Six summers ago our babysitter went away to Central America for three weeks. Juan and I were short on cash and so we could neither afford a vacation away nor could he take the time away from his fledgling business. It was just Max and me for three weeks. We spent lots of time in the parks and library and when he would lay his toddler head down for a nap, I discovered the joy of “mindful cleaning”.
My life was in chaos at that time. I was working too long and too hard. Motherhood was overwhelming. My marriage was disintegrating and I was tired, anxious and not sleeping. My house, I have learned, is often a mirror of my heart and so it is no surprise that at the time, my living space looked and felt like a bomb went off in it.
I am not much of a housekeeper, even in the best of times. Just ask my mother, Juan or my college roommate (sorry Cindy for those four years I buried you in squalor!). Somehow, the art of keeping my space in order feels like I mystery I may never crack. I have never quite figured that organization thing out. Over the years, I outsourced a lot of that work–to cleaning services, to my husband, to my mother who would frantically scrub each time she visited. While in some years it has been better than others, I gave up on housekeeping because as the ultimate achiever I felt the calm, tidy peace of my mother’s home was something I would never achieve. A clean, orderly space might momentarily be mine, but as a rule it eluded me. The idea of spending energy on something I would never accomplish just struck me as silly. I was driven by the finished product and this was one I never would obtain, so why bother?
But that summer, when Max would sleep, I would sit. My mind would whirl and spin with worries of how everything was falling apart. Then around day 3, after a good long cry I fell quiet for once. And in that quiet, a wisdom rose: You have to take care of your life.
I didn’t know how to fix my broken marriage. I wasn’t ready to face what was making me struggle at work. I had no idea how to tackle the lack that filled me like a canyon. But I knew how to do laundry. And there was so much of it piled up. I knew how to clean windows and I had many that were dirty and streaky in the summer sun. I knew how to dust and there were inches of hidden grey dust piled up on the tops of cabinets and shelves.
So, I started to clean, not in order to arrive at a picture perfect home, but simply because it needed to be done and I needed to quiet my mind. Around this time, my friend Anne had told me about mindful eating, a practice she had started after a trip to Kripalu. She said its principles could be applied to anything. I wondered if it could apply to cleaning.
I treated myself with a small bag of new cleaning products–Mrs Meyers I think it was in geranium or lavender or some other delicious scent. I used the mid-day hours when Max would sleep to scrub and clean solely because 1) it needed to be done and 2) because it gave me a relief from the constant thinking I was doing–about my marriage, my career, my “failure” as a mother. For three weeks I cleaned, bit by bit.
The house did look better at the end of that month, but to be honest, I never did quite achieve utter sparkle. The mystery of complete cleanliness and order would remain a mystery. But at the end of the three weeks I had found some peace. In my heart there was more quiet. And I also knew that without having to solve any big problems, I was stroke by stroke, taking care of my life.
I have often returned to this exercise when life gets at its most overwhelming. This winter, all crabby I had a moment where I felt unnourished, depleted and wholly uncelebrated. “I take care of everyone!” I whined to myself. “There is no one to take care of me!” But that deep wisdom got bossy with my complaining mind. “Just breathe and take care of your life” it said. So I put down my computer, my guitar, my books and my worries and picked up the laundry basket, the mop and the spray bottle. Not with any goals other that simple deep loving care of myself and my son.
I have thought of this story often as I have seen bits and pieces leak out of Karen Maezen Miller’s new book, Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life. I am a little girl waiting for Christmas, anticipating its arrival, joyously loading the dishwasher while I wait. You can read an excerpt of it here. You can hear Karen’s beautiful soothing voice reading a selection of it here. And you can start your search for peace of mind in here, in your own laundry room or kitchen with nothing more than than your willing hands.