08 August 2007

Happiness v. Contentment: Cage Match TO THE DEATH!!!!

I have never even watched pro wrestling, let alone any type on cage match, so I should probably be forbidden from using that particular phrase again, let alone hyperbole involving death.

Rambling introductory preface aside, the difference between happiness and contentment is something I've been thinking about. Ever since Kaethe's comment on this cats and housekeeping post, actually. I started writing a comment to reply and then realised that it was too long for a comment and I should make it its own entry. (And then of course CrazyAuntPurl went and wrote about all that stuff way more eloquently than I ever could, but I guess I still have something to say.)

So. What do cats and housework have to do with anything, you ask? Well ... back when I wsa living in New Zealand with my first husband, I remember having a conversation (phone, email, IM? I no longer remember the medium) at a certain point with my friend Maya and I said that I was content, although not precisely happy.

I had a lot of reasons to be unhappy: I was working long hours, and very hard, at a job which I enjoyed but which could be pretty draining, my first husband was ... I'll just say Not Nice, and remind you all that they are exes for a reason. One of the particular forms his Not Nice-ness took was unreliability ... I could never know when he'd be home or what he'd want to do if he was home or if he'd spent the money for the rent on computer hardware for some customer who he'd eventually get around to billing six months later (meanwhile, rent was due). And I was far away from my family and most of the people who loved me, apart from a handful of really terrific friends I'd made in New Zealand. But a handful of people is not a support network. I was eating too little, I think, and probably drinking too much. You see where this is heading? To a crisis point, and since I'm writing this from Boston obviously something happened to change the New Zealand scenario.

But, while not particularly happy, I was content. I had a job myself, I had a few really excellent friends, I had two cats (Inty and her littermate, the still-much-missed Boris) and nice landlords who pretended not to mind when the rent was late (and pretended not to hear when Husband #1 and I had screaming fights), my job meant that at least I had some control over some money and therefore some say over whether or not the phone or electricity bill would get paid. (That was always stressful. My mom said something a couple of years later about how my phones in New Zealand were always breaking ... um, yeah, because the phone company cut the phone off. For non payment. That was always the first non-essential to go.)

I had a little house that I worked hard to keep clean (this was, ahhh, not really a priority for Husband #1 - or he was an asshole who thought women were born to clean up after men, take your pick) and, as I said, a little bit of money and a little bit of control and for the first time in my life with Husband #1 I wasn't ashamed to have someone come over unexpectedly (Husband #1 brought people by without advance notification a lot), because I could be assured that even if you couldn't quite lick your dinner off the floor, it was reasonably presentable and I wouldn't have to worry about people thinking we lived in a cave like animals with gnawed bones on the floor and bat droppings on the furniture, because there was none of that.

And it was these three things - the ability to work full-time (I had quite a while in the UK and then in New Zealand where I couldn't work, because of visa status stuff, but the marriage rights eventually meant I could work) and the housework, and the cats - who were reliable, and at home to greet me and love me up when I got home and didn't stay out late or work late nights - which were in their entirety responsible for my sanity. These things, these things which were mostly in my control - they made me content. They made life liveable.

Let me tell you, I didn't start off by loving housework. I was a fucking slob as a child, all the way through boarding school and sporadically into college, although the general trend was towards cleanliness. Then I met Husband #1, who didn't clean up after himself or anyone else, and I regressed somewhat. I stayed in my regressed state (tending towards slobbiness) for about three years, and then I finally gave up, I guess, and stopped trying to fight Husband #1 to do the dishes, pick up his clothes after he'd showered, help clean the bathroom (guess what, honey? those aren't MY pee dribbles down the front of the toilet!), take out the trash, cook, clean up after the cats, vaccuum, laundry, or anything. (Lest you think I am exaggerating ... I lived with H#1 for seven years. He did the dishes less than five times - I think it was three. That tally includes the 6 month period when we actually had a dishwasher.) I don't particlarly want to get into detail about the depths of squalor into which we descended, but let me tell you it was humiliating and probably a public health hazard.

