Housework as a Higher Calling

(Istockphoto)
By Ron Charles
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 17, 2007

As the Book of Ecclesiastes says, there is "a time to keep, and a time to throw away." And a new collection of writings about the serenity -- indeed, the spirituality -- to be found in creating order at home suggests that the time for the latter is now.

"Next to Godliness" (Skylight Paths Publishing, $19.99), compiled and edited by Alice Peck, is not a guide to how to clean but a thoughtful, surprising anthology that aims to inspire us to think differently about how we keep our domestic space.

"The selections I've chosen are determinedly eclectic and ecumenical," she writes, to show "the spiritual possibilities within the routine of housekeeping." Contributors include Dominique Browning ("Doing the Dishes"), Louisa May Alcott ("A Song From the Suds"), Allen Ginsberg ("Homework") and Luke (Chapter 10, verses 38-41).

In "Bathing a Newborn Buddha," Thich Nhat Hanh writes about becoming aware of each sacred moment while washing the dishes. Pablo Neruda's "An Ode for Ironing" is gorgeous enough to make you empty the dryer right now. And Marilynne Robinson offers the kind of insight into sweeping and folding that could turn drudgery into a comforting pastime.

As you read on, the collection's focus broadens, moving from housekeeping tasks to the spirit of one's home to the condition of our cities, our planet. It's not all sweetness and light. Booker T. Washington has harsh words for a minister whose house "presented the most dismal and disappointing appearance." Yitzhak Buxbaum writes that "dirt and disorder are usually an external manifestation of your inner condition." Andrea Barrett conveys the unspeakable horror of Sept. 11 by wiping ash off the walls of her apartment.

Sometimes the urge to clean arrives in completely unexpected ways. Marc Poirier writes about the surprising impulse that came over him when he was battling cancer: "Cleaning up became an ongoing affirmation of my own sense of belonging, and of the essential goodness of my life." And in the anthology's longest essay, Louise Rafkin describes her trip to Japan to wash toilets in search of spiritual awakening.

What's missing from this collection is a little skepticism. Unrepentant slob that I am, I kept wanting someone to play devil's advocate. These poems and essays are lovely, but most of them are preaching to the choir -- whose robes, you'd better believe, have been washed in holy water and ironed with the rock of salvation. I was relieved to read Jeannette Batz's admission that "when you're exhausted after a day in the outside world, a scrub brush is a burdensome collector of hair and dead skin, nothing more." But even she concedes that "the chores I'd branded oppressive and mundane are creative and profound . . . when they're done with love."

That insight -- the importance of loving family, self and something transcendent -- ties these writings together, no matter what the faith of the authors. And it's hard to resist that message no matter how messy your house tends to be. After all, though it may be we came from dust, that doesn't mean we have to live in it.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company