I realize I don’t live my politics I texted a group of friends who were commiserating over trying to lead school at home for children and manage our jobs while cooking and cleaning for a family quarantined at home. Forget about our creative pursuits. Yeah, it’s very 1950s over here someone said. House work is so fraught not only because it’s hard and relentless and invisible unless it’s not done, but also because it’s so deeply gendered. It feels tired to try to say anything about it. It feels tired to complain about it in a group text. It feels tired to try to write about it in the spaces of time I have that belong just to me. But there’s something that I want to discover. Something about the power and powerlessness connected to keeping house. Something about the history that drags behind me as I climb stairs with laundry in my arms. Something about this work as a form of communion.
I talked with Megin recently about the pleasure of being at home and how strange it is, to have wanted something my whole adult life, time at home, and suddenly have so much of it. I think it must be why I don’t miss going out. I wanted this time at home so badly I haven’t used up the wanting yet.
I remember one of my very first outings after quarantine began. In May, we moved past the constrained realm we’ve been in for almost two months and went to the nursery. We bought six hydrangea plants and eight of another smaller spikey white flowered plant to put all along the back fence. There is the idea that Eden is a walled garden, that paradise has borders, and it was so pleasant being in the nursery, walking among all of the varieties of small trees and shrubs and flowers, healthy and well-watered and hearty looking.
People in masks all made way for each other. Even through the mask, the nursery was so fragrant. There was an evergreen scent, and a lavender scent, and the smell of cedar and hemlock mulch. The nursery is made up of the natural world but it isn’t quite natural, each living thing in its own discrete pot, separated from the others. In the wild, their roots would reach for each other and pass by each other and comingle. We have a yard and as much as I love the idea of wildness and letting what will grow, grow, it looks despairing in this setting, like the neighbor who lives on the park and drinks her wine in her yard as the vines and weeds mix with wild flowers and encroach all around her. Maybe, though, I wish I could be that free.
I’ve wanted to write about my home for a while, how I landed here, and why. What it means to be here and take care of this specific place. And there’s a voice that creeps in, somehow louder now during the pandemic that sneers at me, who are you. Who am I to think it’s worth the trouble to write any of this down? Who am I. Someone with this life and these experiences and obligations and privileges. And someone apart from these identifiers as well. As we all are. Part spirit.
I’m about to start the weekly chores. This is the list: bathrooms up and down, dusting, vacuum up and down, mopping up and down, change the sheets. There’s something I’m forgetting. The kitchen is addressed many times a day and dirties itself and is cleaned in succession. There are areas I’ve somehow decided not to see during this pandemic. I’ve decided to keep control of a collection of rooms and they have indeed been clean. The porch is a mess. The basement/family room is a disaster. The laundry room is almost impossible to navigate, so full of junk. But I’m not dealing with that now. Oh, laundry is on the list, mine, D’s, J’s, P’s, towels, sheets.
Must be nice the voice sneers as I change the sheets. Nice for the people who live in this house to slide into fresh sheets that they didn’t wash or change.
It’s common advice—don’t try to be a martyr. But what if the bitterness is worth it? Maybe I want this all for myself. I want to be the one in intimate correspondence with my home. To be the one to pick up its signals. I want to be the one to draw power from it.
So far I’ve done the bathrooms, all of the dusting, and I was mid vacuum when I realized I was wondering to myself about whether or not ghosts are real. Was the ghost in the upstairs closet of my childhood home a repeated and shared dream or was it a dead woman trapped in that old farmhouse? Do ghosts differ from elementals? Was the mysticism of the early 20th century in some ways true or was it more diversion or obfuscation?
I began to wonder about ghosts because I was in my son’s room. He hates his room and doesn’t spend time there. We’ve added a rug, a desk, a dresser, and a bookcase. There are Spider-Man and anime and basketball posters on the walls. He has a child-sized guitar and a basket of toys, but he just doesn’t want to be here. His room is the room that leads to the attic. He explained, though he’s on the verge of being too old to access this kind of magical thinking, that there is a portal behind the dresser.
