It’s hard not to sound like I am bragging when I tell people that one of my daughter’s favorite things to do is clean. I quickly assure them that my son does NOT like to clean, lest they mistake me for a person who is training my children well.
My own tendencies lie between slightly civilized and completely feral, so while I appreciate my daughter’s natural orderliness, I know she did not get it from me.
This past week marked Imbolc, the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The word Imbolc comes from the Gaelic phrase “In the belly,” and refers to the babies growing in the bellies of sheep, as well as the seeds stirring in the belly of the soil.
Though technically still winter, a shift is beginning. Spring is nigh. In many cultural traditions across the northern hemisphere, this is also a time for early spring cleaning, a chance to sweep out the dust and soot that’s accumulated over the dark, cold winter months.
In the wake of Christmas, January tends to be a month of winnowing for us. We need to make room for all the new gifts, so trips to the community thrift store to drop off bags are part of our family’s midwinter traditions.
Over the last month, I’d been trying to convince my daughter that the broken, toddler-sized toy vacuum she’s received as a hand-me-down years ago really needed to find a new home, and during the most recent purge she finally agreed, but only if she could get a real vacuum cleaner to replace it.
This seemed more than fair, so I ordered a small, lightweight vacuum, and her toy vacuum finally left the building. By complete coincidence, the vacuum arrived on Imbolc.
The joy on my daughter’s face as we unpacked the box equaled or possibly surpassed that of Christmas and her recent birthday.
“This is the best day ever!” she exclaimed as we pulled the slim, blue machine out of its packaging. She immediately set to work pulling the vacuum across the living room carpet, beaming as it sucked up the dirt and bramble that are ubiquitous in any ranch or farmhouse.
She was not satisfied when she finished there, however, and soon was working her way up the carpeted stairs to the second floor. She marveled as I showed her how to use the crevice tool to capture the dust balls jammed around the edges of each step.
“What a wonderful machine” her shining eyes proclaimed.
There is a Zen teaching that goes: “What does one do before enlightenment?”
The master replies, “Chop wood. Carry water.”
The novice asks next, “What does one do after enlightenment?”
“Chop wood, Carry water.”
As anyone living and working on a ranch or farm can attest, the work is never done, and much of the work is physically taxing and monotonous.
Previously, I always interpreted the teaching to mean that should I ever achieve enlightenment, the chicken coop would still need to be cleaned, the herd and flock moved from pasture to pasture, the cattle worked, the lambs weaned, and, of course, the detritus of these activities would constantly, exhaustingly, ANNOYINGLY need to be removed from our living space, but I wouldn’t mind anymore, because I’d achieved enlightenment.
Watching my daughter work, it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps enlightenment isn’t an antidote to the drudgery of mundane chores. Rather, enlightenment is discovering the joy inherent within these tasks.
Vacuums are amazing, after all, if you really think about it.
So this week, I am trying to embrace the dust and dirt that, despite my daughter’s new vacuuming adventures, is creeping back in even as I sit here typing.
I’m trying to see the never-ending chore of cleaning as an opportunity to engage with the magic of transformation.
I’m not there yet, but just as Imbolc heralds the quiet stirring of new growth, I can imagine the seeds of this new way of being stirring within me too. It may not be spring, but we are getting there.
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