My mother remembers that, when I was young, I was a bit of a slob. She was startled that I kept my first house pretty tidy. She saw no evidence in my childhood of this sudden expression of cleanliness. I’m sure that, like most children, I didn’t have good housekeeping skills. But children aren’t automatically neat; they have to be taught, encouraged, and bullied into this habit, and perhaps the training will someday take effect. It did with me.
Since my wife has a demanding job with very long days, I try to care for the house. We also have a professional cleaning service, but there are always dishwashing, picking-up, laundry, waste-basket-emptying, and other daily chores between the cleaning team’s visits. Much of my own professional work–commissioned writing, other writing projects, and preparation for college classes–is done at home. So my mind and heart are divided among the work I need to do…. and washing bath towels. I do like this saying of the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, which has become a motto for me: “If you hold your head in the air and think great thoughts when you should be doing the obvious chores in life, the great thoughts won’t come.” I’ve known colleagues who impose upon underlings chores that they should at least occasionally shoulder, if for no other reason than to keep their heads level to the earth.
One’s house becomes messiest when one has less time to devote to it, which dampens one’s enthusiasm for the work. But keeping house can be therapeutic, too. When I’m downhearted or have a problem I can’t yet fix, I’ll go through the house and “pick up.” I’ll strip and make the beds. I’ll even tidy up the basement, always low on the list of household priorities. Cleaning house gives me a mild sense of control, of being in charge.
We’re cat people, so part of housekeeping entails cleaning abandoned fur. Our little buddy Domino shed with impunity; considering all the white and black hair on the floor, I marveled that he wasn’t bald. Our other cat Oddball, and our present cat Taz, shed much less; at least there aren’t many “tumbleweeds” of cat hair beneath furniture and along baseboards.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke felt an overwhelming sense of wonder at his furniture as he polished it. “I felt moved, as though something were happening, something, to tell the truth, which was not purely superficial but immense, and which touched my very soul. I was an emperor washing the feet of the poor, or Saint Bonaventure, washing dishes in his convent.” The humility of his work, the goodness of work, gave him a spiritual sense of glory. I wish I felt that way more often when I’ve my bottle of “Homer Formby” in one hand and a rag in the other!
There is a popular conception of Benedictine spirituality that links work and prayer (but see http://www.osb.org/gen/topics/work/kard1.html). I’ve tried praying while housecleaning, but it’s more difficult (for me) to focus upon intercessory petitions. Sometimes I can do the next best thing: getting my mind in a prayerful sense of peace instead of a regretful ingratitude for everyday chores.
I remember my great-aunt Ruth kept her house spotless. If she was reading a book, she put it back on the shelf rather than leaving it out. Those habits gave her satisfaction. I used to marvel at that, but I’m becoming that way more and more. Being proactive saves time later. But one of the hazards of a very busy life is that one forgets what tasks lie ahead, so I usually have a few neat piles of projects at hand. For instance, right now I’ve our tax materials in a pile as I do computations to give to our preparer. Writing projects, books to read, bills to pay, form piles placed strategically around the house. You know you’re too busy when you dust and clean around those piles from week to week!
Having one’s house on the market provides an element of stress to housekeeping. If no one but you sees the house, you can keep it as tidy as you want, with elbowroom for imperfection. But if strangers are scheduled to traipse through your house, with the aim of purchasing the house, you feel like you have to pick up more diligently, lest the potential buyers say, “Well, it’s not very clean, so I’ll offer a few thousand dollars less.” One time I had to rent a storage room for a couple months when a realtor grumbled about a few storage plastic boxes, kept in the basement, which would detract from a nice presentation.
Or, insidiously, you fear the censure of people who may disapprove of your skills as a housekeeper, as if that reflected upon your character.
We do fear coming up short, even as we avoid elusive perfection. As Wendell Berry puts it, “One is afraid that there will be no rest until the work is finished and the house is in order, and the arm is in order, the town is in order, and all loved ones are well.”
Perhaps that was the problem of Martha, in that famous Gospel story of her and the contemplative Mary. Jesus did not correct Martha’s work, or her desire to work hard, but rather her fearfulness and fretfulness. That Christ doesn’t go over our work with a white glove, but instead looks to the place and the peace of one’s heart, is something all busy housekeepers can happily ponder.
Several years ago, the comedian George Carlin had a routine about one’s “stuff.” when one checks into a motel, one puts one’s “stuff” in a certain place and says proudly, “This is my stuff!” Everything else in the room belongs to someone else but this stuff is mine! We like to be in the presence of our own things, our own keepsakes, kept for the sake of beauty, memories, pride of ownership or whatever. We keep them, and keep them clean, like we keep a promise. Our “stuff” gives us a sense of identity. My and my family’s house, for instance, contains antiques from my hometown.
