Cleaning and Cleansing: Rituals of Embodied Life by Carol P. Christ


While the world is falling apart all around me, I have been slowly engaged in a major cleaning and cleansing of my home.

It started when I began to move my summer clothes to my main closet in June.  Here in Greece we have no tradition of second-hand stores, Goodwill, or Salvation Army. This makes it difficult to get rid of anything: often the garbage can is the only option. Still, I began with my clothes, tossing out even some much loved and still beautiful things that no longer fit. My Greek-Albanian cleaning lady took all of them, and I didn’t ask her what she did with them.

Then I moved on to the kitchen. The surfaces were all clean, but a deep cleansing of drawers and shelves was long overdue. There was an immense amount of neglected silver to be polished.  As it was July, I could only do a little bit at a time, because even with the air conditioner on, sweat was soon dripping from my brow. In truth, there was no need to hurry, as there was no one around to comment on the disarray in the kitchen. In the middle of cleaning, I got sick, and that slowed me down even further. I think this was a lesson: time can be given to housework. When I finally finished after several weeks, I delighted in shining glass and silver and reorganized shelves and drawers.

A place for everything and everything in its place!

I promised myself to keep all it clean and gleaming. Strange to say, I even began to enjoy the process of cleaning as I cooked, rather than leaving the mess and coming back later to clean up. I loved to admire  the restored order in my kitchen.

Not long afterwards a new friend asked if he could see my house because he had been told it was amazing and beautiful. This prompted me to clear the huge pile of mail, papers, and assorted junk I had deposited on a second “dining room” table in my upper hall. Over the winter, for reasons unknown even to me, I let the mail pile up without opening it. This was not a major problem: I have a debit card, not a credit card, and my water, electricity, and telephone bills are paid automatically. But when I finally opened the mail, I found a few surprises.

This time I only had to deal with the summer mail. I threw away or found a place for each and every thing, including bank and stock fund statements, books, magazines, telephones and adapters, cosmetics, sun tan lotion, bills and receipts, and even a few items of stray clothing. Then I turned to the pile of clothes on my couch.

I moved on to the downstairs dining room, unused because I haven’t had a party in several years. I changed the winter tablecloth to a more summery one: handmade in Crete with swallows and flowers embroidered on the loom. I returned extra chairs to their places around the newly visible upstairs table. I found more silver needing to be polished.

At this point you might be asking why I bother with silver that needs to be polished. I have used my grandmother’s silverware almost every day since I inherited it; it only needs polishing once a year. Almost all of the other pieces of have sentimental value; my house as a whole is a kind of a shrine (at times a messy shrine) to my female ancestors.

My new friend was well pleased with the house, though he did comment that it felt very feminine. I decided to take that as a compliment!

There were still piles of papers on two desks. First I tackled the desk in my study, throwing away what was no longer needed and making a trip to the recycling bin, while filing tax documents and receipts and other important papers. Now there are only three small folders on the desk: one for scratch paper, one for the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, and a now much smaller one for things needing attention. Sitting on the couch in my study, I marvel that I can now see the wooden surface of my hand carved desk, also gleaming, for the first time in a long time.

That left the desk in the upper hall. On it were numerous folders. Many of them concerned my environmental work, including massive documentation of the Complaint to the European Commission alleging failure on the part of local and national Greek authorities to protect the Natura 2000 bird and wildlife habitats of the island of Lesbos; some of that had been moved to a box under the desk where it sat for years. As the case has been won and closed, there will be no further requests for information. I waded through the piles of papers, threw out enough to fill another huge box for recycling, and consigned the rest to a large archive box moved to the basement.

Then there were personal and academic letters and other pieces of paper I had at some time deemed too important to throw away. I filled another large box with papers to be recycled. Beginning to sort the papers I decided to save, I discovered that my file drawers also needed to be reorganized and cleaned out. Finishing that, I went on to clear all the other surfaces upstairs.

I vowed to open and attend to the mail when I receive it and not to let any more papers pile up. I vowed to make up the bed and put my clothes away every day.

I am enjoying living with order rather than chaos.

When I was growing up, my mother was the housewife, my father the breadwinner. It always felt like my mother was nagging me to clean my room. When I grew up, I rejected my mother’s role and began to consider the life of the mind more important than women’s daily work. Though I have since learned to value women’s work, the habits I developed as a young woman of considering the mind more important than the body, and the daily tasks of cleaning and cleansing less important than writing and academic pursuits, have been hard to break.

Yet if the body deserves as much respect as the mind, then the home deserves as much respect as the intellectual work that occurs within it.

Traditional Judaism sanctifies spring cleansing before Passover as well as weekly cleaning in preparation for the Sabbath meal in the home. Greek Orthodox women usually undertake a thorough cleansing of the home before Easter. In the old days, Grandmother cleaned the house before the family came over for Sunday dinner. Maybe we need new rituals to remind us of the value of housework that do not reinforce age-old stereotypes that women’s place is in the home and that housework is exclusively women’s work.

