I once went to someone's house, and before I could sit down on her couch she had to brush aside a few pieces of dried cat poop off the cushions. In that moment I tried really, really hard not to judge her, even as my inner voice was thinking I've finally found a house that's really, truly too messy for even me to stand. I fought the judgment because I have this philosophy that tidy houses aren't the external proof of tidy souls. Despite the proverb "cleanliness is next to Godliness."
Can I tell you how much I hate that phrase?
But I've been thinking a lot, lately, about cleaning. I think that phrase refers to being spiritually clean: trying to be honest and sincere, trying to do good to others, trying to not be selfish. But somehow it's accumulated a whole bunch of other baggage, that proverb. It's easily tossed around by some in reference to housework, as if a person with a clean house is somehow morally superior to the rest of us with our slovenly ways. Or, perhaps it seems that having a clean house is proof that she (the cleaner-of-the-house, who let's face it, usually is the woman) is closer to God.
To which I say: really???
Does God really, really care that right now, my bookshelves are cluttery, I haven't wiped off my kitchen counter yet, and the front room really needs to be vacuumed? Or does he care more that on Sunday I got so mad at one of my kids that I threw a chunk of Velveeta at him?
I reject utterly the idea that there is a connection between a clean house and a clean spirit.
No, to my mind, cleaning isn't spiritual. I clearly remember the utter bafflement I felt when I first started spending a lot of time with Kendell and his family. They are cleaners, my married-into family. And they notice when other people aren't clean. I would listen to them talk about someone's dusty corners or dirty bathroom and it was a sort of revelation, as I had no idea that people noticed the cleanliness (or lack of) of other people's houses. I had no idea that people actually swept their cement laundry room floors! It was as if there were this entire race of people I had never noticed. They look like regular human beings but in reality they are the Tribe of the Clean Women, individuals with the genetic inclination of household cleanliness. It made me self conscious because I am definitely not of that gene pool and, frankly, it bugged me for a long time. I failed to understand why it really, really matters if your house is clean every day of your life.
Cleaning the house isn't spiritual; it's political. It was in my house growing up, especially when things got bad after Dad was laid off. If we came home from school to find Dad vacuuming or cleaning the kitchen, we knew there'd been a big argument that day, and we walked with careful toes through the sparkling clean house. I promised myself, when I got married, that cleaning wouldn't work that way in my family. My kids would be able to see their father sweeping the floor or wiping the counter without having an adrenaline spike.
But I was almost twenty and completely naive and I didn't understand that maybe you can only achieve that lack of tension over who cleans the house if you both have identical cleaning personalities. As Kendell has the "clean" personality in our relationship and I have the—well, there's not an easy word that succinctly describes my relationship to housecleaning, but it's decidedly not like Kendell's—opposite, let's say, we've had quite a few "discussions" in our day about cleaning the house (and the car, too). My kids probably do get anxious when they see Kendell cleaning, even though they see him doing it far more than I ever saw my dad. I don't know how to make it any other way than it is: his vision and mine don't always line up, and the tension makes sparks. Cleaning the house doesn't make me feel closer to God; sometimes it makes me feel closer to subservient. Sometimes it makes me feel, if not entirely happy, at least proud of myself for not being a sloth in that moment. But it always makes me feel that it isn't about vacuumed floors or scrubbed toilets; it's about family dynamics and trying to be a good example and the simple fact that someone has to do it.
And in that sense it is also about power.
While I worked through the being-bothered part of my revelation about Clean Women (they feel morally superior about their cleanliness, while I get snooty about correct grammar; we all have our dumb ways of using our emotional energy), it continues to impact how I feel about myself as a woman. I'm just not the kind of person who gets bothered by clutter. If a drawer is messy I am wont to just keep it closed until I get a burst of cleaning energy, and then I take care of it. I can sleep just fine if my kitchen isn't clean and I can walk right out of my house without being bugged all day by that smudge on the wall.
But what if I wasn't that way? What if I was also a Clean Woman? I've been friends with several of them so I know they exist. Drawers of color-coordinated kitchen towels. Garbage can cleaned and scrubbed every garbage day. Sinks always scoured, bathroom corners always free of dirt, no cluttery piles. And it's not just that she keeps her house clean. It's that she wants to. It's that "clean the house" is always on the top of the Most Important Things To Do list.
Think of all the arguments with my husband I could have avoided!
Think of how many people I would've impressed with my clean house!
Think of the hours I wouldn't have spent feeling like I am faulty, somehow, as a woman!
Think of all the hours I would've spent teaching my kids the art of moral superiority via mopped floors!
Ahh—there's the rub. Because the reason I've been thinking so much, lately, about cleaning the house and the division of chores and what is fair and right and good is that my teenagers are, lately, being teenagers. Just this morning I collected eleven glasses, two plates, three bowls, 11 little empty bags of chips, three empty boxes (granola bars, Ritz crackers, fruit snacks), two empty water bottles, and three crushed-in soda cans from the TV room downstairs—and that's just stuff from the food department. There are also blankets, sleeping bags, a tent that no one took to last weekend's campout, socks, clothes, and probably other stuff, strewn everywhere.
And while I hate that it bothers me (at this point, being so thoroughly rejected by the Clean Women tribe, I don't want to have any of their defining characteristics), it bothers me. Not because the stuff on the floor bothers me, but for what it signifies: that their time is more important than mine.
And even deeper is this: It's obviously my fault that they think this is OK. Because trying to teach your children that there is no moral superiority to be gained in a clean house is a double edge sword. On the one hand, if you ever have my kids over to visit and your house happens to be messy, they won't be silently thinking "holy cow this house is messy." They won't be judging you. On the other hand (here's the edge that cuts me), if their own space is messy they won't think "I should take my cups upstairs so Mom doesn't have to." Instead they'll think "I should watch TV!" and it's no one else's fault but mine.
They didn't learn to ignore clutter from their father.
How can I get mad at them for taking to the extreme a philosophy they learned from me? I can't, really. I guess we need to work on finding a balance, somehow. Because honestly, I don't want them to grow up and have immaculate houses and feel superior to those who don't. I don't want my sons' future wives to think badly of themselves if they, too, aren't Clean Women. Or to be completely frustrated by a husband who refuses to pick up his own damn soda cup. I don't want Haley to be a slave to her house, which is another reason I can't fit into the tribe: I will always want to do other things before I want to clean the house, and I want her to know that her interests and desires are important. But I also don't want them to have cat poop on their couches.
What I haven't managed to teach them (and perhaps I never will) is the proper place of household chores. It's not up there right next to God. A clean house doesn't say much about your spirit. But it also matters because you can't be completely uninvolved. Part of being alive is doing the work that's required, and putting your clothes in the hamper is part of that work. Being able to work (even and perhaps even especially) when you don't want to perhaps does say something about your spirit: that you are willing to sacrifice for other people, and isn't that what it takes to be a successful adult?
So here I am, standing in the middle of my basement TV room, surrounded by the clutter of three teenagers. I'm trying to breath. I'm trying not to throw anything, or to judge them, or to lose perspective on the importance of the moment. The kids aren't even home—they're all in school. And I have to decide. I have to figure it out: how can I do this better? How can I teach them to balance it out? How can I help them stay right in the middle, with fairly clean (but never perfectly, never obsessively) personal spaces and no emotional baggage? I'm not sure. Maybe the Tribe of the Clean Women knows.
Maybe no one does.
I just know this: I still have work to do.