So, grudgingly, I began to do the housework. All of it. Some of it half-assed, and badly. I resented him bitterly. I made comments, sometimes snide and sometimes sincere, all the time. (His response bounced between, "I was going to do it" and "You're a neat freak and I don't care that much. It's you who wants the house clean, not me.")

Then we moved to New Zealand (and THAT decision is another story). And in Auckland, there are ants. Pretty much all of Auckland is on top of an anthill - it never really gets below freezing so the ants are year round. I am phobic about ants. In fact, it was an ant infestation (in the garbage ... in our sixth floor apartment) which triggered my first panic attack. Screaming and hyperventilating doesn't describe the half of it.

The ants were after some fruit cores in the trash (or something.) Once that problem had been dealt with (to give Husband #1 the credit he deserves, he drove me - I didn't have a car and couldn't drive on that side of the road - to buy ant poison. I put down the traps, though, and made sure the cats would be okay. I cleaned up all the little dead bodies. I sterilized everything in the house.)

The ants, I eventually realised, would come only if there was food for them. If you were relentlessly clean in the kitchen (dishes could not sit in the sink longer than 12 hours ... that is, overnight) and everything was sealed in airtight containers (this is where my love affair with rubber gasketed canning jars began), then ants would stay away.

From the kitchen, and from the space of always having a clean kitchen, I ventured further. I learned that laundry is a pretty easy, and not very dirty, chore - sort it, throw your shit in, dry it (if you have a dryer, which at some points I had and at some points I didn't ... just having a washing machine seems like a hug luxury to me, still.) Therefore, laundry is a good way to get started. I learned that while cleaning the bathroom is kind of gross and a pain in the ass, in winter, if you are cold, cleaning the bathroom will heat you up. In summer, it will help burn off the calories from the icecream you keep eating in a futile attempt to stay cool. Furthermore, if you clean the bathroom every week, it is much less arduous and disgusting.

I learned that proper cleaning products and tools (scrubby pads and Comet instead of using a regular sponge and dishwashing soap) are worth the money, since the bathtub ring is pretty stubborn if all you've got is a soft sponge.
This should tell you something about how poor we were: couldn't afford to buy all the household cleaning stuff at once, so for a really long time I had to make do with what I had. I will relieve your fears and say at once that I never skimped on the right tools for cleaning the inside of the toilet. I learned that if you've got a dustpan and wee broom, going over the bathroom with that before you wash the floors helps a lot with the human and cat hair which accumulates in bathrooms.

I also learned that when I wasn't able to stay on top of chores at home, it made me pretty unhappy not to have clean clothes. Ants in the kitchen were also bringers of misery.

And so I began, instead of grudingly doing chores and leaving them until last minute and procrastinating, to prioritize them. I blocked out time for them. I started with easy ones like laundry and moved onto harder ones like vaccuuming. Husband #1 started to complain about how I spent time cleaning instead of doing something with him. (I know. He could have helped. It never occurred to him to do anything besides tell me how stupid I was for wanting a clean house and to stop now. Hey, this is my blog. If I want to use it for grinding my fucking axes, I will.)

Eventually, two things happened, and they weren't really related but they worked out. Husband#1 started spending a lot less time at home (this happened over maybe the last two years in New Zealand) and I realised that with him gone, I could use that time to get my stuff done - writing or, you know, cleaning.

And so cleaning became time to myself. I would put my iPod (a gift from my mom) on - sometimes on Aretha's I Never Loved a Man or anything by Patsy Cline, sometimes the Pixies or Nirvana (which made me laugh, since I doubted Kurt Cobain ever imagined housewives scrubbing the tub listening to Smells Like Teen Spirit). I would get up and clean and know that it was exercise, that I was doing a good thing. It was like an active meditation.

I was taking care of myself. By taking care of the house, somehow I was caring for myself.

