If cleanliness is next to godliness, what does that say about me?

One of the tasks that has been occupying my time for the last month or so has been unearthing the apartment I’ve rented since moving back to my hometown seven years ago this month. When I use the verb unearthing, I assure you that I’m not exaggerating. So I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised this afternoon when, while I was walking to and from the church, I could listen to the November 9th edition of CBC Radio’s series Tapestry.

The largest part of that program was an interview with Katherine Ashenburg, the author of the book, The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History. It was interesting to hear her discuss the vast shifts in our attitudes towards cleanliness and water in different places and different eras in history.  The interview talked of the Romans who, according to one estimate, spent three hours each day at the bath. It also spoke of Napoleon’s letter to Josephine telling her “I will be arriving home in three days.  Don’t bathe.”

One of the most intriguing answers I remember is when the interviewer asked the author if the four years of research she’d spent on the book had had any effect on her habits.  And she said that, yes it had: she took fewer showers and more frequent baths since she’d begun her research.  She explained the difference as being that she realized that showers aren’t as frequently necessary, given lifestyles where people work indoors on tasks that involve mental activity more than physical and don’t generate much perspiration.  But she also had a renewed appreciation for the sensualness of warm water, and more frequently found herself indulging in a bath to refresh and renew herself more than to clean.

And another part of the show I will have to re-listen to is the interview with a professor from Seton Hall, Marc Poirier, who wrote an essay “Clutter and the Matter of Life and Death,” which is published in Next to Godliness: Finding the Sacred in Housekeeping. It sounded like he was, in some ways, similar to me at one point in his life, buried under in papers and books and stuff. That changed when he became ill from lymphoma.

In preparation for his cancer treatments, he started cleaning his home so that it would be a pleasant surrounding for his recuperation.  And he seems to have come to a place that I envy, where he is cleaner than he used to be, but he seems to have managed to do that without becoming hung up on perfection and without running himself down for his shortcomings.  I think he could be a model for where I want to be, once I find my floors again, and let go of some of the belongings that have accompanied me in boxes since university, and others that I’ve accumulated unthinkingly over the years.

Because it is very tempting to see what has become of this rectangle of space that I control and lament how it got that way and (worst of all) to make judgements about myself for letting it get to that point.  And it can get to the point where I’m so wrapped up in that lament that I don’t have the clarity of mind to learn from that experience and start thinking of how to live in different ways. And Poirier seems to have navigated through that in his own mind far better than I have.

The “Next to Godliness” [mp3, runs 43:34] program is still available to download from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, or you can subscribe to the Tapestry series’ podcast feed (via RSS or iTunes).

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