Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Housecleaning and Torture, Revisited

Sorry I'm so late posting today. I was cleaning out my closet.

I had planned to do so even before reading this post, but let's face it: it's reading posts like that one that make me start such a time-intensive job at 7:30 p.m., knowing full well that it will take a couple of good hours to reach a quitting point.

Now, I want to be fair. Elizabeth Foss didn't make me clean out my closet. Her whole reflection is introspective, written in the first person. She's writing about her own struggle to make a priority out of daily cleanliness and improved organization. She's not trying to guilt anyone else into random acts of decluttering, and it's not her fault if my totally irrational response is to do exactly that.

But that's why I started to think about this old post of mine, where I compared housecleaning to torture. Okay, not really. What I did do was have a moment when, in pondering the definition of the word "clean," I suddenly realized what Mark Shea had been saying about torture, which is that motives matter. If I tried to define "clean" in such a way that I got away with doing the minimum, I wasn't exactly approaching the definition in good faith; similarly, as Mark had been saying, if you only want to define torture so you know exactly how much pain and terror you can inflict on someone without technically being guilty of torturing him you're not acting in good faith, either.

How does this relate to Elizabeth's post? My irrational response to it, which was to think that if I wasn't staying strictly on plan to continue my never ending attempts to remove excess clutter from a house that's on the small side and has totally inadequate storage (I have no linen closet, for instance; the builder didn't consider it necessary) then I was being like the friend she talks about who makes other things in her life more important than providing a haven for her family, was coming from an assumption based on words which weren't defined, and whose definitions might not be what I was assuming they were.

Take "haven," for instance. When I hear a home called a haven I imagine it rather differently than my little house. I imagine glossy magazines full of delightful little rooms, with copy that coos "The owners decided to divide their palatial living space into cozy nooks; the arched doorways and hand-carved teak doors which used to adorn a temple in Shanghai provide a note of interest, while the newly-created meditation room beyond is a haven from the day-to-day strain of running their stock brokerage company." I picture in my mind the morning room of the second Mrs. DeWinter in the black and white film version of Rebecca. I certainly don't see my cookie-cutter subdivision house whose carpet is sorely in need of replacement after eight years of exuberant family living, whose living room/school room/art project center/aquarium space is never without its own "notes of interest," such as the "paint a wooden purse" project currently underway on Kitten's desk, or the bags waiting to go to charity piled up in a temporary staging area behind the loveseat. I don't see master bedrooms that feature an exercise bicycle because that's the only place to put it; I don't see the endless and often fruitless battle to fit Costco sized cereal boxes into a Lilliputian pantry.

But that's just me, reacting to one word that probably wasn't used by Elizabeth to mean the sort of pristine glamor I think of when I hear the word "haven." It's my own fault for reading too many fairy tales as a child; when the princess' haven is a lofty tower with silk hangings and a convenient ladder of braided hair, it's hard to see a house in a state of actually being lived in as any kind of a haven at all.

Just like my struggle to define the word "clean," though, I think my reaction to Elizabeth's post came out of my own deep feelings of inadequacy when it comes to creating a home, or turning a house into a welcoming and delightful place.

I am not by nature skilled in the domestic arts. This doesn't mean that I don't do the basics, and I have daughters who are old enough to help and way more talented than I am, which gives me hope for the future; the reality at present is that I wouldn't know how to create an atmosphere of loveliness or invitation or warmth if my life depended on it. When it comes to cleaning or getting rid of excess stuff, I can handle it (my only slight negative here is my tendency to get rid of too much stuff at once, including stuff I was still sort of using, which then has to be replaced; this is what happens when you move a lot as a child, and when your true idea of decluttering involves putting everything in large cardboard boxes and calling for a moving van). But when it comes to all those little touches, that art of having an eye for the exact angle at which the couch stops being an inconvenient hulking piece of furniture and suddenly, magically, becomes a "welcome gathering space," that art of knowing instinctively which colorful piece of glass or porcelain will add a touch of graciousness and which ones only add a touch of flea-market desperation, that art of making people think you have lace curtains and crown molding even when you don't--all of that is, and always has been, a completely closed book to me.

And no matter how hard I might try to pretend that none of that is true if I'm having company, it's no used trying to fool my family. They know better. They know me.

But as I realized while I piled clothes on my bed and wished that I could get rid of most of them and start all over (not possible from a budget standpoint, alas), this comes from the erroneous assumption that there's only one way to create a haven, or at least, only one right way.

My haven may need new carpet. It may be bursting at the seams despite my best efforts at clutter removal. It might look worse because of my pathetic attempts in the decorating realm than it would if I left it spartan and bare.

But my husband doesn't have to worry that I'll start complaining that his electric guitar doesn't go with the bedroom decor (actually, it compliments the exercise bicycle quite nicely). Kitten can paint her purse in the living room, at her school desk next to the aquarium. Bookgirl and Hatchick's bunk bed oasis has room for lots of stuffed animal friends. As for me--well, my computer desk is a cabinet that closes up at night, right here in the schoolroom/living room/etc.'s heart of it all.

The important thing is not that my house or your house or Elizabeth's house or her friend's house all involve the same exact levels of "havenness." The important thing is that we know what our families like and try our best to provide it--and that they know and love us despite our faults and limitations.


freddy said...

You got it, Red! Frankly, I don't get the angst about homemaking that I've been hearing. I have real guilt over things in my home that need to be cleaned, i.e. the spot of pretzel goo cemented to the kitchen floor by baby spit that I've been carefully stepping around all day, vs. the imagined worry over cleaning out under the children's beds, and opposed to the real hand-wringer over the hole in the plaster wall halfway up the stairs that my poor hard-working husband will have to repair. (Do I remind him? Is that nagging? Even if done in a "cute" way by telling him that baby's learning to say "broken wall" every time he climbs the stairs?)

Here's my advice. Keep the bathroom and kitchen moderately clean, sweep & vacuum floors & empty wastebaskets with regularity, and try not to let either the "junk" or the repairs get too far ahead of you. Now, go play with the kids.

Anonymous said...

Great post. A haven is having the heart of the home (mother) in the home providing for everyone's emotional needs.

Jennifer F. said...

What a great post. Just linked to it from my links blog. Thank you for these thoughts -- very insightful and reasonable, as always. Whenever controversy erupts in the blog world I am always anxious to see you weigh in with the voice of reason. :)

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