Vacuuming the Attic, (Fall 1999)

Vacuuming the Attic
Personal Essay
Mary B. Johnston
Boston, Massachusetts

A couple of Sundays ago, I skipped church to go on a long walk. The number of tasks and distractions on my mind drove me to look for space and clarity.  I wanted to walk wherever my feet took me.

When I realized Emma’s was close by, I knew I wanted to go there.  I walked into the narrow pizza place, which is just wide enough for a screen floor that opens into a walkway with a counter and four or five stools.

Double-decker pizza ovens and chefs performed miracles on the other side of the counter.  I sat down and ordered a slice of sweet potato, spinach pizza laced with spicy rosemary sauce and another slice with caramelized onions and sausage.  The man who took my order had all of my attention and admiration.  He carried on relaxed and sincere conversations with his customers and fellow chefs, recited eight different types of pizzas each time a new customer arrived, remembered lengthy orders, instantaneously added up the total cost, and gave me a new napkin and a fresh slice of pizza the moment the idea crossed my mind.  In the midst of all this activity, he moved two foot wide pizzas from the oven into boxes, scraped off burning crust from the oven’s surface, moved warm slices from a small countertop into the oven, gracefully slid to the cash register to give correct change, and remembered when pizzas were finished and needed to be rescued from the oven.  I was watching a man who knew how to converse, laugh, comfort, and create all at the same time.  He made his job look effortless.  Oh, how I envied him.  Imagine remembering long lists of things without a pen and paper.  Imagine being able to handle multiple demands simultaneously and meeting them all with graceful ease.

When I walk from my living room to the kitchen, everything distracts me: dusty bureaus and bookcases; my three-year-old’s toys, blankets, and books strewn on our bed; the carpet and the bathroom floor; a whiteboard full of messages and a desk piled with letters and students’ papers—all waiting for me to respond.  At any time some food is on the verge of being lethal and other food is calling to be made into something.  There is either an overflowing laundry basket or clotheslines full of shirts and towels that I need to fold and put away.  Add to all of these demands, the phone, the doorbell and my daughter’s urgent requests: “Mom, please read with me,” “Mom, I need to go ‘somewhere’ (the potty),” or “Mom, help me put together this puzzle.”  At times these requests are accompanied by an urgent scream or a full-fledged tantrum.  While I enjoy participating in my daughter’s feats and fiascoes and can thrive on keeping an orderly home, I quickly grow weary of how difficult it is to walk in a straight line: to being in one place and walk straight to my intended destination.

We try with housekeepers, cleaning schedules, office hours, and Franklin planners to have clean, predictable lives, but there is no such thing as static order.  Entropy, the inevitable and irreversible increase in disorder is a law over which we have no control.  If we dust a surface, then we need to wash the rag.  Even if a person had enough money and nerve—as a man I dated in fact did—to hire a cook to prepare all of his food; a wardrobe specialist to select and purchase his clothes; an accountant to track his finances; a maid to clean his house; and a landscaper to groom his lawn—even then there would be human waste to face, every growing hair and nails and the inevitable thin elbows of favorite shirts and sweaters.  With such an organized life, we might not have to touch and “fix” the disorder, but we certainly couldn’t help noticing it.  To survive we necessarily create disorder and waste.  Every fall, trees drop leaves they have grown over the spring and summer.  Though we find the brilliant fiery colors captivating, we are indeed watching death, waste, and disorder—the inevitable results of growth and change.

Curious about how other handle this unavoidable decay and disorder, I interviewed a handful of friends and relatives.  While I claimed I was simply curious about their methods and mind sets, I was actually desperate to find someone who had a bag of tricks or a perfect system.  I also yearned to find someone like me—crazed and restless.  I did not find a housekeeping wizard or a soul mate, but my investigation was worthwhile anyway.  These conversations helped me see that our response to physical disorder is more than a domestic issue and can offer clues about how we handle the clutter in our minds—our internal housekeeping.

One couple, though a decade too young to have grown up watching Leave it to Beaver, seemed to operate on the assumption that the woman’s work is in the home and the man’s is not.  That leaves Beaver, Mr. Cleaver, and Wally to be the beneficiaries or victims of whatever Mrs. Cleaver decides to do.  A compulsive cleaner, the woman in this couple has a daily routine; mop the kitchen floor, clean the toilet and bathtub, vacuum the carpets, and dust all surfaces.  She also takes care of her two children all day and cooks dinner every night.  When she is expecting company, she asks her husband to help out.  Only on these special occasions does she feel comfortable taking away time from his work.  Though this system feels outdated and sexist, it does have the advantage of being clear.  The woman in not waiting and wondering—“When will my husband be as bothered by a sticky kitchen floor as I am?”  They never have to negotiate who does what in the house because she does it all.

