catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 6 :: 2011.03.25 — 2011.04.07


With a spring in my step and a mop in my hand

Most of my good friends know that if you want to drop in on me, you are always welcome to, but get ready for something else to drop — your jaw. That’s either because the place is so clean the glint from the shiny countertops dazzles your eyes, or (more commonly) because you can’t believe that a grown woman would allow dust to flock along the top of the grandfather clock like a blanket of fuzzy snow. My home, my cleaning style, is pure conundrum. There are pockets of pristine bliss and para-militarized zones where I have yet to conquer the enemies of dust and disorganization. Amid the irony of the bleak and brilliant, there is a tenuous balance. I have made peace with the fact that I am no expert household engineer, nor am I a Martha Stewart, Paula Deene or Rachel Ray. I am not perfect.  I am however, a well-contented soul, a middle-aged mother of two, a hard-working nurse, and someone who, by the grace of God alone, decided a long time ago to stop beating myself up about the fact that my house will never be a museum-quality candidate for the front cover of House Beautiful.

I don’t recall exactly when that grace descended upon me, that time when I realized that I just couldn’t do it all. It was probably oh-so-many years ago, when the kids were small, and much of my after-work time was spent chasing after them rather than the dust bunny colonies congregating under the beds. It was, of course, around the time that a very special gift came into my life — concrete (well, bone china, actually) evidence that God meant for me to find peace and balance within the sanctuary of my own home.  When my mother-in-law was moving to a new place, she gave us many of her cherished items. One of them was a small round china plate that had hung for many years in the kitchen of her mother-in-law’s home. The inexpensive, delicate, rose motif plate is reminiscent of the kind you might buy at a truck stop that would say something like “Souvenir of the Great Volunteer State — Tennessee.” But this one carries a message that is worth so much more than the weight of the gold-leaf lettering imprinted on it. It says:

My house is clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be happy!

That aphorism became a kind of mantra for me, and the theme for balance I have tried to keep in my home ever since.  It directs how I prioritize what and where gets cleaned and how. It means that bathrooms and kitchen are tidy, and that if you even dare to wash grimy, garden-dirty hands in my kitchen sink, look out!  A kitchen sink is a food-prep area — no extra germs allowed! Take your dirty paws and visit any of the other sinks in the house! When it comes to cleaning, fussing over the sanitary function of the kitchen sink is probably the most peculiar thing I do. 

But I do have a confession to make, about something else that’s a bit peculiar. Underneath it all (the dust, the piles of clutter) lives a full-time neat freak!  I thoroughly enjoy housecleaning. And when I do clean, I do it with vigor! When I clean, I don’t like to just move dirt around — I like to get rid of it.  I like to dig in, up to the elbows in drawing out a shine! When I clean, I like to clean “as unto the Lord” (see 1 Cor. 10:31) — to do a really good, thorough job, with excellence! But, alas! I know, that in this broken world we live in, such labor can be in vain. Clean, clean, clean, as you might, but it never stays that way.

So, for the sake of personal sanity, I have had to make peace, and have achieved a kind of wobbly balance (at times only known and visible to me) in household order. But part of me would still like to live in a house that oozes gleam from every crevice, and is truly suitable for a House Beautiful photo layout.  I am just not willing to pay the price (literally, figuratively) to get there.  Jesus once reminded us that before we go into any grand undertaking, we should “count the cost” to see whether we can bring it to fruition (Luke 14:28).

I realized a long time ago that there is one cost to maintaining a magazine picture-perfect house that would always be more than I could ever afford: the taxation — on nerves, family relationships and internal peace required to keep up a false sense of perfection. Such a false sense of perfection can actually be the sign of the subliminal desire to keep others at a distance, out of our circle of love. Or, it can serve as camouflage for a battered self-esteem. Or, deeper still, a spotless home can be a projection of who we would like to think we are — perfect, all put together, right with God and the world, when we are really not there yet. Women often talk about being “house proud” as a good thing, but pride, when it is anchored in the things of this world, is a destructive force.

Many years ago, when my kids were in elementary school, I had the sad opportunity to witness the power of the house-proud, even while they were not immediately engaged in scrubbing and spiffing absolutely everything in sight to maintain that delusion of perfection. Some of the neighborhood kids were invited in to have after-school snacks with us. I remember the wide-eyed wonder on the look of one of the kids’ faces, when he said, “Oh! Wow! You mean we can eat in the family room?? My mom never lets us bring snacks into the living room!  What? No? You mean I don’t have to take my shoes off to walk across your wood floor to the bathroom? Wow!” I remember, thinking, “Poor kid! All those rules! People should feel comfortable in their own homes.”  But then came the real revelation.  That gentle, happy-go-lucky kid, who wasn’t accustomed to the freedom of eating and drinking anywhere in the house except at the kitchen table, was having so much fun that he committed an A-List House Proud unpardonable offense.  I heard the ear-piercing shriek from all the way in the kitchen, and came running. What had those boys done?  Did one of them decide to play World Wrestling Federation again and have somebody in a contorted chin lock? Was someone fighting over the last chicken nugget?

No. A frightened, quaking child, was standing over a spot of spilled drink, in tears! When I got there, even before I could offer any comfort, I was given a nervous guilt-filled apology: “Buh, buh, buh, but I didn’t mean to! I’m, suh, suh, suh, sorry!”  “Don’t worry, honey. It’s just a carpet. The stain will come out.  I’ll get a rag and the carpet spray, and it will be just fine — I promise.” The carpet was fine, but the young man? I really can’t say. What does it do to a person to grow up with the kind of pressure that makes someone go almost apoplectic just because there’s a stain on the carpet?

I can’t imagine that kind of experience as being representative of the kind of abundant life that Jesus intends for us. I can’t imagine Mary railing at Jesus or Joseph because they’ve tracked in some sawdust from the carpenter’s shop. (I can imagine, however, Mary telling young Jesus, “Get your feet off of the table. What? Do you think you were born in a barn or something?”)  I’m not so sure how I feel about the whole “cleanliness is next to Godliness” thing. When you have people shaking in their shoes, literally weeping over spilled milk, something is wrong. That’s when you have cleanliness in collusion with craziness instead. Scripture does say that the glorious overcoming church will be “without spot or wrinkle” (Ephesians 5:27), but we are not yet the church triumphant. We are the church militant. And, if you’re like me, you’re going to be dealing every day with those para-militarized zones of spots, wrinkles and stains in the home.

Stains, schmains. The carpet has got lots of them. When the timing is right, we’ll replace the rug. Until then, I can look at those stains and remember the good times — the people we have entertained, and the love we have had to share. The smattering of dust in our front hall is not really a sign that we don’t care about visitors, but rather that we are eager to have them, and especially the drop-in kind!  A little bit of dust here and there heralds the message, “You are welcome here! It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you have been — you’re good enough for us!”

We live in an ordinary house, and not a museum, so you don’t have to be on your phony best behavior to get in though the door. Even though it’s not a museum, we do have a number of interesting exhibits, an eclectic collection of wall art throughout. Be sure to note the kitchen décor, and our very own special welcome sign:  “If you came to see us, come on in. If you came to see the house, make an appointment.”

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