me that having a clean house takes attention and care, discipline and repetition. I’m still trying to figure out how to guard against building myself to be a “palace,” but at least I know that $6 slippers really don’t fix anything.

 

* and, over a century later, Sufjan Stevens (see the closing lines of John Wayne Gacy Jr.)