catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 6 :: 2011.03.25 — 2011.04.07


Sweeping, not swept up

One of my favorite segments from the video series Planet Earth features birds of paradise showing off their various mating dances.  One performer, before he will dance, methodically clears his space of dead leaves, flicking them aside in a manner that highlights our kinship as living creatures on this earth. 

Akin to the fastidious bird, I can imagine Adam and Eve, after the first few nights of falling asleep in whatever soft spot they found at nightfall, choosing one particularly nice place to return to after their days of tilling and keeping.  It might have been beneath an especially hospitable broad-leafed tree, or under a stone ledge that faced the rising sun.  They might have cleared out some stones, hauled in some extra leaves and made a spongy pile just the right size for two brand new humans.  They probably designated a cluster of cupping roots or a shelf-like cutout to store the tools they began to fashion for such tasks as drinking water and gathering fruit.  Maybe it didn’t go down just this way, but I think the essence is true: that we were created to make order and to make and keep a home.  From fashioning a shelter in the garden to renting a downtown apartment, our lives bear this out.

But, for complex reasons with infinite implications, we are no longer garden-dwellers, and our expulsion has had ramifications for everything, including our cleaning habits.  As with most other activities in the twenty first century, our created inclination to bring order to our surroundings has become distorted by consumerism.  To be sure, there’s a consumer side to cleaning our homes that is good and necessary.  It’s wise to hire a chimneysweeper to do what a chimneysweeper does well and what we could not begin to imagine how to do.  Exchanging dollars or services for a book of recipes for non-toxic, homemade cleansers or a big box of multi-purpose baking soda is a worthwhile investment.

Unfortunately, the cleaning rituals of most North American households have been taken over by commercial products and the sense of drudgery those products both create through their advertising and claim to overcome by their ingenuity.  By inordinately characterizing household tasks as the lowest of human responsibilities, companies carve out a space in our collective consciousness in which their bigger, better, faster, easier products are exactly what we need to regain our sense of power over our unendingly messy lives.  The mystique of the breezy soccer mom, so we are conditioned to believe, is just a barcode scan away.  In a piece simply titled “Housekeeping”, Caroline Langston puts it this way:

Consumer culture…explains why, although actual cooking and cleaning may be in decline, home organization and elaborate decorating are in the ascendancy. The current mania for de-cluttering offers the flattering fantasy that, via empowered consumer choice, individuals can create a system to transcend once and for all the messiness of life — a spirit akin to all the great, and failed, utopian ideologies.

To be sure, this trend shows up not only in cleaning products, but in food and waste and feminine products and transportation and health care and it all depends on our forgetfulness.  It all conveys our manufactured desire to buy our way out of the icky present and into a future that, in the end, doesn’t actually exist — because the dust bunnies will gather under the bed again and the fast food will make us too sick to enjoy retirement and the sudsy runoff from the spotless car will make the swimming hole we visit every summer a tangle of invasive weeds.

When we clean only as consumers, we miss out on a host of connections.  For example, the toxicity level of our cleaning products has a direct impact on our soil, water and air.  And our demand for the latest plastic cleaning gadgets at bargain prices places more weight on the backs of those who toil to serve our endless lust for stuff.  In addition to issues of social and environmental justice, when we opt for the cheapest and easiest ways so we can “just get it over with,” we risk missing out on the inextricable connection between our bodies and our spirits.  Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book An Altar in the World, emphasizes how even mundane household tasks can become elements of our daily liturgy, if only we have the eyes to see.  She writes,

Cleaning refrigerators and toilets helps you connect the food cycle at both ends.  Making beds reminds you that life-giving activities do not require much space.  Hanging laundry on the line offers you a chance to fly prayer flags disguised as bath towels and underwear.  If all of life is holy, then anything that sustains life has holy dimensions too.  The difference between washing windows and resting in God can be a simple decision: choose the work, and it becomes your spiritual practice.  Spraying vinegar and water on the panes, you baptize the glass.  Rubbing away the film, ye repent ye of your sins.  Polishing the glass, you let in the light.  No task is too menial to serve as a path.

Lest we romanticize housekeeping too much as an ecstatic mystical discipline, let’s remember that the good ways are often the harder ways. The difficulty can teach us as much, if not more, than the pleasure. It’s okay to just plain dislike sweeping the floor or dusting the bookshelves; the necessity of doing things we don’t like is a teacher as well.   Let’s also remember that each day, millions of people engage in cleaning tasks because they have no other choice; it’s not just a question of whether or not to vacuum the rug before the dinner party, but a question of survival for them and their dependants.

I have ahead of me this afternoon the task of sweeping our 1,400 square feet of wood floors and it’s a task I usually avoid until the dust bunnies are actually rolling themselves out from under the chairs looking for mates.  But I think I’ll take a cue from Brown Taylor and undertake the task with a focus of gratitude — that I have a place to call home, for the 146 years of history that have walked these floors, that I have legs and arms with which to swing a broom around the room.  And maybe I’ll also take a cue from my friend the bird of paradise and do a little dance when I’m finished.

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