Tony Leighton is a Canadian writer happily retired and attempting to help others feel the same.

Cleaning Up After Ourselves

I want to talk about mess-cleaning as a retirement project. Sounds banal. But I’m talking about non-banal messes. The ones that affect how we live and feel and get along, or not, with others.

We all have our messes. Some are big messes, others small. But even the small ones, when experienced together, which is the way we hold them, can seem like a big mess, just fragmented.

Prime examples: relationship messes, self-care messes, messes of guilt and regret, messes from the past that cling like mud (or something worse) to our psychological boots. Hygiene is not just about bacteria and dust balls. It extends to our ethics and emotions.

We can, if we choose, clean up our messes. It takes self-reflection, resolve, and often time, particularly if the messes are habitual messes or complicated messes or messes that have accumulated and hardened into place like barnacles.

Anyone can do it any time, but retired people have more time. That’s why cleaning up one’s messes is a fine retirement project, a project with rewards far greater than the effort it requires. The ROI is excellent.

Sometimes we can clean up a mess in a few minutes and wonder what we were waiting for. (See below.)

Relationship hygiene is probably the biggest one for me. My psychotherapist wife understood long before I met her that one of the secrets to marital happiness is cleanliness — that every single dispute, large or minuscule, should be cleaned up immediately, or within hours if possible, so a mess has no opportunity to congeal. That might seem like obsessive cleanliness to some people. I can testify that it works. Swimmingly. If there’s anything to be obsessively meticulous about it’s our relationships with the people we value most.

Friends too. Irritants can fester. Cleaning them up is a way to tighten the bond (unless you prefer that it loosen). How? The tough conversation. (That’s probably another blog post and at this moment not in my bag of full understanding. I’ll get back to you.)

Grudges hold a special place in this discussion because they are usually founded on resentment. “Resentment,” as my wife is fond of saying, “is poison you take in the hope of hurting someone else.”

What else? Old low-level animosities. Old habits that don’t serve us well. Old unexamined outlooks that keep us hardened when our goal is to soften and be more reasonable. These are all messes.

Also, many “un” words. Uneasiness. Unsettledness. Undone-ness. Unsavouriness. Under-appreciated. Under-valued. Undercover things that deserve air. Messes all. Plus: Atrophies that need strengthening. Protracted battles that need peace. Tensions that call out for release. Regrets that want resolutions. Guilt that wants to be assuaged.

Here’s a mega-mess we often deny: addictions. The issue is obviously so profound it requires its own blog, or 50 of them, not a mere mention as a mess. And it goes without saying that deep and incapacitating addictions are more than messes. They are tragedies in slow motion. The ones that are cleanable without serious help from others are the ones we have always defaulted to carelessly, as if they really don’t matter. I’m beginning to think they do, because even if we can tell ourselves they don’t really hurt us, that they are sustainable at low level, that they are “good for the soul” or some other neat form of wallpaper, they are nonetheless brakes when you are trying to move ahead. This author, who I like a lot, said it well:

“Addictions embody repetition without progress. They produce incapacity as a payoff.” 

— Steven Pressfield

That’s devastatingly straightforward. If growth is your goal, incapacity is the opposite of fertilizer.

It’s the rage these days, thanks to Marie Kondo, to de-clutter the places we inhabit, to tidy up, to feel the liberation of burdensome stuff gone, because ultimately it’s an emotional burden. Like the messes in our heads.

Regarding the easy-to-handle-but-persistently-irritating messes, my oracle (wife) often asks me this about the clean-up, “What will it cost you?” Invariably the answer is nothing. Like I said, amazing ROI.

What are your messes? This might call for another list. The Messy List. From biggest to smallest, or perhaps longest held to most recent. Then, as with a janitorial duty list, you can check off the messes one by one as they are cleaned up.

I cleaned one up recently. It was a mess the size of a periodic itch, about six years old, with someone on the very edge of my acquaintanceships but nonetheless in view. The clean up took under 10 minutes because we both hit it head on. It cost me nothing. It’s weight was enough that I felt it lift from my shoulders. I now feel relieved. So does the guy on the other end of the mess. It was his mess too. But more mine. I held the cleaning solution.


Vocabuteria: juju

The Reassuring River of Rinse and Repeat