I am at the cabin in WV, de-winterizing it and readying it for the summer.
That is not hard to do, since we use the place all year round. We just turn off the baseboard heaters that keep the pipes from bursting, turn on the water, sweep out the lingering ashes from the wood-burning stove, and we are ready to go.
Almost. There was one more chore that I did in earnest for the first time today: cleaning up the front porch. The cabin is deep in the woods, so over the course of the winter and early spring, leaves, bugs, dust and debris whose origins I don’t even want to contemplate, accumulate on the floorboards of our porch.
So I cleaned: Sweep. Mop. Sweep again. (Trust me, that second sweeping is the secret to a happy floor.)
What amazed me about this job is not that I ended up with a clean porch and a presentable entryway (which, I admit, was important but predictable), but what happened to me along the way. Now normally, I think of myself as a rational person, one who understands the purpose of work, the boundaries of self, the nature of time, all those everyday concepts that are the hallmarks of sanity. So believe me when I say I am as surprised as anyone by what I am about to report. Here goes.
It started off innocently enough. In the beginning, there was just me, my mop-and-broom, and the dirt-laden floor. It is a ritual I have done thousands of time, not just with this floor but many floors. The motions are easy, swinging, repetitive, as familiar to me as rocking a cradle. Away and back, to and fro. The rhythm soothes, the routine lulls, loosening the dirt from the floor and me from my earth-bound moorings.
This is where the mystery began. And it wasn’t the first time.
Not always, not even often, but sometimes, somewhere along the way of cleaning the floor, I feel, I know, I am not alone. Somewhere in the midst of a stroke of the mop or the arc of an arm-swing, the presence of other women, myriads of them, come to join me. They gather across the divide of space and time. They are women who have swept and mopped and cleaned their homes just like me, using their versions of sponges, rags and brooms just like me. They join me. Their arms become my arms, their purpose my purpose. It is not that we merge, reducing our multiple selves to one. It is more that we move together, bodies mirroring bodies, synchronizing souls. When it happens, it always surprises me and it always delights me. But I also always wonder what it means.
Sometimes they come just to keep me company, sometimes for support and sometimes with a lesson. I don’t want to overstate this, but I don’t want to understate it either. I know that the most likely explanation is that I have conjured them up somehow, products of my imagination. No matter. I can still learn from them. Here is what I learned today.
Tending to the outside of the home is different than straightening up the inside. Porches, sidewalks, yards are beyond the totally private claim of home space but not yet part of the fully public claim of shared space. They are within the legal bounds of “mine” but allow the permissible trespass of “other”. They are a messy middle ground, where differing worlds both meet and part. Such places are both dangerous and exciting. I plan on devoting a chapter to thresholds in my book on Home - there is much to say about them. But here, I want to focus on two messages that my women seemed to bring me today from and about this liminal place:
1) Cleaning the outside of house is woman’s way of marking home. All territorial animals have ways to signal that this place is claimed. Men use stones and fences to mark the boundaries of pre-existing space. Women daily create, conjure the space of home into existence, with every stroke of the broom.
2) Cleaning the outside is a public demonstration, a symbolic, sympathetic protest combatting and defying all things disordered. Using porch as theater, women’s cleaning becomes a redemptive act performed by one calling for the participation of all. It is a manifesto for the public straightening of all things unjust, writ in the common dust of the earth.
Today’s visit carried many more lessons. Perhaps it is something in the magic of the woods that amplified my women’s message. But what I take away is this: despite what we might think, we are all bound to and responsible for each other beyond place and time; what we claim as our own is in truth just an extended act of borrowing; the boundaries between self and other, here and there, now and then are more porous than we imagine; and we must struggle to better understand how to live well and equitably with each other on this singular earth of ours.
This is their message on one foot. Now, as the rabbis say, we must go and study.