I believe in cleaning up after myself.
My mother taught me to clean any mess I made — to pick up my toys every day, to make my bed every morning, to change the linens every Saturday. “This will make you feel good,” she said. I would create a place that was welcoming, where I wanted to spend time and where others would visit. I would show that I did not expect others to serve me. I could take responsibility for my own.
Some friends would let their rooms grow messy, with piles of clothes and toys on the floor, and strange smells coming from the closet. Not me.
I learned to appreciate the joy of a well-tucked sheet, a crisply pressed dress, a shiny sink, a well-polished table and a lint-free carpet.
As an adult, cleaning up my own messes is a lesson that is hard to forget. Friends hire housecleaners, but I cannot. My messes are my responsibility.
When I finished graduate school and moved to Detroit, cleaning up after myself took on a new meaning. I joined with neighbors to clean a mess in my community: a city park that had been left to decay.
After years of neglect, the park had fallen into disrepair: the grass was unmowed; tennis courts were strangled by vines so thick that, when removed, they filled 10 dumptrucks; and the play area, where the slides stood, was hidden with weeds six feet tall. Children who dared to play on the slides would disappear into a jungle as they reached bottom.
My friends and neighbors decided we wanted to clean up after ourselves. We donned gloves and long pants, and dug in. We cut weeds and picked up litter; we painted buildings and rebuilt fences; we planted trees.
I learned that I was capable not only of cleaning a kitchen but of changing a community.
I did not do this alone. I was just one set of hands — one person among many who knew the power of cleaning up after herself.
Cleaning up a park was grueling work. But, it made my neighbors and me proud; and it made us bold. When the tennis courts showed themselves after years of hiding, we repaired them. We raised money to buy paint for the slides and to buy new swings. We received donations and rebuilt a 50-year-old skating rink.
Before long, the park came to life. People visited. They played tennis; they sat on the new benches under old shade trees. They swung on swings. They kicked soccer balls.
My mother was right. When you clean up after yourself, you create a space that is welcoming, a place where you want to spend time and where others want to visit.
By cleaning up after myself, and working with others who did the same, I helped save a park. I also came to see that, when people join together, we can accomplish amazing things — we can even clean up our own messes.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.