Thursday, June 16, 2011

Mrs. Clean

I wake up and turn on my nearest smart-electronic gadget, and the first thing that beeps at me is the day’s reminder list - “sweep and mop kitchen floor”, “clean bathroom sink”. I end the day by crawling into bed as another set of similar reminders for the next day flash and beep at me. My mom taught me to welcome the morning by opening my eyes to my palms, and then to the Sun. I was trained to retire to bed after thinking good thoughts and praying. Now I wake up to thoughts of cleaning, and drift off to sleep dreaming of washing liquids. Something is amiss.

There was a time when I was blissfully nonchalant of the rigors of house maintenance. I worried only about my room - my responsibility was narrow and manageable. It was even better when I was at home, with my mom reigning over the place with her sharp eyes and meticulous system of cleaning. Being an ace perfectionist (ah, yes, of course), she was ruthlessly particular about every single thing in the house. She would redo dishes washed by the maid, spend hours scrubbing the few odd stubborn scales and grime sticking to the bathroom floor due to the bad, murky water, will postpone or cancel engagements and weddings to stay at home and complete her cleaning assignments or laundry (cyclone or thunderstorm, the laundry shall be done), and will spend a restless, agonized, sleepless night if she is forced to abandon a lone, unwashed tumbler in the kitchen sink. I used to often tell her that she should receive an honorary doctorate in home-keeping. She is the best I know.

But, it did come with a huge cost. She never seemed satisfied, was always on the edge, fatigued herself to the bone, and would suffer panic attacks if she returned home after a break. Most of all, I felt sorry that she was missing out on lots of other meaningful things and activities in life due to constantly prioritizing on cleaning. Growing up, I never understood her obsession. I used to spend hours talking to her about the futility of investing so much time and effort on material objects. I very knowingly and sagely pleaded with her to not take cleaning to an extreme, etc.

And now, I am plumb in the middle of the same square. I guess I have subconsciously taken after my mom’s procedures. When I earlier laughed, now I find myself having serious discussions on hard-wood floor cleaners and stain removers when I visit friends. I exchange fervent notes with them, spend inordinate amounts of time in the cleaning aisle poring over the gazillion different brands, getting excited over the new eco-friendly and toxic-free brands, designing experiments to test cleaner A versus cleaner B, and fill my calendars with cleaning schedules. My eyes even light up every time there is a cleaning commercial on TV (“ooh-Kaboom!”).

I also came up with this “ingenious” idea of dividing all the cleaning tasks and tackling a few every day, so that hypothetically speaking, the house will remain reasonably sparkly, neat, and clean all the time, and I get to be super-efficient (divide and conquer!). The hypothesis was proved wrong within the third week, but I still practice it out of habit and compulsion. It has only increased my frustration - that the house will still not be “perfectly clean” even after daily slogging and scrubbing. The inevitably mysterious crumbs and the two spilled grains of rice glare accusingly at me from the just-mopped-floor. And dust balls seem to roll all over the place even when the vacuum cleaner remains warm from recent use.

So why the obsession - I had an epiphany as I was furiously scrubbing the kitchen sink. It’s all about wanting control. The more older I get, the more I realize that my control over things doesn't extend far. I have very limited control over people, environment, random twists in fate, and hence, my own life. So, when I encounter those few things that fall under my purview of control, I want to wield complete control; such as controlling this minuscule sphere of existence that surrounds me - my home. I want it to totally obey my expectations, to let me breathe in some satisfaction of being in charge. But even wood and ceramic have a mind of their own.

Secondly, it’s about the popular theory that cleaning is a “de-stresser”. It’s sort of a corollary to the first point. You realize that although you can’t de-clutter, reorganize, or clean up the various kinds of mess in your life and that of others (and of the world), you can clean up physical things - that’s tangible, very much doable. At least your home can remain clutter-free, dust free, stain free, dirt free, and grime free. And the process gives you the illusion of clearing up your mind, and a teeny bit of your life.

Thirdly, for people like my mom, the state of the house is viewed as a direct reflection of them - of their worth, skills, competence etc. Ridiculous. But, the first impression that guests have of you, is through your home. The walls, the floor, and the sinks tell stories. And they quiver of what the judgment would be. I remember scorning and censuring detergent ads in India (a decade back), that portrayed a man’s success and approval at work to be dependent on the “brightness” of his shirt, which in turn was dependent on the kind of detergent choices the wife made. The wife who picked the better detergent was deemed more caring, wiser, smarter, and better in all regards. The woman who knew her cleaning and washing seemed to have a direct impact on her man’s career and success in life. That’s huge - it links cleanliness and home-keeping skills to a woman’s competence as a wife. I don’t believe in this social image, but not sure if I am carrying some bits of it in my subconscious, and acting it out without realizing it (I do belong to the generation that grew up hearing their mom’s daily litany on the importance of cultivating “domestic” skills). Like the other day, I was folding clothes and noticed a reprehensible patch of grime on one of my husband’s shirt collars. As I experienced shivers of shame, and irritatedly wondered how to remove it, I was reminded of the ad, and had to laugh out loud. And then think about what I had become - a wannabe domestic goddess ;). And then write about it. (I also have to clarify and stress that my husband does help around with a lot of things, except I am mean enough to sometimes redo his work and hence not assign much work ;)).

