Sensuous Housekeeping

By Valerie Andrews

We devour books like The Magical Art of Tidying Up because they teach us how to groom our homes and keep them free from clutter. Yet I believe we want much more than a spanking clean closet and a living room that’s easy on the eyes. We hunger for a rich and sensuous rapport—an ongoing love affair with home that will make us want to hunker down and never leave it. I’m talking about the eros of the house. The sweet comfort of your surroundings. And, as with any form of lovemaking, slowness counts.

Illustration by Ann Arnold

While the Slow Food movement reminds us that food tastes better when prepared the old fashioned way, Slow Housekeeping reminds us that home feels “home-ier” when we engage in little rituals of renewal, taking the time to care for our belongings.  Far from drudgery, housekeeping can be a wonderfully  intimate task. An exercise in saying, “I love you,” to every aspect of the house. 

Over the years, I’ve lived in a variety of homes, from a Manhattan apartment to a white-washed bungalow on a Greek island, from a colonial farmhouse in the Hudson Valley to a magical cottage in the California redwoods. I’ve learned how to put a home together quickly, unpacking the kitchen and hanging the pictures on the walls within two days. Not to satisfy some crazy notion of perfection but because home is as essential to me as life and breath. Think back to the homemaking rituals of your grandmother’s era. The white sheets flapping in the wind, a well-dressed table, the gleam of the tile floors, the golden fruit from the orchard in well-stacked Mason jars. A time when the words earth, hearth, and heart were as one. This what so many of us, with our crowded lives and cramped schedules, have forgotten: If we care for the house faithfully, in return it cares for us.

Don’t worry. I’m not suggesting we turn back the clock. No need to beat the rugs, scour the oven with steel wool, or do the laundry by hand. But as we use our time-saving devices and do things with dispatch, we can approach the home with tenderness. 

Housework as Poetry

Our love affair with home has much to do with the quality of attention. If we approach our daily tasks with impatience, or in a slapdash way, the house will suffer for it, and seem obdurate — refusing to stay serene and tidy — or lackluster, as if it were pining for a gentle touch.  Deliberation, however, changes everything. With the right attitude, we can find grace and beauty while polishing the furniture, washing the windows, and tidying the living room. 

We might also discover that housekeeping has a rhythm of its own. Like a dance, a chant,  or a form of lyric poetry. If you have ever mopped a floor until it glistens like the surface of a lake, or oil a wooden table, working the amber liquid into the grain in slow deliberate strokes, you’ll know exactly what I mean.  You simply get lost in the music of the body.  

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke enjoyed donning his maid’s suede gloves and dusting the furniture in the wee hours of the morning. Touching all the swirls and crevices on a hand carved table was, he felt, an extraordinary act of intimacy. Like caressing the body of a lover. “After this,” he said, “there’s nothing that you do not know!”

Yes, housekeeping can be annoying when you’re on overwhelm. But if you stop and approach it mindfully, it can be a source of revelation. An initiation into the secret lives of your possessions. Folding the laundry, for example,  can be a playful, intimate exchange, one that buoys your spirits.

My friend Ardith misses her husband when he goes away on business.  To assuage her longing, she picks a worn shirt from the hamper and inhales his scent.  Once she held out the sleeves of one of his striped Oxfords and danced around the room with it before tossing into the arms of her Maytag washer.   Who would have thought it — laundry, as cure for longing!  

If you dread dusting or putting away the dishes, here’s one prescription. Acknowledge your home and thank it for contributing to your self-renewal, your creativity, and your close relationships. Treat it like a living, breathing organism. And see what happens next.

Illustration by Ann Arnold

In Greek mythology, a beautiful young maiden falls in love with Eros, the son of Aphrodite. To appease her angry mother-in-law, Psyche has to perform three impossible household tasks.  Sort through a pile of seed.  Steal a handful fleece from a pack of angry rams. Fill a bucket from the River Styx. 

 But Psyche does not face these tasks alone.  The ants help her separate the black seeds from the brown, and a reed tells her  how to approach the raging river.  And a god advises her not to approach the rams in the midday heat but to wait until the sun is slant.  I think of  Psyche as I attack my chores, aware that home is a prize that must be won, and that keeping it in order requires a good deal of strategy and cunning. 

Illustration by Ann Arnold

Men have their household rites of passage, too. The literary critic Walter Benjamin spent his childhood exploring his family’s vast, elegant apartment near Berlin’s Tiergarten. There was no shortage of swag:  His father, Emil, was an art and antiques auctioneer from Cologne. Yet what the boy enjoyed most was playing with his newly laundered socks.

Benjamin ascribes his life-long focus — the search for hidden meaning — to the childhood practice of exploring the recesses of his sock drawer.  The most pleasurable moment, he said, was sinking his hand as deep into the toe and finding the little bunched-up pocket at the very end.  Young Walter liked to pull on the sock then watch as this little nub began to vanish.

“It was ‘the little present’ rolled up inside…that drew me.  I could not repeat the experiment on this phenomenon often enough,” he wrote.  Benjamin went on to draw truth from works of literature as carefully as he drew the sock from its oval pocket. This childhood game taught him to look into the heart of ordinary things and to treasure the mysteries of home. 


 

Valerie Andrews is the Chief Storyteller of Reinventing Home. She is collaborating with Ann Arnold on a book called Slow Housekeeping.

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