House keeping

To everything there is a season, the Good Book tells us, and this week has been my season for housekeeping.

Consider: January to June, first draft and first rewrite. A month of touring and conferences, followed by two months of intensive rewrite. Finally in September handing THE ART OF DETECTION over to my editor (to whom, incidentally, the book is dedicated) and a week later flying to England.

Which means that since January, the house has not had any attention to speak of. Oh, it’e2’80’99s been kept tidy and clean, largely in part to the cleaning lady I hired eighteen months ago after finally deciding that yes, it might be a sin to depend on someone else to clean, but it was a minor sin, and at least I could walk across the floor without my feet sticking to something. And besides, she has a kid to support.

But tidy isn’e2’80’99t orderly, and out of the corners of my eyes I’e2’80’99ve been aware of all those things a hired cleaner doesn’e2’80’99t feel the authority to deal with: the dying house plant in the corner, an accumulation of filing-that-doesn’e2’80’99t-fit-anywhere, the brown and peeling bathtub grout that needs to be replaced, half an acre of increasingly opaque window glass.

When my daughter was small, we lived for a summer in the old house in Oxford, England that we still own. My husband went ahead of us to India, making sure the housing arrangements there were adequate for an American with a one year-old, and in those two weeks, I painted the Oxford house.

The walls were all covered with wallpaper, in marginal shape but too enormous a task for me, particularly since I’e2’80’99d never done wallpaper before. But the trim and the doors, those I could manage, and I did so, at night after my daughter had gone to bed. Night after night, as the bells from the city fell silent and my neighbours came home, I got out my pots of paint and transformed the woodwork, playing with alternating colors (colours) on the panels of the doors, picking out the shades of the wallpaper, enjoying the smooth paint going on, knowing that it would be dry by the time small hands were patting around in the morning.

By the end of those two weeks, I owned that house as I had not before. I had sat in the quiet rooms and paid attention to it in a way no one in years had done. There was nothing I could do at that time about the age of the furniture or the inadequacy of the kitchen, but I listened to the house creak and settle each night, bent over one patch or another of stairway trim or door paneling, and when we flew to India, the house and I were at ease with each other.

Housekeeping is more than scrubbing the bits that a paid employee doesn’e2’80’99t bother with. It is about a relationship with one’e2’80’99s environment, nest-making and marking and re-shaping the world to suit one’e2’80’99s needs. When I finish with clearing and scrubbing the wide greenhouse-window shelf over the kitchen sink, it probably looks precisely the same to anyone else, but I can see the clear lack of shed leaves in the corners, and feel restored.

The copy-edited manuscript has been kept waiting all week, while I keep house and put my thoughts into order, but I refuse to consider it procrastinating or even wasting time. When I pick it up on Monday, I know that it will go more smoothly for the delay, because the itch of an unkept house has been soothed. Or maybe it’s just my way of marking time–I don’t get jet lag, but I do find it takes me a week to settle to anything after I return from a long trip. I am dis-placed, and need to let my soul catch up with me.

However, in the meantime, this weekend is Open Studios in Santa Cruz County. My agent is coming down from San Francisco (thus cleverly avoiding the fly-bys of the Navy’e2’80’99s jet fighter display ten feet off her windows) and she, my sister, my daughter, and a friend will spend a couple of afternoons touring artist’e2’80’99s studios. The sun will smile down on the magnificent autumnal colors of a Central Coast October, the neighbors will finish their grape harvest, and we five will sail blithely off to snoop through the homes of artists, admire handmade wares, and occasionally fall for one.


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  1. Mama Rose on October 8, 2005 at 7:33 pm

    Open studios are fun. One of my son’s artist friends was involved in it here in San Jose. We couldn’t afford to buy anything, but it was fun looking. 🙂


  2. WDI on October 9, 2005 at 11:29 pm

    I find that cleaning and organizing can be a great way of both resting and invigorating the brain. There’s something about the way my mind wanders when engaged in the decisions of those activities that often allows it to stumble on new ideas and new ways of thinking about old problems.

    That said, you’d think my house and office would both be much cleaner and neater than they are . . .maybe it’s time to get my mind out of the old ruts!

  3. Kathleen Lowe on October 11, 2005 at 2:43 pm

    Hi Laurie,

    Yes indeed–I feel the pull of housekeeping most at two different times–when I’m too busy to do it, and when I’m about to start a creative project. In an earlier life (15 years ago) I was a costume designer at a community college and it seemed like the stove always needed cleaning right when I was supposed to start a new set of designs. I thought this was my own dirty little secret–until I walked into the scene shop and found the set designer sorting screws! As this was a task usually assigned to the new tech students (and the TD was far from the neatest of people) I questioned him and he rather sheepishly admitted that he was working on his new scene designs.
    So, I’m not surprised at your housekeeping needs–only that you seem to feel the need only at the end of the creative process and not before!

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