Zen and the Art of House Maintenance


I think house maintenance has a better ring to it than boring old housework… this way, instead of being a housewife I could even be called a house maintenance executive, or a house maintenance CEO.

But dressing it up in fancy names doesn’t get me away from the essential boringness of cleaning the bath, vacuuming the house, dusting picture frames and the rest. A recent survey in the UK reported that women spend a year and a half doing housework, men half that. This amounted to four and a half hours a week housework… pea-nuts… In my incarnation as a fifties- type housewife, I did at least two hours housework a day, not including the washing, ironing, cooking and baby care.

When I was first married in 1963, I did it all automatically, every day, and without thinking. Brought up by a dedicated exponent of house maintenance who when I was a child made me strip the bed to the mattress every day, and leave it to ‘air’ before being allowed to make it again, conditioned me to being a domestic automaton. It was a habit I found hard to break as an adult. But becoming a single mother and working full time put the brakes on vacuuming and dusting every day. And later the entry of duvets into our lives changed mine!

I once read that the late Jean Muir, an English fashion designer with a perfectionist ethic, had been taught to make her bed by the nuns at her school somewhere in the West Indies. She said it was then and there that she learned about perfectionism and attention to detail. I have this vision in my mind of a long, high-ceilinged, calm, white convent dormitory with a white robed nun, watching the creation of these little works of art – a perfectly made bed with a white counterpane – and making each child re-make their bed until it really was the best they could do.

I can imagine the atmosphere in a room like that, where everyone was putting their hundred per cent into what they were doing… when something like that happens in a room, it affects the atmosphere. When I did a series of personal growth courses for seven years, one of the things we had to learn to do on a gruelling two week residential course, was to ‘Zen’ our rooms. It was the same thing that the nuns were teaching the children.

We had to leave our room in the most perfect state of cleanliness and harmony possible. Few of us managed to achieve this state of indefinable perfection… and most of us were still mystified or defeated by the concept at the end of the course. But over the years it’s something I’ve come to understand and treasure, and it lifts mere housework or house maintenance into another sphere.

When I was a helper on another of these residential courses, and we were packing up to go after all the course participants had left, someone came in while we were having lunch, and said: “Have you seen Hut Number Ten’s woodshed? We all piled out, and one by one stood in the doorway, and experienced an indefinable sweetness… the wood was piled around the shed, and the shed was spotless… but no more spotless than anyone else’s wood shed. I decided that what made the difference was the love and commitment that had gone into stacking the wood and this left the woodshed in a perfect state of equilibrium. Nothing you could see or describe, but something you feel.

These days that’s how I feel about housework/ house maintenance. I want the place to feel ‘Zenned’, as we used to say. That’s difficult with my amount of clutter, but I know it has more to do with the way I feel about cleaning the house than what’s in it. Though there is also a sense of rightness about the things that are in the room… maybe a touch of William Morris’s dictum, “ have nothing in your house that is not beautiful or useful”.

Sometimes I move and do everything at half speed, which means that I have to stay totally present and conscious, and though I’m doing it slowly, somehow everything gets done in good time, and in far better shape than if I’d just done a quick tidy-up.

Sometimes I just do it with my whole heart, not cutting any corners, doing it as thoroughly as I can. And I find when I’m doing this, I don’t find it boring. Something about paying attention to the detail and doing it without resistance, changes the whole equation. If I do the vacuuming grudgingly, it’s a chore. But if I can make that leap of will and give up the resistance to it, it’s a different experience.

More than that, I find chaos or dusty rooms depressing. And sometimes I want my home to feel like sacred space. Needless to say I’m not consistent in my efforts. In fact sometimes I feel like Sisyphus forever pushing his stone uphill before it rolls down again… this is because though children, grandchildren, seventeen dogs and one cat can make a mess, none of them can compare with a husband.

Robert Pirsig in his  ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ wrote that: “Peace of mind produces right values, right values produce right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions and right actions produce work which will be a material reflection for others to see of the serenity at the centre of it all.” But I wonder if you work backwards if the same applies… by doing the right actions, do we discover peace of mind and all the steps in between?

And the right action seems to have a lot to do with detail. I remember our teacher on one of these courses saying how he had travelled from the US to Japan to do an advanced  course with Zen monks, and he was thrown off it on the first day… he had failed for not paying attention to detail… as I’ve grown older and fractionally wiser I can understand this.

God is in the details, and it’s in the details that the satisfaction and the perfection resides. I was reading Celi at www.thekitchensgarden.com  and her blow by blow description of feeding lambs and the best milk mix and best timing for their well-being was a most moving testament to the beauty in the detail.

This every moment of the twenty- four- hour – seven- days- a- week commitment to keeping the lambs alive and thriving, warm in their coats, and cherished in their sheltered corner of the barn, was a demonstration of how attention to detail becomes a labour of love – and maybe not even a labour – but a journey of love.

