Down and Dirty versus Clean and Serene

For Christmas, my brother sent me a book called Dirt: The Quirks, Habits and Passions of Keeping House. It has been on my wish list for some time now and I was delighted to receive this book of essays about people’s relationships with the spaces they inhabit. I was disappointed once I started reading it though, since most of the essays appeared to be from people attempting to justify their own sloth. Sure, there were a few where the writers dealt with the dirt of others – having to clean the house of a deceased relative who had been a hoarder, for example. There’s also a section of essays written by people who have worked as maids or housekeepers. And even a couple where the essayists wrote about a specific chore; Laura Shain Cunningham loves to wax her floor, Juliet Eastland is obsessed with sheets.

But most of the essays were from people who hated to clean, about why they hated to clean.

Which is where I begin to feel like a freak, because I like to clean. A lot.

There are things I dislike, and downright hate – hate cleaning the shower for instance, and the shower is the only place in the house where mainstream cleaners make an appearance. I live with wall to wall carpeting and would prefer hardwood floors but it’s a rental and the choice is not mine. So I vacuum and steam clean carpets a lot more than I would like, because with two dogs, you can’t NOT keep the rugs clean or else the places gets too doggy smelling. But I don’t think I actually hate the task itself – just the time it takes up.

A lot of the essayists use the excuse of “why clean something if it’s just going to get dirty again?”. They voice frustration at doing a load of laundry only to have more dirty clothes at the end of the day. Or why vacuum if dust bunnies will accumulate against tomorrow? But that logic is defective – life goes on and clothes get dirty, dust bunnies accumulate. We can’t expect to only do something once and then have it remain perfectly the same. By that same logic we should all just stop eating, since the food eventually finds its way out and we have to eat again just for nourishment.

My outlook on cleaning probably stems from childhood – both my parents worked and from an early age I had chores. Polishing furniture, setting the table, peeling potatoes for dinner. I lived through periods of sloth as a young adult, but I was inevitably the one rallying housemates to do a clean-up. And the one moving out when nobody would and I couldn’t stand the living conditions anymore.

I’ve always worked on the theory of a cluttered space = a cluttered mind. Even in high school, I could never get down to work on homework until my desk was clean.

Some people retaliate against the cluttered mind analogy by insisting that an empty space equals an empty mind, but that’s just petulance. And I’ve definitely known people who work better surrounded by clutter. But they generally are people who are more about ideas than implementation. Which is fine, we need idea people, but we also need people who can actually get things done. Cluttered people can’t ever find the tools they need to accomplish anything and so it falls to the rest of us.

Ultimately, I find cleaning to be about respect. People who rush around to tidy their space before a guest arrives are showing respect to their guests. They want the space to look nice. But what about respect for yourself? I deserve to live in a space that is clean, organized, pretty and peaceful. I keep my home “clean enough for guests” because, and it’s a cliche, I’m worth it. My life is less stressed because I can find things easily, I’m not tripping over stacks of junk. I’m not making myself sick because I can’t be bothered to clean the mold off the bathroom ceiling or because I’ve neglected to clean out the mushy veg from the crisper in the fridge. I present myself well to the world because I mend my clothes and polish my shoes. I have good credit because my bills are paid on time and are not left sitting in a pile neglected.

Of course, all of these things take time, and in a time-starved society, the first thing to go is that which we enjoy the least. For most people, that’s cleaning. Even if it means that by keeping clean and organized, everything else is easier and less time-consuming. We live our days frantically because our homes are not places of calm and relaxation. And when we do search out stress-relief, it’s often at a gym for a work-out, letting the housework pile up, or turning to a cleaning service to keep on top of things, instead of just getting down to it and scrubbing the floor ourselves (and getting a free workout in the bargain).

One other point I’d like to make is the satisfaction I get from cleaning. Yes, yes, it will just get dirty again, and yes, it can be time-consuming. But there’s a thrill to a freshly polished tabletop gleaming in the sunlight; there’s glee in a clean carpet; and a sense of peace in a bed made up with fresh sheets, a breeze blowing through pretty curtains. A pan with all the crusty bits scoured off is full of potential for something else good to be made on it. I’m not obsessive-compulsive; I’m not afraid of letting things get dirty, I don’t freak out if there’s a hair in the sink, or dog prints across the floor. But I do get a sense of satisfaction from cleaning those things up and putting things back in their place, and if the world were such that you only had to clean things once, ever, that would probably be a bit depressing.

Every time we clean something, it’s a new beginning. A clean plate or pot is an opportunity to fill it with something tasty and wonderful. A clean desk invites me to sit down and create. A vacuumed carpet invites me to walk across it barefoot, safe in the knowledge that nothing is going to jab me in the toe. An organized cupboard allows me to find what I need or replace that which is used up without running out at a crucial juncture.

I don’t expect to convince anyone that it’s a better way to live – dirty homes defy logic, after all, and clutter usually isn’t a choice. But I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in my love of a serene organized space. I just wish there were other voices out there standing up for the old mop and broom.