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Cleaning houses

There is something about the interiors of other people's houses that makes me feel uncomfortable. In about eight out of ten visits I might make to a friend's or a neighbour's home, I return to my own abode, survey my sticks of furniture, my cluttered kitchen, my shabby living quarters and make a resolution to smarten the old place up a bit, then I become absorbed in something else and that's that. Until the next time.

Other people's houses are too clean. I have never lived in a very clean house and the reason for this is that I am a woman, and therefore there is an assumption that I am solely responsible for keeping it clean. I long ago ditched the idea that I should spend every minute of my available time making sure my house is dust-free. Yet it seems to me that almost every other woman I know takes her housework seriously. Spotless, fitted kitchens as well-tended as any Intensive Care Unit in a hospital, wall-to-wall carpets likely to suffer premature balding from so much vacuuming, immaculate chairs and sofas—no crumbs, no stains, no tears, and bowls of fruit as perfect as wax imitations. Perfect houseplants too. And never a book out of place. Often never a book. No piles of papers abandoned on rickety shelves (as in my house) and no vases harbouring very dead flowers—been there for weeks, months even. In these same houses no grimy jars on dusty shelves containing this and that; all essential to the sort of alchemy that takes place in my kitchen. Here things are prepared, cooked and eaten all from scratch, and jars of what will one day be wine stand in rows to ferment for months. I could take a bet on it that the inside of my house is never going to arouse feelings of envy in any other woman or man in the world. But it hasn't always been that way.

When first married I did dust and polish and remove cobwebs from corners, but you wouldn't catch me doing that these days. Within a very short space of time I grew depressed by it all. Outside the sun shone, books were waiting to be read, life was waiting to be lived. And what was I doing?—polishing a table. I became resentful. I not only went out to work, I shopped and cooked and cleaned house too. We are only willing slaves to something all the time that we are unaware. Just as soon as there is awareness then the slave-mentality is challenged.

Few of us would choose to live in a slum, but it seems to me that a fetish is made of housework. How often have I called on someone unexpectedly and been asked to "Excuse the mess." What mess? Could she mean the magazine lying on the arm of the chair? Some women immediately rush to the bathroom to pull the chain if I casually express a wish to visit the loo. And in the kitchen a well-known brand of disinfectant is at the ready in case the plague strikes suddenly.

Most women are assigned this role from birth and that is not to deny that men are assigned roles too. When living at home I did not help my mother much in the house but there was, I think, a tacit agreement on both our parts that I would one day do exactly as she did. When later I didn't I knew that she was horrified. She would run the tips of her fingers over my furniture when she thought I wasn't looking and become tight-lipped when she found dust, as she invariably did. I had challenged her role in the world as a woman. I cleaned the house, yes, but not very thoroughly and not very often. It was scandalous. What kind of a daughter was I? I tried to tell her what kind of a daughter I was. I said that when I was born nobody had announced "It's a girl. She'll clean houses." And even if they had it still didn't mean I wanted The Housewife of the Year Award. What I wanted was to live and learn and become a real person, not someone who cleaned houses because they thought it would bring respect from other people, envy even. What sort of a life was that anyway and what was enviable about it?

Mine was a mini-rebellion and you may not think of it as significant, but it seems to me that unless we question what appears to be our lot in life then we stand in darkness or at least half-shadow. In other words we accept. And when you think that there is an acceptance of war, poverty and that biggest confidence-trick of all (the cause of much misery, ignorance and injustice) money, then perhaps you will see that my objection to becoming a slave to cleaning houses is just another example of how we can escape the conditioning we each of us experience before we can throw off our chains. As the proverb says—from little acorns oak trees grow.

HEATHER BALL