Unless Celi did this marathon task with love, I wonder if she’d even be able to keep it up, with feeds every few hours day and night, trips to and fro through the snow and the dark between house and barn, heating the milk- not in the easy micro- wave but in hot water – giving the four lambs colostrum from her cow which she milks, and keeping them hydrated through the day with endless sips. But when we do a task with love in our hearts, the love gives us the energy to do it.

It feels as though by paying attention to the detail, we are actually being a channel for love. And this is what can carry me through the washing up and the bed-making. It certainly carries me through the three meals a day routine of feeding an always hungry husband. I do find it impossible to cut corners and give him an overcooked fried egg, or a soup bowl with a splash on it. And though I don’t manage to keep up a constant commitment to Zen and house maintenance, at least I know the recipe for making it less of a chore and more of a commitment to beauty…. which somehow must make a difference to the world, since we are all connected.


Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Chicken mince was on special at the grocer- cum- delicatessen in the nearest village so I took some home for supper. Mixed with chopped onion, garlic  and celery, grated carrot, mixed herbs, salt and pepper, and fried in little patties, they’re good either hot or cold. We ate them with new potatoes and smashed peas, one of our favourites. Fry a chopped onion and some garlic. When soft, add lots of thyme, frozen peas and enough chicken stock ( I used a chicken stock cube) just to cover the peas. Boil until the peas are soft, and the stock almost disappeared. I used to just mash them with a potato – masher, now I whizz them in my new stock blender. Any left over goes into a green soup.


Food for Thought

“Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.”
Sir Winston Churchill 1874 – 1965 Leader of the free world against Hitler until the US and USSR joined in two years later.

He also said:” I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.”













Filed under cookery/recipes, environment, great days, life/style, love, philosophy, spiritual, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized

47 responses to “Zen and the Art of House Maintenance

  1. Michele Seminara

    Valerie, you are a gem. ‘When we do a task with love in our hearts, the love gives us the energy to do it’. So true. It has also been my experience that when I get weighed down by the tedium of it all, the solution is to increase my love for those I am serving, and then it becomes a meaningful and enjoyable experience. Thanks for the gift of your reminder.


  2. Interesting post,Valerie. Any task is easier if the attitude is right. I like your reference to Pirsig’s book. I think it can work both ways, depending on one’s personality or the task. Some tasks require peace of mind first, and other tasks require actions first in order to acquire peace of mind. All in all, finding balance and paying attention to the details requires commitment, love and energy…like Celi. But oh what peace of mind and contentment she must have felt at the end of end of each day. I had a dairy goat heard for ten years and can relate. There is an old joke about how a man can take the garbage out and come in and announce it like he spent all day cleaning the house. 🙂


    • I laughed out loud at your last remark – but don’t dare read it to my husband! Lovely comments, Lynne – did you make feta with your goats milk? I love goats … they’re so loving and intelligent….


      • Feta, hard cheese and cottage cheese. I love goats too…but not in you lovely flower beds, Valerie. Ours would sometimes get out and head for all the no no’s. Whoops! There’s my husband announcing he took the garbage out. I should give him a smiley face.


      • Love it – if I could do those smiley faces, I ‘d send one to you!!!


  3. I will from hereon refer all house maintenance as “zenning the rooms” – that alone should send out different energy! Thanks for the inspiration


  4. So true Valerie … I fought against having to do the housework for years and it was certainly a chore for me. Recently I have discovered that if I start by remembering the sense of satisfaction and achievement I feel when the house is tidy, I can approach it with a completely different attitude and it becomes an enjoyable experience (well almost lol)


  5. There was a time in my life when my house had to be perfect, all the time; as if no one lived there. It made everyone who did live there crazed. Nothing could be out of place, I would know. Now, though I still love my home to be clean, I still love my home to be reflective of the life I have spent creating it; well if something is out of place perhaps it is better place.

    I have spent the past three months de-cluttering my office and two other closets. There are piles everywhere upstairs as I sort through things I might not need. Sometimes I feel as if I am walking through another persons life. Even 10 years ago this would have sent me running for the hills, now it makes me laugh as I add to those piles thinking how fun it will be when I am ready to paint and put in new floors.

    Attitude is everything. For me it is letting go. There are things I will never love doing. There are things I can no longer do. There are things I recognize I can ask for help and that is perfectly okay to do. The one thing I know for certain? I want to live in a home not a picture perfect house.

    Love the quote, wonderful.


    • Yes, I’ve got a few piles to tackle… I know what you mean about a house being a home…I often think that the things which make it a home are the books, the flowers, the cushions and the pictures – hung low enough to see!


  6. an excellent post — and most keeping with mindfulness to detail


  7. I’ve struggled with housework for years. I want my house to be tidy and clean, but my biggest issue is that I never ever arrive at the feeling of “done”. No matter what I do, I know there is always more to do, and so that peaceful, contented clean feeling lurks just out of reach. Your reminder of “attitude” is exactly the ‘adjustment’ that I need.


