Cleaning as Liberation

As I celebrate Passover and seek to make meaning out of the changes in my life so far due to the pandemic, I keep hearing over and over again something my Zen Leadership teacher Ginny Whitelaw said a few weeks ago. She quoted a colleague of hers who said, “This is going to wipe out all that wasn’t working.”

The process of quickly clearing space for my two stepchildren and my godson to move in with us has been its own, intense thing. I cleared out both my office and my ceramics studio, and it was a lot of work. And, coming as it did in early spring, in the lead-up to Passover, it was strongly reminiscent of the “Pesach cleaning” my family did when I was growing up. Around Chanukah, Mom would say “time to start Pesach cleaning!” We’d groan. We dreaded it. We procrastinated it. Yet over the course of a couple of months, we cleaned and sorted every nook and cranny, every year. Every closet, every shelf, every stash of beloved toys, all wiped down, sorted, and evaluated: What to keep, what to give away, what to throw away.

We kids hated this. We proclaimed to all who would listen that our mother was re-enacting the slavery in Egypt in preparation for celebrating the Exodus. Yet, even then, I had times when I appreciated it, and now recognize it as profoundly functional. Last week as I surveyed the years of accumulated business cards in my desk drawer, and with Don’s support summarily dumped them all into the recycling bin, I thought how much better it would be to do this once a year. In one fell swoop, I wiped away much of what wasn’t working about the contents of my desk drawer. Perhaps the cleaning my mother imposed on us was actually a deep teaching about liberation, rather than an act of oppression?

There are some things that weren’t working about my stepkids’ lives before the pandemic. This experience of temporarily moving them back in with us gives us the opportunity to see up close where they are struggling, and to experiment with new systems for supporting them as they navigate their disabilities and seek to contribute with their abilities. And – this is so far just aspirational – perhaps we will have a chance to support them to do some deep-cleaning-and-sorting of their homes before they move back into them?! While the superficial dirt gets cleaned regularly, piles of stuff tend to accumulate!

When I joined Don’s family in 2003, I reluctantly agreed to go along with paying someone to clean my house. While I’ve never felt fully comfortable with this privilege, I have greatly appreciated the ease it provides. Kim, who cleans our house and Sam and Sarah’s condos, is an important part of our family/village, and has become a friend as well. Now, as she shelters in place, we continue to pay her, while we do our own cleaning (some of it anyway… things are considerably less clean than with her at the helm!). I am grateful, too, for this visceral reminder of the real work it takes to maintain a household, and am hoping other clients of hers are also paying her during this time. I wish her ease and a well-deserved, long-overdue rest. May my cleaning be in the service of her liberation.

As I continue, also, to explore a path of Jewish ancestral healing, I feel my lineage behind me. Generations and generations of Jewish mothers cleaned and cooked for their families, and made my life possible. Opening to receiving their wisdom helps me to see that part of the thing about cleaning is to face the messiness. I wrote in my journal a week or so ago:

Let things be messy. Don’t fight the messiness. Let things fall apart. They will anyway. Learn from it. Make new things from the pieces.

Let things fall apart, indeed! And reclaim the DIY skills, the pleasure and sovereignty – albeit greatly aided by continued connectivity to the Internet’s wealth of information – of fixing things ourselves. And have the wisdom to know when risking exposure to a skilled worker is better than trying to do it ourselves (a stopped toilet and a stuck shower door are in one category, replacing a hot water heater another!)

Most likely, nothing short of a terrifying pandemic could have gotten us to so seriously upend our lives. What new patterns might we make out of this messy brokenness? Of course, it is too soon to say, and to know whether I and my immediate family will on balance be happy about it. First, we need to all survive – survive the virus, and the fear of the virus, and the family dynamics. And, we will need to take time to grieve our losses – whether they be small comforts or huge, beloveds who go before their time, and/or deaths we don’t get to attend in order to protect our own health and that of the collective.

And even if we in the end make wonderful lemonade out of these lemons, we know that so many, many others are suffering so much more than we are. For me, facing into messiness means also facing into the truly heinous things happening in the world. When I repeated the idea that the pandemic will wipe away all that isn’t working to my sister Rachel, she said, “Yes, and a lot of what was working, too.”

Many important non-profit organizations we support are hurting already and may not survive. To name just a couple of examples close to home, two very effective local projects improving outcomes for at-risk students in the schools, led by visionary people I admire, respect, and love, are experiencing an immediate funding hiatus because the schools are closed. One of them has already furloughed their employees, and the other one is having “scary” conversations with their accountant.

Part of the messiness I’ve been facing into this week is the blatantly anti-democratic actions of the Wisconsin legislature. And don’t get me started on the openly anti-democratic statements of our tweeter-in-chief, who admitted on Fox and Friends that if everyone were encouraged to vote, Republicans wouldn’t get elected. I’m not generally truly angry about political things, but these get my blood boiling. While I was able to vote absentee in the Wisconsin primary and state supreme court election, many people tried but couldn’t. Milwaukee, hardest-hit in the state by COVID-19 (especially in the Black community), had only 5 out of it’s usual 180 polling places open.

As you know if you read my last post, I am currently fundraising for our local immigrant’s rights group, Voces de la Frontera. In addition to protecting the rights of immigrants, Voces is working to protect democracy itself. On April 7th, the day our tragic and farcical show of in-person voting  (let’s not call it an election) was held, Voces organized this car caravan protest, which I participated in. Thank you to those of you who have already supported Voces. To read more and to donate you can use this link.

As we wash our hands, stay 6 feet apart, wear masks when we go out, disinfect our doorknobs and groceries, clean house, and work to protect democracy and other human rights, can we, individually and collectively, have the wisdom to know the difference between what was working and what wasn’t? And the wherewithal to rebuild what was working to make it even better?


3 thoughts on “Cleaning as Liberation”

  1. Thank you for this, Becca. This helped me center myself this morning, and then answer an email from a friend, that was challenging for me. Great food for thought. 😍

  2. The second week of lockdown I too did some deep cleaning. It was work, and in the end I felt really pleased with how it brightened thing up and created some order where it did not exist before. I appreciate and resonate with the linking physical cleaning and spirituality. It feels like there is some sort of purification process happening (or at least the potential for it?) on the physical level and the spiritual level as well, both individually and collectively. I am so glad you participated in the car protest, and I share the anger at what people who have structural power are doing. Reading your post gives me a sense of connection and hope, b/c it names things one can do individually and collectively toward a better life. Yes to the questions you pose at the end. For me, they becomes a prayer: May we have the wisdom to know the difference between what was working and what wasn’t. May we have the capacity, creativity, and the will to build on what was working to make it even better. (And I add: May we learn to grieve what is lost, that we may find liberation in the waves of mourning and celebration that is part of life. May we be renewed and refreshed.)

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