Man Vacuuming: How Chores Can be Less of a Chore

Can household chores invite wonder? One man finds out.

Posted Apr 19, 2010

My wife cooks and launders; I clean. A happy division of labor for a few years. But recently I've noticed a lot of clanging and banging when I sweep and vacuum. The noise in my head seems to influence the way the sucking nozzle slams against any surface it can find. So this morning while cleaning I decided to try to track wonder and see what happens. In the interim, I discovered a few tips that might make chores less of a chore and more of a chance to discover delight in the most mundane moments.

For, it's how we handle the mundane moments that may change our lives.

My models for such wondrous sprucing are neither Mary Poppins nor Snow White's whistling dwarves. No, I take inspiration from Emerson, Zen, and a fictional medical textbook editor who lives in Maine with his wife, two kids, and a duck named Greta.

Emerson gave a commencement speech at Harvard in 1837 called "The American Scholar" in which he describes Man Thinking. Man Thinking is the scholar par excellence who, though a perennial student, never submits his mind to revering other men's thoughts. Emerson also describes how many men have become fragmented and reduced by tools of their professions: "The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk.... Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things. The planter, who is Man sent out into the field to gather food, is seldom cheered by any idea of the true dignity of his ministry. ... The tradesman scarcely ever gives an ideal worth to his work, but is ridden by the routine of his craft, and the soul is subject to dollars. The priest becomes a form; the attorney, a statute-book; the mechanic, a machine; the sailor, a rope of a ship."

This passage is not even part of the speech's essential message, yet when I read it in my early twenties I imagined a way of life in which an individual's simple actions and work could assume - through a switch of attention and perspective - a level of dignity and meaning. I thought of, say, a cashier or toll booth collector as "Woman Collecting." It was an ideal that translated to my appreciating what I did in the classroom as "Man Teaching," but the translation was lost at home as, say, "Man Cooking" or "Man Sweeping."

Enter Zen. A stint as a resident at the Zen Mountain Monastery several years ago brought me back to this ideal. Two of the monastery's chief practices are "Care-Taking" and "Work Practice." For an hour each morning, each of us had a duty to clean the premises - toilet scrubbing, window washing, sweeping. And for about three hours each morning, we'd be assigned more toilsome jobs - lifting flat blue stones for paths, mowing the vast meadows, and so forth. The idea was to watch and quiet the busy mind while engaged in physical work (plus, the monastery received some good, cheap labor). I returned home weeks later desiring a regular "care-taking" practice in which I would mindfully tend to the household with my wife. It didn't last. Not only did my other work and pleasures encroach, but when I did my chores my mind whirled with irritation.

Now enter Emmett, a middle-aged medical textbook editor in Nicholson Baker's novella A Box of Matches. The book is simple. For several weeks, he has given himself a new daily project: He'll wake up early each morning before his wife and two kids, scamper downstairs in the dark to maintain that twilight dream state, build a fire in the cast-iron stove, strike a match to light the fire, and watch his thoughts.  In the course of the novella, nothing dramatic happens. The project ends when the box of matches empties. But the character became an instant role model for me. Each morning, he'd muse upon the pleasures of each step of making coffee in the dark, of washing dishes left out from the night before, of rolling the dishwasher racks in and out. Virtual rhapsodies of the mundane, this guy mustered. That's how I want to experience my mornings!, I said to myself (I know: I don't aspire to be an adventurous, romantic, gun-toting Indiana Jones; I yearn to experience each morning with delight. It's a humble dream.).

Well, this morning I might have come close to reaching my ideal. I decided I'd track wonder while I cleaned house. Here are some tips that worked:

Prepare as if for a ritual instead of a routine. Ceremonial rituals are physical activities designed in part to center and quiet the processing mind. Rather than leaping into vacuuming, I thought about what should come first and gather all material necessary. I pulled out a favorite rag, a non-toxic cleaner, the vacuum cleaner, a mop and bucket, and a bottle of lemongrass essential oil. I slowed down my mind enough to look at and appreciate each tool as a tool. It was a sort of preparation comparable to how a guy might ready himself for a carpentry project or a monk for an offering.

