Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Hestia Meets Zen: The Housecleaning Blues

Housecleaning is one of those things that goes better with music. I used to have a habit of cleaning on Sunday mornings, and I always picked something lively that would add some pep to the proceedings. It was almost fun, too, floating a mop easily over the floors, with a dance step here and there. I still clean to music, and it's even more necessary these days because I have more furniture now, which makes cleaning harder.

We're not talking about a lot more furniture, but it's amazing how it's made dusting and mopping disproportionately difficult. The pieces I've accumulated were sensible: a desk and chair to assist with the dissertation process, a book carousel to organize all the additional books and keep them close by, an end table with a bin for magazines, a floor lamp to shed some additional light. Besides those, I also have a few things that didn't used to be there tucked away in odd places: a boot box in a corner, a shoe organizer under the bed.

I remember when it used to take only half an hour to dust and mop all the rooms. A while back, I was wondering why it now takes so much longer, when it dawned on me that I have more things to dust around. My living room, which seemed so spacious when I first moved in (almost like a small ballroom when empty) now has much less open space, and most of the furniture that needs dusting has books or other objects on it that have to be moved and replaced. Mopping is like running an obstacle course. It's harder to get to the corners; I have to mop around desk and chair legs, move things out and put them back, and in general be more painstaking.

I think of those Sunday morning cleaning sprees with regret. I like my furniture but can see how it's complicated something that used to be easy. When I bought my desk, I remember being surprised at how much space it took up in the living room; it seemed much smaller on the showroom floor. (The delivery man told me this is a common phenomenon.) Still, the solidity of it seemed suitable to the task, and I have to say it has served its purpose as an organizing platform for writing. It's just that I liked my living room better when it had more open space.

I remember joking with friends about buying my first couch. I took it as a sign that I was solidly in the adult middle class and hoped it wouldn't lead to buying a mess of other material goods. One friend said he had a goal of not accumulating more than he could fit into the back of a pickup truck, which I thought was a worthy aim. I wasn't too far off the mark with my own belongings, which I was then able to fit into a 10 x 10 storage unit. It would take something a little bigger than that now, although I realize what I own isn't much compared to what many other people have.

I enjoy looking at modern architecture and interior design in magazines like Dwell, where the aesthetic emphasizes making the most intelligent use of space, especially when it's limited. I like the way designers approach it not as a problem but as a spur to creativity, as if they're constructing a haiku with space instead of words. I was fascinated by a story about a tiny Paris apartment, that, though multi-level, had less square footage than mine. The occupants (who, as I remember, worked in a restaurant) did not have enough room in their minuscule kitchen to entertain, and the bedroom barely contained a bed, but what space there was had been cleverly utilized to the max. A New York apartment, while not nearly as small, was still tight; it nevertheless managed to squeeze a tiny library into a bedroom and a full kitchen partly under the stairs.

Most of these modern dwellings are uncluttered and sometimes even spare in their furnishings. I like looking at shining hardwood floors, tidy kitchens, and streamlined bathrooms, and it makes me realize that having a lot of things is not what makes a home appealing. My preference falls somewhere in between the spare and the full; pictures, books, and objects collected over time reveal personality and make a place yours, but there is a point where they spill over and start weighing you down.

My friend with the pickup truck rule described the living room I had in another apartment as being very Zen-like. At that time, I felt I had very little and thought of it as a nice way of saying that I still had the living room of a college student. He wouldn't describe my current living room in those terms, which is good in one way. It looks more like the kind of place I imagined for myself than what I had then. But I also realize that in some ways simpler is better. I was right the first time about not wanting to get saddled with too much stuff.

If I do someday have a home like the ones I enjoy dreaming over in magazines, experience has given me a handy rule for furnishing it: the "does it make dusting harder" principle. If I can experience the ease of dancing and singing, ballroom-style, while gliding the dust mop across open floors, I'll know I've done well.