Common Wisdom: Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness

When I was growing up I was exposed to the traditional sort of deep-cleansing household that most of my fellow babyboomers experienced. In addition to the weekly cleaning routine, our house underwent full-scale scrubbing every spring and fall. I helped rub in the special kitchen cabinet cleaner, put down fresh shelf-liner, clean glass light globes in soapy water. And throughout the year I watched my mother do endless baskets of ironing, which included sheets and pillowcases (a friend’s mother did socks too).

What can I say? It didn’t take.

I’m not a slob. On my own—in college and in the years before my marriage—I passed for a fairly neat person. I am good at preventing massive messes, and I never committed the cardinal sins of leaving beds unmade or dishes undone. But even then I lacked the profound commitment to cleanliness that is marked by an inability to read a book contentedly in the midst of another’s squalor. College friends could testify that I distracted myself quite contentedly in chaoses of their making. This talent came in handy later when I rode the New York subway. Still, though I never got around to spring or fall cleaning, I made a respectable showing until a husband and children complicated things.

A husband and children do this very well. And I don’t really mind, since a life uncomplicated by other people is very flat. Still, my upbringing sometimes wars against my more easygoing inclinations and the sporadic demands of freelance writing.

IT IS what one might call a survival mechanism for a writer on deadline to be able to tune out or at least step safely across laundry-scattered bedrooms, toy-littered playrooms, and newspaper-strewn living rooms. Of course, natural housekeepers argue that it is better always to have everything neatened up in readiness for these times of crisis, but this ignores the accidental (in the non-Aristotelian sense) nature of people in general and small children in particular: They drop things, step on things, fall into things, misplace things, disassemble and disrupt things. Toddlers and preschoolers have an awesome aptitude for spiriting away car keys, tape, scissors, pen and paper, combs, toothbrushes, and anything to do with hair.

And anyway, the superiority of the organized life is seldom the crux of the problem for those easily distracted from housecleaning. The question is never, Wouldn’t a neat household be more pleasant and convenient, but always, Should I, right now or at the nearest stopping point, interrupt my cleaning to minister to the sad or bored or lonely; or to help build a model airplane that can’t be put off until after dinner because I’ve promised to do something with somebody else then; or even to save my sanity by taking a reading break while everyone is temporarily engaged in nonviolent activities?

Though people who visit me may not realize it, I am torn on this issue. Martha and Mary wage war within me. I never know quite whose eyes to use when I look about me: my mother’s or my own, which after a flurry of cleaning up will dismiss me to cuddle the baby or read to the toddler or get a little ambitious for dinner or play the Monopoly game my kids are clamoring for, or maybe even begin a Crisis column early for once.

Periodically my household is bewildered by a short anal-compulsive stretch where, having arduously raised conditions to a neat and shiny level, I can’t bear, for a few days, to watch the slide toward chaos begin again. And so I shout at the kids for tracking bathwater down the hall or committing the first spill against the clean kitchen floor. And I read domestic English novels like those of Miss Read, full of polished wood and scrubbed doorsteps. And I dump stuff—throwing out is the part of cleaning I like best, though the Greens are spoiling this for me too.

But despite these abortive attempts at conversion, it is clear that I am too easily satisfied. I too eagerly allow the call of, well, almost anything, to come between me and the kind of consistent war on dirt that would make me my mother’s daughter.

I think about the spiritual ramifications of this when religious writers extol an orderly life. I can see their point, but when, at a given moment, it comes down to two choices of action, and the non-custodial one is insidiously masked as duty or necessity, I either abandon the orderly high road or pursue it niggled by doubts about its necessity. How much nagging and overseeing should the children undergo, how much uncluttering should I do, before we are all free to get on with the rest of life?

What I want is a test case. I know Mother Teresa’s nuns, like just about every kind of nun I’ve ever heard of, scrub and polish and disinfect their houses. But can someone find me—aside from the verminous tramp-saint Benedict Labre, whose dirt seems at least partly to have been embraced in self-affliction—a documentedly untidy saint? I would never claim kinship with him or her on the basis of this single shared characteristic, but it would comfort me to know that untidiness was not an insuperable obstacle to sanctity.


  • Ellen Wilson Fielding

    Ellen Wilson Fielding is a writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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