Sense each step. One problem with routines is the processor mind automatically assimilates familiar steps, which in turn frees up the mind to think about other things. Although this functioning lets us learn and progress as human beings, it's also this facility that - if not tended to - can lead us to distraction, despair, and utter mental hell. Here's where the inner noise kicks up. Your body might be brushing your teeth one evening, but your mind is processing an irritating conversation from work, and after several minutes you realize your hands scrubbing your gums raw. One way to trip the processing switch is to sense each step of a chore or routine. I practiced this tip this morning. Hot water dampens the soft rag. The rag glides across the table and then snags on the wooden window sill. Something opens and slows down, and the house gets more clean. Ending one step and starting a new one becomes an opportunity to sense the space of the moment.

Switch judgment to wonder. This trick was the big break-through. In the past when I cleaned house, the mind became irritated, judgmental, blaming. My baby daughter's sugar-free cheerios that sprinkle the kitchen floor are inevitable triggers. Who should've picked them up? I notice the cast-iron stove is rusting. Who should've oiled the stove last winter? Of course, my answer is usually my poor wife. And then for the next hour, my mind tortures me with a maddening list of "new rules" for the household that'll fix all this domestic entropy! Jonathan Haidt, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, writes in The Happiness Hypothesis that our minds have a "like-o-meter" that automatically and constantly judges virtually everything we experience in terms of like or dislike.

How could I authentically neutralize my like-o-meter? I didn't want to force myself into liking what my mind doesn't like (I needed a tactic that felt more authentic and that went beyond that old school pop psychology method.) So, this morning when I stepped on the third cheerio, I ensnared the judgment and instead marveled at the vacuum mouth snort the organic oat "o" down the hatch. Instead of letting my attention fixate on the grime on the hardwoods as I mopped, I periodically noticed for the first time the rich patterns in the pine planks - owl eyes and sensual lines and ripple-rings. This tip is similar to "sense the steps" except that you simply observe when the mind grows irritated or frustrated with the activity at hand, and you turn attention to raw sensory impressions that trigger delight.

Admire the tools. What a piece of work is my Eureka (and what a name). This model, titled The Boss, is a compact fellow designed for convenient toting. I uncoil the tail-like cord, attach the extension, and maneuver the dragon-like neck across the two-story house. And man can it suck. When it has an empty belly (i.e., a new bag), its mouth clamps the hardwoods and rugs with a deeply satisfying suction. So if you're mowing the lawn, admire your mower's design - the way the handle fits your hands, the way the wheels adjust, the way the bag fits in the grooves. If you're raking and bagging leaves, appreciate that rake's teeth and handle and the way the trash bag's lip opens around and clasps the trash can lip. What you admire you're more likely to care for.

Marvel at the mind's movement. Here's where I really argue that adults' wonder is potentially richer than that of most children's. We're more aware of what the mind does. We can curse the mind's obsessions, but we also can praise its openness and inner workings. So when you glimpse wonder scurry across your mind's floor and chase away judgment or mindless obsession, take delight. The activity at hand will benefit - and you'll be more likely to replicate the attention-switch.

Appreciate the big picture. The difference between delight or disdain can be a matter of perspective. If I let the mind fixate on the other work I want or need to do after cleaning, then I'll resent the chore. But if I focus the mind on the big picture, something else happens. After all, what does a prominent poet, a productive jazz musician, and a Nobel physicist have in common when it comes to productivity? According to Mahily Csikszentmihalyi in his seminal book Creativity: Flow and Psychology of Discovery and Invention (Harper 1997), they each have a big picture perspective so that they will "be surprised by something every day." Professor of Philosophy Maria Eunice Quilici Gonzalez and Associate Professor of Artificial Intelligence Willem Ferdinand Gerardus Haselager suggest that, in fact, one can create habits of creative surprise (Semiotica 153: 325-42, 2005). And surprise is one of wonder's hallmark signs that it has arrived.

So this morning, I let the mind periodically appreciate the pleasure that a clean house brings my wife. And then my mind went broader. Cleaning the house became an opportunity for me to become reacquainted with the details around me. I greeted the bathroom sink and its specific edges and trim. I saw for the first time in a long time a glass-top end table that was once my grandmother's. And then my mind expanded even more. Cleaning house was a way to care for this space where my family feels safe and familiar. Like the swallows at work this time of year, I was tending the family sanctuary.

I was Man Vacuuming. Eureka!

Some of you are probably way ahead of me on this venture. If so, share your tips and experiences. Otherwise, let me know what you try as you cook, wash dishes, process mail, clean out your email mailbox, or clean the coffee maker to create more spaciousness within and more delight without. I'll repeat: How we handle the mundane moments may change our lives.

This morning, wonder left her footprints all over the household floor. I forgave her the dirt.