I think this is just yet another department that requires a balanced frame of mind. Maintaining a home and keeping it clean and hygienic is important for the family’s (and the home’s) welfare. And that should be the only reason, focus, and objective. The practical need for organizing things speaks for itself. A home is not a home if it is made to look pristine and sterile all the time, and if people are made to worry about the crumbs they accidentally shed while relishing a fine meal. It’s actually an unrealistic goal - don’t let the catalogs on home interiors beguile you ;). Or let other immaculately kept homes intimidate you!

I am aware that all this obsession will fade when bigger and more important things take over my life. Right now, I can afford to manage my time by squeezing in regular cleaning into the daily/weekly routine. But I know one day down the road, I won’t be able to. Priorities will change then, and I hope I will retain the sanity to not push home maintenance above the rest! No matter what changes rule the place, no matter what extents of neglect the home goes through to carry dust, dirt, and clutter, all that should matter is the plentiful amounts of warmth, love, and security the home emanates...


SecondSight said...

Watch out, or you may soon turn into the kind of people that live on this blog:

Aparna said...

Haha. Tell me about it!!! It runs in the family! :D .. Loved reading this one. Maintaining a house.. and a clean house mind you, is such a huge task. Sometimes I even think I should just quit my job and be a successful home maker and do the gardening, cleaning, cooking, and more cleaning, and reading and of-course more cleaning!! :P .. It is a job by itself and a 24-hour one at that. Its just not possible to let a few vessels remain in the sink and come out to the hall, relax and watch a movie or read a book with the little one. But like you said, we must remember our priorities and know where to put a full-stop. Hmm. Need to think about this one seriously.

Neeraja said...

SecondSight - Haha, I will remember this ;)

Aparna, of course, it is part of our "heritage" :D. Yeah, at times I wonder how home-makers complain they don't have enough to do and are bored at home! ;). I always have something to do if I am at home! It's all about setting priorities and sticking to them - but easier said than done! :)

Srishti said...

ha ha .. What a hilarious post!! Though I am not usually caught in the act of housekeeping , I agree with the second point. It's a truly a de-stresser. When my life was a complete mess, I felt a strange pleasure in just cleaning up the kitchen sink. And to think I have used the exact words that u have posted :)
And to add to a point , it's actually psychologically de-motivating to see a cluttered house. Try it out. I have experienced that too :)
As to carrying it to extremes, I agree . Sometimes moms are more worried about the kitchen sinks than life as such. Can't blame them either :)

Neeraja said...

Srishti, thanks for the comment! Glad you can relate to it being stress relieving - except taking it to extremes is a stress builder :)

Kannan said...

Yes, Vidhya is now getting into the act ever since we re-did our floors with wood and some rooms received a fresh coat of paint. Where once I used to exhort her to be organized, she is returning the favor now as I am trying to settle down with Ghosh's River of Smoke. Everyday there's a floor to be cleaned, blind to be vacuumed, laundry to be folded, comforters to be washed, baseboards to be cleaned and painted (before the carpet is installed), banisters to be stained in the 'new' wood color and just two people to do it all - of who, one wants to curl up in a corner with a book he has been waiting 3 years for the author to publish. Yes that corner is dusty and the table near it is too. Better a man obsessed with cleaning than a woman. Men realize in course of time that some things won't be perfect and women realize that there is one more table to be dusted today and the one with the book can be employed to do that. Did I mention 'THE' book?

Neeraja said...

Kannan, thanks for the comment! True, taking it to extremes of perfection gets tiring and exhausting, and well, unrealistic! Perhaps I can give Vidhya a few tips to keep on with the cleaning without hindering your reading ;)

Anne said...

You know although there are a lot of things common to both of us,this is one thing which is not!!
I've heard a lot of women say that they are obsessed with cleanliness; Me? I think I'm obsessed with laziness ;-)
I mean of course I love being in a clean home but I generally get away with being "clean enough" as opposed to "perfectly clean"! And God forbid if anyone turns up at my doorstep unannounced!!

Neeraja said...

I think our definitions are slightly off - what is perfectly clean to me might be "clean enough" to you! :P. The living room is always in a state of disarray, even if it is "dust-free". My impetus for clearing/arranging things is a visitor of course!