I moved in to the American house (called the White House by certain neighbors, I hear) in mid-September. I know that since then, the floor of our laundry room has been left to its own devices. Given the quarter-inch of nasty present upon my arrival, it had been doing so for a long time prior.
I took a broom and then a mop to the laundry room this week. Despite my best efforts, I ended up mostly swishing around mud. The place was a little cleaner, but still not someplace I would often walk barefoot.
Thanks to the time I spent sweeping the slabs of construction sites in Shreveport for Terry Elston, sweeping and mopping have become meditative times for me. In the laundry room my meditations turned to the work I have been doing in Botswana and, in the quintessential question of volunteers and activists, whether what I have been doing will “make a difference.”
After batting about the typical responses, I looked down at the mop in my hand, now too mud-soaked to be effective, and paused. The mopping I was doing was in response to a problem: nastiness. Even if I had been able to bleach the place into submission, it would have to be mopped again next month. The maintenance of a house demanded constant attention.
The language of social justice, volunteerism and activism would benefit from reframing of its goals and accomplishments in the language of housekeeping. A house, like a society, is a construct: it is not a given, will not be around forever, and requires constant upkeep and improvement to prevent its collapse. And a house, like politics, demands more than just a reactionary response: if we wait for the next storm to turn the leak in the roof into a collapsed chunk of ceiling, or we tarry until the Social Security account reserves are exhausted, we lose.
What such a shift in vision allows us, I believe, is to abandon the ideology of naive optimism without falling into the kind of pessimism that I have heard from many of my friends, which assumes that any sort of community service is akin to wiping dirt from the dash of a car already headed off a cliff.
Rather than a cliff-bound car, what we inherit from our mothers and fathers is a home – one which we are bound to live in, one created with care but maintained with varying degrees of concern or lack thereof. Some places, like my laundry room, need three or four goings-over before you can even step foot in them safely. Each of us has a choice. We can let the paint peel a little more, the dishes stack up a little higher, the bathroom get one more layer of grunge. Or, if we are brave, we can get out the mop.