Soapy, Dirty Water: The Parable of My Soul

“You’ll have to wake up tomorrow just like you did today.   If you despise repetition, what you’re really saying is that you despise life itself.”

-Kathleen Norris

“Spring cleaning” is something I try to do at least once a year.  I said try since housekeeping in general is not something I’m very motivated to do on a regular basis.   And the very fact that we’re well past spring and I’m just now getting around to it should be a good indicator that it doesn’t happen on a regular basis.

You’d think  since one of the main parts of being a stay-at-home is to be at home, I’d like to have things clean while I’m here, wouldn’t you?  Well, I DO like to have things clean.  I really do.   I just don’t necessarily want to be the one who cleans them.  So, more often than not, I settle for things to appear to be clean, even if I know they could be cleaner.

For instance, every once in a great while I’ll pick something up and dust under it, but most of the time, if I can get away with dusting around it, I will.  Sometimes if people are coming over and I haven’t had time to prepare,  I’ll dump excess papers and clutter into empty drawers (my kitchen desk drawers are deliberately empty for this very reason), and I have also been known to hide heaps of clean laundry that has yet to be folded inside my closet until the company disperses.  In other words, if I were “Dear Heloise” you’d be far more likely to get a tip from me that says something like, If company’s on the way and you need to do a quick clean up in the kitchen, load up the dishwasher as full as you can with dirty dishes and hide any other dirty dishes in the stove until they’re gone,  because I’m just not into making my own household cleaners out of baking soda and seltzer.  Or whatever.

I’ve had this love/hate relationship with housekeeping as far back as I can remember.  As kids, it was our job (my brother’s and mine) to dust on the days that our mom  vacuumed.   We also either washed or dried the dishes after supper.  These were our primary chores, with some others sprinkled in from time to time.   And oh, how I’d always want to rush through the cleaning to get on with whatever fun  was to be had that day!  I’d push dust around, I hide dirt behind, I’d scoop crumbs under any nook or cranny I could find.  (Which wasn’t much because my mom kept the house pretty spotless).  So this was  clearly not learned behavior.  At least not learned from my mom.

But, I can remember going to a friend’s house one day and seeing a sink full of clean dishes stacked high in the dish rack of their sink and a dish towel draped across the top.  “What’s that?”  I asked, pointing to the pile of dishes.

“What?  The dishes?” my friend said.

“Yeah.  Why are they like that?”  I asked (my friend clearly thought I was a total idiot, but I’d honestly never witnessed such an event).

“They’re in the rack so they can dry,” my friend said.

“Dry?  By themselves?”  I asked, dumbfounded.  And folks, I think it was right then and there decades before Pinterest existed that I “pinned” that picture to my memory and decided I would someday use my dishrack to let the dishes “dry by themselves” too, instead of drying them all by hand.  And so it seemed that from a very early age, I was more inclined to  “tuck things away” and “tend to them later” as a way of housekeeping, than “clean as you go” the way my mother taught me.

The only problem is, it doesn’t take long to fill up that dish rack.   And very often there are many other dirty dishes waiting their turn to be washed and dried.

Oh sure, I’ve tried a few things over the years to better stay on top of things.   I’ve assigned jobs to the kids (who almost never do them to my standards, which, as I already stated don’t seem incredibly high) or they whine and bicker so much about how unfair it is that so and so always get the easy jobs, etc. that assigning the jobs became more work than the actual housework.  That’s when I tried letting them pick their jobs for the week and I assigned an allowance amount to each chore with the understanding that there were also things I’d expect them to do without being paid at all.  This has worked better, but they seem to only be motivated to sign up for work when they are running low on funds.  Suffice it to say, it’s still a work in progress.

But enough about them.  How about me?  How could I get excited about doing housework?  That was the burning question.  Or, if I couldn’t be excited maybe I could at least make it all somehow seem worthwhile.

I will admit that I’d already realized good housekeeping was really nothing more than forming good habits.  And I’d recently read this very funny post over at zenhabits.net that made me realize that I’m not the only one who starts with very grandiose ideas about starting new habits only to fail at them…and quickly.  So I realized that if I was going to have any success at this, I would have to tie housework to something that I wanted to do everyday and insist that I do the chore (or chores) before I could do the fun thing.  This seemed simple enough, but what could I tie it to all the chores that fall under the umbrella of “housework” that I would want to do badly enough that I would do the chore…without cheating?

