It’s around this time of year that this poem re-emerges, posted as a protest against the burden of cleaning and a celebration of all the marvellous things that are better than cleaning.
It irritates the bejeezers out of me.
Here’s why. The whole premise of the poem is that it’s somehow better not to waste time cleaning – and that those who do are missing out on the wonder and magic of life. The clamours of agreement that greet it whenver it’s posted on Facestagram make me feel ashamed. Because, I confess, I clean. Before I do anything. I clean. I sweep. I polish. I make everything neat.
This leads me to wonder why. It’s not that I’m not enthralled by the fabulousness of gardening or baking or standing at my door entranced by birdsong. I just can’t settle if things are dirty. My overriding feeling that is that it’s about upbringing – my family is council house stock, grandparents who were foundry/factory/mineworkers. Mother who had to leave school to work, father who furiously wouldn’t and scraped garden work to get through teacher training and “make something of himself”. Money was absent – but there were still ways to differentiate from those who were “really poor” . The main way this was done was through standards. These standards were unwritten but universally accepted – keep your front step clean, your nets white, no milk bottles on the table – a whole host of things that were understood as meaning you were looking after yourself, you worked hard, you met the vagaries of the protestant work ethic. You were a valid member of society.
These standards passed through the generations. I still shudder at a milk bottle on the table. I still hear my mother saying that her mother told her to always keep the taps shone in case of unexpected visitors (and I always do). I am doing everything right, yet if someone drops in and tells me my house is immaculate I feel ashamed, as if I am somehow letting the side down.
And that, I think is the crux. Cleaning (or not cleaning) has become another means of creating division. Every few years the concept of the domestic goddess and the perfect fifties housewife(itself a means of driving women back to the kitchen after the social changes of WWII) is resurrected, and domesticity is championed as a way of being superior. Those who know this is bunkum go the other way and suddenly cleaning feels like a betrayal of feminism, a step backwards, something to be ashamed of and we end up with that snipey line about dull women and neat kitchens.
This is the danger point and it’s exacerbated by social media. It’s easy to become so tied up in how things appear, we forget to simply do what we like. Clean, don’t clean, do a bit of a rush job coz it’s driving you crackers but you don’t have time. Shiny taps don’t reflect (ho ho) who you are. They don’t show anything, other than fingerprints or your own looming face.
The real problem is giving a fig about how we’re perceived, and the perpetual scrutiny of the social media lens. Dust if you must is a smashing poem, and the message is heartfelt. But go easy on those who need a clean house to think straight – or indeed sideways.