Vacuuming the Attic

Housework isn’t the sexiest topic, I know, but since I’m doing more housework than I’ve ever done before, it’s been on my mindt—usually as I’m bent over a toilet bowl with a scrub brush or mopping the floor to try to stave off the ants that find my son’s high chair irresitable. I’ve been thinking about housework’s therapuetic and meditative influences as well as its ability to make me feel like a complete failure when it doesn’t get done. So, I was particulary drawn to Mary B. Johnston’s piece published in Fall 1999’s Exponent II issue. Here are some excerpts I particularly enjoyed:

When I walk from my living room to the kitchen, everything distracts me: dusty bureaus and bookcases; my three-year-old’s toys, blankets, and books strewn on our bed; the carpet and the bathroom floor; a whiteboard full of messages and a desk piled with letters and students’ papers—all waiting for me to respond. At any time some food is on the verge of being lethal and other food is calling to be made into something. There is either an overflowing laundry basket or clotheslines full of shirts and towels that I need to fold and put away. Add to all of these demands, the phone, the doorbell and my daughter’s urgent requests: “Mom, please read with me,” “mom, I need to go ‘somewhere’ (the potty),” or “Mom, help me put together this puzzle.”…

We try with housekeepers, cleaning schedules, office hours, and Franklin planners to have clean, predictable lives, but there is no such thing as static order. Entropy, the inevitable and irreversible increase in disorder is a law over which we have no control…. To survive we necessarily create disorder and waste. Every fall, trees drop leaves they have grown over the spring and summer. Though we find the brilliant fiery colors captivating, we are indeed watching death, waste, and disorder—the inevitable results of growth and change….

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, has written a couple of books on how approaching physical tasks mindfully can help us keep our minds and hearts “in order.” About washing dishes he explains, “I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to eat dessert sooner, the time of washing dishes will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle…If I am incapable of washing dishes joyfully, if I want to finish them quickly so I can go on and have dessert, I will be equally incapable of enjoying dessert…Washing dishes is at the same time a means and an end—that is, not only do we do the dishes in order to have clean dishes, we also do the dishes just to do the dishes, to live fully in each moment while washing them” (pp.26-7, Peace in Every Step).

Perhaps. But first my goal when I clean needs to change. I am searching for perfect, static orer. When I read Thich Nhat Hanh, I wondered if this drive is more about internal rather than external housekeeping. Could it be that dust and clutter reveal or may even exacerbate the activity and disorder in my head? My synapses are firing all the time. I can pack in half a dozen dreams in an hour nap. I feed on books, conversation, and writing just like alcoholics crave their drink. When I see mayhem in my kitchen, the internal housekeeper screams, “No, not more to sort through. I’m already working on the meaning of faith, the conversation I just had with my mother, and Y2K. Get rid of this mess or else I’ll fall apart and then you’ll really have something to clean up.” I run to the sink of dirty dishes to pacify my overworked head. Strange as it may seem, I know that cleaning helps keep the mad woman in the attic at bay and also know there must be better ways.

In her collection of meditative prayers about doing household tasks called, Being Home, Gunilla Norris also invites her readers to let each task be an opportunity for spiritual contemplation. She suggests in a prayer about ironing that wrinkles are part of life and that God, not humans, is the ultimate author of order.

“Help me to remember how You love the crumpled as much as the smooth. In You they are one. These clothes will all be wrinkled again, like my life—crumpled and ordered and crumpled again.

Make my hand light. Help me remember You are the giver of shapes whose mercy orders all things.”

“Amen!” I shout. I yearn to let God, not me, be the head of my house. Like Gunilla, I believe that God loves us all no matter how clean or dirty we and our houses are and know that His balm cleanses us each time we’re willing to let Him. I yearn to fell at ease with wrinkled clothes, an overloaded recycling bin, my unfinished scrapbooks, and the crumbs on the kitchen floor. After all, these signs of disorder come from living.

Before I can…enjoy washing the dishes or write prayers about housework, I will need to make my peace with the entropy inside my head and accept that it is a sign of living too. Each October when I see the fall leaves’ blazing colors, I gasp at the beauty of death and know that spring will follow the cold winter. I want to allow and celebrate seasons in my house and head. When that happens, my house may not be very tidy, but I am sure I’d keep better company with myself and others.

