“Is it not a good joke that when God gave us work to do…it was work that can never be finished, but only repeated, day in and day out, season upon season, year after year?”[i]
A pop-in sidebar on my computer caught my attention—before I did what I usually do, automatically click it into oblivion— “The Benefits of Spring Cleaning.” I was a bit amused and curious. Is Spring Cleaning still a concept? I wondered. The article was not an advertisement for a person or company I could hire. It was just that: a brief treatise on the values of cleaning one’s house!
Cleaning my house is something I do. Some weeks, it’s a regular thing. At other times, I suddenly realize that it’s been awhile and the dust is piling up. Life gets crowded, and cleaning sometimes goes down the priority list. Then, when I can’t stand it any longer, I clean.
But the article lodged in my mind. And one balmy spring-like morning a couple weeks later, the urge hit: I will do some Spring Cleaning! It was—and I’m not joking—an exciting thought. (And if you find yourself muttering, “She’s got too much time on her hands,” well, that’s not it at all. I have plenty to do. And plenty that I want to do.)
So, I started climbing on stools to reach tops of things; I put dusty dishes from open shelves in the dishwasher; I unstuck a drawer that I had not been able to use; I re-painted a small wooden spice shelf that has been peeling for months; I polished my French flea-market copper pots. I cleaned out every dim and distant corner in every kitchen cupboard. I scoured the oven. I washed curtains. I threw away outdated phone books. I watched a lot of dirty water go down the drain. It felt good.
And that, so far, is just the kitchen.
Cleaning our houses, washing the dishes or the windows, mopping the floors, and on down the list, are chores that have come to be thought of as “menial” and “mindless” tasks, not to mention “thankless.” Who, after all, notices?
In a laudable attempt to allow women in the home more freedom, “labor-saving machines” began to proliferate in the American society of the 20’s and 30’s. Ironically, journal articles from those decades began to wonder, in print, if we knew what to do with the time we were “saving.” Studies show that the advent of those labor-saving machines did not actually lead to a felt well-being for women in the home. They led, instead, to boredom.
While I, for one, am thankful for my machines, I happily give up the clothes dryer for hanging out the laundry in the air and sunshine, as often as possible, in three seasons. Never mind that I am the only one in the neighborhood who does. I get to be outside! I get to hear the birds! I get to smell that lovely nameless fragrance when I bring in the sheets.
I am also thankful to have grown up without a dishwasher. My sister and I, together at the dishpan and drainer, would sing or make up stories. If my mother was the washer and I was the dryer, she would tell me anecdotes about her childhood. My older two children, sister and brother, also grew up doing dishes. They sometimes used the time at the kitchen sink to argue—but they learned how to do dishes!
Kathleen Norris, author of the above quote, writes in her little book, The Quotidian Mysteries, “…as difficult and painful as life can be, it is worth something to be in the present, alive, doing one’s daily bit. It addresses and acts on the daily needs that sloth (read: laziness) would have us suppress and deny.” She calls this suppression and denial a first step to psychosis.
Who knew that repetitive, “mindless,” or boring tasks could lead to emotional well-being? Our minds and bodies process even as we work—which reveals, of course, that nothing is truly mindless.
Housekeeping, she goes on—some of that work— “is an attempt to bring order out of chaos.” It thus becomes a form of caring—caring for my environment and my own person as I live in it, caring for the others who may enter it or share it with me. She calls that form of caring “the sanctity of daily tasks,” and writes, “Being willing to care for oneself and others on a daily basis is no small part of what constitutes basic human sanity, a faith in the everyday.”
Years ago, I visited a home where I knew that the wife kept an orderly, clean house. But there was thick dust everywhere, as well as disorder. I was mystified. Only later, in the transpiring events of her life, did I realize how loudly her house at that time spoke of her unhappiness. She was not caring for her life, consequently, neither for her environment.
To the question “Who notices?” the answer is: I do. I have found that Spring Cleaning is something akin to taking a shower after a long, hot, sweaty day: it leads to a feeling of well-being. An outsider may step into my house and never be aware that I have spent parts of days and plenty of hours scrubbing out my cupboards and closets. But I am. I feel better about my environment, as I do about my body after the shower. And my mind has been just as active as my muscles—processing, thinking out situations that need thinking out, praying.
Norris has further thoughts that lend perspective. She likens our daily need to care for our environment to our daily need to care for our spiritual well-being. She uses the word “liturgy” to indicate a conscious, regular contemplation of biblical texts as well as prayers:
“Laundry, liturgy, and women’s work all serve to ground us in the world, and they need not grind us down. Our daily tasks, whether we perceive them as drudgery or essential, life-supporting work…have a considerable spiritual import…It is in ordinary life that our stories unfold…”
Maybe it was a “good joke” on God’s part, as she says. “But the joke,” she goes on, “is on us: what we think we are only ‘getting through’ has the power to change us, just as we have the power to transform what seems meaningless…” It depends, I find, on my attitude to and perspective on these aspects of my daily or seasonal work. I can regard them as thankless jobs, or I can enjoy them as worthwhile and satisfying.
I’m still at it—there’s the rest of the house. Will I finish this year’s Spring Cleaning before next spring? I don’t know, but I intend to keep on. It is surely not a joke that we—I—need that grounding, “day in and day out, season upon season, year after year.”
It keeps us in real life. It means that today matters, and tomorrow will also matter.
[i] From The Quotidian Mysteries, Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work,” by Kathleen Norris