Maintenance

by Jeff Oaks

On and off this summer I’ve been reading Daily Rituals, a compilation of the ways writers and artists have scheduled their lives. While most of the examples reassure me that my own daily schedule isn’t as strange as it could be, at some point I began to want a companion book which chronicles how successful artists and writers manage to keep their houses clean. That is the greater secret, I think. Who takes out their garbage? Who remembers which day is the right day to put the garbage out on the curb? Vacuuming, dusting, decluttering, cleaning out the basement occasionally, taking and picking up the dry cleaning–these are the places where my work ethic falters.

And in fact that kind of work generates in me almost a sense of anger. Umbrage might be a better word, umbra being the old latin for shadow, because there’s a kind of shadowy field around each housekeeping duty. In the simplest sense, I always imagine that cleaning will take MUCH longer than it actually does, so I procrastinate. The deeper resistance feels more abstract. Cleaning feels so useless, since each activity will have to be done over and over again. It feels endless, impossible. Dusting doesn’t lead anywhere but to more dusting. The problem with vacuuming is that the best part of it is at the very end, when for the most temporary of moments all the rooms are clear of hair and dirt. Then, everything begins to get dirty again. Better to wait, something in me say, until the house is dramatically dirty, so it feels as if I’ve really conquered something by cleaning it all up.

Writing and teaching on the other hand lead to something. The process recurs but it leads somewhere. Writing to publication (at least in theory). Teaching leads to conversations with students, to student writing, to greater knowledge, even to raises. This isn’t to say that one writes or teaches only for those reasons, but those reasons often keep me going when I don’t feel like doing them. If I don’t feel like vacuuming, there’s nothing that can get me to do it. Who cares? I live alone. For a while I thought I needed to invite someone over in order to get off my duff, as my mother used to say. Then, knowing that someone else will be seeing the dirt, I can tackle it. I would have a goal, a deadline. But then I just stopped inviting anyone over.

Ta Da! said some part of my unconscious. I’ve just made you some more time to write and read. But honestly that’s a lie. I don’t do more of either.

For my mother, the secret to cleaning was doing a little everyday. It was daily maintenance, in other words. But that was late, after she’d retired, when she had no other job. It kept her hands and mind busy. Her condo became a kind of installation piece she revised constantly. My brother too has inherited her sense of daily maintenance. His hands are always busy fixing something, wiping down the dining room table, straightening rugs. I admire it, but he has always, it seemed to me, thought of his home as the place where he’s most happy, so he works hard to keep it beautiful. I don’t think I have that sense of my house; I sleep and eat and bathe there; I store my clothes and books there. But I’m not sure I feel like I live there. I live, somehow, weirdly, elsewhere, in words, in sentences, in performances, in public. Or at least that’s my ideal. Maybe the anger I feel toward housework is that I’m afraid it will distract me from being “artistic”. Maybe I’m just lazy and looking for distractions.

Anyway, I’m curious how other people might organize their time in ways that enable them to do that kind of daily work. Or do you have someone come in a deal with it? Or do you just not care? Feel free to tell me how you do it, if you manage the trick.

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