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.