My usual rituals of spring cleaning have been put on hold this year as I pack up to move from my old apartment into my new home with my partner. The process, a kind of ultimate spring cleaning (except with more cardboard boxes and lots of heavy lifting), has given me a new appreciation for all those past years of intense nook-and-cranny scouring and scrubbing and clearing out the cobwebs of the previous winter. I can immediately tell those places where the cleaning "took," and those hidden corners that I overlooked time and again, now revealed in all their glory of tumbling dust-bunny mountains. And of course, there really is nothing quite like the first deep-cleaning of the new season, with all the windows thrown open and the vernal breeze rich with hyacinths and the first hint of magnolia mingling with the citrus scents of eco-friendly cleaning supplies.
And so, I've been thinking a lot recently about cleaning, and cleansing.[*] In particular, I've been thinking about the ways in which clean(s)ing puts us into relationship with others, with the landscape and with the Song of the World, or rather, how so often it fails to do just that. I call this the "politics" of clean(s)ing, in the sense that it concerns the how's and why's of living in community, and our responsibilities (and response-abilities) in such relationship.
About the Cleaning-Lady
To illustrate the importance of the "politics of clean(s)ing," I want to focus first on what I consider to be the epitome of an unhealthy relationship, a kind of cleaning dystopia. Now normally there are very few things that would provoke me to unequivocal judgment in this blog; I try to respect others' rights to think, behave and define themselves and their values each on their own, in hopes they will do the same for me, and I would rather engage in mutual discourse than a contest in condemning. But you are about to witness, dear readers, a departure from this general track in the following statement: I know of absolutely no reason (with the exception of those who are physically unable due to age, illness or disability) for anyone to have a housekeeper, ever.
My reasons for such a strong view are manifold, but they have their origins in my up-bringing by a strong feminist mother who also, as it happens, was an incurable pack-rat. The fact is that the title of "housekeeper" is for good reason practically interchangeable with "cleaning-lady" — it is a job still dominated almost entirely by women, almost all of whom are underpaid and overworked. My sense of social justice cringes at the very notion of patronizing and perpetuating such a horrifically sexist and demeaning profession (and I must reject the notion, as I've heard some Libertarians argue in support of prostitution, that by exploiting women who have no better options, we are somehow doing them a favor).
The logic that supports this degrading profession — and believe me, there are few jobs more degrading than cleaning up someone else's waste and filth — is that it would be ridiculous to pay someone a living wage to do work you could very well do for yourself (if you were so inclined, which of course you are not). It is the same logic that exempts severs and wait-staff from minimum wage laws (after all, you could have gotten your own food... though, of course, you didn't). The result is an ugly mess of unhealthy relationships lurking just beneath that gleaming surface that we would like to call "clean."
Consider the following: out-for-hire housekeepers are often paid according to the number of houses they clean, which gives them quite a large incentive to clean a given house as quickly as possible, and move on to the next. As a result, they often focus far more on the appearance of cleanliness than on actual, deep-cleaning itself. And can you blame them? The job of housekeeper rarely comes with job security or benefits, such as health care, and on top of that, you don't get paid if you don't show up. Which also means that housekeepers will often show up to work even when they are injured or ill, which is much more frequent in a job that involves hard physical work and dealing all day with other people's germs. Whether for reasons of speed or because she is feeling less than full of vigorous health, or quite often both, a housekeeper will likely cut every corner she can, wiping down that kitchen counter once with an already-used rag from the bathroom rather than wasting time prepping a clean one and scrubbing to kill all those invisible germs that we can't see anyway. And really, it's not her house, so why should it matter to her? There is, after all, a subversive logic that plays in the heads of the working-class housekeepers and waitresses as well, which is that if the client or customer really cared about the work, they would have done it themselves, and what you're really paid for is the task of keeping up appearances. Every once in a while, you might find that wizened Buddhist woman who treats waiting tables at the local diner like a Teahouse Practice; or the devoted housekeeper who sees the task of cleaning and sterilizing other people's homes as her small homage to Mother Teresa... but such saints are few and far between, and most folks are just fellow human beings struggling to make ends meet.
The sum total of all of this? We invite someone into our home — this place meant to be a family space of comfort and safety, rest and sanctuary and warm memory — and this person brings with her the systemic violence of lingering sexism and injustice and very often poverty; she brings with her the illnesses, frenzied stress and repressed resentment of a demeaning and difficult job; she brings with her all those literal germs from all the other houses she's cleaned that day, not to mention the harsh industrial chemicals that are just as bad for the earth as they are for the human body... and when she leaves, we survey our domain and call it "clean." And yet, how could this be clean? How could this truly be healthy? We have invited in countless violations of kindness, honor and responsibility — we have welcomed in a reality rife with invisible illness and imbalance for the sake of a superficial glimmering appearance, and in the very act of doing so we have relinquished our own responsibilities.
Why Cleansing Matters
In some ways, the argument that if you really cared about the work, you would do it yourself, though often bitter and self-justifying among those who work in the "service industry," has a deeply relevant point. Cleaning puts us into relationship with the places and objects that we clean — but more specifically, it is work that restores our relationship with all those things that we have used up and worn out with our daily living, often taking them for granted or overlooking them as our grime collects and our handling wears. The process of cleaning is our chance to re-attune with these, to demonstrate with our hands and our care, our time and concentration, the gratitude and respect that they are due. During this time we spend cleaning, we become willing attendants to those objects and places that have continually served us, patiently and reliably and without protest. For the Pagan who views all of the embodied, physical world as sacred, cleaning is a sacred act of cleansing, in which we purify our relationships with a space and its dwelling spirits (whether literal or metaphorical) by redressing the imbalances of carelessness and inattention that can so often creep into our lives.
This is the why of cleansing, but the how is also intensely important. The cleansing process puts us in touch and in tune with an object or space so that we can establish a healthy and respectful "working relationship." But as any good ritualist or spellcrafter knows, when we set about the work of clearing away the mirky or harmful energies and the lingering spiritual echoes of a place or object, we also engage in opening ourselves and emptying ourselves. We give ourselves a chance to start fresh with a new sense of freedom grounded in the present, the here-now. Household cleaning tasks are often slow and repetitive — the same sweep of the broom or swish of the mop, the same turn and twist of the dishrag, the same back-and-forth of the scrub brush on the shower tile — and so they can become a kind of embodied meditation similar to that of smudging a sacred circle or cleansing a crystal. They require and help to cultivate self-discipline, gradually quieting the riot of thoughts in the mind and bringing the attention into focus on the most mundane of details.
And so this is why, I think, it is in the spring that we find ourselves so often thinking about cleaning and cleansing. Not only is cleaning a natural and practical way to direct those energies that come bubbling up from beneath the long-frozen ground and pouring down from the ever-higher sun, but it provokes a kind of revery in the mundane. The freshly washed curtains sway in the breeze beside the newly dusted windowsill, on which sits the most mundane and common of things: a few fresh-cut flowers in a vase. And life urges us to stop and smell the flowers, to slow down, to give our attention willingly and reverently to those little things that are tripping and tumbling over themselves in offering, that give of themselves endlessly and utterly fill our lives, a glass that runneth over with the generous fecundity of spring and simple things.
[*] The two words trace back to the same Proto-Germanic roots meaning "to gleam" or make bright, with cleanse retaining its older spelling and pronunciation and clean, once used only as an adjective, taking over in the common usage. I have noticed that cleansing often tends to evoke a kind of formality and sacredness that cleaning does not, and so I will use these two terms in this way: cleaning being the mundane process, and cleansing being cleaning with that extra bit of umph added in (let's say the "s" stands for "sacred").