Cleanliness as a Tool For (Dys)Functionality

By ena ganguly

Recently, Marie Kondo’s show on Netflix has blown up everywhere. I feel as though everyone has been watching and talking about this Japanese woman who utilizes the wisdom of her culture to support individuals, families and homes as they learn to organize and tidy up. Though I only watched one episode, I appreciated her respect for lived in spaces and her gentle approach to cleaning and tidying up. She presents traits that I want to possess when looking at my bedroom or closet, but often lack.

If I’m not ignoring piles of laundry or a messy floor, I’m angry, tired and frustrated at whatever chore I need to do next. Chores are exactly that to me…a chore. It’s a cycle that keeps going and going and I don’t even have that much stuff or that much living space! Though I often feel exhausted at the upkeep of our tiny two bedroom apartment, I know what a clean space can do for the mind, body and spirit.

Though the task of cleaning feels tiresome, the end result, a clean space, brings me true joy. Not having clothes all over the floor, a clean kitchen sink with no dishes in sight, and a well vacuumed rug to dig my feet into are some of my favorite things. However some things I do to keep me grounded and mentally stable, like making up the bed in the morning or wiping down my bathroom sink and counters.

I feel sad if the bed remains unmade or if my bathroom sink doesn’t sparkle from the yellow lights suspended above my mirror. The messiness frustrates me, makes me feel unaccomplished, incomplete. That’s a feeling that I definitely want to work to unlearn, especially because of where I come from and the politics of cleaning in my cultures.

Like Kondo, my culture also holds certain notions of tidying up and cleaning. Some of them include burning incense, drying clothes out in the sun, washing dishes with steel scrubs and blowing into a conch every morning and evening, to cleanse the transitional space between night and day and day and night.

In my culture, cleanliness is political, no doubt about it. Where I come from, caste is a major determinant on who is clean and who is unclean. Caste also decides who cleans and who does not. I deeply believe that caste is a structure that must be abolished but we also need to unlearn all the behaviors that have been encouraged by caste and casteism in the process, like what it means to ‘be clean’ and what it means to clean.

So, what does it mean to clean in a way that is actively unlearning of casteism? I think a big part of it is being accountable for the mess that I create, which means not ignoring the piles of clothes that need to be sorted and hung up or the dishes that beg to be cleaned day after day. I can’t get mad at the mess when I’m not actively making sure that it doesn’t become one!

If I can clean a little bit every day and bring more awareness to my surroundings as I move around, I think I can be less grouchy about doing chores when it’s cleaning day.

Another way for me to unlearn casteism is to be easier on myself and others when messes are made. A huge part of that is allowing folks to walk in the apartment with their outside shoes on. It’s something that I didn’t grow up doing. Instead, we would put our shoes outside or near the front door of the house. Bringing shoes in to the house is seen as unholy and unclean by upper caste culture, but this type of behavior is an extension of the bigger, more insidious violence that upper caste supremacy perpetuates. I definitely don’t want to be complicit in that.

This is something that I’m actively trying to acknowledge is a part of my upbringing and lodged in me as a symptom of internalized casteism. It’s something I am trying to unlearn and challenge. Living with my African-American partner has definitely challenged this internalized behavior, so I have even more of a reason to do away with this behavior.

Lastly, I’m learning how to clean in a way that is gentle to the surfaces I live on such as the tub or the kitchen sink by using more gentle products such as essential oils and using ventilation and smoke to sterilize and enrich the space with deeply energizing and positive vibes. This is something uplifting I learned from my family: to light incense, call upon the ancestors through prayer, and bless the house every day. It’s part of that mindfulness I want to build as I navigate my spaces.

Marie Kondo’s show reminded me the importance of cultural practices as well as reworking my culture so that I don’t continue to perpetuate the same oppression that my ancestors did while creating ways for my queer spiritual self to worship, respect and love the spaces that I, and many others who I love, live in.

What are some things you want to unlearn and relearn about cleanliness? Come talk about it at our event tonight, Restoring Our Spaces, 6:30 PM at allgo (701 Tillery St.). Refreshments will be provided.