But how do you keep control over your stuff? Years ago I loved to watch The Mike Douglas Show. One afternoon, two actors visiting the show, a man and a woman, performed an excerpt from a play, essentially a bickering couple. I didn’t catch the beginning, but what I heard was, to me, loud and obnoxious. Afterward, Mike Douglas said that the play was by Noel Coward. I thought, impressed, “Oh! Noel Coward!” Then in the next instant I thought: “Why did I not like the play, but then did like it when I learned that the author is famous and respected?” Nothing about the play had changed. I knew more about the play, though.
I thought a couple years ago as I sorted our belongings in preparation for a move. I had ten bookshelves of books in our finished basement. Prior to the move, I pulled all the books that I thought I’d not read or use and donated them to the local library’s book fair. Now I’m down to the essential books, I thought. But just a week before we moved, I went through the bookshelves again and pulled six more medium-sized boxes of books and donated them, too. Why had I earlier thought those books were essential? Nothing had changed except my attitude about how much “stuff” I want to own.
Similarly with other belongings. I’ve sold or donated items that, not so long ago, were keepsakes. But with the move imminent, we just didn’t need that stuff anymore. Emily sorted through her large collection of stuffed toys, for instance, and gave away about three-fourths. A year ago, though, she didn’t want to part with any.
What makes a keepsake? We have some kind of experience or association with that object, or else it wouldn’t be important in the first place. Time is a big factor too: how fresh can that association/experience remain over the long haul? Value may or may not be a factor: given the choice between Grandma’s wedding ring and a plastic commemorative cup from a Ice Capades, one has both emotional and monetary value while the other is purely a cheap souvenir. Yet, if not forced to make a choice, we might hold onto both and cherish them in different ways because of their particular associations.
What makes a difference, though, is quantity: what if you have too many keepsakes? That’s where some people fall into the trap of clutter: their homes are packed with things they hate to discard because, for whatever reason, they’re meaningful items. Moving, inconvenient and emotionally disruptive though it is, becomes an excellent time to judge what are your more precious keepsakes. Grandma’s ring stays; your favorite books stay; favorite knickknacks are carefully packed; but other things can be moved on. The difficult process of relocating your household can give you a change of attitude and, in some ways, makes you freer to enjoy your precious memories in a “lighter” way.
Robert Corin Morris relates a story (originally from Jane Goodall) about a group of chimps. A large shipment of bananas had arrived, eventually to be given one at a time to wild chimps. But the chimps, which are naturally cooperative in food gathering, became frenzied at the abundance, hurting one another, and fighting with an alpha male that had taken over the pile. But the alpha male was not happy: he was enraged and defensive.
Morris finds this story a good parable for affluent, “much and quick” culture. (As an aside, I think churches also succumb to “much and quick” thinking when, in an attempt to evangelize and minister, they expand facilities too quickly and cultivate an attitude of impatience and false urgency in their programs.) Abundance isn’t bad per se; the world itself is abundant and varied as God created it. Certainly the Song of Songs gives us a biblical example of sensate pleasure. But, as Morris surveys biblical passages, the Bible also criticizes unjust gain (Ezek. 22:13), craving possessions (Matt. 6:24), and hoarding (Luke 12:15-21) while praising God as the ultimate source of positive gain (Deut. 8:18). Morris notes, though, that we start to think so positively of our abundance that we want more and more so we become taken over by craving and base our identities on desire and acquisition.
On the other hand, he tells about impoverished Christians he’s met who appreciated basic things like friendship, sunlight, food, and water. This is not to say these people didn’t suffer or that poverty is a good thing, nor that all poor people have their values in line; but affluent people (who, like the chimps, are possibly very unhappy) become surprised at the joie de vivre of people who have no special possessions to give them joy.
Morris notes that he has learned several lessons over the years which helped him put his own affluence in perspective (including times when money was tight but, nevertheless, available), and which also freed him to give things away that he once would’ve hoarded. Perhaps I’m being too individualistic, but I think that for many of us, simply being told to become less controlled by our possessions is only a first step. A sermon on giving may plant the seed; on the other hand, we may feel put-off by a comparatively works-righteous message on money. We may also have to catch the vision of living “non-possessively” through life experience. Perhaps we’ll pass through lean times; perhaps we’ll discover that we can give more than we thought we could; perhaps God will lead us to new adventures so that we have to discard some “stuff.” Through our living, we discover how God helps us through varieties of situations. In turn, when God helps us, he commands us to put ourselves in the shoes of us so that we grow in concern and empathy. We “grow” a heart for the needy. We become less like those unhappy chimps, hating each other and ourselves…. over bananas.
Vaughan Williams is quoted in Michael Kennedy, The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams (London, 1980), 234-235.
Rilke is quoted in Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston, 1969), 70-71.
Wendell Berry’s quote is from his book What Are People For? (San Francisco, 1990), 12.
Robert Corin Morris, Wrestling with Grace: A Spirituality for the Rough Edges of Daily Life (Upper Room, 2003), 140-149.
(The first half of this essay first appeared in Springhouse magazine and in my book Journeys Home. The second half first appeared at my other blog, “Journeys Home,” paulstroble.blogspot.com.)