This essay was originally published at the close of 2013 on a website that no longer exists. Posting here for posterity.
To do something large and to do it well demands such observances, personal and peculiar, laughable as they often are, because they stave off that dinginess of soul that says that everything is small and grubby and nothing is really worth the effort.
— Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
I first heard of silverfish I guess it was 2010, it was November. I was 23, my apartment was a mess, and my ex-boyfriend who had shared this apartment with me was over helping me clean up so I could move out. I had tried to maintain the one-bedroom in Baltimore, in Charles Village, after he had left in April, but I had failed miserably, I had not even really tried, I had just existed there with all the things we had hung up together, letting the mess build up around me, watching the movies and reading the books and listening to the music he had left behind.
When I say the place was a mess I am not doing it justice. There was months of recycling piled against one wall of the kitchen, which I had never bothered to fill with anything else, no table, no chairs, just a few dishes that were never used because I never cleaned them, they were all in the sink, dirty. There was dust everywhere. A chair out on the fire escape was bleached from the sun and the rain because I left it out there at all hours in case I might feel the need to get outside, which happened often, given the state of the inside.
I will spare you more of the details, or rather I will spare myself having to tell them. I don’t even think it was in the filthy kitchen where we found the silverfish. It was in the bedroom. Where I slept.
“Look up what silverfish are,” he said. He was a carpenter and would be familiar with the pests found in neglected spaces. “Don’t do it now, it will freak you out. Do it later. Do it when you’re ready.”
I put the silverfish out of my mind and moved into a temporary apartment in Mount Vernon and then on to New York, to Manhattan, to a bedroom in Washington Heights, which I spent the last Friday of 2013 cleaning, though I didn’t realize it was the last Friday of 2013 when it started. When it started was at 2 p.m., when I went to the laundromat — I watched CNN’s countdown of the biggest news stories of 2013, “SYRIA’S BRUTAL CIVIL WAR” took the gold, as voted by the viewers — and when I came home at around 4:30 after finishing the laundry and buying a pint of whiskey and some groceries, I started to clean. First I ate some noodles and potato chips and watched an episode of Futurama and drank a whiskey with hot water, but then I started to clean.
I say started because I did not decide to clean. I did not look at the horrendous mess of my room and say, “I have had enough! Let’s start 2014 off right.” Instead I decided to put my laundry away, which was an unusual decision, given that my clothes are generally either in the laundry basket or on the floor, but there it was, I needed to put my laundry away, and in order to put my laundry away I needed to make room in my messy drawers, and in order to fix the drawers I needed to take out the clothes and fold them, and before I knew it I was cleaning, I was sipping whiskey and listening to music and cleaning.
The dust was extraordinary. It covered everything, the desk, the nightstand, the dresser, the bookshelf, the piles of old mail, the floors, the windowsills. Thick, angry dust that, once disturbed, clogged my already-stuffed nose and already-scratchy lungs — I had a cold, I normally just sleep when I have colds but something was different, I don’t know — and it occurred to me that dust normally gathers in places where no one lives, places no one is taking care of, has no one been living here? It also occurred to me around this moment that it was the last weekend of 2013, isn’t that appropriate, and it also occurred to me around this moment that I didn’t have any paper towels.
I didn’t have any paper towels and I didn’t have any sponges and I needed to clean things, I needed to clean things off. I was in a groove and I didn’t want to wait, so I put my boots back on and I put my jacket back on and I went to the deli and bought paper towels, and while I was there I looked for some Drain-o or something because the clogs in the bathtub and the bathroom sink had been getting worse, and while I was looking I saw detergent, I saw dish soap, I did not see anything for the drain but I did see some crusty old white bottles with red caps that said they could kill pests, they could kill silverfish, kill ’em dead. Silverfish.
I brought the paper towels home and I sprayed everything with some organic eco-friendly whatever spray that makes everything smell like spaghetti, I think it has thyme in it. I cleaned the desk, the nightstand, the dresser, the bookshelf, I cleaned the windowsills, I cleaned the floors, first swept them, then got on my hands and knees and sprayed the floors and scrubbed them with paper towels. I piled everything in the center of the rug and reached into the corners with my broom, I reached into all the corners into which I had been afraid to reach, and when it was done I put everything back in a place, a place it might go, a place where it looks OK for now anyway, I still need to buy some organizing things but it is a work in progress.
I cleaned for four hours, which is nothing, really, considering it has taken me a year, 8,760 hours, to get around to doing it. Four hours is eight episodes of the Simpsons. I watched more than that the day before when I was tired with the cold. Four hours is half a day of work. I do that ten times a week. But to clean, or write an essay, or compose a song, or finish the shopping, requires finding that place where you forget the time, forget the endless forward movement, forget the entropy and do what the moment requires of you. This shirt needs to be put away. Do it. The floor is very dirty. Clean it. There is energy. Use it.
I cleaned the full-length mirror last. I waited until everything was put away, until I was sweaty and covered with dust and I needed a shower, I desperately needed a shower, but first I needed to clean the mirror. I sprayed the mirror with my eco-spray and I wiped it down, my reflection smeared but becoming clearer, and when the eco-spray dried I saw myself standing there, a mess but a good one, a deserved one, and I looked at myself and said, out loud, “Good job. You did a thing.” Then I nodded and tore off my clothes and put them in the laundry basket and took a hot shower. I scrubbed everything twice, shampooed twice, soaped up twice, god I would have scrubbed my insides twice if I could have, scrubbed my liver and my lungs and my eyeballs until the smoke and liquor and beer and heartache of the last year was nothing more than a dirty swirl in the drain that is still clogged but it’s OK, I will get to it tomorrow.
Usually “I will get to it tomorrow” is a way of saying “I’ll never get to it” without feeling like a quitter, which is what I have always felt like. My rooms have always been messes because what is the point of trying, they will need to be cleaned again anyway. Things fall apart. A room gets messy, a glass of wine becomes a hangover, a new love becomes a heartbreak. There are always more groceries to buy, more forms to fill out and phone calls to make and loved ones to visit. But I am learning that it is not hopeless to repeat these actions. It is hopeless to stop, to arrest, to hold still, to believe that there is some state of perfection that could be achieved if only everything would stop moving, that perhaps this time the dress will fit forever, perhaps this time the whiskey will go down smooth, perhaps this time I have found a way to transcend.
I suppose all this is a longer way of saying that I am finding the pleasure in responsibility, the avoidance of which we too often call happiness. Happiness is respecting yourself enough to sweep your floors, to pull books from your shelves and not find silverfish hiding in the corners. When I finally looked them up, I was expecting to see that they lived in literal human shit, or decaying animal carcasses — not that there was any of that in my old bedroom, I swear, but maybe my general malaise was close enough for something that liked shit and dead bodies to move in — but it wasn’t that bad. According to both Wikipedia and the Orkin Man’s web site, they live in humid spaces. They tend to inhabit attics and basements. Forgotten places. When I cleaned this room I didn’t find any silverfish. I guess I hadn’t forgotten myself entirely. I am going to try my best not to forget her again.