How I stopped hating housework and discovered domestic bliss

Cleaning as therapy, without the angst

GRAFTON — Winter wasn't giving up. Several inches of snow fell during the night and was still falling in the morning, 24 hours before the vernal equinox. The flakes were wet and fine, glinting in the silver light of dawn.

The fire in the woodstove had banished the early-morning chill. Light enveloped the east windows like a cocoon.

It was a perfect day to begin spring cleaning, which, truth be told, was fall cleaning, too. Two cups of coffee had revved me up, and I was good to go.

I began in the kitchen, removing all the pots from their rack over the stove and clearing away the delicate cobwebs clinging to the hooks.

“Sorry, spiders,” I said, “but there's a limit.”

I was an hour into this flurry of domesticity when I realized that I was happy.

When did I become a happy housewife? It sounds like an oxymoron.

* * *

For most of my adult life, I would've preferred to walk on my knees over hot coals to California rather than clean the house. Cleaning was a necessary evil to be endured and gotten through as fast as possible. I dreaded it.

Yet I couldn't avoid it. I can live with a few spider webs or a bit of slut's wool under the bed, but I'm constitutionally incapable of walking past clutter and chaos with my eyes closed.

So I'd always cleaned, but with a grudge, thinking of what else I could be doing: writing, reading, cooking, gardening, riding horses - the fun stuff.

I was always exhausted when I finished. It wasn't the minimal amount of physical labor that wore me out, or even the terrible roar of the Electrolux. It was the clutter in my head; that pesky yearning to be anywhere but where I was.

* * *

If I hadn't met Jesse, I'd still be slogging through housework, surly and resentful. We met almost 20 years ago when I was living in Southern Pines, N.C. I still regard him as my housekeeping guru.

Jesse lived in a clearing amongst 90 acres of gauzy longleaf pines near the town of West End. He was the sixth generation of his family to settle on that land and tend the house that his great-great-great grandfather had built.

He lived in a dogtrot house, like those built all over the American South during the early years of white settlement and in later decades. These houses were essentially two separate buildings connected by the dogtrot, a long, narrow, covered porch that led from the kitchen door to living room and sleeping quarters. The separation ensured that in the long, hot summers, the heat from the cook stove wouldn't overwhelm the rest of the rooms. The dogtrot provided shade for humans and dogs in the summer and shelter from the wind in the winter.

Jesse's dogtrot sheltered a dog, a cat, and a chicken who apparently didn't want to run with the big chickens as they scuttled around the yard.

Maybe this construction inspired the bumper sticker I frequently saw below the Mason-Dixon Line: “If you can't run with the big dogs, stay on the porch.”

* * *

On many Sunday afternoons, I traveled about 15 miles of country roads to visit with Jesse. When I turned off the hard road onto a mile-long ribbon of dirt road and got to the dead end, I was there, in a place of peace.

Jesse had added a small screened porch and installed an indoor bathroom and modern kitchen appliances. His voluminous book collection occupied floor-to-ceiling shelves in the living room.

Otherwise, the interior of the house looked much the same as it had when his ancestors inhabited it. I was reminded of the austere beauty of Quaker meeting houses.

I'd often find Jesse sweeping the heart pine floors, the original floors made from pines felled in the old-growth forest long ago. Heart pine is both durable and beautiful, with a patina dark as onyx that comes only from age.

There were grooves in the floors where generations had walked from the kitchen, out to the dogtrot, then into the living room. Every day, Jesse literally walked in the footsteps of his ancestors.

When he swept, he moved slowly, rhythmically, almost as if he were dancing with his corn broom. He went on sweeping long after the dust and sand had been vanquished.

He told me that he swept when he felt agitated and out of sorts. Because he worked as a social justice advocate, he was frequently agitated. The sweeping quieted his mind.

“It's more effective than visiting a 'talking doctor,'” he said.

This was a revelation to me. Cleaning as therapy, without the angst.

I resolved to rearrange the furniture in my head and stop thinking of cleaning as an odious task.

* * *

Back in my two-room cottage, I swept with a new broom. I tried to emulate Jesse's leisurely rhythms as I swept. Instead of thinking about what else I could've been doing, I just swept.

This practice was like learning to dance. You keep showing up on the dance floor, listening to the music, and letting it guide you. You don't become ensnared by the teacher's instructions and get anxious about doing it right. You just follow the music and move. After a while, the steps become organic in the body.

Maybe it's true that “a new broom sweeps clean.”

Dramatic events are often catalysts for change: a catastrophe, a heartbreak, a near-death experience, or seeing the burning bush while under the influence of hallucinogens.

But why wait for drama? A life can be changed by a haiku or a song or a man sweeping the floor of a humble house where his ancestors still speak.

* * *

On this April morning, birds are singing, and the air is mild. My marathon cleaning spree is finished. I'm sitting at my excruciatingly tidy desk reading quotes about change from the living and the dead. From heads of state. From theologians, motivational speakers, psychologists, philosophers, anthropologists, poets, artists.

Change has been a topic since humans learned language, indicating that we've always known that change is inevitable. And it's our lifeblood.

Yet in every generation, there are people who are afflicted by chronic obstinacy. Merriam-Webster defines “obstinacy” as “the quality or state of being obstinate; stubbornness” and, in turn, defines obstinate as “perversely adhering to an opinion, purpose or course in spite of reason, arguments or persuasion.”

As an example, the dictionary cites “the mindless obstinacy of those people who continue to insist that the earth is flat.”

Other examples abound. Barack Obama was born in Kenya. All Muslims want to kill Americans. The Holocaust didn't happen, and neither did the massacre at Sandy Hook.

Then there are the husbands who haven't washed a dish or done a load of laundry in 40 years. When their wives implore them to change, they reply, “That's just the way I am, baby.”

Obstinacy keeps us stuck on the porch, bound by collars and chains of our own making. Stubbornness on the side of health and happiness is more productive.

Rearrange the furniture. Wash the dishes and sweep the floor. Get off the porch.

Run with the big dogs.

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