What are your thoughts on housework?

EmilyCC

EmilyCC works for a national non-profit and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her spouse and three children. She is a former editor of Exponent II and a founding blogger at The Exponent.

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  1. annegb says:

    A monk named Brother Lawrence writes about his conversations with God as he does menial tasks. I think I also read in Care of the Soul, by Thomas Moore?–something about finding comfort in the ordinary.

    I don’t enjoy housework, but I enjoy a clean and orderly house. I look forward to winning that lottery so I can pay someone to do it.

  2. Caroline says:

    Those quotes about finding meaning in housework are very cool. I wish I could do that more.

    For me, housework is a much despised chore. I hate every aspect of it. I’d far rather do almost anything else, so I let it go and then am overwhelmed by the huge job I have of cleaning it all up. And I’m a disorganized person to begin with, so it’s just that much harder for me to be good about housework.

    My poor, clean husband. He’s a saint to put up with me. And he’s so good about taking care of his own stuff. (though I’m far neater with him around than I would be if I lived alone.)

    I have big plans to become a neater person someday. But I don’t know if I can ever get to the point where I enjoy housework.

  3. JKS says:

    Great post. Housework is endless.
    I was struck a few weeks ago with this thought. “My house will not stay clean until my children grow up and leave.” And I realized that the mess comes with the family. If I was single then cleaning could be “done.” But I love this life, have chosen this life, a life with a family and kids and I don’t want to trade it in. So I will try to embrace the chaos and mess of having children.

  4. Dora says:

    Good grief … HOUSEWORK … the word looms large in my mind. As a career woman, the last thing I generally want to do when I come home is to clean house. Usually I have to break it into bite-sized pieces to maintain the semblance of civility. Scrub the toilet. A load of laundry. Wash a sink of dishes. Straighten the living room. If I paused to do it all at once, I would be overwhelmed and bitter.

    However, I do get cleaning jags, although they come much less frequently than would be comfortable for some. I celebrated Memorial day by cleaning my bathroom and living room … and I mean really cleaning, and not just the cursory stuff. One thing led to another, and I just kept on going. And I enjoyed it.

    Reminded me of when I was little. My parents would marshall us all on Saturday to clean and care for our house and yards. We children all hated it. Waking up early on a Saturday morning to mow lawns, scrub floors, vacuum and rake were far down on our priority lists. However, as I look back on it, sharing the work may have been the only recourse to maintain sanity for my parents, and also a good way to keep us children grateful for personal time.

  5. Tracy M says:

    Seeing as how Monday is my cleaning day (a new idea to try and motivate myself and contain the chaos) I wasn’t able to comment yesterday.

    I have read the quotes by that monk, and back before mama-dom, I could understand them and even try and practice… However, when one’s house if full of little monkeys, all sorts of catastrophes will happen while you are meditating on your dish! And then you will just have more to clean up- a slippery slope indeed, and one that is sure to bury you quickly!

    That said, I LOVE a clean house. It just doesn’t seem possible, and I haven’t yet reached the point where I am mature enough to look at it as “life in action”- but I hope I get there.

    Do you suppose, if I send my three boys to Church on Sunday in wrinkled, crumpled white shirts, it will fly if I just tell everyone that God made wrinkles, too? If only I were that brave!

  6. Heather O. says:

    I love cleaning my bathroom. It’s so simple, so easy. Bleach it all, baby, and everything comes out white. It is a straight forward task with tangible, immediate results. I love it.

    I hate organizing my closets. I get overwhelmed, and therefore paralyzed, and then I get distracted and then give the whole thing up, which means I’ve wasted time and emotional energy for more guilt. (sigh)

    I do like a clean house, but mine seems to sort of go in waves. And I would love to pay somebody to help me with it, but I think the guilt of spending money on something I am more than capable of doing myself would really kill me.

    Thanks for the quotes, they are helpful. And I always think of the one from FlyLady–even housework done incorrectly blesses your family. So, even if I’m not doing things the way they are “supposed” to be done, it is still good to be doing something.

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