Dirt has long been sticky stuff for feminism. Four decades after Alix Kates Shulman published her classic essay, “A Marriage Agreement,” American family researchers still trot out surprising! new evidence! that the country is far from reaching gender parity on housework. The pernicious double-shift chases women through the generations like a mob of vengeful, undead dust bunnies; mommies trash daddies in major publications and daddies trash mommies right back. The chore wheel keeps on turning and our national conversation about the minutia of domesticity goes on — as evidenced, in one small part, by the release of a new anthology called “Dirt: The Quirks, Habits and Passions of Keeping House.”
The book compiles essays by 39 writers (34 of them women), detailing their intimate relationships with the accumulation and eradication of filth. It’s fascinating reading for the same reason that there’s a naughty thrill in poking through someone else’s medicine cabinet: Because the mundane, indelicate, smelly details of life offer up the truth of our dirty secrets. Creating clutter and cleaning it up serve as the world’s most flexible metaphors — our messes, after all, consist of the detritus of our lives, the souvenirs of experience. To face down grime is to confront the fact that life is messy. To clean it up is to wrest order from chaos.
The most interesting essays in the collection are the ones that show how dirt sifts into the cracks of our closest relationships, standing in for everything that we do to, and for, each other. Kyoko Mori flees a country on the run from her suicidal stepmother’s “angry spotless house.” Patty Dann writes about ironing her husband’s shirts, the night he died of brain cancer. Cleaning, she says, “is what allowed me to survive… I know I am not the only woman who cleans as she sobs in the night.”
I recently spoke with Dirt’s editor, Mindy Lewis, about putting the book together and about her own relationship with the DustBuster.
You must have had thousands of conversations, at this point, about people’s cleaning habits and their messes. What makes those conversations interesting or important?
Yes — any time I would tell someone about the book, they’d have a cleaning story to share. It’s this mundane thing, but so revealing of who we are. If I could take a speeded up movie of my apartment, I could see the way my life has changed. There are so many things in life that are out of our control, but our home environments are a form of personal expression in which our values and aspirations take on physical form.
So you’re saying that a home is the place where your psyche meets the world — or is it that a home is a buffer between the two?
I think it’s both. I think people who are clutter bugs have a need to remind ourselves of where we stand and what things mean to us, like proofs of our identity. For some people, it’s a really conscious thing; for others it’s just a way to deal with the press of daily life.
One of the most persistent themes of the book — including in your essay, “Abhorring a Vacuum” — is of women struggling to reconcile their own cleaning habits with their mothers’. Why is that so important?
I grew up with a mother who was divorced, back in the days when “divorced” was a dirty word. I think she vented a lot of her frustration in keeping this pristine apartment where the furniture was covered in plastic. As an adolescent, I rejected her home as being very sterile, but at the same time when I moved into my own apartment I was always sweeping and mopping and cleaning. I think women’s struggle with cleaning has a lot to do with cultural memory — somehow or other it’s intrinsic in our self-definitions. What comes out in these essays is how comfortable or uncomfortable we are in being put in that position.
What was your favorite story to read or edit?
I really don’t have a favorite, but there is one piece that absolutely doesn’t fit but was just too good not to include. It’s an imaginary conversation by Richard Goodman between Thoreau and someone who’s interviewing him for a job as a housecleaner — apparently he needs a day job. Did you know that Thoreau used to bring a bag of dirty laundry for his mother to wash when he’d go to visit her?
Well, no, I did not.