My mom used to clean the entire house from ceiling fan to baseboard on a weekly basis. The rest of us learned to bounce across freshly mopped floors in socks and turn off the television when the vacuum began to buzz. Every Sunday the smell of Windex would carry us into another week of school, music, and homework, and if we caught a whiff of chemicals another day, that meant company was on the way. Any guest of hers got fresh linens, a sparkling bathroom, and a delectable meal—nothing less.
When I left our immaculate home for college, I followed in her footsteps, scrubbing and dusting most Fridays after class (much to my friends’ amusement), tidying things and stocking up on snacks. I wanted friends to know they were welcome and cared for, and I continued this ritual well into my first apartment.
Until one day a friend, looking disheveled from a long list of errands and sporting her sweat-soaked clothes from the gym, peered into my apartment from the door’s threshold. She tiptoed toward the thoughtfully arranged couch with primped pillows and asked if she could sit down. I still feel awful thinking about it.
I had been to her home a few times and remembered it well—stains on the carpet, toys everywhere, mismatched furniture, a large dent in the wall where her husband once practiced his golf swing. It was a wreck. And she kind of was, too. Distracted, excited, anxious about being anxious. She grieved daily over her role as a mom and wife, her shortcomings here and there, but she also prayed when she promised she would. Her concern for others was as plain as her mess.
Looking back, I think that’s why I had asked her to come to my apartment that day. I was in the middle of a hard transition and needed guidance from someone with more experience—someone with older faith. I could have asked several other women, but I didn’t. I knew she would make room to hold my stress and hurt with hers.
She tiptoed toward the thoughtfully arranged couch with primped pillows and asked if she could sit down.
As unexpected as it might seem, I’d developed an affinity for disordered, candid homes like hers long before we met. I got firsthand experience across the street from my childhood house, where a family of seven boiled a different kind of chaos. The sheer number of bodies stirred constant activity, talking, laundry, cooking, schoolwork, and laughter. And as a close friend of the only daughter, I was often counted in the final tally. I was there for spring cleanings, supper preparation (and sometimes meals), homeschool curriculum, prayers, discipline of rowdy boys, and mornings after sleepovers. They didn’t bat an eye at my entrances or exits; they just passed out an extra homemade biscuit when I stopped by every day, fresh off the school bus.
One thing that sticks with me was how easily the family discussed their faith with one another. I remember prayers incorporated into discipline and, before some weeklong camp or conference, the parents’ gentle charge to be attentive to those who are cast aside. It was out in the open and as natural as the pile of mail on the counter.
These are the things I think about when I stand in the middle of the empty house my husband and I recently bought. Can this be a place people drop in unannounced? Where they come “as is”? How can we make our house feel like home to every friend and family member who comes through the door?
As much as I admire the freedom of my friends’ welcomes, I cannot easily uncross the wires that for years have had me scrupulously preparing for every arrival. Nor am I sure I want to—there’s something to be said for the love and labor that anticipates someone’s presence.
I’ve had relationships with people who, like me, present their cleanest selves, and speak only of accomplishments and pursuits.
But as with most other things, there is a balance. And I find myself taking cues from the man who shares this house with me. He has no such template for guests and, without even knowing it, challenges my compulsion to tidy up. Once he asked if I wanted to invite a friend over, and I replied that I had no idea why we’d do that with boxes everywhere, blinds to install, and no food in the pantry. It wasn’t but a couple of hours before our friend was telling me about her week, sharing a pizza we’d ordered, and putting dishes from our wedding registry into the dishwasher for their first once-over.
Sometimes I look at the snazzy new oven range we bought and get scared that someone, even one of my friends, might see it and gather that my life is together, tied up in a bow, or worse—unapproachable. I fear it because I’ve been there, in houses without a flick of dust, furniture arranged just so, style that’s perfectly trendy yet cozy. And I’ve had relationships with people who, like me, present their cleanest selves, throw the most buttoned-up parties, and speak only of accomplishments and pursuits. But those connections feel like houses too perfect—or too veiled in perfection—to hold my messes.
I don’t want anyone to feel that way in this home. So I’ll keep speaking openly of my own hang-ups and concerns, as I’ve learned to do in the last few years, and inviting people to liberate theirs. But I’ll also try making that authenticity physically apparent the moment they step inside. Maybe I’ll start by leaving that faint pink ring in the toilet, like the one I noticed in my friend’s bathroom, and perhaps someone will feel permission to be real, as I did that day. Either way, may there be no question in someone’s mind that he or she can sit on my couch, rifle through my kitchen for a biscuit, or unload their burdens and rest.
Illustration by Jason Ford