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 "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.
Keeping house can also give one a feeling of security. 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.
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 stated that a few storage plastic boxes, kept in the basement, would have to go. 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 farm 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.
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.
See also Wendell Berry, What Are People For? (San Francisco, 1990), 12.
(This essay first appeared in Springhouse magazine and in my book Journeys Home.)