Hmm…nothing was coming to mind.

Except nuns.

Images of nuns (albeit probably from old TV shows, especially because they were images in my mind that were in black and white) of nuns humming to themselves content with jobs like scrubbing a giant floor with a toothbrush, or looking totally at peace while ironing one drab piece of clothing after another.  Maybe that was more the idea.  Rather than how to make housework fun, maybe I could figure out how to be at peace while doing housework.

And then I had it!  Meditation!  Meditation is one thing I want to do every day (I’m lousy at it, too, but I do enjoy trying) and maybe there was a way to tie housework to meditation.  (Quick sidebar here on meditation because so often meditation is misunderstand to be some deep, complicated, introspective quiet time where one must sit cross-legged, with closed eyes chanting “OOOOOOOhm,” over and over again.  It’s my understanding that while that is one way to meditate,  what I’m talking about is the bigger picture of meditation that I once read best described as this:  If prayer is talking to God, then meditation is listening to God.)

So I wondered, could it be done?  Could I hear God in the soapy water of my kitchen sink, or in the hum of the vacuum?  It seemed too good to be true!  I Googled the web and found some other posts and articles on the subject and it seemed as though this was no new idea.  In fact, I realized, how many books had I read (have on my shelf, in fact?) about the early Christian fathers and mothers of the desert whose very existence it seemed was to find peace in everything they did…including housework?  Wouldn’t that be something if I could do housework and feel…at peace?

That’s when I found this article and realized the one BIG STRUGGLE I always had with housework.   It was the fact that I could never be done with it.   Sure, chores could be done for a while, but never done-done.  Only done-until-next-time, which, when you throw kids into the mix it usually means whatever you’re cleaning is getting dirty as you’re cleaning it.   So…what was the point?

The point, I suddenly understood was peace.  To be at peace with never being done.  To understand everything as a “work in progress”.  What if I just did the chores accepting that they would get dirty again?  And what if I focused instead on the process of cleaning them for right now?  I found out that to be “mindful in the moment” of anything you’re doing is really a form of meditation.  It’s a chance for God to enter into your life in the simplest of ways.

I had to try it.

I decided to start with the dishes.  And even though the dishwasher was still partially empty, I decided to do all the ones that were on the counter by hand.  There were quite a few pots and pans, our drinking cups (which in a brilliant shopping move one day I decided would be “no big deal” that they weren’t dishwasher safe), and several odds and ends like the kitchen grater, a few plates and bowls as well as several annoying cans and whatnot that needed to be rinsed out for recycling.

OK.  I dove in.  I filled the sink,

I washed.  I rinsed.  I tried to focus on what I was doing.

Immediately my mind would wander to my To Do list, to wondering what the kids were up to at school, to anything but the task at hand.

I tried again.

I’d think of something else.

Focus.

Wash.  Dry.  What do we need from the grocery store?

Stop.

Focus.

Wash. Dry.

After several startling realizations of just how difficult it was to stay in the moment and think about the thing I was doing, I finally had some success.  And you know what?  I think God did visit me in that moment.  As I looked down and saw the suds in the same sink as the brown water from the brownie pan I just washed I saw cleanliness and dirt coexisting together.  Seemed a lot like me.  After all, don’t I have spots on my soul that glisten with the sun, and spots on my soul that really need another look?  A bit more cleaning, if you will.

Then I wondered for a moment how those pans felt about getting cleaned.  And how the sink felt about sitting there with the paradoxical parable of my soul inside  of it.  And I thought about my intentions for them as their (now mindful)  Cleaner of All, and I realized something I think God wanted me to know:  that the intentions of any Great Housekeeper are never to make something (or someone) feel bad for the stains they hold.

No.

Because a Great Housekeeper knows that no matter how much cleaning has been done, there will always be more to do.  Sometimes it involves cleaning up the same messes again and again.

Simply put, I realized Our Great Housekeeper’s intention is nothing more than this:  for us (and all those who share life with us)  to feel better for having been cleaned.

However long it may last.

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4 thoughts on “Soapy, Dirty Water: The Parable of My Soul

  1. I can totally relate to your feelings on housekeeping. Thanks for the fresh perspective! And the encouragement to keep on keeping on. 🙂

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