I live in a basement, where the floor is painted, uneven concrete. With normal wear, the outer beige layer of paint gets chipped, and the inner, flakier red layer of paint is exposed; this turns to dust more easily, and soon the concrete itself is exposed. It’s almost raw around the bottom of my computer chair, and I cover it with an old sheet to prevent the dust from spreading.
There are also pockets of the floor where normal dust – cooking fumes, crumbs, stuff that gets in through the AC, flakes of whatever comes from the shower, things that get in through through the cracks in the windows, stuff on the bottom of shoes – tends to accumulate, and is hard to remove.
It used to be so bad that I would get a layer of grime on my feet just from walking across the floor.
I’ve started taking my shoes off on a bench in the hallway instead of bringing them into my room. But I’m not used to such behavior, especially when I’m coming back from being out a long time, or when I’m popping back in to grab something from my apartment. But when I do, I’ve started occasionally wincing at the thought of having to clean.
Cleaning depresses me. It’s work that builds nothing, that at most restores things to a condition they once were, that makes it seem like a huge portion of the human effort is just swimming upstream against entropy. Cleaning can never last; it will be undone by the course of life.
In this way, it’s similar to a lot of other forms of maintenance work, but it’s more frustrating because it seems to only emerge through a pathological need, and to have no end. We know that we need to replace pipes occasionally so that we do not have water running; but it seems, to some extent, only a pathological desire for cleanliness that makes it feel necessary. And while things in working condition need not be tinkered with, cleaning as an ideal could always be pushed. Things could always be cleaner, there is always more tedium that could be demanded.
When I was a kid, I told my parents that I hated cleaning, that I would rather do any other work. This still feels true. The only thing that has changed is that I find it necessary.
There are people who spend their whole careers cleaning; there are people who clean voluntarily for hours a day for their families. I already find the treatment of low-wage workers and the domestic confinement of women barbaric; this is just one manifestation of it, that just by position in society, one can be sentenced to the work I find most miserable.
I wanted to have things both ways; I always used to live without regards for cleanliness or order, even though I hated restoring it. But I do not want grime on my feet, I especially do not want grime on the feet of visitors. I do not want to spend time looking for things, or to be unable to use my dishes because they’re dirty, or to have dust in my lungs.
So I have begun embracing carefulness in the moment to avoid future hassle. But in many moments, it doesn’t feel right to be orderly.
This is part of the difference between childhood and adulthood; we accept some restriction of what life is so that we can achieve order. But that restriction should be seen for the tragedy it is.
My favorite book when I was little was The Phantom Tollbooth. I reread it when I was an adult, and was amazed by how much it captured the true lessons of maturity while warning children about some of the traps of adulthood.
Near the end, the protagonist (with two companions) is on a rocky highway toward the palace where Rhyme and Reason are kept, and is waylaid by several demons; one is an “elegant looking gentleman.”
He was beautifully dressed in a dark suit with a well-pressed shirt and tie. His shoes were polished, his nails were clean, his hat was well brushed, and a white handkerchief adorned his breast pocket. But his expression was somewhat blank. In fact, it was completely blank, for he had neither eyes, nose, nor mouth.
He greets them in a friendly manner, and asks them to help them with several tedious tasks – moving grains of sand with tweezers, moving water with an eye dropper, digging a hole with a needle – which they do for hours, until the protagonist realizes how long it would take to finish the tasks.
“Pardon me,” he said, tugging at the man’s sleeve and holding the sheet of figures up for him to see, “but it’s going to take eight hundred and thirty-seven years to do these jobs.”
“Is that so?” replied the man, without even turning around. “Well, you’d better get on with it then.”
“But it hardly seems worthwhile,” said Milo softly.
“WORTHWHILE!” the man roared indignantly.
“All I mean was that perhaps it isn’t too important,” Milo repeated, trying not to be impolite.
“Of course it’s not important,” he snarled angrily. “I wouldn’t have asked you to do it if I thought it was important.” And now, as he turned to face them, he didn’t seem quite so pleasant.
“Then why bother?” asked Tock, whose alarm suddenly began to ring.
“Because, my young friends,” he muttered sourly, “what could be more important than doing unimportant things? If you stop to do enough of them, you’ll never get to where you’re going.” He punctuated his last remark with a villainous laugh.
“Then you must—-” gasped Milo.
“Quite correct!” he shrieked triumphantly. “I am the Terrible Trivium, demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit.”
The Humbug dropped his needle and stared in disbelief while Milo and Tock began to back away slowly.
“Don’t try to leave,” he ordered, with a menacing sweep of his arm, “for there’s so very much to do, and you still have over eight hundred years to go on the first job.”
“But why do unimportant things?” asked Milo, who suddenly remembered how much time he spent each day doing them.
