The Psychology of Cleaning


Rolo lends inspiration as I write a blog after cleaning

I just finished a much-needed burst of cleaning here in The Bowl. I’ve been putting it off, remembering the sage words of one of my friends who wisely said: “The dirt and dust will still be there when you finish ________”.  I fill in this blank with any verb de jour: napping, hiking, checking e-mail, trimming my toenails, writing blogs, thinking, flossing, etc. I’ll even do my ab routine or wax my upper lip before cleaning, things I don’t particularly enjoy doing at all.

So if I had to guess, I’d say that it’s been about 6 weeks, give or take a week or two,  since I really cleaned my house. I’ve engaged in bursts of superficial organizing which handily lend a temporary air to cleaning by eliminating clutter, but in keeping with despising doing things that soon get undone, I am loath to begin real cleaning, a process that will require repetition in the near future. Though I use phrases to describe my home when I deem it’s  ‘dirty’, such as ” hair trap” “shit heap” and “dust bowl”, I know that even when dirty, my house isn’t really that disgusting compared to others I’ve seen. But if it is objectionable to me, then it’s up for scrutiny.

The problem with letting the dirt get away from me is that I reach the point I am at today where I simply cannot see a beginning or an end, and that results in inaction on my part. This is when I practice psychological warfare, and get out  my trusty timer. I set it for 30 minutes.  I figure I can do anything for 30 minutes. My bathroom was the goal for today, just the bathroom–a very small and doable goal–and after the crickets chirped on my phone indicating that 30 minutes had passed (and how quickly!) I was on such a roll, I set the timer for an additional hour, then 30 minutes more after that. This usually happens and I know it, so why do I need the psychology of setting the danged timer to begin with? If I knew the answer to that question, I’d have different career goals.

Using my timer method, I got a good chunk of  the necessary cleaning done–not nearly all of it–but enough to feel accomplished in the cleaning department, at least for today. This feeling of satisfaction makes me realize why I clean when I know this transient state is going to move quickly towards entropy once more,  thus necessitating that the entire process be repeated, that cycle of re-doing things that I detest. There is a deep and unparalleled sense of accomplishment that comes from this proper cleaning, the realization that my home and the things contained within it are deserving of attention and care and whether or not that care includes doing things that will soon be undone is not the issue. That issue being that for me there is a sense of pride of home and its trappings, the very things I have carefully chosen to surround myself with–those things which bring me comfort and which I value–and  the accompanying endorphins this caring process brings cause me to feel good about myself. Just as you can feed, water, curry and love an animal or any living thing, so too can one harbor similar feelings of care and nurturing about the place one  calls home. A home has a an energy force similar to that of a living being–though it is different and more difficult to describe–and  in mine, I feel safe and comforted. I am like a lab rat banging the bar ( cleaning) for her rat cookie (a clean home), the pleasure evoked by the actions well worth the stimulus endured for the reward. Apparently, it’s enough to keep me invested in the senseless, do-over hamster wheel of cleaning. That said, I have vowed to set my timer for 30 minutes tomorrow, but of course it is a crap shoot as to whether that will come to pass, tomorrow being a whole new ball game with its different, variable sets of emotions and needs.  It is entirely likely that only my bathroom, bedroom and living room will be cleaned on this cycle, as often times once interrupted by life or sleep, the endorphins are but a memory, and the other rooms are left to await the next cycle, whenever it may come. The psychology of cleaning is indeed complicated business. People write books and make their livings doing it for others and I know I’m not alone in my woes.

I have to admit, there are times I miss my housekeeper–or maid–or whatever you want to call a person hired to come into your home and clean up your messes. I always felt bad about wanting a stranger to clean up after me and I’d always pre-clean the house before my housekeeper came so she wouldn’t think I was a slob. Sort of defeats the purpose (although psychologically, being the tightwad that I am, by “pre-tidying”, I was also getting more bang for my cleaning buck since we all know most housekeepers will not move much in t he way of clutter, they simply clean around it), and I always cleaned my own toilet before she arrived. I don’t believe you can pay another person enough to clean your toilet. Though on a microscopic level my housekeeper failed miserably–as I suspect most housekeepers do–on the surface, there was nothing quite like that feeling of walking into my house, every room tidied, dusted and vacuumed and all at the same time, the scent of Pledge and Windex hanging heavy in the air like a promise. If I concentrated on not checking the refrigerator top, the inside of the microwave or the baseboards, I experienced quite the feeling of satisfaction for my $60. My mother used to worry needlessly that my housekeeper would break the Baccarat crystal cat she gave me for Christmas many years ago. I know Baccarat is exquisite, pricey crystal, but  I  think there are more important things for  my Mom  to worry about, like running out of fossil fuel or a meteor striking the earth.  The housekeeper never broke that crystal cat, much to my mother’s relief and a  little disappointment I think, but I’m always super careful when I dust that cat myself now, for fear of the repercussions its accidental  breakage would incur. “Oh, Cindy! The housekeeper never broke it!”. This would be a hard transgression to live with. My Mom never forgets certain things and breaking that glass cat would be one of them. It would come up randomly at Christmas dinners and other unpredictable, sporadic times even after decades had passed and my own healing from the mishap was but the dimmest memory. My Mom would poke at the embers of that transgression’s burning, previously believed cold and resolved, until another fire might be born from those ashes of  carelessness and regret.

It is spring and that means spring cleaning. Today wasn’t the day to start such a project, but I made mental notes of spring-cleaning things to do at some point in the near future, things I just remembered I never got around to doing last spring, like moving furniture to clean floors and rugs usually covered and inaccessible, flip my  mattress, oil my wood furniture, vacuum vertical blinds and wash the  curtains covering the tiny orifice of my tiny bedroom closet. Suddenly, I realize that my friend was right, that stuff was right here waiting for me to do it a year later. I would assume it will still be here next year as well, should I decide not to do it this year, an option I may well exercise.


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