When Things Need Fixing: How Cleaning Can Be Therapeutic

Dealing with the world’s chaos, one room at a time


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Illustration by Chris Reed

Smudge was ill for three years. Still, his dying in my arms while rushing him to the animal hospital rattled me to my core. No one’s ever known a gentler cat. Two weeks later, unexpectedly, Gloria, one of our hens, keeled over with no warning. We’ve been on death watch for my mother-in-law’s husband, Artie. He’s 90, and he’s been in and out of the hospital. We wait for the call. On television and everywhere in the media, death looms. The Paris attack, the San Bernardino tragedy. It’s everywhere, every day; it never seems to end.

At the risk of becoming paralyzed by a world that is cruel and callous, fleeting and absurd, my primal instincts instructed me to fight back.

I didn’t climb Mt. Everest or train for a marathon. I turned inward, to my nest, one stick at a time, to refresh and re-feather. Not a major renovation like the one we undertook 10 years ago for our 150-year-old fixer-upper farmhouse in Nyack. No, this rehabilitation was more like a slow drip — an item here, a brighter bulb there, removing an old piece of ceramic from a side table, perking up a windowsill. A speckle of newness, no matter how small, infused emotional purpose into each day.

It started, ever so innocently — and in hindsight, metaphorically — with eight candles, a shout-out to the spirit of Hanukkah. Six tapers in two silver candelabra, and two large round candles on either side, had long ago melted into waxy stubs. The simple gesture of replacing them brought the promise of light to a dark time.

We have a deep shelf atop the refrigerator where we’ve stored Grandma Annie’s flatware, as well as Champagne flutes, wine glasses, highboys, and juice glasses. My husband Ricky and I boxed up the items and scrawled “For Julia’s First Apartment” on the box. I smiled thinking about setting up our daughter, who is only 13, in a college apartment, studying to become a professional violinist one day. I think Grandma Annie, who died at 96, winked at us from heaven.

Why do we wait so long to do the little things we say we’re going to do? What are we waiting for? I purchased a pair of strong, professional-grade potholders to replace the threadbare, ragged duo I’ve had since I furnished my first apartment in 1987. They had stains on them from every ordinary and extraordinary meal I’ve ever cooked. While I was at it, I added to my “cart” a set of blood-red dish towels. The bright flash of color on the oven door resembles the male cardinal that alights on the branch outside my home-office window.

The therapy is working. I putter around the house with more intention, poring over every nook and cranny, evaluating what needs my attention. Of course my days are filled with more important decisions than these, but the satisfaction of taking care of these little things is extraordinarily life-affirming.

I’d never really noticed how garish the bamboo tissue-box cover looked in my upstairs bathroom. Here’s a room with good bones. A lot of stainless steel and beautiful tiles and Arts-and-Crafts lighting. With eyes wide open, I knew what I had to do. I bought a stainless steel tissue-box holder with clean lines. Then, a cool glass-and-steel soap dispenser. A sturdy toilet paper holder, which I splurged on because it’s steady and solid, the way life’s best bits are. I updated the ratty woven box aside the toilet that holds extra toilet paper rolls because it had become less a container than a cat scratching post.

“I feel like I’m at a luxury hotel,” Ricky said when he stepped into the newly appointed bathroom.

He’s been worried about me lately, but his delighted response was genuine.

Death reminds us there’s only so much we can control. Which likely explains the coolest improvement thus far. The mop, broom, duster, and dustpan are forever playing Twister. No, wait — Pick Up Sticks. When you reach for one in the cramped corner where they’re entangled, they all collapse. It had never occurred to me to buy a hook system for the wall, which now holds these utilitarian objects like a row of neatly dressed soldiers.

I don’t know what I’ll buy or fix up next. I just know that it will be something, and that’s enough.

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