Simple Home, Beautiful Home Part III: Keeping a home and a life

images-1The cart before the horse is neither beautiful nor useful.  Before we can adorn our houses with beautiful objects the walls must be stripped, and our lives must be stripped, and beautiful housekeeping and beautiful living be laid for a foundation…”  –Henry David Thoreau

“…and beautiful housekeeping and beautiful living be laid for a foundation.”

images-2The other day was a rainy one.  I had no particular urgent place to be, no particular desire to be anywhere else but home.  Cleaning the bathroom was on my to-do list and I started out in a usual cleaning pace, dashing around collecting the glass cleaner, the floor cleaner, the tub cleaner, the toilet cleaner and four different rags to use with them–sponge, paper towel, old terry towels, one small, one large. I yanked on my rubber gloves and went at with a vengeance.

Somewhere between the last sparkle on the pedestal sink and the first sweep of the floor, it occurred me that this was the kind of day that I could feasibly spend hours in the bathroom if I wanted to.  I didn’t have race through the chore to get anywhere, as I too often do.  I didn’t even have to race through it in order to get to something fun–what would that be, anyway?  A brain-dead hour in front of the TV?  A visit to the refrigerator to see if there’s any more Friendly’s Fudge Swirl?   I had already determined that this was going to be a slow, uncommitted day.

So, I slowed down, and committed myself to enjoying what I was doing at that moment.  After all, I had just gathered up the pile of dust and dog hair, and had begun swiping the grey-white tiles clean, and the result was beginning to delight me.    I was on my knees, hand-polishing the tiles in the small bathroom, and they were becoming almost mirror-like.  So I downshifted once more, enjoying the movement of the arc of my arm across the tile, the rhythm of my entire body against the immobile, cold floor, the emergence of the hand-wrought shine.

Housework for me is usually a necessary evil; and definitely not as necessary to me as it is to some.   Things have gone undone in my house far too often.  I think that part of the reason is that when the clutter meter starts to ding in my visual field, I mentally disconnect altogether, much like the circuit breaker in my house.  At that point, I simply don’t see what I should see.   At that point, cleaning becomes a low priority, as I involve myself in activities that are more alive in my brain.

But now I’m thinking that oddly enough, maybe Thoreau has something in common with Martha Stewart, or Alexandra Stoddard in his belief that the first step, the foundation of a beautiful home, should be the housekeeping.  Also, the living.  He says that if you are to build your home upon a rock you must keep it well, and you must live well.

In the book Sweeping Changes:  Discovering the Joy of Zen in Everyday Tasks, Gary Thorp described a zen master elevating a mundane task into a spiritual dance:

My first encounter with Zen cleaning was at Zen Center in San Francisco…After meditation and breakfast on Saturday mornings, we had a work period….My favorite part of the work period was observing the manner in which one of our teachers, Katagiri Roshi, tackled his jobs.  It was a joy to see, for example, the energy flowing through him as he applied paste wax to the zendo floor.  How could washing the floor be that important?    Yet, there hw as, devoting himself to this mundane task.  Next came the arduous, amost acrobatic act of polishing, which no one else seemed able to perform with quite the same grace and verve.  Bent over the polishing cloth, Katagiri Roshi would run from one end of the zendo to the other, pause briefly, and then run back.  The movement was graceful, natural, unaffected….’Zen is meditation and sweeping the garden.’

If housekeeping is what matters, it becomes essential.  If housekeeping is what matters, we can turn it into a prayer.  In doing so, rather than being a heinous interruption in our weekend, it can elevate our lives and turn those small acts into the rock, the cinderblock, the foundation of our simply beautiful homes.