Michelle Martin

Cleaning house

Sunday, October 7, 2012

I’ve read that cleaning a house when there are children at home is like brushing your teeth while eating Oreos.

Sure, you’ll get some things cleaned or put away, but while you’re doing it, three more things have been used or left where they don’t belong.

And while you’d think that having older children would help, it doesn’t. The things that are left around the house just change.

Our living room could (and often does) have blocks strewn across the floor (Teresa), with a handful of picture books thrown in for good measure, Caroline’s scripts and homework and three or four novels left on the couch and Frank’s hockey tape on the coffee table and soccer ball rolling around wherever it went when someone last tripped over it. And juice boxes, dishes with strawberry tops or pretzel crumbs and glasses half-full of water, just waiting to be spilled.

OK, maybe I’m exaggerating. But not by much.

And I can’t just blame the kids. There are notebooks and binders and other papers piled on the desk next to the computer, full of information I needed once for something I was writing and never to be looked at again.

I wasn’t raised this way. When I was growing up (and of course this might be the rose-tinted visions of nostalgia talking), people didn’t leave things wherever they lay; things had a place, and it seems that we were expected to put them in it.

It was probably a bit easier. We lived in a larger suburban house, and the one my parents stayed in longest was their home for 22 years — but my brother and I had left the nest long before my parents moved. We have more cramped living arrangements with three kids who all are at different stages of life and have different interests, so there isn’t a lot of overlap when it comes to their things. And there are a lot of things. Sometimes there just isn’t a place for all the stuff. That’s when I tell the older kids it’s time to clean out.

That’s one reason, I think, it’s so refreshing to read about the saints who lived lives of austerity, the ones who imitated Jesus when he would step away from the crowds, sometimes even from his disciples, and focus on his relationship with his Father. They had a way of cutting through all the clutter — real and metaphorical (or should I say metaphysical?). It probably has something to do with why Jesus told his followers to leave their families and follow him: families breed clutter.

The trick, I think, is to find a way to focus on the important things while the papers pile up and the dust bunnies play. It’s letting the toys be while you sit with a 2-year-old and listen to her, while she works to voice the thoughts and ideas that she is just starting to have the vocabulary to articulate. It’s encouraging the teenager and the pre-teen to appreciate and care for one another. And it’s taking the time to be grateful, not for all the stuff, but for the relationships that come with it.