Changing that conjunction

Posted on August 15, 2014

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woman in chair near lake shores

Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes. ~Walt Whitman

I have this huge walk-in pantry adjacent to my laundry room. It’s actually bigger than the bedroom I had in college and I imagine a more fun person would fill it with things like alcohol and extra snacks.

But no. I have one entire wall of shelves devoted entirely to cleaning products. Almond-scented wood polish, glass cleaner that smells like mint, stainless steel shiner, cleaning sponges of all shapes and sizes. Each time I walk in there and get a whiff of the industrial-sized,  lavender-scented Pine-Sol, I feel an embarrassingly strong surge of happiness.

I also have a professional dusting kit (complete with a feather duster for light fixtures and a plastic attachment for those cobwebs that always seem to find the highest corners possible). I have an electric scrubber for tile floors, several mops, two brooms and three vacuum cleaners (and in my defense, they are all different sizes and used for different purposes).

There it is. I love to clean.

But I know better than to admit this to others. Despite the joking responses I know I’ll get if I do (Why don’t you come over to my house? It could use a good cleaning!), what I’m really afraid of is the perception that if I love to clean my house, it means that I must not have a successful, important profession. Because that’s something I’ve heard so many times it makes my ears bleed.

In every book I’ve read about how to manage one’s time better and accelerate one’s career, hiring staff to help with the ‘lowly’ domestic chores is almost always mentioned. The message is clear: Important, successful people do not clean their own houses. And for some reason, at some point, I decided that this must be true.

So two years ago, I hired a housekeeper. You should have your own cleaning company she said when she saw the bottles and bottles of all natural cleaning products in my pantry. You have more stuff than I do!

Sometimes it was nice not to have the burden of cleaning the whole house. I mean, I’m a pretty busy person and I have a pretty big house. I have a full-time job and my coaching business. My husband and I own six condos that I help manage. I have a toddler. I love to read and I try to see friends at least once a month. And like most people, each day I have to make tough choices about how to spend my time because there are so many demands on it. But I did miss cleaning.

I’m not one to get ecstatic about washing the dishes in the sink or doing the laundry. Those chores were certainly still there everyday. What I mean is that I missed the real cleaning. There’s something therapeutic about going into a messy, disorganized space and putting everything back in order and making it shine. To me, it feels hopeful. Like a fresh, clean start. Like many possibilities are on the horizon.

My housekeeper hurt her knee several weeks ago and had to stop working for a while. She said she’d be off for two weeks, but her recovery took much longer than anticipated and she ended up not being able to clean for a few months. Rather than try to find someone as good as her, I decided to do it myself.

I had actually forgotten how good it feels scrub a floor. Or to wash a mirror clean of a 3 year old’s fingerprints. Or to smell the lemon verbena bathroom cleaner when I wiped down the tubs.

But I think what bothered me the most was the erroneous conjunction I had insisted on believing. You can be successful OR you can clean your house. Somewhere, in some corner of my brain, was this conflicting dichotomy.

Perhaps you know exactly what I mean. These ideas are everywhere, these conjunctions that tell us that we have to choose between being one thing or the other. That to accept our whole selves, with all of their odd quirks, wouldn’t be right.  

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a new friend shortly after I moved to Portland, Oregon. I can’t quite figure you out, she said to me, after we had hiked a long trail in the Mount Hood National Forest. I mean, you’re such a hippie environmentalist but you love designer handbags! As if crunchy granola women couldn’t possibly have a weakness for Kate Spade.

If you look around you, you’ll see these messages everywhere, these conjunctions that tell us that we have to choose the boxes we fit into. You can be a feminist OR you can take your husband’s last name, but not both. You can be a responsible mom OR you can travel internationally. You can be an intelligent and respected college professor OR you can read trashy celebrity gossip magazines.

But really, aren’t we all a little more complex than that? Aren’t we all a little bigger than that?

I think it’s time we change our conjunctions. Forget the “OR” and embrace the “AND.” Own all the parts of yourself, even if they don’t always seem to come together into one neat, unified whole.

Maybe you’re a personal trainer who loves chocolate and ice cream. Maybe you’re a minister who has a hard time forgiving people. Maybe you’re an anti-poverty activist with a shoe obsession.  All of those things actually make up who you really are.

I’m not sure why so many of us keep insisting that others be either black or white when we know our own selves are quite gray. Maybe it’s time for us all to accept that very few people fit fully into just one category. If we accept this, then perhaps we may, in turn, accept our whole selves.

The truth is that this is life, lines get blurred all of the time and things get messy. (For the latter, may I recommend Method’s Pink Grapefruit cleaner?)

“OR” is so limiting. But “AND”? AND is expansive and honest and real. AND understands how a million internal conflicts, contradictions, good intentions and abundant flaws can exist together. In short, AND is what it means to be human.

AND is going to be my new conjunction.

If you’ll excuse me, I have some very important professional tasks to attend to and I have a bathroom that needs to be cleaned.

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Posted in: Love 101