Talking to this woman helped me sort out a few things for myself.  Sometimes I operate under the illusion that I’d be willing to do anything to abolish disorder.  Wrong.  Taking one look at this couple’s set-up made me realize that my interest in cleaning is not great enough to make me actually do hours of cleaning everyday (think about—maybe).  I also recognized how committed my husband and I are to managing a house together.  While I yearn for the definition, order, and cleanliness that this woman has in her house, I won’t submit to the yoke of what feels and looks like female servitude.

Most of the couples I interviewed divided responsibilities not according to gender but to what I’ll call the “threshold and preference theory.”  If the woman is quickly exasperated by an unmade bed and the man is not, the woman makes the bed.  If the man cooks well and finds pleasure feeding his family, then he is the primary chef.  Some couples have very consciously identified each person’s territories and have worked on creating an equitable balance.  Other husbands and wives quietly follow their bliss.  It’s no surprise that I prefer the defined system; meanwhile my Buddha husband resists charts and schedules and has faith that there will be time and desire for us to do what is necessary.  Our countless discussions haven’t changed our approaches, but intuition and minor character adjustments have.  We’ve each fallen into some territories that work—he’s the dish boy and garbage man and I’m the laundry woman who loves to vacuum.  He cleans more regularly than he did before, and I, when overcome with an anti-entropy, clean with gusto and satisfaction rather than getting angry that he is not likewise afflicted.

James and Michelle, parents of three active sons, explained that their current attitudes about housework were primarily influenced by their respective mothers.  James sees the inevitable chaos that comes from living in a small apartment as a challenge that will require vigilant attention as long as his kids are living at home.  When he was a child, his mom regularly marshaled the kids to clean and have a good time together.  As a result, he has positive associations with housework and attacks the mess after dinner with verve and enthusiasm.

Michelle was raised by a mother who operated on the hope that delaying a task would somehow eliminate or at least decrease its urgency.  She, like her mother, lets the laundry accumulate in big mounds and only then, after days of wishing, does she accept that it will not clean itself.  A videotape of me would make me look like James; I am efficient and sometimes even feverish about getting a task done.  In my journal entries, however, I would betray myself as Michelle’s twin, vainly hoping that disorder would go away without any help from me.  Despite their different approaches, they are eternally nice to each other and can easily joke about the other’s approach without bad karma erupting.  I am sure I’d be happier if the aggressive cleaner in me would treat the contemplative explorer in me a little more gingerly. 

You would think that I would just save up and get a cleaning lady.  One of my friends did.  Though on a tight budget, she vows that she would go without food before giving up her housecleaner, who comes once every three weeks to redeem the bathroom, kitchen floor and dusty surfaces.  Knowing that someone other than herself will do what she dreads gives her peace of mind, and she doesn’t mind paying for that.  While some friends claimed that if they won the lottery they’d hire help in a heart beat, most expressed reservations about paying someone to witness and clean up their chaos.  Some were too embarrassed to expose their clutter and dirt and others felt guilty about not cleaning up their own mess.  I guess it comes down to weighing priorities: is it more important to have time and relief or a sense of privacy and responsibility?  I had sworn to the latter until one day I finally broke down and hired this friend’s cleaning women for an apartment makeover.  She brought her sister and a friend.  They vacuumed, scrubbed, sprayed, mopped and dusted for two and a half hours.  Soon after they left, I wandered around sniffing the clean smells and relishing the shiny surfaces.  Ah, but when I noticed the disorderly bookcases, dusty places they had missed, the sink full of dirty dishes, and baseboards that needed fresh paint, I knew that even daily help couldn’t tame what I have to recognize as an obsession.

