Modern times: Digging beneath the dirt

For some women, scrubbing, polishing and buffing are creative acts. Here’s why we need to embrace our inner Martha Stewart

Has there ever been a TV ad in which a man in a primary-colour sweater folds his arms across his chest, takes a satisfying sniff of a gleaming toilet and lets loose a grin that’s half orgasm, half Triumph of the Will? Whatever the stats might say about the modern division of domestic labour (Canadian men do a little more now than they used to, which wasn’t much to begin with), cleaning remains a women’s issue.

And yet, with the exception of the occasional epic blow-up – such as the one entitled “Your Inability to Move That Glass From the Sink to the Dishwasher Makes Me Hate You” – how we feel about cleaning isn’t a conversation we often have.

But a new anthology called Dirt: The Quirks, Habits and Positions of Keeping House draws 38 writers together to ruminate on its titular subject and question why some of us work so hard (or don’t) to eradicate it. The editor Mindy Lewis writes in her introduction, “In cleaning…we make sense of our lives, sort our messes, restore order to our psyches, work out our anger and frustration, rediscover the beauty in our lives, and express our love for (and resentment toward) others.”

If women are the main audience for this book, let’s blame it on the plow, an invention that required the upper-body strength women lacked, pushing them into the domestic realm for a few hundred years. The Victorian ideal of the “angel in the house” who keeps the hearth humming to burnish her husband’s stature has morphed into the Martha Stewart-Real Simple age of domestic perfectionism.

A friend of mine says, only half joking, that she suffers from “house dysmorphia” – the unshakable delusion that her house is dirtier, uglier and less organized than it really is. If you walk through her lovely foyer, you enter a warm, clean living room with a couple of toddler toys on the honey-coloured hardwood. She has a different perception. “Don’t look at the floorboards. I can’t get that stain out of the couch. I didn’t have time to pick up.” She’s like a skinny teenage girl pulling at a piece of taut skin on her hips and crying, “See? Love handles!”

Of course, entire industries exist to make my dysmorphic friend feel that way, and they profit from it. There’s the tyranny of cleanliness – antibacterial-soap campaigns – and the tyranny of organization, the favoured fetish of the home-decorating world. One group, the Professional Organizers in Canada, has 500 members willing to help you sort out your crap. This neatnik army is deeply in tune with the delicate psychology of mess, invoking confidentiality and “empathy for the client.” If Freudian disciples thought that women clean to remove the “inner stain,” today’s language of organization borrows from the vocabulary of addiction: “Enjoy freedom from disorganization – getting expert help is the first step,” reads the website.

This rage for order may not even work. The book A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder argues that a degree of disorder is key to creativity and success. According to one study, people who kept a “very neat” desk at work actually spent an average of 36 percent more time looking for things than people who considered their desks “fairly messy.” Tidiness may be desired, but it isn’t always efficient.

“Exactly,” some Second Wave feminists would say, furious that women are still shouldering the majority of the grunt work between meetings. Surely our value shouldn’t be measured by the number of bacteria roaming our kitchen counters?

Weren’t great female artists revered for being terrible housekeepers (picture Iris Murdoch’s crusty kitchen), choosing a life of the mind over a life tending mess? Did Emily Carr make surreptitious mid-week treks to the Container Store for damask-covered pen holders?

Still, I kind of like cleaning. I recently spent four straight hours sorting through an 80-pound, two-foot-tall toy box, separating superheroes from Lego, from Bakugans, from Polly Pockets. I bought them all tiny plastic-container homes to prevent interspecies mixing. This long, soothing afternoon provided me with a great sense of accomplishment, and yet I told no one, sheepishly regarding the tidy toy box as a symbol of my false consciousness.

A study published a few years ago suggests that educated women take nominally longer to clean than less-educated women do. Researchers concluded that educated women may clean badly because they find housework less satisfying than “real” labour. (Note to scientists: There’s no labour more “real” than pulling hair clumps out of a drain.)

And many capable, smart women – from all educational backgrounds – don’t and won’t clean because cleaning can be hell, or at least futile. As one Dirt contributor writes about laundry, “Unless you’re naked, you’re always creating tomorrow’s laundry.”

So does tidying make me less of a woman, or more of the kind of woman I don’t want to be? I took comfort in the recent dark comedy Sunshine Cleaning, where two slightly nutso sisters start a business scouring crime scenes. They find surprising satisfaction in tying the final toxic-waste bag filled with body chunks. “We come into people’s lives when they have experienced something profound and sad, and we help,” says the sister played by Amy Adams, homing in on an attractive selflessness of cleaning. It’s something solitary that’s done for the collective: the family, the guests, the cat who’s tired of his overflowing box. It can be immensely rewarding to play Mrs. Dalloway, arranging that final flower as a loving gesture: I made this place for you.

But perhaps there’s also something creative in cleaning. In Dirt, Lewis notes that the other act that helps her make sense of the world is writing. When I consider my toy-box afternoon, the contentment lay in the solitude, the silence. Repetitive acts soothe the brain’s physiology. Everyone has that thing they do to clear the mental, if not physical, mess and make space for the big idea. Cleaning has been wrapped in a sticky cocoon of history, gender politics and advertising, but for some of us, there’s still pleasure at the centre, invisible and unnoted.