Spring Cleaning

Sometimes I’d rather tidy up than pray.
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These weeks, I feel like I’m always washing dishes, using my fingernails to pick stuck-on sauce or cake batter from my pots and pans. Sometimes, pink mold grows in the drying rack. I wedge a paper towel in its crevices, trying to wipe the plastic clean.

Sweeping the floors, I push soil and lint and hair and coffee grounds into piles, like tiny, gritty cairns. I wipe the counters. Laundry comes in from the dryer in the garage. It’s hot, except for a few lukewarm pieces. A dryer cycle costs $2.50 a load. Those damp jeans will have to slowly stiffen over the back of a chair.

In her book, How to Do Nothing, the artist Jenny Odell extols small acts of maintenance like these. We too often value only innovation, making new things instead of keeping up the old. But it takes so much work to keep things as they are: to have dressers without dust and bathroom mirrors without smudges and hinges that don’t squeak. Cleaning is noble work, and so is gardening and cooking and birthday-gift-buying and wound-dressing and letter-writing, the ongoing act of caring for items and relationships over time.

I love Odell’s argument, but sometimes it feels like an excuse to, well, do nothing—at least, nothing of substance, nothing memorable. Our apartment measures less than six hundred square feet, and still it takes so much work to keep it tidy. What if I stopped trying? What novel could I be writing if I wasn’t concerned about rings in the bathtub? What article would I have conceived, or what company would I have started (this is Silicon Valley, after all), if I wasn’t hunting for stray crumbs in the fridge, wet paper towel in hand? Perhaps I’d be richer and wittier if I wasn’t roaming our small patio plot, picking weeds, yanking dead herbs up by the roots.

 

It’s an obvious parallel between cleaning and devotion: both are often acts of upkeep rather than inspiration.

Lent is like this. Prayer can be, too. Where are my spiritual breakthroughs, my lofty discoveries? Instead, I am struggling just to keep up every day: to listen to prerecorded prayers, to read brief devotional pages, to write a few notes in a small gray journal. I listen to the prayers while I make the bed, fluffing pillows and wondering whether I should change the sheets. I try to think about God while I’m on my hands and knees, scrubbing traces of dirt off the hardwood floors. Outside, it’s an early spring, and what little rain we get turns the clay to clumps of mud that stick to the sides of our shoes.

It’s an obvious parallel between cleaning and devotion: both are often acts of upkeep rather than inspiration. The table is clean and then, suddenly, it’s spotted with sriracha and stacked with bills. The flowers in the vase have rotted, turning the water brown. The heart goes toward God after contemplation. Then, suddenly, it’s angry and jealous. Sin settles like a film of grease. The work must be done again. It is a necessary, daily exercise, and it requires time.

 

Time is precious. During Lent, I hate to “set it aside,” as I know I’m supposed to, because I already feel like I’m always losing or wasting it. Every moment should be spent making art, or getting knowledge, or acquiring experiences. And yet, so many are spent minding what I already have, keeping it from disrepair. I sort darks from whites, then chop onions. My husband mops and folds and vacuums. We make a home, and eventually, we’ll welcome others into it—but these days, our chores are mostly for ourselves. Much as I like to imagine my life and mind as unencumbered, unconcerned with dust and dirt, I can’t. It’s impossible to ignore the physical world, the things I’ve been given, the less-than-600 feet we inhabit. I just can’t let it stay messy, even though I know it will get messy again.

If only I felt this way about the time I spend with God: that regular prayer, however brief, is equally essential, both to who I am and what my days look like. Prayer is more permanent than it appears. As long as I’m living, I’ll be making a mess, spilling coffee on the couch and clogging showerheads with calcium. Eventually, I’ll leave this apartment, sell this furniture, and pass on any space and possessions I’d temporarily laid claim to. Meanwhile, God promises real, lasting achievement: maintenance, yes, but also purification. I can’t imagine what that will be like, who I’ll be when the sanctifying labor is perfected. I should start imagining that more.

I open up the windows earlier these mornings as the days edge toward March. The air smells like daphne and citrus and redwood. It does some work for me, and I let it. 

Katherine Lucky is a former managing editor of Commonweal.

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