For about a year while my husband was working on his dissertation, we did not know where he would find employment.  We were relieved when he found a job in Boston and we wouldn’t have to move.  I have often supposed that a sense of permanence could influence how I saw disorder.  So, it was fascinating to watch how the news affected us.  For weeks we both worked on projects that would bring more order and beauty to our small, narrow apartment.  We threw or gave away clothes, appliances, blankets, and books that we don’t really want and searched for spare shelves and niches to house things that usually end up on the bedroom floor or the catch-all kitchen table.  Then we returned borrowed furniture, bought a few new items, and put everything in storage we don’t currently use but want to keep (like our china and our daughter’s baby clothes).  Our newly arranged living room felt more spacious and inviting.  Retrieving something from our orderly closets and clean pantry brought a sweet, peaceful feeling seasoned with an edge of triumph.  During the process of plowing through the endless clutter, I was driven by a belief that this whole purging process would tame some of the entropy furies that keep screaming in my ear, “We cannot be vanquished and will haunt you forever.”  Now months have passed since our apartment’s initial cleansing.  Oh how illusory and brief were these feelings of satisfaction.  We still have not faced piles of materials about life insurance, retirement and investments.  Food still spoils.  The daily accumulation of dirt and disorder is no less than before and I am forced to realize, after months of valiant efforts, that I cannot halt entropy.  Even if I know where to put each dish, book, and art supply, each will somehow get dirty, torn, or lost.  Even if my husband scrubs the kitchen floor, takes out the garbage, and washes the sink full of dishes, the same tasks will soon await him.  Even if my daughter and I place each of her toys and blankets on the right shelf before nap time, by the time she goes to bed, puzzle pieces, stuffed animals, and doll furniture have somehow broken loose from their assigned places.  So I must admit defeat and am forced to look for a perspective that will help me be a better dance partner with disorder.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, has written a couple of books on how approaching physical tasks mindfully can help us keep our minds and hearts “in order.”  About washing dishes he explains, “I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water and each movement of my hands.  I know that if I hurry in order to eat dessert sooner, the time of washing dishes will be unpleasant and not worth living.  That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle…If I am incapable of washing dishes joyfully, if I want to finish them quickly so I can go on and have dessert, I will be equally incapable of enjoying dessert…Washing dishes is at the same time a means and an end—that is, not only do we do the dishes in order to have clean dishes, we also do the dishes just to do the dishes, to live fully in each moment while washing them” (pp.26-7, Peace in Every Step).

Perhaps.  But first my goal when I clean needs to change.  I am searching for perfect, static orer.  When I read Thich Nhat Hanh, I wondered if this drive is more about internal rather than external housekeeping.  Could it be that dust and clutter reveal or may even exacerbate the activity and disorder in my head?  My synapses are firing all the time.  I can pack in half a dozen dreams in an hour nap.  I feed on books, conversation, and writing just like alcoholics crave their drink.  When I see mayhem in my kitchen, the internal housekeeper screams, “No, not more to sort through.  I’m already working on the meaning of faith, the conversation I just had with my mother, and Y2K.  Get rid of this mess or else I’ll fall apart and then you’ll really have something to clean up.”  I run to the sink of dirty dishes to pacify my overworked head.  Strange as it may seem, I know that cleaning helps keep the mad woman in the attic at bay and also know there must be better ways.

In her collection of meditative prayers about doing household tasks called, Being Home, Gunilla Norris also invites her readers to let each task be an opportunity for spiritual contemplation.  She suggests in a prayer about ironing that wrinkles are part of life and that God, not humans, is the ultimate author of order.

“Help me to remember how You love the crumpled as much as the smooth.  In You they are one. These clothes will all be wrinkled again, like my life—crumpled and ordered and crumpled again. Make my hand light.  Help me remember You are the giver of shapes whose mercy orders all things.”

“Amen!” I shout.  I yearn to let God, not me, be the head of my house.  Like Gunilla, I believe that God loves us all no matter how clean or dirty we and our houses are and know that His balm cleanses us each time we’re willing to let Him.  I yearn to fell at ease with wrinkled clothes, an overloaded recycling bin, my unfinished scrapbooks, and the crumbs on the kitchen floor.  After all, these signs of disorder come from living.

I remember the pizza man, who, surrounded by constant change, stimulation, and potential distractions, gracefully dances with the flux.  I wonder how he does it.  My guess is that he, along with my two housekeeping mentors, sees dirty dishes as an integral part of life—not a threat to it.  Before I can stand in for the pizza man, enjoy washing the dishes, or write prayers about housework, I will need to make my peace with the entropy inside my head and accept that it is a sign of living too.  Each October when I see the fall leaves’ blazing colors, I gasp at the beauty of death and know that spring will follow the cold winter.  I want to allow and celebrate seasons in my house and head.  When that happens, my house may not be very tidy, but I am sure I’d keep better company with myself and others.