Trying to dust his desk with the jumble of tiny, meaningful objects mixed with comic books, a spilling over container of Pokemon cards, a case of small glass slides of specimens for a toy telescope, but no telescope, cups of pencils, half read chapter books left face down to keep the page, I felt the familiar anger of cleaning. God damn it, I mutter as I knock the signed baseball out of its display stand. When faced with a large spare surface cleaning feels simple, spiritual, honorable. When faced with many objects, despair hits. Was it because, as Linda Thomas said in her essay “Chaos in Everyday Life—About Cleaning and Caring” that some elementals are haunting the space? Elementals are spiritual beings (fairies, elves, demons, ghosts) in the philosophy and writings of Rudolf Steiner.
Thomas owned her own cleaning company and cleaned the Goetheanum, the center for Steiner’s Anthoposophical movement in Switzerland. In one room that was used as a classroom a reeking, rotten smell persisted no matter how carefully she cleaned it. She realized the problem must be elementals. She cleaned it thoroughly “with loving care” and asked them nicely to leave. She returned to the school several weeks later, hot and tired. The terrible smell was still there. “…the odor was so intense and became so aggressive that I became furious. I ripped the window open, stamped my foot on the floor, shouting, ‘I’ve had enough of you! I AM HERE and there is not room enough for all of us—get out!!’ and went about angrily cleaning the room from top to bottom. The odor was gone! A few months later a colleague took over the job, and, after I explained the attitude to have toward these beings, she was also able to keep them away.”
The mysticism of the early 20th century that my family was entranced by entrances me too. It isn’t for everyone. Who is it for? The wife of an alcoholic, an unfavored child, a twin whose sister has died. The forsaken can have something no one else can see. My father saw ghosts as a child, a huge raging bull would storm into his room, he would feel the air of its heaving breath, a little old woman would run down the halls throwing a red ball. When his mother realized he saw them too, she didn’t say much, just let him know he wasn’t alone and asked him not to tell his teachers.
I remember sitting at my great grandmother’s feet one day, I had stopped in to visit her. We were chatting and she decided to give me a test that would ascertain whether or not I had the gift. She took the lined notebook next to her chair and a pen and asked me to not look at the paper and not try to make any shapes or words, but to let the spirits move my hand, spirit writing. When I handed the notebook back to her, she said, Oh well. Me neither.
My father’s side of the family was divided into those who had the gift and those who didn’t. My great grandmother didn’t but all five of her children did. My father had it. I’ve never been sure if I have it. So it might not have been seeing into another realm exactly, the recurring dream I had as a child of a woman in a dress from before the first world war, carrying a lantern. She would come out of the closet toward me and hold the lantern over me where I lay in the top bunk. I froze with fear and closed my eyes. My brother had the same dream, it repeated for both of us. I remember our surprise as young adults when we discovered we had seen the same thing. When we told our father he said, Oh that was Martha.
Houses have ghosts, people don’t. Somehow our idea of ghosts is that they belong to a place. But wouldn’t any of us, released from bodies and all of our obligations be completely unconcerned with physical space? Why would we get stuck in a cellar canning room or the upstairs closet? What exchange of power happens when we live in a space or work in a space or suffer in a space?
When my father had to leave, my mother was in love with someone else, he told me later that he asked Martha to check on us. Was she real? The idea that there was some wish of my father’s still in the house—some yearning, some protective reverberation, something that couldn’t be dislodged—that was true.
After my daughter was born and I went back to work, I needed help. All of our extra money was dedicated to child care and even if it wasn’t I wasn’t comfortable paying people to clean up after me. I should be able to handle this, I thought. But I wasn’t able to handle it. There were so many tiny things everywhere. Behind, under, around every object something needed to be cleaned.
I remember a colleague saying about having children “It’s just so much physical work.” I didn’t know what she meant until I did. It was so much work to do it all badly. After making dinner, pureeing it, sitting with a baby who did not like the puree and had to be tricked, over long periods of pretending that a tiny plastic goat wanted to steal her food, to eat any of it at all, after feeding her and then crawling under the dining room table with a wet rag cleaning up puree that had splattered great distances, there was so much other work to be done. There was bathing the baby and getting her to sleep and in that moment when she was finally sleeping could I survey the rest of the wrecked landscape we were existing in.