  8. I agree with valentine Logar. I used to be a perfectionist but had to decide if I wanted to be remembered as the one who drove everyone crazy or the one they could be comfortable with, so I worked against my nature but as you wrote, a untidy room depresses me too. I love the new title you improvised, it does indeed give a better feeling 😉 Nice post as usual!


  9. Valeria, this was lovely and I felt so good reading it, feeling answered in a way. I too feel that way about dust and clutter. I love your line: It feels as though by paying attention to the detail, we are actually being a channel for love. There are times when I feel that I have moved away from that microscopic sensing of the world, into a more general rushed state, and I do feel sad – so it seems this is because I am no longer connected to love.
    And those lambs!!
    Gorgeous post – thanks 😉


  10. When it comes to house maintenance, I most definitely feel like Sisyphus. Thanks, Valerie, for reminding me that an attitude adjustment is in order! lol 😉 xoxoM


  11. Amy

    I wish I had learned the detailing/perfection housework as you said decades ago…. It’s an endless work. Love the Food for Thought. Have a nice week, Valerie!


  12. It’s amazing how things have changed over the generations – even in my time. I grew up with much attention paid to ‘house maintenance’… the washing, ironing, cleaning, cooking, preserving… Endless chores. But now I have to admit those habits have slipped, and it seems to be the same for most people. Holding onto a state of mindfulness is a constant challenge. Yet so refreshing when it does happen.


    • Yes, I think the housework thing changed with feminism… those of us who needed a clean house were even derided… and having a chaotic house was quite fashionable in some circles!!!
      I also wonder what other generations would have done with themselves to keep themselves busy before all the distractions of today arrived, including careers!


  13. Patty B

    Growing up I was left much to my own devices and never got into much housework, until I married..then I changed into a mean lean cleaning machine! As I age and mellow out I am now a cross between not caring about cleaning and needing a spotless house As DH says out home is lived in and comfortable, and who can argue with that? It is difficult to break though..


  14. I think you’re right, comfort is what home is about… and it’s what makes us comfortable which dictates how much home maintenance we do!


  15. Wonderful Winston C and wonderful pigs. I am so glad someone else finds dusty and chaotic rooms depressing. My family think I am weird which in some ways is more depressing than the dust :D. After my son left home this year, I let my inner Zen roam freely and I was feeling very pleased with my house of calm, until the plumbing disintegrated this time last week. A reminder that house maintenance requires constant vigilance.


    • Hello friend – don’t know your name! – but love your comment.. so glad you enjoyed my hero Winston wrote about him) and the pigs!!!
      Love the phrase your inner Zen roaming freely… I can see me using it!
      Hope the plumbing is easy and cheap!!!!


  16. You always make my day! (Just finished my household cleaning)


  17. I have pondered over your words here for a few days. My living space has been cleared of clutter thanks to huge armoires but my work space/studio is decidedly messy and really doesn’t lead to any relaxation or productiveness the way my old space did. I think perhaps if I tidied it and organised with purpose and loving care and mindfulness with focus on the final result, you will have made me a better artist!! thanks Valerie – just took me a while to figure this out. 🙂


    • Lesley, what a thoughtful comment, and what a compliment that you thought about things for a few days… I think from what you say, that you have all the answers… and I wish you joy and satisfaction as you Zen your studio, and I know that more beautiful work will continue to emerge from your loving space…


  18. So many things touch a chord here! I love the William Morris words – just wish I could rid myself of more of the clutter….. I do love making a good bed! I learned how to make beautiful corners when in the Girl Guides and love it when we sometimes use some big French sheets which are not fitted and we can make those neat corners.

    I love that half speed Zen thing. I used to practise that years ago when I had to pack to go back to college and needed to slow down my nerves and my not wanting to leave home, again. I loved college in fact but found that packing really hard.

    Your chicken patties sound delicious – another recipe I shall copy and pop into my Valerie file!

    I’ve already copied your food for thought and sent it to my choir leader who, for just a season, was also a pig farmer.

    All the best to you 🙂

    PS To make a smiley face type a colon followed by a right hand bracket thus 🙂


    • Sally, lovely to hear from you… as you would know, it’s so satisfying when someone writes such a meaty comment! Thank you so much… interesting how often we press each other’s buttons… beds, William Morris, Zen…food !
      I shall practise the smiley thing and send myself e-mails until I’m sure I’ve mastered the art!!!!Thank you for the tip!!!!!


  19. Valerie, every post by you is a pleasure to read and gives me treasures to savor. This one is no exception… and it’s about housework, that most mundane of activities. I love your writing. —Jadi


  20. Alice

    The fidelity of small things–absolutely. Joy comes from the ordinary.


  21. What a lovely phrase, Alice…’the fidelity. of small things.’, and yes, you would know that’ joy that comes from the ordinary’…..Lovely to hear from you….


  22. You have a wonderful blog! and yes…I nominated you http://wp.me/p36JSE-9u


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