Zen Housekeeping and Nature

Slap the word "natural" on a product label and it has an almost magical effect: the item's ingredients and manufacture seem clothed with a seal of approval from the earth itself, as if it was somehow meant to be. Discerning green shoppers are aware of the greenwashing tricks that have made the word natural almost meaningless, as in the chemicals called "natural flavors." A post in the Cooking Up a Story blog has this great passage about homeownership vs. the natural:

"No one really warns you about the never-ending monotonous work required in housekeeping. Once you start thinking about it, you realize how utterly unnatural the endeavor is.  “Keeping house” is very much actually what the word suggests:  wresting the home back from the jaws of nature determined to reclaim it, trying desperately to preserve stasis in the face of an unrelenting assault.  In a way, 'housekeeping' is the opposite of gardening, where the lifecycle of seed to compost is honored.  Nature wants to make your house compost."

The outside of a home must be protected from the wear and tear of harsh weather; most people landscape the surrounding flora to some degree; and then there is the inside, where dust, mold, and grime send their minute armies to encroach daily upon a fragile cleanliness. Advice on zen gardening abounds, but how can the same  go-with-the-flow principles be applied to other house maintenance tasks?

For me, cleanliness is a summit, a zenith attained and lost all too quickly. Zen gardening would call my clean house a flowering shrub that blooms for a very short period and lies dormant the rest of the time.  Sustainability in housecleaning is very difficult; it's feast or famine as far as my attention for chores goes. I'm either scrubbing hard at stains in the porcelain sink, or letting dishes pile up in it. A more sustainable, daily cleaning schedule would probably be better than my current catastrophic rhythm. My cleanliness fortunes run more like the boom and bust of the stock market, not a pattern I really care to mirror in my living space.

It is easy to think of housekeeping as a kind of battle. My basement apartment has a tendency to mold and innumerable crevices that attract crickets--manifestations of the natural that I could do without. There are strata of clutter that flow into certain collection spots before finally attracting my organizational ire. Scrubbing, dusting, organizing--none of these are necessarily violent actions, but I often think of them as vanquishing the foes of dirt and neglect. Who knows if it would be easier to establish an easier harmony with dust and clutter if I didn't see them as the enemy? The dust is following a natural cycle, after all, and the kitchen table and bookshelf must exude their own gravity like planets to collect the all mail and assorted odds and ends that must be cleared away every so often.

It is hard to separate the natural from the unnatural in a home, because it is only natural to feel good in a space that is clean, orderly, and not so chock-full that you can't move around. Recently I discovered the Unclutterer blog and have really enjoyed their take on the sometimes nonsensical behavior that contributes to the accumulation of stuff around the home. What makes a living space a home is always going to have an elusive element to it. There is something frankly irrational about the way I enjoy certain housekeeping tasks (mopping the floor, washing the dishes) while despising others (sweeping the floor, putting the dishes away).  It's no wonder that people used to believe in spirits of the hearth and other inhabiting powers that could make or break a home.  A home must be cultivated.  Like a garden. So why not a zen garden, then? A place where dirt, if not allowed to take over, at least is encouraged to leave with gentle, natural cleaning products rather than blasted away by chemicals. A space where things are valued and cared for so that extra stuff isn't acquired in the first place.  A homey feeling can't be bought in teh form of an air freshener. These are the ideals, of course, but with a little effort housekeeping might be more like a perennial plant, always springing up fresh, rather than a once-in-a-while bloom.

Tags: Cleaning, Housekeeping, Natural, Zen

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