The Pragmatic Hybrid

The dignity of certain futile acts

I have cleaning on my mind.

My mother’s coming to visit. In light of her soon-arrival, I’m seeing my place with different eyes than I’ve seen it in a while. The last couple boxes that I never unpacked after moving in last fall and that gradually faded into the general scenery are once again glaringly visible.

I have a lot to do in this vein. It makes me sigh mightily.

I don’t have the most sensible relationship with housework. I do love a clean, orderly home. I do not love spending my precious time making it so.

Also, I can never forget that dirt is the ultimate destination of all of life.

Dirt is in charge.

We know this. We know the outcome before the beginning: that we, and all our belongings, will someday be dust. (In certain moods, I find this knowledge very comforting.)

But this doesn’t mean that we’re allowed to not care about it. Or that life-maintenance work is meaningless.

Sisyphus pushed the boulder up the hill anyway – not because he didn’t know it wasn’t going to roll down, but because that was the task before him. The task that established the boundaries of his life and infused it with meaning.

So it is with vacuuming up the dust-rhinos under the bed. They will always come back. But this doesn’t mean that dealing with them is pointless.

There’s a couplet from a favorite Urdu ghazal that I love. Translated, it’s something like this:

It was my work to build the nest.
What can I do if lightening knocks it down?

To me this speaks about knowing what your work and honoring it. About doing your duty, even in the certain knowledge that it may be undone be larger forces.

Housekeeping is a good proxy for life in this sense. A kind of snow-globe mini-universe, with our homes as a metaphor and laboratory for our lives.

Very little that we do there stays done.

There’s always another dish to wash, or another load of laundry to do. No matter how thoroughly I sparkulate the bathroom, it will soon enough need to be re-sparkulated.

It can get a little existentially depressing if you dwell on it.

The best, highest thing we can do is enjoy the doing, because there is tremendous dignity in the acts we perform to take care of our basic animal needs. Tall order, I know. I often fail at it.

My inspiration for this attitude – don’t laugh, okay? – is Sookie Stackhouse, the protagonist of Charlaine Harris’s vampire novels.

She is a proper Southern woman in the housework sense. The novels are all narrated in the first person, and Harris isn’t shy about letting Sookie tell us about how when she got home from work she made herself a single pork chop for dinner and then did the dishes before relaxing with a DVD.

The thing that so charms me about this isn’t the exposition — it’s that Sookie takes such obvious pleasure in the little routines of her life. She actually enjoys cooking her solo dinner and washing up after.

She takes pride in doing the work of keeping her house up, so much so that she tells us about it as she does it.

Sometimes, I swear to god, when the floor needs cleaning and I don’t feel like doing it, I channel Sookie. I ask myself: what would Sookie do? The answer is, Sookie would get the broom off her back porch, and if she didn’t get abducted by supernatural beings while she was out there, she would come in and sweep the floor and she would enjoy doing it, and she would be proud to have a clean floor.

And for those few moments, I enjoy sweeping. I use the broom time to think about how smoothly I would probably handle things if I were to get caught up in some vampire politics.

Sookie is my housework hero.

She is a great model in general for bearing up cheerfully under tasks that can’t be avoided.

I sometimes still forget to remember Sookie, and I grumble about life maintenance.

I think the next best thing then is to enjoy the fruits of your labors, knowing that they are impermanent and fleeting, and that you do these tasks in service of your human dignity.

Complain as you tidy your nest if you have to. But then soak in that sparkly tub. Wash the greens in that sink you just scrubbed to gleaming perfection. Admire the sun on the oak floor of the living room, free for a short, precious moment of cat hair tumbleweeds. Love it with your eyes. Appreciate the bones of the structure, the gracious windows, the kitchen with your pots snuggled together at-your-service in their cabinets, and the income, wheresoever it comes from, that lets you live there in peace.

Comment Fu

How do you do it? What’s your relationship to tasks that could be described as futile (in the existential sense)?

This space is like a Quaker meeting that is happening in my living room. Honored guests, please speak as you are moved to. And let’s be awesome to each other, because graciousness among friends is why we hang out together.

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  1. LaShae Dorsey

    Oh this has been a huge thing for me. I still don’t have it all handled but I have made a morning ritual of washing dishes. The slow running water, the scent of the dish soap bubbles, the rough pliable towel – this is how I start my day.

    It helps me do two things:
    1. shows me what I ate the day before and how well I did with the healthy eating I’m aiming towards
    2. reminds me that today is a clean plate if I’m willing to make it a clean plate

    I don’t know Sookie Stackhouse but I like her (from your description) and just might begin channeling her as well. Proper Southern woman definitely know housework.

  2. Amna Ahmad

    @LaShae — That’s a good one. I bet it’s harder to slack on healthy eating when you’re faced with yesterday’s choices first thing in the morning. And “today is a clean plate” – so true.


  3. Bridget

    I am so happy that you wrote this today, because I had a client coming over to my home office and very little time this morning, and while she was talking I had a moment of, “Oh there’s schmutz in the corner there. I hope she doesn’t see that….”
    I love how Sookie will mow her lawn, and then get out there and tan on a lawn chair and enjoy both.
    Energetically, it’s interesting what happens when we clean. At first, we kick up all of the negative junk that’s hanging around in our corners and closets. This can make us feel bad.
    But then, once it’s gone and we go through the space for a second round the energy changes. We have that clean as a whistle feeling. I crave that.
    .-= Bridget’s last blog When is a penny not a penny or- how your intuition can make you the Benjamins =-.

  4. Heidi

    I definitely have a love/hate relationship with housework, actually with pretty much all of those annoying little “life maintenance” tasks… I tend to feel like I just don’t have the energy, or the time, or whatever :(

    And yet, at the same time, I frequently turn to these little tasks as a way to unwind, to let my hands/body engage in a task that allows my mind to wander. Washing dishes has become one of my favorite “thinking” chores.

    Sometimes I’ll wash dishes, or do some other cleaning chore, just as an excuse to get away from my computer for awhile ;)

  5. Hiro Boga

    Girl, you can WRITE! Your inspired post about housework is so gorgeously written that it makes me want to drop everything and disappear into my study for the next week to do nothing but…write. :-)

    Thanks for the deliciousness!

    xo Hiro
    .-= Hiro Boga’s last blog World-making =-.

  6. Amna Ahmad

    @Bridget – Thanks for this about the energetic aspect of schmutzige vs. clean. Definitely part of the deliciousness of the clean-as-a-whistle feeling is the stagnant energy that gets dispelled.

    @Heidi – I’m with you! I can enjoy them in certain moods. And dishwashing is my favorite way of dropping into a trance state.

    @Hiro – Hiro! HA! I am literally LOLing over here.

    Please don’t waste this impulse. God knows you’re always ready to squander your time cleaning when you should be applying yourself to your writing instead. ;)


  7. Tzaddi

    “Girl, you can WRITE!”
    I’ll second that, Hiro!

    This makes me want to do housework. A very rare desire for me… Thank you :)

  8. Elana

    The Urdu ghazal is so lovely! And I hope you don’t mind but I think I will channel Sookie too : ) Though, I must confess, cleaning for me is often a – wait, wait, a breath – *treat*. It usually means I have t i m e to care for and nurture my living space, give it the attention I often do not have time to give it due to other obligations. I fully enjoy cleaning. And the absolute peace and calm that exists after I am done (until next time that is : ) – TOTALLY worth it. huggy!