I love DIRT -- the book that is. After reading a different essay from the new anthology DIRT: The Quirks, Habits, and Passions of Keeping House each night before going to bed, I've been dreaming of dust bunnies.
I wrote a bit about the book before, but because it's so good, I decided to interview DIRT's editor, Mindy Lewis, who is also a memoirist ("Life Inside") and teacher.
Undomesticated Me: What inspired the idea for an anthology devoted to the subject of housework?
Mindy Lewis: DIRT was inspired by in part by my awareness of the difference between my cleanliness-obsessed mother and my own, shall we say, casual approach to housekeeping. The differences in our cleaning styles seemed symbolic of other issues. I began to think about how attitudes towards cleaning and housekeeping reflect personality, family and cultural roots, gender roles, and relationships.
UM: What sort of relationship do you have to housework?
ML: Housework has always been something I’ve turned to when I need to make a fresh start, be it a new season or an emotional upheaval. I’ve spent many cumulative hours scrubbing the floor on hands and knees after a romantic break-up, ferreting through closets after the loss of a loved one, scrubbing sinks and appliances when I need to sort something out. (I know I’m not alone in this.) Cleaning is what I do, intermittently, when I’m too mentally fatigued to work. But I have to say my approach is casual.
UM: Did editing the book change that relationship at all?
ML: In the spirit of research, I hired a housekeeper (a couple, actually) to clean my apartment, something that I sorely needed yet might not have given myself permission to do otherwise. The magic they worked in my cluttered space inspired me to keep it up on my own, making that extra occasional effort. (My sinuses have thanked me—and if I don’t do it, they remind me.)
UM: What was the most surprising thing you learned in the course of editing the book?
ML: Each essay is specific and personal, touching on universal aspects of what it is to be human. In researching the subject, I learned some surprising facts about literary figures: Thoreau brought his dirty laundry home to his mother, and Virginia Woolf, though dependent upon her domestic help, was demanding and critical. Our home environments are like our faces—we allow people to see what we want them to see, but when we’re alone, our habits are visible mainly to ourselves.
UM: Why is housework such a hot-button issue?
ML: House cleaning is a powerful lens into gender roles, economic status, social class, and race.
You would think that by now domestic tasks would be equally the responsibility of men and women. Not so; although cleaning styles vary within gender, it’s still women who are largely left holding the bag. And it is generally the underclass, the immigrants, who clean up the messes of those who have the means to pay them.
UM: Do you have any cleaning advice for Undomesticated Me readers?
ML: In case you haven’t guessed by now, I’m not really one to give cleaning advice. I would say this: Try to make regular efforts to clear your space so it doesn’t become too daunting.
But if you’re not doing it yourself and can afford to hire someone to help you, do it! It’s an honorable arrangement: You can use the help, and they can use the work.