I clean therefore I am

by haywardhelen


The lady who serves coffee in my favourite café has a friend who, when cleaning her house, puts a glass of wine in every room as an incentive to keep going. ‘It takes a while for her to clean her house’, the lady in the café tells me, ‘but it gets done eventually’. She laughs, adding, ‘I think I’ll have to take a leaf out of her book’.

Why, I can’t help wondering, are we so down on housekeeping – and cleaning in particular? For years I didn’t give cleaning a second thought. When I was a girl, cleaning the house was what our cleaner did when my sisters and I were at school. Then when I left home I cleaned a shared flat as a matter of course. It wasn’t our flat – my friends and I paid rent. Cleaning the flat was something I did every third week, when my turn came round. Years later, working full-time, it was no big deal for me to pay someone else to clean my flat – leaving cash on the hall table as I made a dash for the train.

However when I had a family all that changed. For a start I was home a lot more, enough to want our home to be lovely, and enough to notice dust balls collecting underneath the beds. I appreciated it when the windows were clean in a way that I simply didn’t notice when I was at home just at night and on weekends.

It was buying an old house for our family that did it. As I stood in the drive, and looked up at it, I knew that I could only take it on with my eyes open if I’d be responsible for looking after it – if I did everything that I could for the house myself, myself.

These days I clean our house every Friday, lugging the vacuum cleaner awkwardly up the stairs to the upstairs bedrooms, attempting to keep the windows clean, even shampooing the rugs twice a year – things that would never have entered my head when I was paying rent on a small flat.

But in a weird way I find all this rewarding. It’s as if, looking after the house myself, it becomes mine in a more intimate way than simple ownership. A room becomes mine when I’ve dusted the skirting boards and cleaned out the wood stove. I feel that it’s mine, I don’t need anyone to tell me.

Ditto putting mushroom compost on a garden bed. Even cleaning out the grot from the dishwasher filter is proof of that I care for it – though love would be going too far. Increasingly it’s these ordinary things that make me aware of the reality of my daily existence. I work much harder than when I worked full-time in an office, and had someone in to clean for me. And yet I feel more grounded and – dare I say – less neurotic than in my younger less fettered days. I clean therefore I am – did anyone important say that?

Why isn’t looking after things, loving them enough to care for them, better thought of? Anyone over the age of forty accepts that beauty is maintenance – so why don’t we give the continual effort this entails more credit? Why does commanding a high salary automatically accord greater respect than tending a vegetable garden, say, or restoring old furniture?

Sadly I don’t this is a conflict that will be resolved, either in me or for my generation. But now and again I like to pose the question.