Clear floor, clear mind

I think that if you told me 15 years ago that I would be finding comfort and calm in cleaning up other people’s mess, I would have called you crazy. And yet, here I am, covered in dust and happy as a clam.

I’m writing this from a break in my bi-annual (no, tri-annual?) expedition into cleaning my parents’ garage. Last year I spent some (but not really enough) time fighting through a friend’s basement, and the year before that I put a beat-down on my sister’s patio/miscellany-pile. While it wasn’t the highlight of that vacation, it was still a satisfying morning.

The garage is easy for me because none of what I’m cleaning is mine, and there’s a big pay-off. Cobwebs, sawdust, plaster dust, cat hair, everything goes into the shop-vac.

One of my elementary school teachers had a sign that said something like, “If a messy desk means a messy mind, what does an empty desk mean?” The implication here is that an empty mind is a bad thing, of course, but there’s another side to it. An clear desk isn’t really empty, and neither is an clear mind.

For me, remembering to meditate helps keep my mind cleared out of cobwebs and dust. I can’t meditate for anyone else, but I can help make a little space in the world feel clearer. Part of this is purely selfish – I’m storing a bunch of stuff in that garage, and our life literally always benefits from less cat hair in the environment. Beyond that, the nature of cleaning (engaging the body in action while making few demands on the mind) is an easy meditative space for me to enter. But it’s not only selfish – I have the resources (time, strength, non-attachment) to take on the challenge of a dusty garage or overflowing patio, and applying them makes one corner of the world clearer and more functional. “Clear floor, clear mind” is a goal that we often use, especially when things are feeling chaotic. It’s easy to get started, and highly impactful, and transferable. Of course, I can’t clear your mind, but I can clear the way to your toolbench so you can do your own mind-clearing meditative thing.

Is it possible that we can apply “many hands makes light work” to the intensely-personal work of meditation? I do really love to sit in a group setting, much more than sitting on my own. More research is definitely called for!

Shaking off the dust

First, let me apologize for yet another post about housecleaning. It is a large consumer of my time, and I find that it’s bringing up a lot of thoughts for me. Thanks for your patience.

The other day, our friend Dylan used the phrase “shake the dust off my feet” in relation to some work related thing, meaning “be finished with.” This being a rant on Twitter, he used the phrase and then had to clarify, but before he explained, I knew exactly what he meant. (Where does that kind of reference live in my brain, that I understand that? Anyway…) The phrase stuck with me, and has been rolling around inside my head for several days.

When Dylan used it, it was definitely an expression of exasperation. I will admit that it keeps coming back to me as I’m pulling boxes and bags and piles of things out of dark corners in the house, and discovering that they’re covered in dust. This whole house has always been covered in dust, and I have not been good at managing it. We have these funny pinkish marbled tiles, and of course, they just collect dog hair. Plus, we live near an arterial road, and have open windows and/or central heat that originates in the downstairs unit. And, as I’m sure you’re aware, I have a somewhat mixed relationship with cleaning. This was even more true when I was pregnant; I wanted things to be clean, but I had a really difficult time accomplishing the physical tasks necessary to get it done, and I became quite easily disheartened.

This time around, I have that same drive – CLEAN ALL THE THINGS! The surrounding circumstances are much more conducive now, especially with the new emphasis on letting go of and getting rid of things we don’t need. We have a lot of those, and every time I get a bunch of them sorted into boxes or bags or out the door, I find a new bit of empty space in the house that I can just clean, without ever having to put anything back into it. I like that a lot.

Once I get down to those places in the bones of this house that I am leaving and finally coming to love, I’ve found Dylan’s phrase in my head. I’m shaking, or more accurately, wiping the dust off, cleaning out, finishing up. As I’m moving us out, I’m seeing the things that Carlos saw in this house a year ago – the open space, the strong bones, the funny quirks of the Italian man who lived here for so many years. This totally makes sense to me now, in the context of the way we talked about balancing the energies of the home in my Shambhala home workshop: The spaciousness is heaven, the bones (architecture) is earth, and the quirks (The fireplace!) is man, and they’re coming into alignment, finally.

As I checked my notebook for reference from that workshop, I found two things I wrote down that are relevant to this post: “Recycling our emotional havoc into a receptacle of energy” – Someone else in the group said this, and it resonated very deeply with me as a path to understanding my housekeeping problem. The other thing I wrote down was a favorite saying of many people’s, from Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche: “You can do it, Sweetheart!” Wise words, indeed. And words that I’ll keep filed in my head for the next time I feel disheartened about shaking off the dust.

Cleaning out the Closets

One of the major problems with moving is how much stuff there actually is to take care of. I tend to be a person who does best with visual information, so it’s very easy for me to misjudge the amount of work to be done if I can’t see it all. Conversely, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with how much there is when I can see it. Yay, double-edged sword!

During last year’s move, I found a piece of advice that turned out to be really valuable, though harder to implement then than it seems to be now. I don’t remember where it came from (I was looking at a lot of resources about moving at that time), but the gist of it was this: start the packing process in the places that you can’t see. Pack the drawers and closets first, because they’re the places where work hides. It’s easy to see how many books you need to pack, but harder to know what your kitchen tool situation is like.

I had forgotten about this advice until this past weekend, and even then, it’s kind of a tall order. We have a lot of closets! And, frankly, a lot of things that needed cleaning more urgently. I finally did get to pulling things out of the closets, though, and I have to say, it feels pretty good. The living room is once again a hamster nest* of clothes and baby toys, but it’s starting to feel manageable. I know where all that mess came from, and it’s all in orbit around the sorting chair**, so it seems to have a direction.

The actual floor of my bedroom closet.
The actual floor of my bedroom closet.

As we’re making this transition from one home to another, I’m finding it really useful to conceptualize ourselves as guests here. We’re about to spend a year paying visits, and being guests in reality. Even though this has been our home for a year, it does not belong to us. Our landlord is bringing in prospective renters, people are coming through looking at the things we’re parting with, and before long, we’ll be gone from here, presumably forever. I’m taking down the art. We don’t live here anymore. Just like leaving a hotel room, I’ve started looking for our belongings in the drawers and closets, and getting them packed away. It’s bittersweet. I love the feeling of lightness that comes with traveling, and there’s something comforting to me about leaving a hotel room (or a guest room). I’m trying to focus my energy on that feeling as I’m slogging through the onerous task of examining and letting go of my own belongings.

Gratuitous baby face!

smiling baby

* Hamster nest in clutter only: does not smell like pee, or contain (very much) shredded paper.
** No relation to the sorting hat, sadly. Just a place I pile the thing’s I’m actively sorting.