I still don't really understand how scrubbing someone else's pee off the floor or skid marks from a toilet or mold from a shower curtain (or the walls and ceiling, in Auckland, which is damp) or cleaning a catbox or anything else gross became invested with some kind of deep spiritual meaning ... but it did. Somehow I got over the petty, temporary humiliation of cleaning up (gloves helped here, I still use 'em for toilet-y work) and realised that ... hygiene precautions aside, the only thing that makes this work gross or humiliating is my perception of it. It is a thing that needs doing, that's all. Every single time, it worked - I always got a clean house at the end, whether I bitched and moaned about it or smiled and sang along to perky music.

I'm not saying cleaning the toilet is some kind of transcendant experience wherein I commune with god. I'm completely lacking in belief in any sort of higher power, for starters, and then for another I can't take myself that seriously when I'm on my hands and knees working on someone else's pee. I just can't.

But it's not the worst thing in the world, either. It's part of life and it's part of taking care of me like brushing my teeth (or flossing - now, hey, flossing is pretty gross if you haven't done it in a while) or showering or whatever. And, on a weekend or a day off when it's not too hot and there's no one else around, it's kind of enjoyable, getting shit all cleaned. I don't eat when I clean (even if I wanted to and didn't know better, the chemical smells mean you're not really hungry.) I'm not stressed or impatient; I don't think about work; I just focus on the job at hand, watching my fingers scrub away the accumulated grime, and not really thinking about anything much at all. This mental blank space might be the best gift of all.

Sometimes I feel that way after yoga class while lying still in shivasana, but more often I'm thinking about what to have for dinner, whether I'm cold, what my day was like, if Dave and I will fight in the car on the way home ... cleaning, though. Cleaning the house gives me that blank space, a break from the relentless pressure of my thoughts. Cooking is the same, actually.

The other huge gift? When I've finished, I finally feel like it's okay to stop for a while, and do whatever I want. (Blog, for instance. Or read. Or play on the internets. Whatever.) I'm not particularly good at figuring out when I've done enough to have earned a rest (my weekend to-do lists tend to be overly ambitious) and don't, by any means, get the idea that I don't sit around on weekends fucking around on the internet, eating icecream and petting the cats, while I procrastinate oh ... cleaning. But. I do it, or most of it, every week. And it works, or mostly works, every time. And that's good enough for me.

(Disclaimer: in case anyone gets the idea I'm STILL the one doing all the housework with Dave, it ain't so. He cleans too, and helps with chores - I think we split it about 50/50, although he thinks he does more his share, regularly, and I think I do more than my share, regularly. This leads me to think we're probably breaking even.)


Kaethe said...

Wow, you got all deep and meaningful. I'm still not much for cleaning, but my tidying skills are highly valued in this household, and I know exactly that feeling of "there, that's done, now I can relax and enjoy it."

The great thing about having a family around, is being able to do the bits that you find rewarding, and not having to do so much of the bits you don't. Laundry is satisfying to me, mopping the kitchen floor is not. Gardening is neither satisfying nor healthy for me, so luckily I've got the Spouse and Mom to cover those bases. Children are useful for retrieving things from under the furniture.

It's all good.

Lisa said...

Interesting distinction. I'd say I'm happy but not that content, although I could also be completely full of shit. I don't like cleaning but I don't hate it either. I just do it because it's there and needs doing, and I have a certain level of cleanliness that must be met or else it's depressing.

And whereas I've never lived with a slob, I tend to be a bit more anal about certain things -- kitchen surfaces, floors, bathtubs -- and am happier to just do them myself rather than come around and re-do them after the other person, and then feel like a bitch for doing that.

I did have a better attitude toward housework when I smoked pot. I may have to start again -- I'm embarrassed to say, but it really made a difference as far as my Zen acceptance level.

Cara deBeer said...

Meaningful and very long winded. Prolly should have broken it up into two posts, one about the difference between happiness and being content, and the other about How Housework is Reframed as Self Care.

And YEAH, getting stoned really really helps with chore tediosity and getting started.