I had been working at it all for how many hours and it was all a mess. It felt like the entire apartment was dismantled and reassembled every day. I needed help. My husband cleaned up lots of splattered puree, bathed lots of babies, was even our daughter’s and then also our son’s primary caretaker in the summer when I worked and he was on summer break. He chose the profession partially for that reason. I needed help not because I was the only one doing the work. I needed help because I was the one who carried the psychic burden of our home, it’s physical state, all the time. It felt like my jurisdiction in a way I couldn’t or didn’t want to shake. I needed to help myself. I searched: self help, cleaning.
I think I got three books: Two of the books I gave away, in the spirit of letting go of physical objects that the books advocated. One book was about Feng Shui and the psychology of clutter. Another was a book about climbing mountains one step at a time. The third book was the one that has helped me the most in a career of reading such books: Fly Lady: Sink Reflections.
I’ve wanted to write about Fly Lady for years. Like Linda Thomas, Marla Cilley, aka The Fly Lady comes at cleaning from a spiritual perspective. The book is self-published and very raw. There are illustrations of a small cartoon woman with wings and a feather duster that mark each new chapter and sometimes adorn an important point in the book. She breaks the world down into this and that. There are people who are BO or Born Organized and the rest of us, who are SHE or Side-tracked Home Executives. I don’t usually go in for acronyms, but the book did change my life. The central idea of the book is that we can, even those of us who are depressed, unfocused, disorganized, overwhelmed, and worse, learn new habits. These small habits added to more small habits make a whole new life.
Fly Lady reminds me of the Church Ladies of my youth who were accepting and good humored and incredibly competent though they were not infrequently persecuted by asshole husbands. Sink Reflections is a guide book for becoming this kind of woman. In other words, it is highly problematic. But it did help me. Fighting oppressive gender norms is important and urgent. It is also different work than trying to get one’s life, very practically, in order.
The pandemic presented an opportunity to think of cleaning in a new way. It suddenly wasn’t so much about schedules and breaking large tasks into smaller ones. I could use the work of keeping house to feel like I was drawing a protective circle around my family. The rituals of cleaning could help at least our rooms make sense. In my caretaking, as Linda Thomas said, I could communicate with more than just the physical space.
When I moved into this house five years ago it didn’t really communicate with me. I held my hands to its old plaster, I stood in each room looking and listening, but couldn’t pick up the signals. I’d read in a home decor blog that you should sit in the corner of a room for quite a while, was it half an hour? and ask the room what it wanted. I didn’t try that. I suppose it’s not too late. The only room I had a strong vision about was the powder room. It’s one of the smallest half bathrooms I’ve ever been in, which is saying something having been in very many New York City apartments, and you pass through a small broom closet to get to it. I had an idea to cover the walls in photographs of actors backstage. Actors in makeup and tank tops, costumes draped on nearby chairs, smoking or with feet propped on the make-up table. Preparing to put on a show, but being in a hidden space beforehand. There’s something so vulnerable about that that it nearly breaks my heart.
I started keeping an eye out in second hand shops, I scoured the internet, but couldn’t really find what I was looking for. I don’t think I was really listening to the house though on this one. It would have been too much for my tiny bathroom off the broom closet. I think I just wanted a backstage. If the house was where I helped orchestrate the life of a family, I wanted to be in the company of other actors during the set changes.The pandemic presented an opportunity to think of cleaning in a new way. It suddenly wasn’t so much about schedules and breaking large tasks into smaller ones.
The original owner of the house lived in it until she was almost a hundred. I don’t know much about her, just that she gave piano lessons and her husband used to drown squirrels in a trash barrel filled with water. There must be furious ghosts of squirrels on the side of the house where the trash barrels are. There were a few families after her in quick succession and then us. When my dad first visited I held my breath. I knew he’d make a decree about the hauntedness or un-hauntedness instantly. He inspected every room. Walked around the outside of the house. If he found anything it was too late. We’d already bought it. Usually a house has at least one problematic area. After circling the perimeter he put his hands up in the air. Nothing! He loves the house. It’s so modest but he says every time he’s here that it’s perfect.
I don’t sense the piano teacher in my house or her husband. A house across the back pathway is said to be haunted. It’s been vacant for years, half-remodeled without even walls in most of the rooms. A causality of an acrimonious divorce, is what neighbors say. Periodically one of the owners sends a crew of workers to make progress and then it stops. Supposedly a woman and a group of children haunt the house. Workers hear them laughing. The ghosts move the building supplies in the night. It’s why, the neighbors say, the crews always quit. Thinking of a house resisting renovation, full of invisible tricksters, changes the way it looks when I walk past its dense darkness at night.
