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?