Monday, January 11, 2010

Clean

Recently Thad and I watched a movie which happened to star the recently-deceased actress, Brittany Murphy; it was called The Ramen Girl, and while I can't give it an unqualified recommendation it was an interesting film in some ways. Where it fell short, to me, was in the area of some rather unnecessary adult content (but to be fair, I find most such content unnecessary and usually far too crude to be artistic) and also in its abrupt and somewhat unsatisfactory ending. Still, there were some elements of the film that got me thinking, and in the end that's always a sign of a movie that is not quite mindless-popcorn fare.

The Ramen Girl tells the story of a somewhat flighty American girl named Abby who leaves America for Tokyo to live with her boyfriend, Ethan. Almost immediately Ethan moves on (literally--to Osaka--though as a peach of a guy he tells her she can remain in the Tokyo apartment as long as she'd like) and Abby is left despondent, wandering Tokyo and calling Ethan dozens of times a day. In this state of desperation she enters a noodle restaurant late one night; though the proprietor and his wife try to explain that they are closed, Abby speaks no Japanese (without her little dictionary, anyway) and they speak no English; eventually they take pity on her and make her a bowl of ramen--the real noodle soup, in which even the noodles are homemade, not the fake stuff that we can buy here in little Styrofoam cups.

How a bowl of soup turns into Abby's obsession to learn to cook ramen, and how the gruff noodle-shop owner and his sympathetic wife become part of Abby's life, is the story of the film. But one particular part of it struck me as rather interesting, and it's that part I'd like to share.

When Abby, whom the proprietor, Maezumi, thinks is crazy, begins to work at his shop, all Maezumi will tell her to do is clean (a Japanese word Abby soon learns). She is to clean pots and dishes, windows, the shop's tiny bathroom, the floor, and on and on--and none of this is putting her any closer to her goal of learning to cook ramen. She cleans willingly enough, but not always well; Maezumi is forever re-doing the things she has done, or showing her in a bad temper how she is supposed to be cleaning something, making it clear to her that she isn't measuring up to his standards. She is also still trying to contact Ethan, and her cell phone is frequently pulled out as her cleaning tools lay idle.

One day she has had enough, and she shouts angrily at Maezumi. She has come to learn to cook ramen, not to clean! She's been cleaning, she is still cleaning, but it's never enough. As Maezumi repeats the word "clean" to her she storms out of the shop and walks back to her apartment--where she looks around her in amazed horror at the mess the place has become. Something dawns on her; she whispers, "Clean."

She returns to the shop the next day, humble, ready to do whatever is asked. Even when Maezumi demands her cell phone and stamps it to pieces she barely flinches. Though the audience does not see her actually cleaning the apartment, it's no surprise that the next time we see it it is spotless.

What happened? What changed?

I think that we are supposed to see that it is not the shop that Maezumi has been trying to get Abby to clean; oh, certainly, the daily grime of a small but busy restaurant has to be kept under control, but it is not that about her which he has recognized. He has been trying to tell her that her life is a mess, that she needs to clean that--and that means ending her silly pursuit of the man who dumped her, ending her careless habits of disorder, and learning to recognize the difference between the mere absence of dirt (both literally and figuratively) and what it means to be clean. Though, alas, the movie doesn't carry this far enough (having the usual blind spot for sins against the sixth Commandment, as I said before) it's still a somewhat powerful thought: that we can't have order in our life unless we are willing to zero in on those things which keep us from understanding what it really means to clean.

As I've gone about my routine household tasks this week, I find my thoughts returning to that point. Things can get rather dirty and disorderly in a household, especially over a protracted holiday time like Christmas. There is a tendency to do the minimum, to get by with what must be done--but then comes the first week back to normalcy, and the rooms which seemed "clean enough" so long as celebrations were the order of the day suddenly seem filthy and cluttered. It can be hard to get back into the habits of order and routine chores, but it is something that must be done, if disorder and confusion are not to reign supreme.

But though this is literally true for the physical cleanliness of a home, it is also figuratively true for our souls. A regular habit of Confession is a good thing--but it is not nearly enough, by itself, to foster spiritual order. Daily prayer, good reading, time set aside for peace in the midst of a busy week, the habit of charity and kindness, and all such practices are essential to the soul's state of cleanliness and goodness. If there is any part of our lives which we could honestly describe as "a mess," then that part is the very part on which the bulk of our attention ought to be focused.

This can mean many things. For a homeschooling mom like me, it might mean an honest analysis of the habits and practices of the day which seem to work against our school goals; for someone else it might mean a leap of faith in regard to a new job or new vocation; for children it might mean coming to understand that the obstinacy or teasing or disobedience which worries parents so is really as detrimental to the child's own self, as to those at whom such naughty behaviors are targeted. There could be countless millions of different examples, as many as there are different people. If there is such a thing in your life, consider this: if a trusted friend or a spiritual adviser or some such person were to tell you, cryptically, the one word, "Clean," then what would you immediately think he or she meant for you to do?

1 comment:

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I have been reading Lisa Dodson's The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy. To the many examples given in that book, of employers demanding primacy in an employee's life, cutting no slack for the fact that mothers also have obligations to and for their children, I would now add "Daily prayer, good reading, time set aside for peace in the midst of a busy week, the habit of charity and kindness..." I wonder if there is a way to so limit the demands an employer can place on the time of what used to be called a "hired servant" (no matter what the nature of the work), to allow for practices which are "essential to the soul's state of cleanliness and goodness." Of course, that is what the eight hour day was supposed to be about, but when people are paid so little they need two jobs, that doesn't quite do it. (Yes, Mary Catherine, it is true that many families work overtime for money they don't really NEED, to spend on things they could easily do without, but mothers of three children making $7 an hour aren't up to that level of luxury. It would be better if daddy were pulling his weight, but sometimes, even then, employers think their business is the center of the universe and the purpose for which man and woman were created).