“Think of all the trouble it saves,” the man explained, and his face looked as if he’d be grinning an evil grin — if he could grin at all. “If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have the time. For there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing…”
For most of my life, people have cleaned up after me; but I cannot will that, without feeling like I am offending against them. Still, I cannot will myself a life where cleaning is a great part of my work. The only solution is to minimize the need for cleanliness; I can minimize the creation of mess, and also embrace a standard that does not require labor-intensive cleanliness.
I dream of dirt floors, a life in the woods, things that cannot possibly be cleaned. But I live in a city, so nothing can be that pure.
As I got older, Huckleberry Finn replaced The Phantom Tollbooth as my favorite book. But before I read Huck Finn on my own, maybe before I read The Phantom Tollbooth, my parents read me Tom Sawyer. At one point, Huck was taken in by a respected widow.
Huck Finn’s wealth and the fact that he was now under the Widow Douglas’ protection introduced him into society—no, dragged him into it, hurled him into it—and his sufferings were almost more than he could bear. The widow’s servants kept him clean and neat, combed and brushed, and they bedded him nightly in unsympathetic sheets that had not one little spot or stain which he could press to his heart and know for a friend.
Something about him making friends with the spots and stains on the sheets made me choke up and cry. I don’t remember being affected as much by anything else in a book at any point in my life.
I hadn’t reread the book, or that portion, until now. Here’s how it continues.
He had to eat with a knife and fork; he had to use napkin, cup, and plate; he had to learn his book, he had to go to church; he had to talk so properly that speech was become insipid in his mouth; whithersoever he turned, the bars and shackles of civilization shut him in and bound him hand and foot.
He bravely bore his miseries three weeks, and then one day turned up missing. For forty-eight hours the widow hunted for him everywhere in great distress. The public were profoundly concerned; they searched high and low, they dragged the river for his body. Early the third morning Tom Sawyer wisely went poking among some old empty hogsheads down behind the abandoned slaughter-house, and in one of them he found the refugee. Huck had slept there; he had just breakfasted upon some stolen odds and ends of food, and was lying off, now, in comfort, with his pipe. He was unkempt, uncombed, and clad in the same old ruin of rags that had made him picturesque in the days when he was free and happy. Tom routed him out, told him the trouble he had been causing, and urged him to go home. Huck’s face lost its tranquil content, and took a melancholy cast. He said:
“Don’t talk about it, Tom. I’ve tried it, and it don’t work; it don’t work, Tom. It ain’t for me; I ain’t used to it. The widder’s good to me, and friendly; but I can’t stand them ways. She makes me get up just at the same time every morning; she makes me wash, they comb me all to thunder; she won’t let me sleep in the woodshed; I got to wear them blamed clothes that just smothers me, Tom; they don’t seem to any air git through ’em, somehow; and they’re so rotten nice that I can’t set down, nor lay down, nor roll around anywher’s; I hain’t slid on a cellar-door for—well, it ‘pears to be years; I got to go to church and sweat and sweat—I hate them ornery sermons! I can’t ketch a fly in there, I can’t chaw. I got to wear shoes all Sunday. The widder eats by a bell; she goes to bed by a bell; she gits up by a bell—everything’s so awful reg’lar a body can’t stand it.”
“Well, everybody does that way, Huck.”
“Tom, it don’t make no difference. I ain’t everybody, and I can’t stand it. It’s awful to be tied up so. And grub comes too easy—I don’t take no interest in vittles, that way. I got to ask to go a-fishing; I got to ask to go in a-swimming—dern’d if I hain’t got to ask to do everything. Well, I’d got to talk so nice it wasn’t no comfort—I’d got to go up in the attic and rip out awhile, every day, to git a taste in my mouth, or I’d a died, Tom. The widder wouldn’t let me smoke; she wouldn’t let me yell, she wouldn’t let me gape, nor stretch, nor scratch, before folks—” [Then with a spasm of special irritation and injury]—”And dad fetch it, she prayed all the time! I never see such a woman! I had to shove, Tom—I just had to. And besides, that school’s going to open, and I’d a had to go to it—well, I wouldn’t stand that, Tom. Looky-here, Tom, being rich ain’t what it’s cracked up to be. It’s just worry and worry, and sweat and sweat, and a-wishing you was dead all the time. Now these clothes suits me, and this bar’l suits me, and I ain’t ever going to shake ’em any more. Tom, I wouldn’t ever got into all this trouble if it hadn’t ‘a’ ben for that money; now you just take my sheer of it along with your’n, and gimme a ten-center sometimes—not many times, becuz I don’t give a dern for a thing ‘thout it’s tollable hard to git—and you go and beg off for me with the widder.”
I ain’t Huck Finn. I’m born in society, raised in it, invested in it. I get some of greatest moments from society. But I’m not sure it causes me much less misery.