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Wabi-Sabi Wednesday: Clean Enough

8/17/2011 10:34:29 AM

Tags: wabi-sabi, Wabi-Sabi Wednesday, housekeeping history, housekeeping standards, cleaning advice, housecleaning, Catherine Beecher, Christine Frederick, Robyn Griggs Lawrence

Robyn Griggs Lawrence thumbnailOn Wabi-Sabi Wednesdays, I feature excerpts from my book, Simply Imperfect: Revisiting the Wabi-Sabi House, which was released in May. 

“Learn to let go. That is the key to happiness.”—The Buddha

Keeping immaculate homes is a means of asserting control in our little corner of this unpredictable world. War, famine and crime may be unstoppable, but mold and mildew aren’t. Conversely, clutter and disarray generally signal chaos lurking somewhere close behind.

Good housekeeping strikes a balance between vacuuming the landscape rocks and letting things pile up and fall to pieces. The older I get, the better I am at this. I make my bed every morning because I understand that a well-made bed, with the sheets tucked in, is one of life’s good pleasures at the end of every day. I clean up my dishes after lunch so the kitchen is welcoming when it's time to make dinner. My house is clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be happy. It’s an antidote to the bombardment of advertisements that measure our worth by our spotless floors and germ-free showers.

In the early 20th century, most Americans were a step away from profound poverty. A clean, healthy household was as much a symbol of upward mobility as a dirty, disheveled home belied disgrace. As advertising blossomed in the roaring ’20s, housewives were bombarded with messages about how to keep their whites the whitest and their windows sparkling clean. In newspapers and magazines and on the radio, they were told that laundry was an expression of love and properly cleaning the bathroom would protect their families from disease. Everybody wanted a good, clean home, and the pressure was on women to provide. That message grew more shrill as TV gave Mr. Clean a platform.

As early as the late 19th century, domestic doyenne Catherine E. Beecher was alarmed by the number of women she met who seemed to be overwhelmed by their domestic duties. She advised them to make a list of all the things that needed to be done, figure out what they just could not do, then strike those off the list. “You will have the comfort of feeling that in some respects you are as good a housekeeper as you can be,” she wrote in The American Woman’s Home, or, Principles of Domestic Science, published in 1869.

Christine Frederick, who popularized home economics in the early 20th century, also saw the toll that the impossibly high housekeeping standards took on American wives. Houses should not be run according to “arbitrary standards, set up by friends or the community,” she wrote in Household Engineering: Scientific Management of the Home in 1920. She advised that a woman should keep her home according to “whatever methods conduce to the efficient management of her particular home, regardless of tradition, or what is supposed to be the ‘proper’ way.”

We can learn to define success on a continuum. Unless you have severe allergies, changing the sheets every nine or ten days instead of every seven is not going to kill you or your family members. A clean bathtub is important, but sanitizing it every day with toxic scrubs is not necessary. In fact, breathing in those fumes every day can be much more damaging to your health than a few germs.

When we’re stretched to the limit trying to keep the floor swept and the clutter contained, wabi-sabi can seem like a chore. That’s when it’s best to stop trying so hard and just appreciate our warm bed at the end of the day—whether it’s made or not.   

broom in garden 

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Post a comment below.


Sara Kendrick-Conner
6/18/2012 9:41:31 PM
Thank you so much, I needed this today. Monday's are my day off, and my 15 hear old daughter and I have established that Monday's are beach day for the summer. After changing my bed twice in the middle of the night to a sick dog (counter surfing cat fed her something?), and waking up to more in morning and then trying to sweep up the hair; 4 cats and an aussie, and looking at my kitchen (said daughter cooked and baked for dad), I had decided that my house needed to be "that" clean. But after a quick wipedown, we decided to go to the beach anyway, even with dirty corners and bathrooms. Am I ever glad that we did, we were able to have one of those all important conversations about boys and all that goes with them (without embarrasing either one of us or making any one angry). I never would have gotten the opportunity if I had stayed home to make sure that my windows sparkles and my tub was wiped down. Thank you for verifying to me that I made the right decision. :)

6/18/2012 4:55:26 PM
By the way, I had a cat who begged to be vacuumed, and it got recorded by a visiting Japanese film crew, with a local channel tagging along. I worried he might not do it with all the strangers and commotion, but no way was he going to miss it (I didn't vacuum that much--it was such a hassle with his flopping in front of it all the time).

6/18/2012 4:53:03 PM
I love the picture of the broom and the concept! Thanks.

Lynda H
8/29/2011 7:56:30 PM
I just wanted to say the little quips at the bottom of each article link in the newsletters are often really funny, and entice me into the article. "So I should stop vacuuming the cat, too?" made me laugh out loud! Thank you, Mother Earth News.

Karen Larken
8/29/2011 4:19:26 PM
That must be a very wise, old saying because I have it on a 75 year old wall plaque that was given to me by a dear Polish friend from Chicago. It's my most valuable housekeeping tool!

8/29/2011 3:59:57 PM
As one who has worked in animal rescue for years (from cats and dogs to goats, chickens, mules and horses LOL)I usually find good homes for "throw-away" animals (without killing the humans who are discarding them!), but sometimes there are those that find a home in MY heart! My cats are "in-door" pets rather than coyote bait outside, and while the dogs are outside if I can't take them with me all the time, they do come in when I'm home. I realized years about that my home is (usually!) "clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be happy" but I have been known to say on occasion that I often vacuum up enough hair to make a brand NEW animal if I wanted to! That's why it's important to remember when people show up unexpectedly that they have come to see YOU, not your house

t brandt
8/18/2011 12:47:32 PM
"My house is clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be happy." I love it. You gotta put it on a T-shirt ;-)

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