Open the Mail

It may seem strange to think of cleaning house as a practice, but I absolutely do.

For some of you, cleaning house is as easy and natural as falling out of bed in the morning.  But for me it has always been a struggle.  I can remember being a college student, and looking at my room knee deep in papers and trash, completely fed up with my life as a slob; yet having no idea where to begin.

One of my favorite books on practice is Steven Pressfield’s book, “The War of Art.”  I love this passage from his book:

When I lived in the back of my Chevy van, I had to dig my typewriter out from beneath layers of tire tools, dirty laundry, and moldering paperbacks.  My truck was a nest, a hive, a hellhole on wheels whose sleeping surface I had to clear each night just to carve out a foxhole to sleep in.

The professional cannot live like that.  He is on a mission.  He will not tolerate disorder.  He eliminates disorder from his world in order to banish it from his mind.  He wants the carpet vacuumed and the threshold swept, so the Muse may enter and not soil her gown.

Every day I fight two battles.  One is to write at least one essay.  The other is to process the mail.

I hate the mail.  It is pile of decisions that have to be made one after another.  And each decision requires subsequent actions: recycle, shred, file, record, pay a bill, or write a letter.

And if you put it off, the pile quickly becomes a tower of Babel, a black hole of chaos and entropy.  Just the sight of such a pile can immediately suck the life right out of my day.

Hence the keystone habit of my household practice is to process the mail every day, and don’t stop until every decision and action has been taken to its penultimate step.

Cleaning House, part 2

The essence of practice is repetition. 

I suspect what separates the well ordered house from the clean house, and the clean house from the messy house is the regularity and quality of repetition.  What do I mean by that?

In one of those disgusting houses I mentioned yesterday, there is no repetition: the countertops don’t get scrubbed, the clutter doesn’t get picked up, and the floors don’t get vacuumed.  Hence the foodstuffs laminated to the countertop, the buried floors, and the accumulation of filth and odors.

On the other hand, we can’t do everything that needs to be done every day; there isn’t enough time, and we have other things to do.

Certain things I feel need to be done every day: the kitchen needs to be cleaned, the clutter needs to be picked up, the mail processed, and laundry needs to be kept moving.  I feel like I’m reasonably competent at these things, though I tend to get behind on the mail.

Other practices don’t need to be done every day, but probably at least once a week: vacuuming floors, cleaning bathrooms, etc.

What I really struggle with are those activities that need to be done only occasionally: organizing the basement, washing the windows, cleaning the garage, etc.

The problem for me seems to be, how do I make these activities regular without making them frequent?  How do I bring them into my awareness?

What I’ve noticed about myself is that I have a kind of tunnel vision.  I see the daily or weekly things that need to be done, but the other things may as well not even exist.  There have been file boxes at the bottom of the basement stairs that have been patiently waiting for over a year for someone to deal with them.

So my experiment to deal with this blindness is to spend the first part of my day devoted to housework on these kinds of chores.  In addition I will keep at list of these chores in a list together with the date the chore was last done.

How do you make the occasional regular?

Cleaning House

Housework is something you do that nobody notices until you don’t do it. –

This topic may seem out of place on a site like this.  When we think of practice it’s generally in the context of learning some vocational or avocational skill like accounting or playing the piano; or some transformational practice like meditation.

Housework has almost acquired a taint:  No liberated woman would choose to be a housewife, and no man would choose to do woman’s work.

So how does it get done?  Does it matter?

I have been in living spaces where the foodstuff on the countertop is so thick and hard you couldn’t take it off with a chisel; where old cat poop lay about on the floor; where the floor couldn’t be seen for all the clothing, papers, and trash strewn about; where there are bug infestations; where the smell stops you at the door.

Clearly it matters.

I know our house isn’t clean enough when it starts getting in the way of life: when it’s too cluttered to find things, it smells bad, it looks bad, etc.

On the other hand, there is more to life than a clean house.  That is, our house is too clean again, when it starts getting in the way of life: there’s no time for fun, all we do is work and clean the house; or it’s never clean enough to have company over.

Aristotle described virtue as a mean between two extremes.  So if the two extremes are those above, then we know clean enough lies somewhere in the middle.

When is your house clean enough?