Thursday, April 21, 2011


This is the picture of a religious fanatic.
     Soon my lady and I shall do our spring cleaning. That is, we shall vacuum the two bedrooms, hallway, living room, den, kitchen, and breakfast nook of our modest house, which covers a mere 2,000 square feet—less than half the size of a high-school basketball court. We shall also empty our five wastebaskets and the garbage can that is under the kitchen island. This will all take about one hour.
     We are conscientious housekeepers of regular habits, Gail and I. We do all this four times a year, once in each season, whether the house needs it or not. There are those, I’m told, who perform the rites of Rubbermaid and Electrolux more often than that, some as often as once a week or more, brandishing mops like maces, wielding Windex like holy water, and spreading Endust like incense. But we need not concern ourselves with religious fanatics here.
     It is a mystery to me why homemakers approach cleaning, spring or otherwise, with such resentment and awe. True, it takes an hour or so out of a day otherwise spent in more useful pursuits, like practicing one’s putting, but is four hours a year too much to sacrifice on the tidy altar of tradition?

A disturbing violation of the dust principle.
     The key to painless housekeeping is for the housecleaner to keep in mind certain timeless principles, the two most important of which are these:
     1) Dust is not dirt. Dust is dry and soft and harmless. It lies gently on the surfaces of life, like newfallen snow. Its depth and whiteness are testaments to the stability and serenity of the personalities within a household. The trackless dust on a piano or a vase speaks to us. “Ah, yes,” it says, “here live creatures who are reluctant to bustle and slow to mess, who touch only what they need to touch, leaving alone that which would not be disturbed.” Dust minds its own business; it is there because you have minded yours. Dust is beautiful in its inertness; it smells not, neither does it grow or change color. Dust is the settled stuff of eternal peace. Leave it alone.
     On the other hand:
     2) Dirt lives! Dirt grows and smells. Dirt insinuates its way into one’s life, often pungently, even when one is not looking at it. Dirt comes in colors like blue and green. Dirt often possesses a disgusting moistness, and it hides, ashamed and insidious, in hard-to-get-at places. Mold and fungus, green dog food and a dead mouse are dirt. Dirt lurks under washing machines, behind stoves, in laundry bins, and around other places where food and/or water are available.
     Avoid dirt. Do this with preventive housekeeping: namely, don’t let food or water in your house. Eat out. Use laundromats, public restrooms, and the shower at the gym. Above all, keep no indoor pets, which are the single biggest source of dirt and which in many cases can be considered nothing more than four-legged dirt themselves. I still rue the day I first let a cat drink from the bathroom sink, where a recurrent aquamarine fuzz has continued to reappear, alien-like, ever since.
Spiders are our friends.
     Having left the dust alone and averted the dirt, you will have little left to do, come the seasons for cleaning, and you can go out and practice your wedge play instead. But you may wish to keep up the spring-cleaning tradition, if only to resurrect certain ancient broom-handling skills and to dispose of the accumulated leaf fragments that have found their way into your rugs since December. As you proceed, keep in mind the other axioms of sensible housekeeping:
  • Spiders are our friends. Pay no attention to what is going on up there in the corners of your ceilings. No one else will. Besides, the entomologists assure us that those long-legged crawlers and their webs are the natural enemies of other creatures you don’t want to think about. If all this starts to make you squeamish, reread Charlotte’s Web.
  • A closet is not a room. Don’t clean your closets. No one sees your closets. Use your closets as repositories for junk raked from real rooms.
  • If it’s square, stack it. This applies to things like magazines, books, boxes, and mail. When we get forty or fifty copies of The New Yorker and Time magazine scattered around our rooms, even I get nervous from the clutter. Clutter, being the most visible form of slovenliness, is also the most disturbing. Fortunately, it is the easiest to cure. Simply walk around your rooms stacking everything in rectilinear piles. This is far simpler than throwing things out one at a time, and it creates an impression of neatness. If the stack gets too big, you might then throw the stack out. That takes just one trip. I don’t understand people who walk all the way to the wastebasket each week to throw out one copy of AARP magazine. Life (as your receiving AARP magazine should remind you) is too short for that.

Venetian blinds: an invitation to self-destruction.
  • If it’s dangerous, forget it. Never clean anything that requires you to stand on a chair or a ladder or a stool. Never clean anything that requires you to inhale fumes. Most of all, never clean venetian blinds, which are more lethal than razor blades. If I ever decide to commit suicide, I will make it appear to be an accident by slitting my wrists while cleaning venetian blinds. Only my closest friends, who know my feelings about the matter, will know what really happened.
  • Drawers are a housekeeper’s best friends. Always keep one large, centrally-located drawer available for nothing but oddments—junk that you can’t quite bring yourself to throw away. In this drawer you will deposit old pens that maybe have run out of ink, and maybe not; and free-floating, slightly bent paper clips; and 51-card decks; and folded snapshots with the foreheads cut off, of people you can’t identify; and postcards from long-lost friends; and two-year-old ticket stubs; and address books from before the days of computers. This drawer, in other words, will probably be the most interesting place in your entire house.
  • Be sure the bathroom is brown. Even better, make it brown speckled. We recently redid our bathroom with this in mind: brown-speckled tile, brown-speckled vanity top. Everything that happens in a bathroom is a form of cleansing, and yet the bathroom is the filthiest-looking room in your house. This is because your bathroom is white. Bathrooms are full of things like soap and medicine and washcloths. What real dirt would dare make its way into such a place? Yet the tub is grimy-seeming, the sink is smeared with dinge, and the toilet is not to be discussed. Don’t be concerned: this is not real dirt, even if it is blue and growing. If the rest of your house were white porcelain, then you’d see something really disgusting. The answer is to have a brown-speckled bathroom in the first place, and then forget about it.
  • Never clean when the sun is shining. You’ll just resent it. Instead, go outside and give your soul an airing.
Cows in the house: a spring-cleaning challenge.
And finally:
  • You can learn to live with anything. There are sects in India who live in temples overrun with rats, which they worship. In other places, cattle or pigs have the run of people’s homes. Our pioneer ancestors lived in cabins whose very floors were the earth itself. Surely there is no reason for us to be preoccupied with a cobweb in the corner, fingerprints on the freezer door, or motes on a vase. We are ourselves born of dust, say the wise men—and dust, I’m convinced, was never meant to dust.
 The original version of this essay appeared in Memphis magazine in March, 1984. Check this video the next time a silly little spider in the house bothers you. I love the Finns, my ancestors.


  1. Hi there,The initial phase in spring cleaning is to de-mess, and that implies freeing of superfluous products and solutions and refuse.Next,go from your household and clean every room.Cushion pillows,set away toys or clothes,make the beds, and by and large fix up.Good day.