My child, two-and-a-half, is pushing the vacuum cleaner around the living room floor, making a “vrrrroooom” sound with his lips.
The floor is completely covered in toys…everything from the nice wooden toys we lovingly picked out with all of our hippie sensibilities, to the brightly colored plastic toys we shrugged about when the grandparents got them, to things that were not always toys but have somehow become toys (an empty box of granola, a greeting card from last summer, a tote bag).
Underneath the toy layer lives a layer of crumbs – a week’s worth of crackers he snuck into the living room, chips I let him have in the living room, not to mention the cereal that falls off his pajamas before I manage to strip him after breakfast each morning.
The crumbs are unidentifiable and scary to me. He could eat one at any moment. Under the crumb layer is the mixture of cat hair and dirt that really ties the whole thing together. If I just focus on my cup of coffee, I can ignore the grossness of the rug for a little while longer.
Except the toddler keeps looking at me hopefully. He says, “Mama? Vacuum?”
Once, before he was born, when I was still going to the local zen temple on a regular basis, the teacher there said, “You don’t clean the house to have a clean house.” He said it like it was self evident, and I liked the way he said it because it sounded wise.
A woman tried to argue with him. She was older than me, had two children, and demanded, “Why else would I clean the house?” She couldn’t seem to let it go. Since I didn’t have any children yet, I was free to pretend that I understood, to pretend that I was wise, too.
My kid desperately wants to help with every single grown up thing. I am trying to let him. Wanting to help with chores is a good impulse, even if it’s exhausting and frustrating for everyone else, right?
“Well, we can vacuum, but first we have to pick up all these toys,” I say. He nods vigorously. It takes half an hour to pick up the toys. I pick up 99.98 percent of them. He picks up one or two, asks for a high five, exclaims, “I did it!” and then gets distracted by the need to pull out more toys. I keep reminding, as gently as I can.
We are going to do this. We are going to vacuum.
Recently, my son started asking to do the dishes. And by asking, I mean demanding. I hate dishes. I have written about dishes before. Dishes offend me, sitting there in the sink, demanding attention, making me wish I hadn’t cooked at all and lived instead entirely on fistfulls of food straight from the pantry.
But one morning, much like this morning, my son pulled his little stool up to the kitchen sink and announced that it was his turn. So together, we washed three cups and one spoon and got water literally everywhere.
If I run the math on the cleaning I’m doing with my kid, I know what I’ll find. Our house is actually getting dirtier, not cleaner. The idea of a clean house – not even a spotless one, but one in which you can say, if even for a moment, “there, the cleaning is done!” – is laughable. There is rarely enough time, and when there is time, there is no energy.
I used to be a sprint cleaner, the kind of person who would let the house get completely trashed and then spend one gloriously productive day making it beautiful. While I vacuum the floor, my toddler shouts, “Go, go! Go, mama, go! ROAR!”
As soon as I unplug the thing, I notice a little pile of crumbs I somehow missed. How are they everywhere? I mutter “It’s better than it was,” which is my constant refrain these days, followed by “You don’t clean the house to have a clean house.”
The kid wants to wind up the cord, which he works on for 10 minutes and then asks for help. Three seconds later, the floor is covered in toys again. Ten minutes later, he has managed to track dirt from who knows where onto the rug.
There is a phrase that you sometimes hear in zen Buddhism (well, there are many, but let’s focus on just one), and that is “Meditate like your hair is on fire.” I think it means that the practice of meditation is not meant for that magical time when your life is suddenly distraction free. That time is not coming. You meditate with your distractions, your emergencies, with your actual life.
After I tried to attend an all-night meditation sitting while six months pregnant (don’t try it, trust me), a friend said, “Meditate like you have a fetus kicking you.” I thought it was much smarter than “like your hair is on fire,” but I guess the historical Buddha, being a cisgender man who mostly taught cisgender men, didn’t have an opportunity to learn much from pregnancy and all of its, um, joys.
For some reason, I remember all of this, as I watch my child throw heavy “Harry Potter” volumes onto the floor. As I stand there looking mournfully at my living room, which came so close to being clean today, something clicks.
I understand why that woman had to fight so hard for her right to clean just for the pleasure of having a clean house. And I understand, too, that it is never ever coming for me. That feeling that there is always more to do – that is a permanent state.
You don’t clean the house to have a clean house.
Meditate like you have a fetus kicking you.
Meditate like there is a toddler screaming at you.
For just a second, I understand that my whole life is a moving meditation, that we are just going through all of these motions together, learning from each other, breathing in and out. I notice it for just a second. And then I snap back into the moment.
“What is it, baby? Do you want to help me make a snack?”