Sunday, January 13, 2008
January Organizing and Housecleaning
The curtains are washed and ironed, and the floor under the washer is clean.
Ever since I moved into my house in 1999, January has been the month in which I set my house in order--cleaning out all the drawers and closets. This year, I also worked on deep cleaning so that the house has a baseline of order and cleanliness. It seems important to know what is there and what can be of use in which way. I have always found that after a house is deep-cleaned, it is very easy to take care of day to day. If I had the time I would deep-clean every 3 months. Surely once a year is not enough. I am scandalized by the amount of waste that I accumulate and cannot afford and by the amount of dirt I find.
It seems that I am not the only one who looks to this time of year to reorganize. A fair percentage of blogs that I have read over the first two weeks of January show that women everywhere--in the United States and abroad--are doing the same thing. I guess it comes naturally. I was never aware of any old housewives' mantra of imposing order and cleanliness in January--"spring cleaning" is what I always heard of, derived from the necessity to get all the oily grit off of everything after heat was no longer needed. In my cycle of seasons, our forced enclosure during winter offers a great time for deep cleaning--snow days are my favorite deep clean days. I love this time of year.
I have wanted to write about this cycle of housecleaning and order for about a week now, and today I went to my folder of paintings of "Women Working" to find a painting to illustrate it. Nada. Then I went to the Internet and googled away and came up with Nada. Yes, there are many paintings of women sewing, caring for children, cooking, milking cows, gathering eggs, shopping, and even doing the laundry--but not cleaning.
Is this an activity too trivial for art? The fact is that during the period in which such paintings would have been done--say from Chardin onwards through the 1920s, most of this work, even in a middle-class household, was done by maids.
For instance, Carl Larsson who created many paintings celebrating the domestic activities of the women in his home--including one of his wife shelling peas--does not seem to have painted them housecleaning. However, he does paint this one (above) of a maid resting after a thorough sweeping of a room. I have also found two illustrations of women cleaning in a book called The Medieval Woman: Illuminated Book of Days.
In contrast to sewing and cooking, housecleaning has a relatively poor reputation. I recall a story of Auguste Renoir's boyhood. Mrs. Renoir was a fastidious housekeeper, and one day, when her husband came in from the fields, she forbade him from entering, because she had just scrubbed the floor. He turned on his heels and never came back. There are many other stories of how women who are dedicated to keeping their homes clean are looked upon as shrews. In the worst case, there is the image of the witch with her broom. In more modern times, thanks to Betty Friedan and her followers, housecleaning is deemed total drudgery and demeaning work--something that evidently should be relegated to the untouchable class of India.
We are beholden to those of our mothers who wanted to keep a beautiful home (no matter how much or how little money they had) and to Martha Stewart and also to Cheryl Mendelson (and her wonderful and very informative book, Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House) to a new understanding that housekeeping is a gratifying and civilizing activity. This idea falls well within the Christian tradition--and surely within the Judaic tradition with its emphasis on cleanliness. In looking for a painting of a woman cleaning, I searched for portraits of Saint Martha, the saint who would most be identified with housekeepers, and this is what I found:
"Despite her reputation as a domestic saint, invoked for help cooking, running a household and maintaining the family peace, she's also a dragon-taming saint," and in her portraits she is always portrayed as having tamed a dragon who lays at her feet. Such is the civilizing achievement of Saint Martha.
Saint Martha: Note dragon.