catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 8 :: 2008.04.18 — 2008.05.02


Cleanliness is adjacent to godliness

Housekeeping ain’t no joke.
Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

As a child, I was always suspicious of other children whose houses seemed a bit too well kept. In these homes, one would be greeted at the door by a gigantic floral arrangement in the foyer; in the kitchen, clean granite countertops, a well-swept tile floor and a tidy island full of brightly colored fruits and vegetables; in the living room, white leather sofas and looming fireplace mantles topped with class pictures of each child dating back several decades (and all with meticulously cleaned and buffed frames, of course). In these homes, there was always enough soap in the dispenser, always a fresh towel on the rack and always, always, enough clean dishes for dinner—no matter how many guests showed up. Such houses existed in themed colonies, and these colonies had names—Prudent Hills, Decency Heights, Moral Meadows. The green lawns in front of these homes practically shone with dewdrops, and the wide porches were forever adorned with decorations for the next holiday. These houses were nothing like mine.

On some level, I was mildly jealous of such fine suburban living, but I wasn’t simply jealous; like an alien sent to inspect the domestic habits of the human species, I questioned the motives of these people. Why bother to dust when you’ll just have to do it again next week? There seemed to be no logic to such things, and in my alien wisdom I decided that such people must have something dark and sinister to hide if they felt the need to keep so clean. These Neat and Tidy’s were not to be trusted.

My mother, an antique dealer and lover of all things unique, and my father, a man who takes as much pride in his vast library as he does in his six progeny, are not “dust buster” types.  Nor were they the kind of parents for whom crazy and inconsequential things like “chores,” “rules,” or “curfew” had any meaning. Rather, our household was made up of furniture from all eras, books on everything from the philosophies of Albert Camus to Mr. Ziggy at the Zoo, frayed oriental rugs, pre-war chick egg incubators, avocado plants, molded bookends, wartime postcards and all various and sundry curios that one might imagine. As a young child, and now again at the ripe old age of 27, I can appreciate—even wish to imitate—this mish mash of unrelated items strewn and stored and displayed all over my parents’ house. I can revel in the myriad of books that pour off the shelves like honey from the hive, the unfathomable mound of dishes that pile up after every delicious meal, the pot of coffee that is brewed and had and brewed again until far past two in the morning, the flock of geese that attack as you try to enter the house, the rooster that crows all night, and even the bathtub that is perennially full, left to sit after my father’s midnight bath. Yes, I can appreciate these things now; from the cozy distance of time I am able to revel in and even pride myself on my parents’ eccentricities. They are, after all, my parents. They made me, which means that their genes lurk inside my body stealthily, like cat burglars preparing for a heist.

There was a time, however, when I did not view our household with such generosity. As a teenager, I was forever frustrated by the sugar on the counter, the dirty sink, the undone laundry—anything, really, that was not quite up to my standards. To fend off my anxiety, I sequestered myself in my bedroom, creating a world of my own making. Although my room was arguably no more neat or organized than the rest of the house, it was my space and I had control over it. I took pleasure in painting murals on my walls, tacking photographs to my door, and creating a bookshelf of my own. Although by no means large, my room represented everything that I was figuring myself out to be—an artist, a Christian, a heavy sleeper and an angsty adolescent. I tended that room as if my life depended on it. Perhaps it did.

People can say what they like about the eternal verities, love and truth and so on, but nothing’s as eternal as the dishes.
Margaret Mahy, The Catalogue of the Universe

It has been nearly a year to the day since my husband and I bought our first home. From where I sit right now I can see my little plot of garden, yet unyielding in the springtime cold. I can hear the music that wafts in from the kitchen, where Jordan and I make our meals and feed our dog. It is a deeply gratifying feeling to know that I have a place in this world, a place to maintain, look after, tend to, and even clean up. I used to feel guilty about wanting a house of my own. What if God wanted me to be a world traveler—what if He uprooted me every three months, shouldn’t I be prepared for that? What if circumstance made it impossible for me to ever call a place my own? Wasn’t my desire for a place to call my own simply a manifestation of my untamed ego? Weren’t my desires just evidence of my shameful surrender to the Willy Loman Lie that each of us must have our very own a plot of land, plank of hardwood and piece of the pie? To be honest, probably. Probably a little bit. Somewhere inside my head, there’s a Buddhist koan that warns against such attachment. There are even more parables and psalms and proverbs bouncing around to the same tune.

At the same time, I find a joy in tending to my own house that I have never before experienced in another context. At the risk of sounding bourgeois spiritual (“I just had the best darn epiphany the other day while polishing my Tiffany Diamonds!”), I find that there is something gratifying about taking care of the things that you have been given. Simone Weil, a woman, a Christian, a theologian (and, paradoxically, a person who seemed to defy all labels) spoke often on this subject—i.e. that in tending to the concrete world around us through such means as manual labor and schoolwork, we are undertaking a spiritual discipline as well, the discipline of intentional attention. In Weil’s mind, paying attention—to the natural world, to other people, to everything that exists in the here and now—is the foundation undergirding all of Christian faith and belief. In paying attention to the physical, concrete realities of our lives: our tax forms, our long division, our dirty dishes, we are essentially toning our muscles, burning our neural pathways, charting our mental courses—pick your analogy—in the spiritual dimension as well. In Weil’s words, giving our full attention to the day-to-day tasks in our lives, regardless of whether or not we enjoy doing them,  “always has its effect on the spiritual place” (from “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God”).

I have had very few Lightbulb Moments in my life, but reading Weil’s thoughts on the power and importance of attention brought about one of them. After reading “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God” for the first time in the fall of 2001, I found it impossible not to consider Weil’s theory when I was faced with a task I didn’t like.

“Cut wood for the stove? I hate manual labor!” but Simone Weil said…

“Look at all the dog hair on the floor! I’ll have to vacuum again!” but Simone Weil said…

“Are you kidding me! I just cleaned the toilets last week!” but Simone Weil said…

Perhaps I am simply performing psychological trickery on myself in order to get pushed into action. This could be true. If so, that’s okay with me, as I am the happy recipient of clean toilets and fresh laundry because of it.

Yet Weil’s philosophy does nothing to cancel out the potential attachment/ego issue that I have with my home and my things. Or maybe her theories do have some bearing after all. If my problem is a metaphysical one, perhaps the antidote is in the concrete, hold-it-in-your-hand world. In truth, my assumption that caretaking is an extension of my ego is also an assumption that I am able to grasp the whole truth and nothing but the truth about God and nature and human beings and biodegradable dish soap. Perhaps what I need to do is to get my hands and feet dirty in the mud that God has placed me in. Instead of a spiritual cleansing and a weekend retreat, maybe God is equally present in a little elbow grease and a dash of Murphy’s Oil Soap. I suppose these thoughts could be construed as a monster hybrid of Puritanical Protestantism and New Age “mumbo jumbo.” Maybe. Until I know for sure—and if I’m lucky this won’t happen for a long, long time—I’m going to place my vote on the side of the disinfectants. Thanks, Simone Weil. My pruny dishpan hand salutes you.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus