Growing up, my family went every summer to this magical place called Takayama– a sweet little beach community on the coast of Japan. We moved a lot, but through the years this beloved place was a cherished and steady constant.
Our cabin was old and made of 80,000 bits of intricately joined bits of wood. This meant that every room– even every wall– had 16,00 little ledges and surfaces. So cleaning the house when we first got there was an utterly overwhelming task. My parents did the heavy lifting, but we kids would sweep, wipe, and mop our own rooms for days (okay, hours) while loudly complaining that we wanted to run down to the beach.
And then one summer my friend, who I will call Karen Lovelyheart, came to stay with us.
The first time I ever watched her clean a room, it absolutely blew my mind.
Here is how I had cleaned things up till then:
I dabbed. I swiped. I tried not to touch the gross parts. I tried not to make a mess. I tried to get in and get out with as little muss and fuss and as few supplies as possible. I’d use a paper towel wherever possible. I tried to be “efficient,” which meant not bothering with heavy, messy, inefficient buckets of water but just bringing up one rag at a time and then taking it back down to the sink to rinse it out.
But somehow in spite of my best efforts, I’d end up getting lost in one tiny corner, totally obsessing over one little spot. And even after I was done, hours and hours later, it all still felt a little gross. I decided that in an old house, it was just a fact of life that some bits would simply never be clean. This was just HOW IT WAS, people. No judge.
Helen did not seem to think that this was an acceptable conclusion. She rolled up her sleeves. She surveyed the room. She gathered her supplies. I found the supplies themselves totally daunting– a vacuum cleaner, for starters. A bucket of hot, soapy water. ANOTHER bucket of hot soapless water. (Two buckets!!?!?) Rubber gloves. A stack of rags. A toothbrush. And toothpicks.
Then she found a strange alien contraption in the bowels of the vacuum cleaner, attached it to the hose, and handed it to me.
“This is for the ledges,” she said.
“I don’t understand.”
“To vacuum the dust off all the little ledges in the wall,” she explained.
“But usually I just wipe those with a cloth,” I said.
“But if you wipe an inch of dust with a wet cloth,” she continued gently, “you’ll just end up with black sludgy mud. You have to get the dust off first, and THEN wipe it clean.”
I had a moment of panic. “But that’s SO MUCH MORE WORK!” I cried.
“You’ll be surprised– it’s actually easier this way.” Then she grabbed the bucket of soapy water and started doing appalling things.
I did not believe her. I rolled my eyes. I grumbled. I was sure I’d never get down to the damn ocean. But I started vacuuming anyway. Each ledge seemed to take forever. “Start on one side and work your way across,” she suggested. “Start at the top and then go down.” I begrudgingly took her suggestion.
And the craziest thing happened, you guys.
That nifty little levered sucker head really did suck up an inordinate amount of dust. And when I went methodically, from left to right and then top to bottom, it wasn’t as overwhelming and I never accidentally did the same spot twice. And then once we were done vacuuming, we put on rubber gloves and wrung out rags and just DOVE RIGHT IN. It was scandalous.
Karen made us methodically go over every single inch of the walls, shelves, ledges, and even the floor. It was SO MUCH more work than I ever would have done on my own.
Except that it turns out, it wasn’t. It took a little more time than my old way, but not much, and there was this amazing bonus– my whole room was clean. Like, REALLY clean. Like, you could walk around in your bare feet and drop your clothes on the bare boards and it just felt– lovely.
I mostly forgot this good lesson the instant I went off to college and succumbed to my innate tendency to get things done with splattered, chaotic panic.
But I remembered it this week. A client was facing a series of tangled problems. It was rough stuff. She groaned…and I groaned along with her. I wanted SO BADLY for her to get some relief. I wanted to find her a way around. This woman deserves some relief; she’s been through the wringer this year. But I could see clear as day that the only way for her to get to relief was to go directly THROUGH the tangles. The way through to relief was on the other side of tackling more hard things.
I had a vivid image of Karen putting on her rubber gloves, getting a bucket of hot soapy water, and diving right into the dirtiest spots without fear.
And I resolved to channel her a little bit this week. Rubber gloves and all.