Monday, February 22, 2016

The C-Word: Beyond Cancer and Cleaning Up

I just came back from a hideous Airbnb experience in Los Angeles. The apartment was beautifully-located and the host was lovely and responsive - but the space was dusty, musty and crammed so full of vintage finds that within an hour, my throat closed and I could barely breathe. I tried to soldier on but gave up the next day. It was more like a thrift-store storage space than a living space. What I'd forgotten is that post-chemo one is often extremely sensitive to dust and mold and as an intuitive, I am extremely sensitive to energy - and the energy and histories of all those cast-offs was suffocating me.

Last month (behind the curve, I know), I pondered Marie Kondo's The Lifechanging Magic of Tidying Up. The idea is that tidying is easy if you reduce your possessions to only those you use often and only those which "spark joy." You hold each of your objects and try and tap into your intuition as to whether you need them or not. If they've already completed their purpose in your life, you let them go. In our moving process this fall, we reduced our possessions to a minimum and moved into an apartment with no broken pieces - and the lifestyle change has been liberating.

This is the opposite of the anti-housework ethos when I was coming into womanhood.

actually, clean house can make you happier, more fascinating and healthier!
Marie Kondo's theory is that if your home is tidy and in order, it makes it easier to focus on what you want in life. The exercise of figuring out which possessions truly spark joy in you also helps awaken your sense of what sparks joy in the rest of your life.  Gretchen Rubin, the author of the Happiness Project, discovered that the one thing that makes people happier - day to day - was making their beds. Even in hotel rooms! It gives one a sense of order and control in one's life and starts the day with a degree of discipline.

And recently, a university study showed that washing dishes significantly reduced one's stress and anxiety levels.

When I was 16, my mother gave me a book called "Judy's Book of Housework." This was a book that was given to her when she was about the same age. Of course, I was horrified. I had no interest in housework and no reason to believe it was useful to know about it. We feminists wanted to liberate ourselves from such petty concerns.

Judy's Book of Housework is just one in a series. While it feels old-fashioned, its advice is practical and sensible even now.
After laughing at my mother (as teenagers are apt to do) and the description of how to prepare for the chimney sweep, I re-read the chapter on making beds.

Best advice ever on making beds! Cleaning might cure cancer!
The most crucial piece of advice was this - when you get out of bed, open the windows, pull open your bed and let it cool down and release any moisture and heat that has built up in it during the night. If you have to dash off to work, let making your bed be the last thing you do before you leave. In the Judy book, she suggests making the bed after breakfast.

I was struck by the idea of opening up the windows and releasing all the tension and unfinished business of the day before and starting fresh. I still make beds like that today.

But here's the real point - a clean, tidy home will not just make you happier and more successful as Marie Kondo suggests - it will make you healthier. Older synthetics - plastics, polyesters, etc - break down and release toxins into the air. Furniture that is held together using glues or made of pressed board also begins to disintegrate. Cracks or holes in the walls hold dust and release miniscule amounts of paint and plaster into the air. Books and book bindings disintegrate. All of these affect your air quality and your health.

Whether it's Feng Shui or Vashtu, the Konmari method or simply interior design, the first rule is to reduce your possessions. The reason is this: the more stuff you have, the more surfaces and crevices to hold dust, animal and human hair, soot and fumes from car exhaust and factory smog. If you've had cancer, chemotherapy, another systemic or chronic illness, all of that junk in the air can make you sicker.

The fewer possessions filling your space makes cleaning easier. Thus you can stay away from toxic cleaning supplies - less Febreeze and air fresheners - more vinegar, soap, water and a good dust cloth.

I was always irritated that every time a Feng Shui practitioner came to my space because they told me to get rid of my books. Now that most of the books are in storage, I understand why. Unless you have a large enough space where clean, cool air can circulate freely around your possessions, you need to scale them back. Also, too many things block your physical movement around a space as well as limiting your mind's ability to wander and be creative. Many writers and artists prefer to face a blank wall rather than a window, as it allows their minds fill the space rather than distracting them.

If your things are disorganized, it's hard to find what you need, when you need it. Stuff gets lost. Things get broken or spoiled or stained or unusable and no one notices. If you've had chemo or chronic illness, you know how much your brain is taxed already. Reduced possessions, a well-organized space with no broken objects make the process of keeping track of stuff easier.

