My name is Sophie and I’m a sun worshipper. I’ve been clean for about 72 hours now, since I sat sipping coffee in Saturday morning’s golden light and drank in the rays like a thirsty dog. Before I went to live in Dubai for 14 months, I dreamt of eternal summer, of breakfasts taken on the balcony, of every day being a sandal day. While my time there included all of those things, I found that after a few seasons came and went without declaration I quickly craved something else. It wasn’t that I was desperate for the darkness, the winter or the cold, per se, but the catharsis of deprivation that those dark days brought. In this new land of endless sun, the days seemed to be too long – not literally, since all year round the sun sets near to the 7pm mark, but metaphorically. The joy of the sun was no longer anchored to whatever rarity made it special to me. The eternal summer spun out into the never never, collecting dust and sand in the process.
So did my longed-for sandals. So did my apartment. With very little change in temperature (bar the air con-to-outdoors flip when you step outside) in my new seasonless home, it became hard to know when to get rid of things, and when to buy new ones. A first-world problem if ever there was one, but a sartorial quandary nonetheless. Cotton shirt dresses, once work-appropriate, became beachwear; sandals scuffed traipsing along pavement-less roads were relegated to weekend walking. It felt a waste to get rid of something that I could wear the next day ad infinitum: sustainable yes, but void of the joy of renewal. It was hard to want new things in a city so new, when there was no real potential for a new me who could wear them. Without the biannual dance of jumpers into storage and holiday wares into the wash, I could no longer bid adieu to one season, and welcome the next. I remembered that often my acceptance of autumn coincided with a craving for new boots or a great coat.
“It was hard to want new things in a city so new, when there was no real potential for a new me who could wear them. Without the biannual dance of jumpers into storage and holiday wares into the wash, I could no longer bid adieu to one season, and welcome the next”
The same could be said of my apartment, a white box of a duplex on the 30th floor that, when we moved in, was empty of all objects bar sink, taps and light switches. The emptiness was a delight; having left a crowded shared house in London, my new husband and I enjoyed the sparseness of a mattress on the tiled floor, little piles of books for bedside tables, a postcard taped overhead for decor. Curtainless floor-to-ceiling windows looked out over the glittering red lights of nearby tower blocks, the horizon petering out into sand as far as the eye could see. We were liberated by our empty apartment and vowed never to fill it. And we didn’t. The only addition was of the dust blown in from the Arabian Desert; the occasional sandstorm would bury our little balcony breakfast table under a veil of sand which we would dutifuly clean. But gently, gently, the grains settled in the corners of the tiny terrace and came to coat the tiled floor of our bedroom in an invisible crunch of grit.
Every now and then it would rain – twice or thrice a year. Such an unusual occurrence was this that the seven-lane motorway, Sheikh Zayed Road, would flood and skyscraper towers would disintegrate in large chunks. The wet sand would slope into the cracks and crevices, turning into a dark cement. We gave up on the deep-clean, opting instead for a quick hand-brush of the seat before sitting. This new lackadaisical approach marked our diminished motivation to live in the city – we were checked-out and ready for home. When we returned to London in early May, houses were clad with wisteria, bluebells carpeted Epping Forest and the sun beat down hard, cutting through the cool air. The green grass stood up, hard and glossy, like only the first growth of the year can: reborn from a ground sterilised by the harshness of winter. I too felt reborn – I threw out my tired cotton and dusty sandals. I revelled in those elusive summer days and then, bizarrely, even more so as they began to close in come September.
