My wife likes doing laundry. It’s a welcome break from her day job, which tends to be demanding, highly social, draining.
Doing laundry, on the other hand, is quiet and solitary, the clothes warm and fragrant when she pulls them from the dryer. She folds them carefully, along with towels. Later I take it upstairs.
My own favorite chores are doing dishes, sweeping a floor, tidying clutter, and throwing out expired food or garage junk. In our home, my wife is the accumulator, I am the thrower out.
But if I had to pick just one activity — my desert-island chore — it’s sweeping.
I know that on an actual desert island, the essential chore is procuring water and food. But after that, if I could fashion a good sturdy broom, it would get a lot of use.
Brooms are old-school and quiet, unlike a vacuum cleaner or — at the Harley Davidson end of excessive noise — a leaf blower.
I use a few different brooms. One’s got a blond wood handle, another a red metal handle. Still another is a half-size, handmade broom with colorful threading at the top. I think it’s from Armenia.
Using a broom reminds me of handling a hockey stick. The lower hand guides, the top hand stabilizes. Crusted dirt near the potted plants on the pool deck gets a good stiff brushing. If I’m reaching under furniture or sweeping lighter stuff like fallen leaves, then I tilt the broom at an angle and use a softer touch.
None of this rocket science. But it’s reliably relaxing. Sweeping opens space in my head for interesting thoughts and questions to float through.
Okay, I guess ‘interesting’ is debatable, given today’s essay topic. But if you have read my blog before, then you knew what you were getting into.
Brooms make me think of the Jainist religion in India. Followers try not to harm any living being, even insects or microbes. Some Jainists wear masks to avoid inhaling tiny flying insects. They use a broom to sweep the ground ahead of each footstep.
In contemporary Western self-help culture, we’re encouraged to move ‘lightly’ in the world and to live ‘more intentionally.’ I can’t think of a lighter, more intentional way of moving than sweeping up before oneself. Doing it all day long probably isn’t amazing for one’s back. But the activity still strikes me as meaningful and inspiring.
Imagine if a significant chunk of the global human population gave regular thought to damage they do just by walking.
I think of the Jainists whenever I see one of those impossibly tiny red spiders. Do you know the ones I mean? I don’t know their name, nor why they’re always in such a rush. Perhaps being that small is just constantly terrifying. I’m astounded how fast they move; their stride-frequency must be in humming bird wingbeat territory.
The point is, I admire a religion whose members are trying to avoid harming even microspiders. I haven’t studied Jainism any deeper than I study anything else. (Not very deep!) Nor am I planning to join the religion. But when I consider foundational rules, it’s hard to argue with Thou Shalt Not Kill One Single Thing — Even a Red Microspider — if You Can Possibly Avoid It and if Sweeping Won’t Cause Unreasonable Back Pain or Give You Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. It’s always good to build in a few exceptions.
With any task, there’s the satisfaction of a job well done. I like the sight of a freshly swept porch or kitchen floor. Apparently so does the singer Lori McKenna, who nods to the chore in her aching meditation on midlife, You Won’t Even Know I’m Gone. (“I sweep the dirt that the dogs brought in/ I let ’em out and then sweep again.”)
And then there’s the Blind Lemon Jefferson song See That My Grave Is Kept Clean, later covered by Lightning Hopkins, Mavis Staples, B.B. King, and Bob Dylan, among others.
I myself have swept graves!
I have tidied up the graves of ancestors in Lowell, Mass., and San Jose, Calif. I hope to do the same one day in St. Louis and Lincoln, Neb., or even farther afield in Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland, Switzerland, Germany, or Denmark. My family has people on the wrong side of the dirt in all those places.
I can’t guarantee that future blog posts won’t deal with cemeteries. But if you’ve made it to the end of an essay about brooms, you’ll handle graveyards fine.
For an idea of what Jainist principles look like in practice, check out “Attending to Insects,” by Concordia College professor Anne T. Mocko.