Up and scrubbing

In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor says, “When the refrigerator has nothing in it but green onions that have turned to slime and plastic containers full of historic leftovers, I know my art is languishing. When I cannot tell whether that is a sleeping cat or an engorged dust ball under my bed, I know that I have been spending too much time thinking.” (p. 120) They are cues, she says, for her to turn off her computer and spend a morning practicing the “domestic arts.”

Purging and scrubbing help with grief and stasis, too. These are not heady activities, meant to shed light on the why of anything. When I helped my daughter shovel two years’ worth of single socks, dust-covered notebooks, neglected stuffed animals, granola bar wrappers and expired glow sticks from under her bed yesterday, it was not remotely analogous.

My cleaning binges over the past several weeks have me thinking more about my annoyance with all those bits of paper that are too large for the vacuum (do they spread in dark spaces, like mold?) and the dos and don’ts of furniture placement than any big life questions. It was just the antidote – the jump-start, the permission – I needed.


Over drinks the other night I told someone that being an urban farmer is something I want to want. Though I love the trend in theory, I’m too lazy, too realistic, too cloistered to have ever considered keeping rabbits or bees or even a serious vegetable garden.

But now I wonder, is part of the attraction the work itself? Is it in some way satisfying, having to go out and milk the cow, hang any new Downton Abbey episodes, twice a day? Is it liberating to adopt an unquestioning attitude about the many lives, even ecosystems, that are dependent on you not hitting the snooze button?

For whatever reason, standing in the middle of paper chaos all day as I dismantled our muddle of an art space on the landing two weeks ago felt like that kind of freedom – as invigorating and absorbing as organizing the research for my Master’s thesis or puzzling out the wording for a tricky paragraph. I bet it rivals the satisfaction of constructing a chicken coop.

“The body is a great focuser, whether the means is pain or pleasure.”

Taylor again, reminding me that my body is the first thing. Mental refreshment can accompany the hammer, the recycling bin, a nose full of saltwater. Tug on the body and watch the mind and spirit follow along like knots in the same rope.


4 thoughts on “Up and scrubbing

  1. Physical work can be a great satisfier, especially for those of us who spend most of our time immersed in words, ideas, the toil of intellect. My labour of choice is pulling weeds, sitting on the low stool I move through the lawn or along the cobbled driveway, my fingers plucking up the unwanted plants, my mind floating along, following thoughts like butterflies meandering through a meadow. There is no mental purpose, no problem-solving, just the soothing, hidden pathways of my mind and the satisfaction of a job visibly well-done.

  2. Weeding is such a thing, yes. Makes me realize I (and many of us, I suspect) need to not only look at these kinds of tasks as chores but as the cleansers they can be. Love the thought of following your thoughts like butterflies. It’s so sweetly non-committal.

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