Today I was remembering my college English professor, Emily Brady, who used to tell me that it was like pulling teeth for her to stop herself from going into to her kitchen to wash the dishes when she knew she was supposed to be writing. More often than not, though, she’d force herself to the typewriter, and the dishes would keep accumulating in the sink.
Then an old friend, Hartmut, came to mind. He’s an German architect in his 70s who’s been living in Brazil for many years. The last time I saw him he was still very active, jumping into the ocean for a swim every morning, playing in the bands in the Carnival parades, and always working on some architectural project, for profit or not. He lives in a tiny apartment in Copacabana that looks as though it’s never been cleaned. And Hartmut is blissfully unaware of the filth. Aging dust bunnies occupy every corner of his living room, and the one time I went into his kitchen he was cooking something in a pot that was encrusted with years of previously cooked meals, on top of a two-burner stove that had never been blessed by the touch of a scouring pad.
As I thought about this, I realized that I’m a lot like these two people. Well, probably more like Emily (is it because I’m a woman?), because I’m often tempted to go clean something or empty the garbage when I know I’d be better off practicing the piano or writing something. I don’t really think I’m a slob, and as I look around my apartment, I see that it looks more or less orderly. By that I mean that there’s not a lot of clutter around, magazines thrown on the floor, clothes hanging from doorknobs, stuff like that. But I also know that even though it doesn’t look like a mess, I couldn’t say it’s actually clean. I rarely wash the floors (although I’m often tempted), so I have to clean my feet in the bidet before I go to bed (I like being barefoot).
See, it’s really dirty where I live. I’m on the third floor with a big window overlooking a very busy street, and all the black dust, mixed with ocean spray, comes in the window and sticks to everything. Sticky, nasty black dust. Yeah, I know it’s just an excuse, but seriously folks, I have more important things to do than run a rag over my dirty floors every other day (which is about how often I’d have to do it to keep them clean).
As I was pondering this pressing issue, I recalled an incident from when I was a teenager. I had gotten a job doing some house cleaning for a friend of a schoolmate’s mother. She had me dust and vacuum every day, and wipe off all the surfaces in the kitchen with a damp rag. I thought it was really dumb to do that every day, because nothing was ever dirty. I mentioned this to my schoolmate, and what did she do? She went and told her mother’s friend what I’d said, the little snitch. How did I know this? Because the next day at work, this lady said to me, “You know, if you clean up every day, then you don’t have to deal with a lot of dirt. It’s much simpler.” Well, I was relieved that she didn’t scold me, but secretly I still thought it was dumb.
I thought, “Why should I waste my time doing this when there are better things to do?” And then I realized the truth of the matter: I actually like to clean things when they’re really dirty. For instance, I like to tackle an encrusted stove and scrub through layers of embedded grease until it’s all bright and shiny again. I find that much more satisfying than mindlessly running a rag over a surface that’s already clean. I guess that’s pretty much my philosophy about housekeeping. Or maybe it’s just another excuse. I don’t know. But I know that if I don’t stick to my guns about it, then I’ll be tempted to grab a broom or a dust rag every time I know it’s time to sit down at the piano or the computer and do something creative. Housekeeping is creative you say? Well…you’ll have to explain that one to me. I have nothing against it, and there’s actually something kind of appealing about the mindlessness of it—it can even be relaxing. And that’s where the temptation lies, at least for me.