"That massive cleaning effort is a metaphor," says Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, author of "We Plan, God Laughs." "When your physical surroundings are cluttered, your emotional and spiritual self is cluttered. If your space is clean, then your mind is open and you can let God in."
One reason I hate cleaning is that I feel like I'm waiting for some invisible guy with a clipboard to come by and evaluate my progress. Maybe I'd be more motivated if I thought God might show up.
says Kathleen Norris, a Benedictine oblate and author of "The Cloister Walk," when I tell her how I treat my towels. "It's going to take me a while to recover." This conversation feels like it's happening in a confessional: Norris has such passionate feelings about the divinity in laundry that she once delivered a lecture (later published as the book "The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and 'Women's Work'") illuminating the ways that laundry can seem almost moral, the miracle of making dirty things clean.
See, I think doing laundry is more like shoveling coals in hell. Bending over, dumping in, bending over, hauling out. Which brings me to another thing I hate about housework: It never stays done. Cycles, cycles, cycles. Doesn't Norris -- no matter how much she loves the smell of line-dried clothes -- ever mind the endless repetition? "You'll have to wake up tomorrow just like you did today," she says. "If you despise repetition, what you're really saying is that you despise life itself."
Floor cleaning is the therapy of choice for Alexis Stewart, Martha's daughter and cohost of "Whatever" on Martha Stewart Living Radio. "You don't have to do it," she says. "But the result is fun. I never liked cleaning out the chicken coop when I was a kid, but I sure liked the result." (I bet her crisper is spotless.)
This is the kind of old-fashioned pragmatism that women adopted in the days when we were better at wringing meaning out of chores. Take "The American Woman's Home," written in 1869 by Harriet Beecher Stowe and her sister Catharine E. Beecher. It's a complete compendium of how a woman should manage her household's physical and spiritual ecosystem, from prayers to healthy beverages, dusting to moral foundations. There are three chapters on how to ventilate the house: Homemaking is not about managing the moisture emitted by your furnace; it's about putting the very air in your family's lungs.
In her new memoir, "Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life," Karen Maezen Miller tells the story of how her life changed when she started doing her own housework. Of course, she also renounced a deflated marriage and an inflated ego and shaved her head to become a Zen priest, so maybe her epiphanies weren't all about color-safe bleach.
Still, I'm dismayed when she says, "There is no meaning in chores. The expectation of meaning is what robs life of greater meaning." I had not expected such a Luke-and-Yoda moment.
"When we expect things to be more than they are, or when we value them as less than they are, that keeps us at arm's length from our own life," Miller says. "We think we're supposed to follow our bliss, but when we're really present in every moment, even when we're vacuuming, we can begin to chip away at the feeling of inadequacy. And little by little, our lives are transformed."
Miller thinks the way we work can tell us something about who we are -- the way we tenderly fold our children's clean pajamas or rage over our husband's towels in dank trails on the floor -- and so it is a spiritual practice of sorts. Plus, "the rituals of daily work just enfold your day in dignity. They make life tasty." Uh-huh.
She says, "If you think you need some voodoo..." I do. Why else would I call a Zen priest about my housework? "Well, here's the magic soap," she says. "Your own attention is what spiritualizes things. Attention to the meal you cook, the clothes you wash. Attention is love. And that's transformative."
Elisha Goldstein, coauthor of "A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook," tells us how to make peace with cleaning.
1. Imagine you're doing this chore for the first time. In your mind, it's just a sinkful of dirty dishes. Look for the bubbles instead.
2. Use your five senses, focusing on one at a time. Appreciate the warmth of the water, the scent of the lemon cleanser.
3. Consider it a neural workout. Incorporating mindfulness-based techniques into everyday life can make you calmer and your brain more adaptive.
4. Don't think of housework as punishment. Goldstein says, "You're cultivating kindness toward yourself."