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Food for Thought

Cleanliness and godliness

We’ve all been told that cleanliness is next to godliness, but I’ve never quite accepted the connection. I heard the phrase most often when my mother was trying to get me to perform some unpleasant chore like scrubbing off the ring around the bathtub, or cleaning up the mess the cat made under the sofa. She expected it to convince me to wash my hair when I’d rather be at the library searching for a Sherlock Holmes story I hadn’t already read, or to help her polish mirrors and windows when they looked clean enough to me.
I didn’t want to be godly in the first place. I certainly didn’t want to be on some throne or pedestal, confined in a somber stone edifice, even if it did have soaring towers and colored windows. I preferred to be outdoors, barefoot, climbing trees or playing with my dog. Those were hardly things that seemed compatible with cleanliness.
My mother had no idea how little I was concerned with being godly. Being clean was okay as long as it didn’t get out of hand. If I had to give up sand piles and mud pies for the rest of my life just for the sake of godliness, then I wasn’t very interested. What’s wrong with a little dirt under your fingernails, anyway? My dad was a mechanic and he always had dark grease and stuff under his fingernails but he certainly wasn’t evil. In fact, he was about the nicest person I knew. He was kind, generous, patient, understanding, full of fun, curiosity, encouragement, adventure and good advice. He never told me I had to be clean to be good.
And, come to think of it, Mother wasn’t always that clean either. She got downright filthy working in the garden, cleaning out the attic, sorting through junk stored in the basement. She managed to get cobwebs in her hair, wallpaper paste dripping down her arms, and sand in her shoes just like any other mortal willing to tackle messy chores. And, one time, she had to walk barefoot on a freshly-painted section of our front porch because she painted herself into a corner.
She made endless attempts to bring me over to that cleanliness is godliness way of thinking but it never quite stuck. She tried brain-washing me by saying things like, ”doesn’t it make you feel good to get the kitchen all clean and everything put away where it belongs?” Not especially. It just made me tired and eager to get outdoors where I could ride our pony or just sit in the swing and daydream.
For several years, she tried the shame game. “Aren’t you embarrassed to have Barbara see how messy your room is?” Frankly, my friend Barbara didn’t care if my room was messy, just so long as it had a door with a lock that we could turn to keep my little sisters from bothering us while we talked about boys and giggled about certain things we weren’t supposed to know about yet. Then there was the reverse approach that began with, “your room says a lot about yourself, so you should think about the impression it gives the world.” News flash; the world wasn’t invited into my room, and besides, my room wasn’t talking.
In spite of all my objections and the cleverness of my many evasive tactics, I usually ended up right in the thick of things when it came to spring cleaning. Spring cleaning involved some only-once-a-year things that were rather fun and challenging. There were five upstairs windows that couldn’t be reached from one of our porch roofs or even by Dad’s longest ladder. The only way to wash the outside of those windows was for someone to sit on the sill of the open window where they could reach at least the bottom pane of glass—while someone inside the room held onto their legs to keep them from falling. I volunteered for this job because it was exciting and I knew that Mother would never loosen her hold on my legs until I was safely back inside.
There were heat ducts to clean out. It was like exploring the unknown to reach way down into those dark tunnels with the nozzle on the vacuum sweeper and hear mysterious things rattle up through the hose. I was proud that I had a good sense of balance and could stand near the top of the step-ladder to remove the glass from the ceiling fixtures, change the light-bulbs, and polish the metal while Mother took the glass parts to the kitchen to wash. And I absolutely insisted that I be the one to crawl to the back of the closet under the stairs to store the box filled with winter boots until they’d be needed sometime about next November. I didn’t want anyone else back there where I had hidden the poems I was secretly writing.