Christian McEwen’s Slow Cleaning isn’t just long-drawn-out old-fashioned housekeeping. It’s a chance to bring attention to what we have and decide what to let go.
“Housework won’t kill you,” said Phyllis Diller, “but then again, why take the chance?” The truth is, I’ve never been much good at keeping house. I live alone in a small rental apartment—a warren of six irregularly-shaped rooms tucked under a pointy roof—and apart from two entirely affectionate and indulgent cats, there is no one to keep tabs on the level of cleanliness.
Each of my rooms is more or less identical: there’s a desk and a chair and a carpet, piles of papers, and many, many (far too many) books. I always wash the dishes and do the laundry. Now and then I change the sheets on my enormous double bed. But until recently, sweeping and dusting and vacuuming came a very distant second to the more pressing obligations of a freelance writer’s life. I would rather be reading or writing or talking on the phone, I told myself. I would rather be taking notes or transcribing an interview. Until, that is, I came up with the notion of Slow Cleaning.
By getting rid what I don’t really need, I am somehow making space for what’s to come.
Who knows where the idea came from? One day it simply announced itself, and I obeyed. Now early each morning I tackle a new corner of the apartment and make order there: cleaning and swabbing the dusty shelves, and examining each book and magazine, each piece of silverware, each old cracked plate. Every day I keep cleaning until I find five things that I can part with. Some of these go straight into the garbage. Some make their way to the recycling center or the local thrift store. Yet others—pretty and serviceable, but of no immediate use—I pass along to friends. So many presents! So many new discoveries! So much trash!
In the old days, when I set myself such domestic tasks, there was a big “have to” pulsing in the background. I have to move. I have to downsize. Slow Cleaning feels entirely different. There is no effort involved, no conscientious will. Instead, my dominant emotion is one of curiosity: What will I find today? What can I let go? Housework is no longer drudgery; it has become a quest, a treasure-hunt, a delicious piece of private liberation. Often I find things—a beloved silver ball-point pen, a crucial folder—that have been lost for a long time. Earrings and bracelets resurrect themselves, offer themselves as gifts. The sense of bounty, of opportunity, is very strong.
This is not to say that there haven’t been knots and obstacles along the way. One week, I found a big black cardboard box, jam-packed with all the cameras I’d ever owned—four working cameras, two still in their boxes with their original instructions. I had to email a good friend for some advice on what to do with all those cameras, but that was the exception. Mostly I know precisely what to do with stuff. If you don’t use it, I instruct myself, just find someone else who will.
In the course of the last six weeks, I’ve handed over several hefty bundles to a local art center: crayons, markers, cardboard, paints, a stripy duvet cover. I took my grey Eileen Fisher trousers to the Salvation Army, along with my beat-up purple jacket and the orange-and-coral shawl my sister gave me thirty years ago. I left wreaths of computer leads on the table at our recycling center, along with a plug-in teakettle, a box of books, and a beautiful hand-painted coffee mug. It wasn’t always easy to prise these items loose from my own greedy, anxious grasp, but the fact is I’m relieved to see them go.
There are some clear advantages to this new habit of mine. My shelves are far less crowded, and it’s easier to lay my hands on what I’m looking for. But what I mean by Slow Cleaning is not just old-fashioned housekeeping dressed up as New Age efficiency—not just an exceptionally long-drawn-out method of spring cleaning. There’s something else at work here, something larger, one might almost say more Buddhist. In the practice of Slow Cleaning, I touch in on my own transience. Everything I own is looked at with attention, handled, stroked. I have the chance to interrogate (and momentarily cherish) every tiny item I possess. Once I’ve decided what to let go, what is left becomes chosen, radiant. My possessions become new to me. I greet each one with interest and warmth, a sudden rush of gratitude and appreciation.
I realize, too, that by getting rid what I don’t really need, I am somehow making space for what’s to come. The six small rooms exhale: a slow deep breath. And off I waltz into the autumn morning, in search of five more things to give away.
He who binds to himself a joy
Doth the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.