On 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.