By Valerie Andrews
What does slow housekeeping mean in a culture that feeds on instant gratification? How does home provide a safe haven in a world that moves too fast and demands too much? On social media, we record our public triumphs—the tantalizing meal, the perfect vacation, the pack of smiling friends—trying so hard to be special that we cease to value ordinary life.
If you’re bored with your persona, or with endless competition, spend a few hours cleaning up the living room. My tip of the day: Household chores can be the quickest antidote to personality overdrive and digital fatigue. All we need to do is ground ourselves in the simple rituals of home. This is what I call the Slow Housekeeping movement. As the Slow Food movement reminds us to honor the food we put on our plate, and consider its origins, Slow Housekeeping asks us to appreciate the everyday grace and gratitude of home-making.
The sink, for example, is a domestic altar, the place where we clean the chicken and rinse the fish, transforming bloody offerings into the miracle of sustenance. At the end of every meal, we push the scraps down into the dark-lipped garbage disposal, shoving bones and gristle into that dark maw in the center of the sink. With a flick of the switch it swallows them up and grinds them into fertile compost. Cleaning it should be a sacrament. The sink, our alpha and omega. The repository of our discarded plenty and our raw desires.
Sorting out the refrigerator takes us back to our early ancestors digging through some frozen cache in the wilds of Siberia.
The fridge is like a wooly mammoth that’s just been unearthed — a half-thawed remnant of the Ice Age. Here’s how I deal with it: Once a month I perform a forensic autopsy of this hulking creature, checking for things that are past their use-by date then tossing out accumulated leftovers—soups and sauces with a lacy fringe, lemons that resemble shrunken heads, figs that have hardened into fossils, and some half-burnt carcass that appears to be left over from the Pleistocene. The shelves are a constant source of wonder—the sweet relish or the marmalade that a friend put up last summer, the essential chutney or wasabi mayonnaise that came with the take-out dinner. The freezer I ignore until just after Christmas, when I give it a good once over, chucking out the soups and stews that by now are ringed with frost, and promising to revisit it by the Fourth of July.
The fridge: A modern convenience? Or a testament to an era of forgetfulness and waste? Cleaning it makes me pause and think about all the ways that I contribute to the Age of Throwaway.
Evolutionary Aspects of Housekeeping
The psychiatrist C. G. Jung believed caring for the home was deeply therapeutic, a kind of slow medicine that gave people a rest from their ambition and connected them to age-old patterns of renewal. In the 1930s, Jung built a portion of his country house by hand, using tools designed in the Middle Ages. When in residence, he spent long hours in the kitchen, fanning the fire with leather bellows, and tending to his pots and pans, as analyst Marie-Louise von Franz recounts in the documentary Matter of Heart.
Elizabeth Osterman, an American colleague, visited Jung at his lake house in 1958, entering through a heavy wooden door in the middle of a thick stone wall. Inside she found a strong bodied, white-haired 83-year-old in a green workman’s apron, chopping wood. “I have found the way to live here as part of nature, to live in my own time,” Jung told her. “People are always living as if something better is about to happen…They don’t think to live their lives!” (C.G. Jung Speaking, 162).
The father of evolutionary psychology, Jung felt that household tasks keep us human and keep us down to earth. In the mid-twentieth century, he worried about our addiction to speed and abstract thinking and warned us about the dangers of technology. In Memories, Dreams, and Reflections, he described his own antidote:
“I have done without electricity , and tend the fireplace and stove myself. Evenings, I light the old lamps…I pump the water from the well. I chop the wood and cook the food. These simple acts make man simple, and how difficult it is to be simple!”
Dependent on our new devices, we have less interaction with our physical environment. Instead we spend the day crouched over a computer, expecting Alexa to order the groceries, Roomba to do the vacuuming, and GPS to guide the soon-to-be self-driving car. And instead of chopping, skinning and sauteeing, we rely on Grubhub to deliver.
Yet here’s the funny thing: Housework provides a confirmation of our usefulness in a robot-driven world. While we’ve managed to automate everything from piloting a plane to building a truck, dusting and vacuuming are two of the tasks done best by hand! The reason: Scientists have been unable to create a bot with the right motor skills to deal with fragile objects or clean tight corners. I doubt then that it will be able to make the bed with tight hospital corners, or remove the dust from a carved mantel with a recycled toothbrush. In the age of “life hacks” You might well ask: Does anybody clean like this anymore? I’ll be there are more late night cleaning rituals performed to soothe the soul than any of us can guess.
Remember, too, it’s just plain good for the body to get up and move. Cleaning is great exercise. When we put our soul in it, the mop, dust cloth, and broom become an extension of our limbs. We grow more aware of the subtle rhythm of our breathing, the subliminal lubdub of our heartbeat. Our nerves are soothed by the sound of running water. Our noses pick up the sweet scent of polish. And our fingers are entranced by the smooth consistency wax. Jung was right: We come back to our senses when we perform these basic chores.
Finally we come to the way these ordinary tasks help shape our character. Home-making provides an antidote to the kind of knee-jerk narcissism we see in nearly every aspect of public life. Our society might be better off if all Americans had to clean up after themselves: politicians, CEOs, tech pioneers.
It all comes down to this: Who can be power-hungry or inflated when mopping up the kitchen floor or searching for those errant socks?
In American culture, the word homely has come to mean something that is ugly or unattractive. Yet originally it called our attention to the unadorned, the simple. The word also means earthy, or “down to earth.” And it’s related to the practice of humility. To be homely is to engage in the process of slowing down and noticing our surroundings. Acknowledging the main tenet of mindfulness — that we are here to love and serve.
Housekeeping grounds us psychologically, offsetting our fascination with extraversion, ego-image, end result. In our current cultural meme, every impulse is directed “out there” into compiling more followers and friends, asserting our opinions, making the next deal. That’s why those unsung moments we spend washing dishes, putting away our clothes, tidying the living room, matter. They give us time for wool-gathering, dallying and daydreaming. For coming home to our introverted selves.
What chore can you do mindfully today? Remember, as you tend the house, you mend a portion of the world.
This article is a collaboration between Valerie Andrews, Chief Storyteller of Reinventing Home, and illustrator Ann Arnold, who worked with Alice Waters on Fanny in France and Fanny at Chez Panisse.