I once saw a quote on someone’s Facebook wall that said: “A clean house is a sign of a broken computer.” This is actually the 2.0 version of a phrase that dates back some time. The previous version read: “A clean house is a sign of broken sewing machine.” Firstly, I had no idea sewing was so fun. Secondly, neither one actually speaks to me personally, because even if my computer and phone and imaginary sewing machine were for some bizarre reason all broken at the same time, I would sooner smack myself in the face with a frying pan than clean. But the true, original version of this phrase reads: “A clean house is a sign of a wasted life.” Ah, now this I can relate to.
My relationship with cleaning would be categorized on Facebook as ‘its complicated,’ and is somewhat similar to my feelings regarding living in Israel: I would really rather not, but I know it’s the best thing for me. Cleaning, you see, is what propels me forward in life, while simultaneously killing me. It is both my therapist and the reason I should be in therapy. It taunts me with false promises; sexy, shiny and sterile, like Mr. Clean. But I know that it could never be. The houses on TV commercials are ready for surgery, anytime, anywhere. My house is more likely to send you to the hospital – Cause Of Death: Cornflakes.
Why must this be?! Why does cleaning have this power over me? I am human, top of the food chain, She-man, princess of power and master of the universe. All is mine to rule over. But not cleaning, oh no. Cleaning is an insatiable beast, and I it’s messy, disorganized prey. It is an inescapable, nagging presence in my life that waits for me in every sink and under every rug. Nothing can stop that dust from accumulating. The sheets will need to be changed at some point. And no matter how much baking soda you sprinkle in the fridge, that gross unidentifiable sticky stuff will eventually take over. You can tell yourself you don’t care, declare yourself a hippy, but eventually it will come for you. The guilt, the shame, the smell.
Until recently, my cleaning regimen went something like this: dont clean. don’t clean. don’t clean. have a nervous breakdown. clean like a maniac. Obviously, this is not a healthy relationship. You would not treat your marriage like this. Cleaning, like a marriage, cannot be entirely ignored and then indulged in on a whim. A wife may not disappear for three weeks and then abruptly appear one night, make a nice dinner, show interest in his job, spend an all inclusive evening together, and just disappear into the moonlight (Can She?!?). Whether you like it or not, cleaning and marriage need to be attended to frequently, and deliberately. Kitchen counters, once a day. Bathrooms, once a week. Refrigerators, once a year (Pesach?). But you are a living, breathing human being with unlimited potential, and there are ten million better things to do than clean. Life needs living!! YouTube needs watching! Grandmas need calling!! But the mess does not give a damn about you and your life, it needs cleaning.
It’s only once you really get into it that you realize cleaning is actually magic. If you have ever engaged in the act of cleaning, you know what I am talking about. It can happen when you least expect it, sweeping you off your feet faster than you can sweep up the couscous from last night’s dinner. It’s called the Zen of cleaning. You, the vacuum, and repetitive motion – together, fully present in the moment – mind, body and smell. You are one with cleaning and it is one with you. Whilst your sweating, aching body is scrubbing that toilet with everything you’ve got, your mind has grown wings and flown off to a better place. You are an artist, a dreamer and a proponent of strong family values. In the time that it took you to fold the towels and place them in the closet facing the ‘right’ direction, you have come up with an idea for a book, a plan to visit your grandmother, and a way to get the kids to eat more vegetables. You emerge from the experience a changed person, purged of self pity and fear, and smelling like freshly squeezed lemons. The joy is so great that even if you had a cleaner, you would fire her on the spot.
So why is it then that I don’t clean sooner…or at all? A friend recently told me she cleans on Wednesdays. An all out, stop everything, top to bottom clean. I laughed at her the way one laughs at a cartoon character. So silly. So wildly unrealistic. Who thinks this stuff up? Cleaning…everything…every week..on the same day? HA! Cleaning does not happen on schedule, like bowel movements and birthdays and movie nights. What if Wednesday comes and I don’t wanna clean? Then what? Do it it anyway? And what of free will?
But her house is so clean, and mine such a wreck. So I tried it. And to be honest, for two weeks, it was glorious. No more nervous breakdowns. No more bribing the kids to do ‘chores’ that child services might find questionable. No avoiding play dates because of the risk that that a 4 year old and his mother will judge me. I did it. I did it all. And it was amazing. For days it gleamed, and I walked around guilt free, randomly popping in and out of rooms just for the sheer joy of seeing them sparkle. Sure, Monday got a bit hairy, and by Tuesday the house was straight up nasty, but I could handle it because I knew Wednesday was on it’s way.
I knew it wouldn’t last. Cleaning is a force too powerful to be regulated. I had to be in Tel Aviv on Wednesday. Thursday was hectic. And by Friday I was back to convincing myself that I am just too creative to live like other, cleaner, people. The next day was Saturday, and although I do not observe the Sabbath, I would certainly never allow myself to desecrate it by cleaning the bathroom. Saturday night I reached into my closet to get a pair of jeans, but all I could find were crumpled up summer dresses, so I thanked global warming and threw one on. I really should organize my clothes, switch over to the the winter stuff and get rid of those camp tshirts I have an unhealthy emotional attachment to. I will do it, eventually. I’ll just wait until I have some issues to work through. I’m sure it won’t be long.