Today is a red-letter day: I've just cleaned under the bed for the first time in about eight months. I'm not techno-savvy, so I cannot take a picture of this, but I happen to have found about two hundred somewhat expertly-folded origami cranes. Want them? They are yours! Just be among the first five people to comment on my blog; tell me what cleaning chores you particularly like -- and which ones you loathe -- and I'll send you a couple dozen cranes if you send me your address. Made from the finest washi, these cranes could easily be crafted into a mobile or other decoration. Add some glitter and shellack and you've got Christmas ornaments! Go on -- do it, for pity's sake! Take them off my hands! I'll even dust them for you!
A few years ago I remember reading an article about women who were addicted to cleaning. When questioned, these women admitted that they often cleaned their houses several times a week, even when they realized it wasn't really necessary. I found myself reading with a sort of horrified fascination that cleaning, for these ladies, was almost a raison d'etre -- that there was nothing they would rather do in their spare time. To this day, I can hardly believe it. What in the world causes that sort of neurosis?
Although I hardly ever stop cleaning, for me it is merely a means to an end. When I lived on my own, I hardly ever did it because I hardly ever needed to. I am good at keeping things clean: I endlessly put stuff away, bundle up letters, discard trash, tidy up corners. I don't do this because it gives me pleasure, though; I do this because I want to avoid having to do a major job. I am a One-stitch-in-time-saves-nine type of person, whereas my husband tends to let everything go until it has to be cleaned. This has caused some lively discussions in our family particularly because our children, for the most part, follow their father's lead. At some point, I give up in despair. I leave the coats over the back of the chairs, ignore the dirty gym kit left in the stairwell, stop nagging the kids to bring down their empty sandwich containers and trash. I let the blue dye my eldest uses build up in the shower stall instead of scrubbing it out, allow the errant pillows and slipcovers to remain where they were thrown, and fail to collect the scattered newspapers. After a month or two the house is even too awful for the others to bear, and my husband clicks into action. And he is wonderful to behold.
As the one person in the household who consistently hangs up her own clothes and makes up the bed, who puts the lid back on the toothpaste, discards the empty toilet paper core and replaces the roll, picks wet towels off the floor and hangs them up to dry, removes clothing from the kitchen table and nags the slob who left it there to put it away; who wipes away the crumbs, scrubs the counter of spilt water, catsup, pickle, milk, and butter; who screws the lids back on jars, re-refrigerates the forgotten carton of milk and tidies away the cereal box that has been left out and gaping open; who engages in daily sweeping, wiping, discarding, and dusting -- in short, as one who does her level best every day to pick up after others and encourage them to develop more hygienic and socially acceptable behavior -- I feel that my role in the occasional all-hands-on-deck housecleaning performance does not have to be so central. On the rare occasions this gargantuan feat takes place, I tend to take a deep breath and go off to indulge myself in tackling a particular task that has long been left: cleaning underneath a bed, perhaps, or sorting out a box of photographs. It is not that I do nothing; I will spend the entire day quietly tidying some corner while the rest of the household slaves. After my largely unrelenting and concerted daily efforts, I feel that I have earned the right not to race about the house with dust-rags and cleaning fluids.
Not without a pang of guilt I listen to the energetic scrubbing, the vacuum cleaner being plied over carpet, the rustling of plastic bags as mounds of trash are collected from the kids' rooms. I do a bit of cleaning that I might otherwise have been too busy to do, then I walk around the house and admire how beautifully clean it is; I am proudly shown the sparkling hearths and debris-less hallway, the neatly hung-up coats in the closet, the practically-glittering kitchen floor, the gleaming shower stall free of its smears of soap and tiny wads of teenager hair (my husband maintains a shaved head; I deal with my own sullied locks).
But there is a price -- there is always a price. Whenever people come to visit, one of my kids is bound to say, quite truthfully: See how clean the house is? I helped my Dad do it.