There was a woman I passed every day on my walk around campus. She was tall and gray and lanky. I walked with earbuds, she walked with a rosary twined around her bony fingers.
One day we stopped to chat in front of the campus Daycare center. It was pick-up time, and mothers were busily strapping wiggly toddlers into car seats.
“When do they get their housework done?” she asked.
I knew what she meant, but I didn’t like what she meant.
She meant: When do these working mothers clean and cook and shop and care for their homes? (They way they should.)
She was from a different era, an era when women were housewives, and husbands worked outside the home. An era when it was the woman who cooked and cleaned and went shopping and cut coupons and hung new cafe curtains above the kitchen sink window when the old ones faded.
Where it was the woman’s job to keep a little memo book of the birthdays of all the relatives and and send cards that arrived on the exact day. It was the woman who made the ham for Easter dinner or the chopped liver for the Seder.
As I stood there not knowing what to say, I thought of the countless pictures of the messy houses and kitchens my friends would post on Facebook. The friends who prioritized social justice work, the creation of art, quality time with their children, volunteer work, adventures in nature, athletic training, and travel. The ones who proudly proclaimed that the dishes could wait, the clutter was free to accumulate, because life was for living, not dusting!
Every time I saw these truly disastrous spaces I’d jump to my feet and cheer for them in my heart.
But I knew I was not one of them.
The Pomodoro Technique
Yesterday I set my timer for thirty minutes. Thirty minutes would not put a dent in the mess in front of me, but a half hour was better than nothing.
I cleared the dining room table of its raft of papers, books, coffee cups, and crusted peanut butter spoons.
I Pledged the wood, shook out the placemats and refilled the napkin dispenser.
When the timer buzzed, I put another thirty minutes on it, fluffed all six couch cushions, plus the ottoman, then DustBusted them.
I changed the plant stand on the Chinese fan palm from a high one to a lower one, and vacuumed the rug.
When the timer went off again I reset it and did what I could in the kitchen: filled the dishwasher with dirty dishes, wiped the countertops, stuffed some moldy food down the disposal, and filled the bird feeder.
But there was still so much to be done. By this time I had been working for two hours and my writing wasn’t going to write itself, so I called it quits.
The Zen Technique
At the zendo my job was vacuuming the reception area twice a day and cleaning the toilets. Everyone on this ten day silent retreat had a housekeeping job.
The rugs never got that dirty, and neither did the toilets. We cleaned the zendo every day not not to get rid of dirt, but as a meditation.
The Grandmother Technique
Every Saturday morning she pinned her hair up in spit-curls, put a babushka over her head and went at it: sweeping and mopping, dusting her collection of Chinese figurines, snipping her bonsai plants, stuffing clothes into the basin of the washing machine then running them through the wringer. I ran squealing through tunnels of flapping wet sheets as she hung them on the line, her mouth full of wooden clothespins.
During the week she worked at the phone company. Every Saturday she did her housework.
I do my housework… whenever.
The Task Avoidance/Pain Technique
I clean when I am distressed or agitated. I clean when I feel sad or confused. I clean when I am avoiding writing or doing my taxes or going to the gym. I clean when I can’t find my keys, or some critical receipt, or when I just can’t stand the visual chaos anymore.
I clean when there are no more clean forks.
And the whole time I am doing this cleaning, I am both resentful and happy, content and annoyed, ashamed and proud.
Because there’s this push-pull between what I want to do versus what I should be doing. What I should be doing is my taxes, but what I want to do is create order and beauty in my space first. I tell myself that order will help me do my taxes easier.
The Hybrid Technique
There is no point in cleaning a toilet that isn’t dirty.
I have no time for the Zen Technique of cleaning for the sake of cleaning.
But when I do decide to clean, it is good to stop and smell the Pledge, to admire the grain of the table, the nap of the couch.
And it helps to have time limits, to designate an hour, or set a timer, and know when enough is enough.
Because housework never gets finished, it just gets done.
And it helps to realize that when you do housework, you’re really doing self work. All that time spent putting things away, and polishing surfaces, is creating order and space in your mind.
I know the old woman who asked: “When do they do their housework?” didn’t realize that doing housework is self work. At least not consciously.
Maybe she didn’t realize that what she meant was : When do these women have time to love their homes? When do they have time to create beauty and order in their homes so that that their homes can love them back, nourish them, and provide an orderly, calm refuge for them from their busy and harried lives?