It was the giant 7-Eleven soda cup nestled snugly between the sofa’s stained cushions that got me wondering. Our host had shoved it in there before leaping up to chase after her unruly children. No doubt, the sofa had once been beautiful—it had a muted, earthy pattern that probably suited the room’s décor. I imagined that its owners, both of whom my wife and I had known since college, had chosen it proudly from a Levitz showroom and had beamed with suburban pleasure when it was new. But now that sofa was something altogether different—gloomy and stained from countless stuffed soda cups.
I started making other observations. Picture frames hung dusty and askew on the walls. Rooms were cluttered with stuff that didn’t belong. Dark spots in the cream-colored carpet and layers of grime in the corners told me that no real cleaning had occurred since they’d moved in. Upgraded kitchen appliances were scratched and dirty, the stovetop crusted with burnt food and grease. Uncoordinated stabs at decoration left the home a hopeless mishmash of styles and colors.
The place was a catastrophe.
That spring, my family was enjoying a road trip along the Rocky Mountains and through the Black Hills, and one night of our vacation, we had decided to stop and visit our thirtysomething friends, who had recently introduced a third child into their home. They were expecting a fourth. We had talked excitedly with our friends over the phone in the preceding weeks, looking forward to touring their expensive new home and congratulating them in person for the little bundle of joy on their horizon.
And now I observed my old friends in their otherwise spectacular home, somewhat taken aback. The kids were filthy with chocolate smudges and grease, and their unkempt clothes, festooned with SpongeBob and Barney, were unwashed and odiferous. Toys lay haphazardly across the floors of every room. Two boys were running rampant around the living room while Mom haplessly chased after them. Dad scooped up his diapered daughter for bedtime, unceremoniously dropping her in her crib upstairs without washing her face or removing her dirty shirt. She cried for a while.
We left the home a bit bewildered, and we talked into the night about the experience.
We thought back and realized it wasn’t the only filthy home we’ve visited. Yes, it was a ripe model, but between us, my wife and I had seen many otherwise beautiful, happy, warm homes blasted by carelessness. And even seemingly orderly homes can be deceiving.
My wife knows a woman who keeps a generally clean house, who prides herself on giving her home a well-groomed appearance, with shiny countertops and scrubbed toilets and immaculate Pottery Barn knick-knacks displayed just so. But peek into her cabinets and drawers, and behold chaos. Everything that might create disorder upon the house’s surfaces has been stuffed carelessly into hidden spaces. She wondered whether these swept-under-the-rug messes are unsettling peeks into the woman’s psyche: She’s all smiles on the exterior, putting on a warm, friendly façade, but underneath she’s in turmoil, brimming with insecurities and bitterness and rage.
As we enjoyed the rest of our little road trip, which included Wyoming and South Dakota, we kept up our observations. At restaurants everywhere, we encountered sweaty flip-flops and faded tee-shirts straining over Taco Bell guts. At gas stations along our route, we saw automobile interiors littered with filth, and overheard loud, rude cell-phone conversations. We witnessed road rage, and we saw a hundred cigarette butts thrown carelessly from car windows.
Have we really become this culture?
When we arrived home, we noticed that our neighborhood was still lazily decked out with Christmas lights, spotted with neglected lawns rioted with weeds, and scribbled thoughtlessly by graffiti “artists” who care so little about their environment that they must deface it, spoil it, ruin it. We peeked into garages no longer devoted to automobiles but rather to great piles of accumulated detritus.
It all reminded us of our friends’ home and countless others like it, which we were now seeing as microcosms of a larger phenomena. What does a nation populated by slobs communicate about the psychology of that nation? We seem to have abandoned most efforts to maintain a tidy, well-kept place, whether that means our home, our town, our state, our nation, or our very bodies. What does that laziness and negligence say about ourselves as inhabitants of this nation or even the world? What are we becoming? What are we handing down?
The more I think about all this carelessness—about the sad sloppiness of our daily lives, and the increasing thoughtlessness with which we treat the places we inhabit—the more I hope we can somehow regain that sense of collective pride. Because it is about pride—pride in home, in neighborhood, in country. Most of all, it’s about pride in ourselves. We need to start caring again.
As for my family, when we arrived home from our vacation, we almost immediately embarked on the most thorough spring-cleaning we’d ever attempted. Our kids took part. Because we want to hand down the lesson of cherishing the places in which we live and breathe.