Ask Jenny

Vacuuming

January 16, 2020

I had a 7am shift in Beverly Hills. I slept over at Jamie’s apartment the night before, then woke up at 6am, took an orange from her kitchen counter, and left while she was still asleep to make it to my job.

I will remember this as the chapter in my life where I worked five very different jobs. The job I’m currently talking about is at Anthropologie, a French-inspired clothing and lifestyle retailer for well-off women. The store sells a slew of feminine adjectives. Dreamy, bohemian, warm, rustic, romantic, beautiful. During early morning shifts, I usually restock our candles and stationery. This morning, for the first time, I was asked to vacuum and dust the entire store by myself.

A few weeks ago, I was in Mexico City. I was there for my second job, facilitating a workshop on business model design and strategic foresight for students at an interdisciplinary university. What a long, niche sentence. The students were much older and much cooler than me. For dinner one night, my mentor and I ate crickets on a pizza. I always had an intention to work and travel, to meet interesting people and eat new foods. I never thought it would happen this way. But it happened. Then suddenly I was on a plane back, then I was in Los Angeles traffic, then I was buying groceries and listening to the radio, and then at 7am a few weeks later, I was the same person, on my knees, picking lint out of a vacuum, cleaning the floor of a boutique in Beverly Hills at 7am.

In college, I once had a conversation with Becky about some of our illogical, extremist tendencies. The reason I had to stay the night at Jamie’s place is because she lives only two miles away from Beverly Hills, and the apartment that I just moved into is 22 miles away from the city. I moved 22 miles away. 22 miles away. I felt so stifled by the imaginary waste in my life that I chose to uproot and move 22 miles away! Extreme. On paper, it’s not that bad if you’re someone who moved 22 miles away from your life to be closer to your workplace, or for living cost reasons. No, I didn’t move this far for either of those reasons. In fact, I am further from my work and my friends and I am losing money. Illogical.

I remember my last night in Mexico City. I stayed in a hotel with an industrial stone bathroom. I took a very long, hot shower after a night of drinking too many mezcals. I couldn’t remember the last time I took a shower that long and that hot. Back in Los Angeles at the time, I had to share a bathroom with 12 girls in an artist collective, so everything I did was cut short, a nuisance to someone else. In Mexico that night, I must have been in the shower until 3am. I remembered that I liked to shower in the dark, slowly, selfishly, with music. In that shower, I committed to finding my own cheap place with a bathroom in LA, so I could always have this luxury.

The drama in my life is usually self-induced and self-inspired. I am rarely upset at someone else because no one annoys me more than me. But when I do get angry, I have an ego and a temper. I’m either an explosive and greedy lecturer, or I angrily evacuate. But my energy is always short-lived. I forget about my anger, and in a few hours I’m hugging and laughing and eating again. This doesn’t mesh well with everyone. I don’t hold grudges, but I finally learned that doesn’t mean everyone else is just as forgiving. Throughout my life, I’ve had to remove myself from people because there’s often way too much of myself to explain, and usually no one has the patience afterward to listen, and I don’t want to hurt them again. I’ve accepted that relationships come and go, even though this makes me incredibly sad. But it helps when I think of my emotions as my life’s cleaning mechanism, to get rid of anger-inspiring people and circumstances. The Drama Vacuum.

For another job, I’ve been freelancing for a tech startup in Culver City. By that I mean I show up to their work sessions and offer my brain and my hands for a few hours. It’s a different kind of freelance than the remote design work I usually do. When I talk, they listen. When I draw, they watch. I was told that I am valued for my abilities to “thrive in ambiguity” and “think in complex systems.” Perhaps these are silver linings to my illogical, extremist tendencies. I don’t know how to feel yet. These comments are good omens for my own startup, I hope.

I bought about $120 of acrylic paints and art supplies, even though I have a lot of credit card debt. I just unwrapped my blank 3 by 4 foot cotton canvas. This canvas is bigger than most objects in my tiny, shabby first apartment. I don’t know what it will become yet, but I would like the background to be a jade green. I also bought an entire tub of matte gesso that will probably last me until I’m 35.

