In defense of cleaning the house

Clean House - Colour Mist by Darwin70. Image by Darwin70

Last week, the computer we use to access the Internet crashed and died.  I must confess that I never loved this machine—it was as cantankerous and as wheezy as an old man, prone to falling asleep abruptly and refusing to reboot; overheating if so much as an eyelash fell atop it.  The sound never worked properly and hadn’t actually worked at all for quite some time, and yet the actual machine was so noisy that I couldn’t hear my music playing in the room right next door, ten feet away.

A lemon of a computer.  It just was.  It will not be mourned.

Except…when a computer crashes, you always lose something, don’t you?  I lost something very minor: my Outlook Express files, which is the way I keep my email organized into tidy little folders.  This did not, at first, seem like huge loss.  A small annoyance, a bit of a delay in the two classes currently underway.

I discovered this week that it was a Very Big Deal indeed.  I have been using Outlook Express much in the way dikes hold the sea back from Holland.  Losing it has meant that I’m up to my ankles in email and I have no idea what is important and what is not, even after the very good spam filter used by Gmail. 

I tried to reinstall the filters, but—for a host of boring reasons that are evidently not solvable—it isn’t working.  Outlook Express is not working.

This is my problem, not yours, and I’m going to solve it by buying the new computer I’ve been wanting for a really long time, but in the meantime, I have been completely lost this week.

And what I found myself doing was cleaning house. Rearranging furniture.  Washing and ironing curtains, finally hanging some cotton velveteen curtains in our bedroom to keep it warmer in winter, hanging area rugs in the sunshine to sweeten.  I’ve washed every comforter and couch throw and pillow in the house.  This afternoon, I moved old giant plants (the shedding asparagus fern, the sentimental favorite coleus with its placket of three leaves, the thriving Norfolk pine that I never expected to live, and the money tree that touches the ceiling) and vaccumed beneath them, and rearranged everybody to take advantage of the shifting light.  I ran up and down stairs twenty times, maybe thirty, fetching a hammer, then a string, then the vacuum to whisk away the moth wings hiding beneath the dresser I moved so that I could hang curtains.  The drill is one I found to fit my own female hand, and I have one of those little gizmos to find the studs in a wall, too.

It turns out the drapes need a valance or something, and the asparagus fern wants repotting, and I think I’m finally ready to paint that ancient wooden table and old wooden chairs in something bright and inviting, maybe some paisleys and spirals.  Not today, because I’m tired, but it will be a nice project over the next space of time.

Tonight I read a book that urged women writers to let the house go.  I have, myself, urged young mothers to hire someone to help.  I have hired help myself.  There are only two of us, but four animals, and not a lot of extra time to scrub.  CR is never going to do anything more than take out the trash, and I am, after all, a writer.  Is cleaning house really the best use of my time?  When I’m really in the zone, I don’t want to be bothered, and I love having somebody come in to help.

But sometimes, I notice that the more chaotic the outside world, the more scattered I become.  I can’t find my keys or that stack of file cards I so laboriously copied out at the library or the cup of coffee I just poured. 

So cleaning is, for me, a grounding act.  People tend to imagine writers are hedonistic creatures with odd hours and odd habits, but the opposite is more often the case: we like our routines, our regular hours and habits to give shape to a world that can feel too overwhelming and intense.   When I lost that single organizing software program, it felt like my whole life was a mad whirl. Cleaning house, imposing some kind of order, gave me a sense of boundaries and peace.   I’ll buy a new computer and get things back in order there, too, and all will be well. 

Just in time for the hectic holidays. :)

Have you ever discovered you were dependent on something you had no idea was holding back the waters of the sea?  Do you find relief in deep cleaning, or is it just annoying?  What’s your favorite trick to stay centered?

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6 thoughts on “In defense of cleaning the house

  1. Laura

    I’ve recently discovered something new (to me) that my brain took to in a where-have-you-been-all-my-life way: Knitting. Years ago, my mother tried (unsuccessfully) to teach me to crochet, and I concluded that the needle arts were not for me. A few months ago, I was suddenly seized by the urge to knit. So I trundled over to our local yarn store, purchased some yarn and needles, and the lovely ladies there showed me how to use them.

    Something about knitting, about the way it can be simultaneously repetitive and challenging, is soothing to my soul. And in these trying economic times, the act of making something with my own two hands (rather than writing words, which is a lovely accomplishment, but not tactile) is infinitely satisfying.

    All these years, and I never knew. (However, looking now around my house, I should definitely put down the yarn and pick up the vacuum… even if it isn’t such a delight!)

  2. Barbara

    Laura, I’ve just pulled out my knitting, too!

  3. Melissa Compton

    As much as I hate to clean, there is a definite sense of well being that comes with a really clean house, and I’ve been contemplating a deep cleaning for weeks…hmmm.

    When chaos looms for me, it usually means that I have too many things to do, so writing out a list helps to keep me focused.

    I pulled out my knitting needles to teach a friend the other day, and it was so fun hearing her little exclamations of excitement over each finished row. :)

  4. Since writing isn’t a hobby anymore I refound sewing and crocheting. There are these lovely Victorian scarves I’m copying when I’m not plotting. I’d love to knit-I kinda know how, but the turns on the socks make me nuts. But if I could, I’d knit myself socks in wild patterns with bright colors like Mary Englebreit’s or McKenzie Childs. And yes, I keep it clean-almost. Enough to keep the chaos at bay. I can’t be creative in a big pile of mess.

  5. Just read an essay in O-Home from Ann Patchett, who talks about this very subject. She has to make the house tidy, and it helps her think. Good essay, worth the magazine.

  6. Thank you! I’ll make sure to pick it up.

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