She emptied several cupboards and left them open to air, and once she washed half the kitchen ceiling and a door. Sylvie believed in stern solvents, and most of all in air. It was for the sake of air that she opened doors and windows, though it was probably through forgetfulness that she left them open. It was for the sake of air that on one early splendid day she wrestled my grandmother's plum-colored davenport into the front yard, where it remained until it weathered pink.*
- Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
I grew up in a place where caring for the house involved 2 maids for our household of 8. The "cleaning" part of housekeeping (caring for the home) was separated out and done invisibly. Even today, I am slightly shocked that my house gets dirty.
When we moved to the U.S., my mother had to do what those 2 maids did. And she was not happy about it. I learned to separate out the jewel-like yolk of housekeeping that is caring for the souls within, and saw only the , goopey, nutritionless slime of the egg white called housecleaning. My mother traded the confines of Korean society that gave her all the freedom she ever wanted, for the freedom of American society, that constricted her to vacuums and back-breaking trips to the grocery store, where she had to drive herself, load up herself, put away by herself. To the tangle of unmade beds and laundry; the tangled pile of rope that was the English language - that held her down like a slave. The irony was wholly lost on her as she banged that vacuum around, inevitably while we were watching our favorite TV show. In English. While we sat on our asses.
I still get a tightness inside me when I think about housecleaning. My mother's unhappiness weighted down my natural tendency toward obsessiveness. So I became obsessively neat but not necessarily clean. A mis-squeezed toothpaste tube would send me into the technicolor fogginess of insanity, but I cleaned the toilet only when the shock of dirt forced me to it. I color-coded my closet but was merely annoyed that the windows got dirty and turned away, assuming they would clean themselves. I would pick up the largest dust bunnies by hand, slightly fascinated that they created themselves while I wasn't looking. Once I started cleaning, though, I would clean with compulsion and irritation for hours, until I gave up half-way, exhausted, defeated by the whorling, exponential nature of dirt.
Aunt Sylvie, who returns from a vagrant life to care for her 2 nieces, lives the world not defined by walls but by the openings. She doesn't live by the solidity of life but the airy flow of life, as if she herself should fly. Her sister, the girls' mother, did just that - flying off a cliff in a borrowed car. I wonder if it is her love and admiration for this sister that brings her back to the walls of her childhood home.
Housekeeping freed me from the leaden weight I thought I had to carry around called housecleaning: Sylvie's independence, her love of air, her obliviousness to the dry, cracked leaves in the foyer. Confetti of the cosmos called autumn leaves sit in the corner of my dark foyer. So what? So, I sat on the deck today, the icy air crowning my head, being what and where I wanted to be
Twenty-five years later, I'm reading the book again. Twenty-five years later, I live my life with the fullness and freedom of House Keeping, not merely cleaning, because of this book.
I am sure I looked ridiculous on the deck this morning, (I am not immune from the definitions set by society,) but inside me, I have air. So what? Here's what. Sylvie and Housekeeping taught me to have air, to breathe, to be able to say "so what."
* Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson @1980 Picador, NY