Last of all, if you believe in or are sensitive to energy, every object contains some energy of its previous owners - on a scientific level, it physically holds molecules of everyone who has ever touched it and it can affect your force field, too. (Sometimes, scrubbing it down with soap and water, scraping off any residue from its previous use and leaving it out in the sun to dry can change things - but this isn't always possible in cities).

My daughter always teased me that every time one visited the house of a healer or psychic, they were filled with little things - feathers, dream catchers, crystals, stones, souvenirs and talismans - and they were always dark and dusty. What I have noticed is that the most professional healers and intuitives I've worked with keep their "charms" to a minimum. They give things away quickly. This way, the energy keeps flowing and moving.

Here are my obstacles to the clean and de-clutter theory - if, for instance, you need a massive library of art and photobooks (like me) or vintage clothing (like the young stylist whose home we borrowed), you can't just get rid of it. Financial concerns make it hard to have a separate storage space. If you can't afford to fix the cracks in your walls or the peeling paint or leaking pipes, you're stuck.

And then, if like me, you had moments when you were broke, you might buy things in bulk - massive packages of paper towels or diapers or breakfast cereals. When I was a single mother of young kids with an unstable income and lunch boxes to fill every day, I was very nervous to buy small sizes of juice boxes or napkins, knowing that the day would come when everyone was late to school and we had run out of chips. I hesitated to give away clothes that one child had outgrown, thinking that it might fit the younger one in a year or so. I kept ski jackets in a variety of sizes and colors, snow boots, toys, shoes and sandals, old textbooks and backpacks, school supplies from the previous year. For any parent who's been short of money, you know the story. The zipper on the coat rips on the coldest day of the year. If there's not an extra in the back of the closet, how do you send your kid to school? It's hard to get rid of stuff because who knows if you will be able to afford a replacement.

Reducing your possessions to what you use immediately seems like an affluent, first-world idea. And some people think her ideas border on neurosis.

That said, if you have any illness or live in a small space, I believe now that de-cluttering is worth the emotional struggle.

First, the kind of food one buys in bulk is not the kind of food one should feed one's family. In fact, for your health, you are better off buying fresh fruits and vegetables in small quantities and using them immediately rather buying than massive boxes of chips and cookies that keep for a month.

Stuff that sits in the fridge or on your shelves loses nutritional value fast. Something as simple as a carton of orange juice loses all its vitamin C in a week! If it sits for long, even coffee, tea, spices and condiments get moldy - often before the mold is even visible. Consuming even miniscule amounts of mold can exacerbate illness and affect one's memory and immune system. Fungi can produce xenoestrogens and other hormones that affect weight gain and adrenal function. Even powerfully healing spices like turmeric, which don't get moldy, can emulsify the oils in their plastic bottles and bags while losing their potency and taste over time.

Personally, I found getting rid of stuff frightening. I was convinced that I needed exactly the thing I'd given away. I felt so weightless that I might lose my balance. Now that I am used to it, I feel so clear I don't know what I will do when all the stuff from storage comes back.

When my kid suddenly had a ski trip this winter, all the old ski clothes were gone! Having reduced my possessions, I insisted we not purchase new clothes. Instead, she found she could borrow most of what she needed. She returned it afterwards so it's not filling up our closets. (It does help that we live in a well-off community with plenty available).

Back to Gretchen Rubin -  "Outer order leads to inner calm." In the end, nothing will cure illness better than a calm, happy state of mind. Keep a few of the things you love. Give the rest away to someone who really needs them.

Cleaning is not just a chore, it is an act of self-love. As any Buddhist or Sufi will tell you, it is act of meditation. An opportunity to be mindful and conscious of your surroundings. It is a gift to yourself and your family. It's simple. You don't have to go all Martha Stewart on it.

Last of all -  open the windows and throw open your bed clothes for at least an hour before you make your bed - make sure you have clean and new sheets and bedding (throw away stuff with holes and leaking duvets or give them to someone who wants to cut them up and paint on them or something).

And MAKE YOUR BED! Every day. Even if you have a housekeeper, do it yourself. It will change your life.

Thanks, Mum (and Muriel Goaman, wherever you are).

By the way, if this is useful advice - or you'd like to add something, disagree, or read about something totally different - consider posting your thoughts below.