I think the gendered part of my lizard brain can’t help itself. A pandemic is running its scythe through the country and I must keep working. Washing and tending and sterilizing and making order. The root system we all share pulsates messages of danger and I clean. Cleaning has always been tied to fear for me and the pandemic has kicked that into overdrive. But besides the fear of deadly disease (and the rumblings of possible authoritarian coup at the same time?) I know that standing on the other side of despair means maintaining a clean house.
It’s genetic. Or not. But it feels like a trait that is part of me. I’m thinking specifically of my grandmother. One of my great-grandmother’s children with the gift. She was a painter. She was gorgeous and charismatic and very private. After a point, this thing that I also know took over. It was after her twin sister died, also a painter, also gorgeous and charismatic and private. She stopped painting. She went to the grocery and the library and otherwise stopped going out. The women in the family would offer to go over to help her with the house. She would lift her large, expressive hand for emphasis—No.
Even though she was an artist, she would not forgive me for saying these things. It was imperative that the outside world only see our perfect selves. She wore a beret to the grocery store that she smoothed her hair around so that she didn’t have to style the hair on the top of her head. She drove around in summer with the windows of her car up, sweating, giving the appearance of air conditioning. Somewhere along the generational line a seed of perfectionism bred with punishment was planted and none of us have gotten all the roots out yet.A pandemic is running its scythe through the country and I must keep working. Washing and tending and sterilizing and making order. The root system we all share pulsates messages of danger and I clean.
I loved her house but I know she felt oppressed by it. I loved the whiff of oil paint from her painting supplies in the junk room, her working beauty shop hair dryer from her business years before, the smell of snubbed out cigarettes from her big cut-glass living room ashtray. Before she died I had a vision while sitting on her living room floor. She was reading on the couch, smoking. The sudden image I had was of my dad, my brother, and me washing her walls with soapy water to get the patina of nicotine off. I shook my head and tried to stop the vision because I knew it foretold her death. Accepting help with the house was not something that would happen while she was alive.
I was thirteen when she died. At her funeral there was a moment when I instinctively circled the parlor of the funeral home where everyone was mingling to find her, to see what she was wearing. Even on an impossibly sad day she would have honored the occasion by wearing something beautiful and stylish and perfect. In every gathering I always sought her out. She was my person. And then I remembered it was her funeral and sank onto a side chair in shock again.
As my grandmother’s twin sister sent her signs, my father was sure his mother would appear again to him in some way in that house. When she was alive the two of them would sit in the living room having a conversation without speaking, chuckling, reading each other’s minds. The family decided that he would be the one to have her house. But he never saw or heard or felt anything.
Diagnosing family members is an unwise pastime, but I know what depression feels like and know some of the ways depression looks. It’s work staving it off. I think of how easily I could lose the toe-hold I have. I will not let that happen during a pandemic. Even if it means I’ve confused work with work.
Keep the work at the center of your life, prioritize the work, the job is not the work, clear space for the work. Part of my cleaning is selfish, I’m trying to make order so that I can think. So that I can read. So that I can commune. So that I can write. So that I can do the work. But order never quite comes.
Who cares the voices sneer about the essays and poems that I can’t dislodge and get onto paper. They are debased voices that remind me of the gravel at the bottom of a quarry. Elementals. One thing I haven’t tried yet—insisting violently that they leave.Diagnosing family members is an unwise pastime, but I know what depression feels like and know some of the ways depression looks.
It must be bad luck to write about ghosts during a pandemic. It must be bad luck to mention family in writing during a pandemic. It must be bad luck to write at all—making things into a kind of truth and visible when they could have continued to exist in our minds unseen. To do the work, which like housework is never done, we accept the endless gaze of the evil eye.
Which of any of us will become ghosts? Haven’t we all heard grandmothers or aunts with delicate cigarettes burning between their fingers say people become ghosts because they’ve left something unfinished? How could any of us who are charged with keeping house ever finish, ever leave? The sweep I make in the morning and at night, righting this and that, is it eternal work? What do ghosts smell like? Cleaning vinegar? We can sense it now more distinctly during these terrifying months, the ghostly womanliness of keeping house.
Ghost Hour by Laura Cronk is available now via Persea Books.