I remember riding through the steam-vintage railyards of India and seeing the hopelessly sooty signs on lamp posts and station walls: Cleanliness is next to godliness. The kind of thing Gandhi might have said at his ashram though others say John Wesley got there first.
It’s a sentiment shared around the world. Stop for a moment at any of the bazaars and marketplaces in the global south and you’ll be thronged by hawkers selling ostrich feather dusters, whisks and traditional grass brooms, whatever the local tools for chasing dirt. Aside from the artful cottage industry this represents, brooms are an abiding artifact of traditional culture, figuring in proverbs, poetry and adages. A Kalahari folk song voices the taunt of a mother-in-law to a new bride:
Fiela, fiela, fiela ngwanyana,
Sweep, sweep, sweep little child,
Sweep, little child!
O se jele mathlakaleng.
Don’t eat surrounded by litter.
The suggestion: that fine dining, whatever the fare, goes south in a domestic mess. The finest expression of that wisdom must be the care taken in the Japanese tea ceremony that begins with stringent cleaning.
So it is, that as dawn – most tellingly at New Year – comes to towns and villages across the globe, before households stir, before even cooking fires are lit, armies of children and domestic workers sweep courtyards and driveways, verandahs, patios and pathways, where little plumes of dust mark the gentle service they render in the half light. Crumpled soft drink cans, bits of paper and plastic, bicycle tracks and footprints, yesterday’s ashes from the hearth, all traces of past doings are erased. And in their place is left the feathered pattern of broom strokes, covering even the traces of the sweeper.
Written in an elegant hand upon the morning sand is the beguiling signature of new beginnings, an invitation to that finest of callings: to live freshly, earnestly, hopefully. Proximate to godliness.
*A version of this piece appeared in the author’s earlier collection, “Part 1:Dawn” in These Are the Footings (Pittsburgh: Roaming Pen Press. 2009), 10.
Mark Windsor says
Very nice thoughts!
Ah wonderful, Jonathan!
Agree that cleanliness is next to Godliness!! But I smiled to remember this poem by Louise Erdritch, whe feels that poetry might just go in the other direction:
Advice to Myself
by Louise Erdrich
Leave the dishes. Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.
Throw the cracked bowl out and don’t patch the cup.
Don’t patch anything. Don’t mend. Buy safety pins.
Don’t even sew on a button.
Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.
Don’t keep all the pieces of the puzzles
or the doll’s tiny shoes in pairs, don’t worry
who uses whose toothbrush or if anything
matches, at all.
Except one word to another. Or a thought.
Pursue the authentic—decide first
what is authentic,
then go after it with all your heart.
Your heart, that place
you don’t even think of cleaning out.
That closet stuffed with savage mementos.
Don’t sort the paper clips from screws from saved baby teeth
or worry if we’re all eating cereal for dinner
again. Don’t answer the telephone, ever,
or weep over anything at all that breaks.
Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons
in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
and talk to the dead
who drift in through the screened windows, who collect
patiently on the tops of food jars and books.
Recycle the mail, don’t read it, don’t read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience
or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters
this ruse you call necessity.
“Advice to Myself” by Louise Erdrich from Original Fire. © Harper Collins Publishers, 2003.
Jonathan Larson says
Hello, Douglas! I am utterly taken by Erdrich’s lyricism, and her underlying passions. (She is also my jack pine neighbor from the north woods.). Who am I to gainsay such a celebrated voice? She has the great creation stories on her side that often begin with chaos and end with order and beauty. The occasional Bolshevik aside, I would only say that wherever the human hand, the wandering imagination makes itself felt, the result is artful, arresting, inviting. And Erdrich’s poem is exhibit ‘A’! A lovely thing to have emerged from the celery at the bottom of the fridge!