“[With spring] came a feeling of dormant energy: the urge to stretch after a long sleep; the flinging open of the shutters. As someone whose meticulous housekeeping comes in dribs and drabs at best – I’m a biannual ironer and a fan of loud and self-congratulatory clear-outs – I rely on the purge of spring to keep me going through the year”
A winter of much longed-for hibernation ensued and spring circled back with its promise of newness. With it came a fortified belief in spring cleaning. I was emboldened by its promise of detox – the decluttering and lightening of life’s baggage as I emerged, blinking, from the malaise of winter. It was a feeling of dormant energy: the urge to stretch after a long sleep; the flinging open of the shutters. As someone whose meticulous housekeeping comes in dribs and drabs at best – I’m a biannual ironer and a fan of loud and self-congratulatory clear-outs – I rely on the purge of spring to keep me going through the year. Only with a sense of renewed optimism can I muster the strength to wrestle with tasks like cleaning out the extractor fan filter or washing the sofa covers. In return, I would have freed my abode from all blocked energy, bad karma or suffocating, stagnant dust. But I’ve begun to believe that a true, thorough cleanse is impossible – not least because by nature such a task is never really finished. That there will always be something else that needs doing, that it will all need doing again left me short of the impetus to fix it. In the end, full suitcases were left under the bed, half-used toiletries still filled boxes under the sink, the to-the-charity-shop bag remained wedged between the wardrobe and the wall.
Like so many unfulfilled new year’s resolutions, invigoration died a quick death. The flat felt a little lighter – given that I had reorganised vast swathes of it – but no amount of new-season satisfaction could outweigh the distinct disheartened feeling of that unsated spring resolve and the knowledge that everything would continue to dirty. I didn’t want to admit defeat to the Sisyphean task Simone de Beauvoir had labelled housework, with which I’d so acutely identified in my early adulthood. That which De Beauvoir called “its endless repetition… the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day”. I’d spent many years nurturing the notion that doing your dishes was good for the soul, leaning toward the attitudes of Joyce Carol Oates (cleaning “is a reward if I get some work done”) or Agatha Christie (“the best time for planning a book is while doing the dishes”).
“I didn’t want to admit defeat to the Sisyphean task Simone de Beauvoir had labelled housework, with which I’d so acutely identified in my early adulthood. That which de Beauvoir called ‘its endless repetition… the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day’’’
In my inability to live up to my spring clean hopes, what started to make itself known to me was the slippage between the things I could see and those I couldn’t. You see, we run a partly meticulous ship in my house. This week my husband has Whatsapped me photos of no less than nine potential new pepper mills. Some are inspired by the school of Bauhaus, one is a primary coloured Memphis number and there were several Bakelite Japanese imports. Choosing is a careful process complete with lists of pros and cons. And yet, we fail to discuss the broken microwave that sits beneath his side of the bed after living for seven months in the hallway (beneath a lovingly bequeathed print of Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit, no less). Similarly, I’ve taken to flower arranging in the last year – à la Constance Spry – big old displays that spill out of an Art Deco vase, the fifth in a batch of long-watched eBay items. Once complete, the trimmings can sit on the sideboard for several days waiting to make their way into the compost. Never once did it occur to me that perhaps my slovenliness could detract from my beautiful floral centrepiece… until now.
I have decided to enjoy the irony of these juxtapositions – the dichotomy between one’s own ideas of a charmed life and an innate ability to achieve it. Of course, aiming for perfection is futile – not least because there are more important things to worry about on a Saturday morning than a trip to the tip, like, I don’t know, the certainty of death? Or love, professional success, sex, poetry… breakfast? I could hire a cleaner – if I weren’t on a writer’s salary and didn’t think so intently about pepper mills. But when would I cook up my book ideas if not at the sink?
Instead I’ve decided to adopt a model of self-acceptance. I’m determined to enjoy the frequent and blatant clues to my inadequacy. Through this new filter, the ill-alignment of our ideas of ourselves and their somewhat grubbier realities seems sweet and naive – nay, funny, in the same way that babies and cats are most hilarious when they seem to be taking themselves seriously. No amount of spring cleans, seasonal breaks or new cities will ever bridge this gap between expectation and actuality. Perhaps there’s something delicious to be found in that space between these two selves instead?
The Ikebana artist Yukio Nakagawa once said that he was charmed not by a flower’s bloom but by its disarray – and it’s this philosophy that I now favour. That, combined with the incomplete but no-less-motivating invigoration of spring cleaning.