Dirt, Dust, Dog hair

by Jeff Oaks

After a week of living and sleeping in clean condos, first my brother’s temporary one, then my mother’s where I began to sleep after she’d died and we’d begun the process of boxing things up, I was disgusted by the amount of dirt, dust, and dog hair I came home to, the amount of sheer crud I’ve let build up around me. My car at the airport fairly stunk of dog when I got to it. It had had a week to stew out there in section 13B where I parked it last Friday. When I got home, I was startled by the sound of grit underfoot in the front hall. The blankets on the couch in the living room were askew, dog toys and bones everywhere. The dining room table where I work when I’m home was cluttered with all sorts of documents, some junk mail, some bills, some old folders with revisions of current manuscripts in them, a wooden platter from Vietnam in the middle holding four small bowls of different spices which had long gone silent.

I need to clean everything, in other words. And I’m overwhelmed already. So of course I’ve run to the coffeehouse where it’s not my job to clean anything, just drink my favorite mahogany-brown tea out of an enormous white cup. Just go and write a thousand words.

There is a part of my brain that says “you’re a writer, not a housecleaner,” with a kind of seriousness that is hard to resist most days. Writing is something I can do, I know. Cleaning the house at this stage seems impossible. Do we have a word for cleaner’s block like we do for writer’s block? I don’t believe in the latter, so I guess I shouldn’t really believe in the former. If a student comes to me complaining of Writer’s Block, I usually give him or her an exercise right then and there, a very specific kind of poem to write, a very specific scene to describe, a jumble of words to make a love poem out of. “See,” I say probably too smugly than I should, “You just need to lower your threshold.”

The mother-voice-in-my-head says–as my mother has always said–when I’ve complained about this, that I should do something similar with my cleaning block: start somewhere very specific. Start small. Do one room at a time, she used to say. Part of the problem is indeed that I want to clean the whole house at once. It’s funny that the thing that I love about writing and hate about cleaning the house is that it never stops, there’s always more. There are periods of temporary satisfaction but they don’t last long. So why do I love writing and not love cleaning?

One thing that’s different is how I “do” them. I used to write only when I was “inspired,” which meant only when something pressed very insistently on my consciousness, when something wanted out. I thought that was how artists worked, how being an artist was supposed to work. But around midlife, I began to write much more consciously, first once a week every week for years, and then (and now) every day for what’s now almost two years. In the first case, it was for a physical group of writer-friends and strangers who were supportive but also put just enough pressure on me to bring out my artist-self. In the second case, it was for a changing distribution list of other writers. My point about all this, however, is that I’ve learned to trust spontaneity now, to finally (as a therapist suggested I should long ago) trust myself in a clutch.

What I noticed about my brother this week and what my mother had always told me is that it’s constant maintenance that makes a clean house. Not a militant, angry maintenance, but an alert attention to things. They’re always picking up things, straightening things, putting things away. Instead of piling dirty dishes around the sink, they do those dishes and put them away right then. Instead of building a hill of paper, they throw things away or file them or shred them. I wait until the amount of dirt makes a sound underfoot. I wait until the sink is full of dishes. Or until someone comes over.

And here is the problem in a nutshell: I work better when I have an audience. In writing, that’s not so hard to do—join a writing group, create an intention group, find people to report and/or perform for regularly. For house-cleaning, what do you do? Make a book club maybe? Start a coffee clatch? Begin a self-help group? (I have been flirting with the idea of private writing tutorials…) Or just invite friends over more? These last two years in which I’ve been more-or-less feeling the stress of my mother’s illness and of my own precarious financial situation, it’s just been me and the dog keeping track of the place. And the dog actually prefers a little dirt in his carpet. (Now that I reread the above, I also have to admit that I’ve always had this problem; I’m just using my mother’s illness to deflect responsibility, which is perhaps the most useful and corrosive thing about the experience.)

So, I’m thinking about implementing some kind of visitor program for a while, to see if I can begin to retrain myself to think about cleaning (doing a little bit every day) as I’ve begun thinking about writing (write a draft of something every day). If I get used to seeing my own house through other people’s eyes, I’m wondering if my own ability to see and change the messiness of my ways might improve.

Are you all invited to come over to my house? No. But it might be a good start for me to personally invite people once a week. (“When do you have free time?” the nervous-writer-in-my-head has already begun to sputter.) In the meantime, I’ve begun asking around for recommendations for a house cleaner who might do the heavy lifting of grime. Maybe I should follow her around (all the recommendations are women), paying her the way I’d pay any therapist, any occupational therapist.