* * *

a-serpentine-path-amazon-coverGoddess and God in the World final cover designCarol’s new book written with Judith Plaskow, is  Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology.

FAR Press recently released A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess.

Join Carol  on the life-transforming and mind-blowing Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete.
A few spaces available on the fall tour. It could change your life!

Carol’s photo by Michael Honegger

 

 

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Categories: Academics, Embodiment, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, General

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12 replies

  1. I’m having to do the same and am taking courage and determination from this article to see me through. I’ve seen my mother and grandmothers do the thankless work of housekeeping while the men sit around, read their papers or just sitting and it had my gall I can tell you! Yet, indeed, housework is important and it is rather nice when things are clean and sorted. I console myself with the fact I do it for me and not for a man who thinks it is his right to have it done for him.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Since our children have grown up and moved on, I find the house is much easier to keep reasonably clean, and I LOVE the sense of order. Chores take on a feeling of ritual that brings me joy and satisfaction. I had a super-neat, controlling stepmother so in addition to my naturally casual attitude, I long associated cleaning with coercion. It feels good to claim this activity as my own practice.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Thank you for this, Carol. It’s an inspiration to me because I need to do the same thing. After a summer of ferrying one grandchild to and from day camp and looking after two other toddler grandchildren, I finally have some free time during the day. Women’s work has always been devalued by men until they’re forced to do without it. I’m looking forward to having an organized house again.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Although I did not houseclean in an organized way, last year I threw away years and years of accumulation – clearing my house of debris. Readying myself for an unknown future. I too recall the satisfaction of keeping little beyond what I needed. This was the 2nd house clearing that I went through – the first occurred at mid -life when I gave away most of my inherited family furniture etc to children – a decision I never regretted.

    Unfortunately organization of any kind is an anathema to me – and I think in my case it was the result of being badgered into keep everything on the surface clean while my family lived in a perpetual state of chaos…

    Unlike you, I take little pleasure in organization – gosh, I wish I did. I think the years of motherhood stripped me of any willingness to keep a clean or organized house. I was a robot. That’s all I did besides work minimum wage jobs. If I had died at 40 they could have put on her grave “she kept a clean house” and not much else.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I’m decluttering for a different reason. I’ve realized that chaos in my house — external messes — often reflects internal confusion or blocks. I have papers lying all over the sofa in my study that seem to point to an issue concerning marketing my workshops. I’ve cleaned them up before, but I need to again. And the area I use for crafts is cluttered, perhaps because I don’t give enough time to this creative activity. I could go on but you get the idea.

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  6. Reblogged this on writingontherim and commented:
    I was going to write my own blog post today but like this one so much I decided to reblog it. Why? Unlike all those memes that say smart people are messy, etc., I disagree. Maybe some are. For myself, I like aesthetic order. How else can I see the paintings, the books, the family heirlooms, the colors in my house? I also prefer mental order geared toward creative accomplishments. I love nature which has order, e.g. a snowflake. There is a kind of mindfulness in appreciating the task at hand, the order of completion, the moment.

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  7. A wonderful post. I finished a yearlong complete house clean-out recently and every day I feel much lighter and happier – as if the burden of years of accumulated energy have been lifted from me. Daily life is so much easier, too, now that I’m not always searching for something. I find it much easier if I forget that women are supposed to do the housework and just think of it as a human task so that I can live in an environment that supports and energizes me. We do, indeed, need new rituals!

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Thanks for this Carol. My house is in a state of chaos after a year of ill health with no end in sight. I want to start slowly clearing out and cleaning in very small increments, because that is all my body will tolerate. Like many others who have commented, my habit energy is to feel housework as almost an imposition; I much prefer writing, reading and creating! You pointed out the parallel between looking after our bodies and looking after the place where we live, and I’m wondering if I can create a practice acknowledging both. Summer is over here in Scotland with autumnal wind and rain increasing. I love the autumn and the pull toward cosiness and warmth, so now is the time to begin taking care of body and home.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Like many others who have commented, my habit energy is to feel housework as almost an imposition.
    You really hit the nail on the head there!

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  10. I couldn’t tell for sure from your fun post, but … do you equate cleanliness with order? See, I don’t … I kept a neat and tidy room as a kid (everything in its proper place) and nearly always have as an adult BUT I am absolutely *not* a “clean” house sort of person as the dust gets pretty thick around here. ;) Just curious.

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    • I am not sure which early feminist I read defined housework as a chaos to order ritual. She viewed this positively. This idea could also explain why some housewives who are not able to create the “order” they desire in their families become fanatic house cleaners.

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