On the weekends, I work with middle and high school students at a non-profit in downtown Los Angeles. We talk about social justice issues, from the school-to-prison pipeline to gender and sexuality. Together, we build legacy projects about these issues with local organizations. It’s funny to help a rich woman pick a gown in a Beverly Hills dressing room, then the very next morning, hold up signs with young activists in Pershing Square.

Now that I live completely alone, I recognize how much imaginary waste I hold onto. I didn’t need to move 22 miles away and isolate myself to learn about my antics, but it certainly helps that I am loyally alone. Now that I’m here, I can really examine my illogical mental rhythms for what they are. Disordered eating habits and dysmorphic body image in a girl’s early 20s aren’t rare, but I always feel confused to find these in me, in combination with all my more unapologetic characteristics, like a stubborn longing to shape the world, a staunch belief that we’re all just vessels to something brighter. My life has a running theme of sad feelings, too, but still, nothing is as strong as my ability to be completely self-assured when I need to be. On the days this feels like an on-off switch, I can’t pinpoint where anxiety and mania come from. Speculating makes me feel selfish and usually makes it all worse. But I’m a funny human being, because no matter what, I’m always willing to be confident, even after I throw up. I just wipe my face and move on. This shocks me, too. Extreme. Illogical. Good. Resilient.

What I love about cleaning is being able to notice again how beautiful the environment always was. Perfect shelves and good lighting. If I hadn’t dusted or vacuumed, I would never have seen the pretty glint of the tiles. The definition of a silver lining. It finds its way into the most manic crevices of my mind, the biggest frowns in my mirror. I laugh: it hurts to think so much, but at least I’m lucky to think!

I’m also lucky because I don’t encounter my jealous gene often, for whatever reason. The last time I felt real jealousy was in the first grade. I had a big crush on Arthur, and one day I saw him doing arts and crafts with Lauren during recess. I felt so angry and sticky and frustrated. I felt like this coincidental observation of such an innocent interaction inspired so much self-loathing, and I hated that—I hated how I let that make me feel. After the feelings blew over, I chose to never let someone else’s decisions make me feel like shit again. Only I was allowed to do that. No one but me could decide what I thought about myself, and what I valued.

I came across this wisdom just this past year again, during my last film class in college. We watched Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation. A supporting character reflects on young love and heartbreak and says, “You are what you love, not what loves you. That’s what I decided a long time ago.” Obviously this is one much more polite way of saying what I said, but I remember leaving the theater smiling at my angry, sticky, first grade jealousy.

I loved going to my film classes because they were in the giant theater on campus. I attended each week, alone in my sweatpants. I got a 100% on every exam. I took the classes for fun, but I should have majored in it. Film and literature were the only topics in college I wasn’t mediocre in. I think about this a lot. If I were offered a redo, I would have studied film and special effects, because I have all the Photoshop shortcuts and filters memorized anyway, and my “ability to think in complex systems” would have been very comfortable working visually. I also love narratives, and the process of finding the beginnings, middles, and ends is very fun for me, and would have exercised my gift of “thriving in ambiguity.” I also could have had a higher and more stable income bracket, no credit card debt, and lived calmly in the heart of the city I’m so attracted to, instead of 22 miles away.

But the decisions I’ve made are all I’ve got, so I made do. These days, I work a lot. Everywhere I go, I get to explore complex and ambiguous systems, whether I’m in retail, in high schools, in Mexico City. You are what you love. I love everything I am seeing, even though I am watching through a mind that gets nervous once in a while with disorder and digestion. But even typing this helps me find the story. I am literally in the process of cleaning up my act.

Mostly, as I vacuum—dusting vintage furniture at Anthropologie, washing dishes in my apartment, sorting truth from waste in my head at 22 years-old, 22 miles away from the world—I think: how exhausting it is to be the same person everywhere, all the time!

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