2020 might be a mess, but my house isn’t

Control what you can, amirite?

Happy 2020, friends! Can you believe New Year’s Eve was just a week ago? As sweet memories of midnight kisses and the not-so-sweet effects of too much drinking are fading, life has resumed its normal stride. And now that I’m out of holiday mode, I’m bracing myself for what this year will bring. 

Within the past few days, I’ve watched a colleague lose her brother in a tragic cycling accident, agonized with dear friends as they considered putting their dog down, and witnessed countless others battling life’s small inconveniences—winter colds, anxious thoughts, and post-holiday blues, to name a few.

Meanwhile, devastating wildfires in Australia and the terrifying possibility of World War III have dominated headlines. At the tail end of 2020, those of us in the U.S. will confront another presidential election, with its stressful parade of debates, primaries, smear campaigns, and arguments leading up to November.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, to want to curl up into a ball and hide away from the world; to avoid new experiences or connecting with others for fear that something bad might happen; to throw up your hands and declare no, really, it’s just. too. much.

And that, my friends, is why my house is so clean. 

I guess this requires some explanation. As 2020 begins, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the various ways I can continue to take care of my physical and mental well being. I’ve been identifying the things that strengthen and renew my spirit, and make me feel less likely to want to throw up my hands in exasperation.

One of those things is having a clean home.

Like many others, I prefer to approach January with tidy surroundings. This year, I cleaned with extra purpose. I vacuumed every crevice of my house, scrubbed stubborn spots off the floorboards, and tackled paperwork piles that hadn’t been touched in months. I even applied the same care to my car—vacuuming and getting it washed (though it rained the next day, of course).

I’ve long believed in the power of home as an oasis. I’m generally a pretty thrifty person, but will shell out money on things like incense and candles, suncatchers and plants, light dimmers and colorful rugs—things that will make my house more cheerful, comforting, and cozy. As an introvert, someone who gains energy from spending time alone, purchases that make my home more conducive to rest and recharge are completely worth the investment.

More than anything, I’m most able to relax when my house is clean. This is hardly a revelation, nor unique to me. In her book Outer Order, Inner Calm, Gretchen Rubin makes the case that clean and uncluttered spaces help us to find the internal peace we strive for. “Getting in control of our possessions makes us feel more in control of our fates,” she writes. “If this is an illusion, it's a helpful illusion—and it's a more pleasant way to live.”

I’ll admit, this all seems a bit superficial and maybe even selfish. At the moment, part of the world is literally on fire; meanwhile, I’m busy tidying up my living room. Shouldn’t I be doing something more worthwhile with my time?

As I worked on this essay, I considered what a clean and comforting home offers me. There’s the more obvious benefit, as Rubin points out, of feeling in control when outer chaos feels insurmountable. In the early months after Jamie died, there were plenty of days when I couldn’t do much beyond brushing my teeth or taking a shower. Whenever I did find myself with a burst of unexpected energy and motivation, I’d almost always use it for cleaning. It gave me a small victory amid a sea of despair—a much-needed feeling of accomplishment. My husband might be dead and I may feel completely hopeless, but my kitchen is sparkling!

Then there are the less-obvious benefits of an orderly home. Clean surroundings give me permission to rest, and with rest, I have more to offer. I’m able to approach the work that I do with a clear mind, and support people in my life more fully. A tidy home becomes a gathering place where I can invite friends over to enjoy the same anxiety-reducing comforts—something I’d like to do more of this year. Completed chores allow me to connect with my partner and dog; instead of being distracted by a floor that needs vacuuming, I can be more present with those who matter most.

To me, cleaning is an act of gratitude and opportunity for mindfulness. By regularly taking the time to dust and vacuum, sweep and scrub, sort and fold, I show care for my home and surroundings. In the rhythm of those tasks, my mind tends to settle into a state of calm. I’ve figured out many problems—including how to approach this essay!—while in the midst of a cleaning spree. Again, this isn’t a new revelation; Japanese Buddhists have extolled the value of cleanliness for centuries.

Ideally, by staying on top of chores and keeping my house clean, I’m able to free up energy to do more meaningful work—whether that’s completing ambitious projects, writing thoughtful pieces, volunteering my time, or listening to a friend in need. A messy place tends to make me feel bogged down and lethargic. But right now, with my extra-clean home, I feel energized and ready to take on whatever 2020 throws at me. (Please only gentle tosses, ok universe?)

We will all need places of refuge this year—a retreat from whatever is weighing most heavily on our hearts. For some of us, that could be home. For others, it might be a cozy coffee shop or lively brewery. We could find peace in a library, church, or our childhood abode. By taking the time to invest in and show gratitude for those places, they become even more special to us. No matter what that place is, I hope you find it.

And with that, I’m going to keep organizing my closet. 



p.s. Do you have thoughts about cleaning or tips for keeping a tidy home? Do you hate cleaning, and feel like you’re in a constant battle with clutter? Is your 2020 resolution to hire a cleaner, and let someone else bring you inner peace? Let me know by responding to this email! I’d love to share some of your thoughts in Thursday’s newsletter.

Wait, where’s the rest of my newsletter?!

New year, new newsletter format! We’re now splitting My Sweet Dumb Brain into two issues a week: On Tuesdays, all readers will get an essay just like this one. On Thursdays, paying subscribers will get a second email—with related resources, links for the week, the things I’m up to, and an exercise inspired by the previous essay. I’ll also include any follow-up thoughts, updates, or feedback from readers.

If you’re not yet a paying reader and want to receive Thursday emails, upgrade your subscription now. And thanks in advance!

This newsletter is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who knows that the quest for a clean and harmonious home is a lot tougher when you have kids.