“Oh and of course as part of the job you will also have to clean homes and offices too”, Tolu said, his twinkling eyes examining me.
We were sitting in his office after my job interview to do the communications and marketing at Zenith, which had turned into a 2-hour long conversation. Cleaning other people’s homes and offices in my gap year…It sounded novel but not without a slight emotional charge. Well, I thought, if its part of the job then let’s give this a shot. I was comforted by the fact that most of the team was curiously comprised of other graduates from my university, individuals who didn’t bother trying to interpret cleaning as anything more than what it is: to simply make spaces better. I saw it as the game “Lets Play: Being a Cleaner”, a playful and childlike tactic I use to help take the edge off of any situation or task at hand (I imagine it works for anything from “Let’s Play: Filing Late Taxes”, to “Let’s Play: Lunch with The In-Laws”). But deep down I could feel the irony in going to clean other people’s spaces and homes – after all I grew up most of my life having housekeepers and maids in a Beverly Hills inspired gated community in the Philippines, where the hyperbolic culture of servants is a disheartening reminder of the constant interplay between power, prestige, and class. So here I was, about to see what is was like to be on the other side and serving others in that way. I’ve been told that cleaning for other people is a journey of self-discovery, self-evolution, and humility.
Cleaning other people’s homes and spaces, in other words, molds the crap out of you.
Cleaning teaches you a lot, about yourself, about humans in general, and how society works. Some of the lessons are more simple and obvious, like the Art of Paying Attention to Detail. Tolu, my very own mentor like Mr Miyagi from the Karate Kid, always says “How you pay attention to detail in a space while cleaning is how you pay attention to detail in life, Linda”. He says the Art of Paying Attention to Detail is in direct correlation with how present I am in whatever I do…Which is why I now make sure my keys are strapped onto me at all times after I got locked out of an office building when taking out the trash and listening to my iPod, in the middle of the night at -17C. Pay attention to detail and be present. Got it.
Honesty is another lesson. In the beginning I could hear my ego lamenting under its breath, feeling really vulnerable and quite frankly confused about telling people I’m a cleaner. I spent half my time working on communications and marketing and the other half venturing around the city to different buildings and homes to clean. I felt uneasy thinking about how people would see me after I told them I cleaned spaces, despite being able to intellectually understand the superficiality behind that insecurity. But seeing people’s reactions when I tell them point-blank that I clean homes as part of my job seems to nicely trim off the fat in social interactions. You can tell a lot about a person from the way they react to you being a cleaner after all.
I think the biggest part of being a cleaner is what you learn from being invisible. I find myself getting to know people without ever meeting them, like the guy in one office whose astounding weekly pile of cookie boxes for recycling told me he may have bought himself a one-way ticket to diabetes; or the family of reading fanatics in one apartment where every bookshelf is overflowing with enough reading material to open to establish a community library; or the one couple whose persistent trails of popcorn I find on their couch tell me they must watch a lot movies together, which is nice to imagine. I strangely feel a tender care and empathy towards these people which makes me wonder, why is it that I can feel this way about people whom I’ve never ever met in real life, yet everywhere around us people choose not to empathize with people standing right in front of them? These days each time I see another cleaner or janitor in passing in the subway vacuuming floors, through an office window late at night on my way home, or in a food court clearing tables next to me, I feel a funny jolt of silent excitement, the kind you feel when you come across another kindred being. I can’t help but smile to myself at our parallels because I remember how much I must’ve overlooked them in the past (and oddly enough, I also start eyeing their mopping game.)
Some days Playing Cleaner feels like someone is playing with my ego like its Silly Putty. Unlike in school or the corporate world where we’re always extrinsically motivated in the form of grades, prestige, or promotions, in cleaning no one is there to give my indignant nine year old self a shiny sticker or sometimes even a thank you for my hard, sweaty, and at times grimey work. Instead its all about the kind of energy I bring to the task at hand, which applies to everything in life I guess. And when it comes to cleaning homes sometimes it feels like the imperfections in my work are always pointed out, which can get under my skin. I used to clean a home which was…quite challenging. It looked like an obstacle course with all stuff they had lying around. One day after about six hours, three storeys, two dogs to vacuum around and several dirty diapers later disposed, I thought I had done a splendid job…Only to have the woman point out a small dirt mark on the kitchen floor which was arguably the size of her manicured pinky fingernail. Alas, The Art of Paying Attention to Detail strikes again. While I could puff out my chest about her noticing that out of all the things I did do, I realized I could just take it as feedback and fuel to be more present next time -even if my ego at the time wanted to tell her to clean her own damn house.
But as much as a part of me wanted to whine, every time I finished cleaning a space, I just couldn’t deny how peaceful I felt. I now look forward to how good it feels to get lost in the relaxing rhythm of wiping surfaces and the meditative concentration of focusing fully on one task at a time- a far cry from my neurotic headspace back in standardized education, where everyday I felt like too many tabs were open in my brain. I didn’t expect how therapeutic, even healing cleaning feels. The strangest and most fascinating part is how when I clean I’m constantly struck with new ideas for short stories, poems, songs and paintings, as if my creativity is no longer gated by the constraints of time or assignments. Maybe its something in the eco-friendly products, I don’t know-but something has definitely happened to my mind.
Being a cleaner makes me often feel like I’m constantly dancing in between two worlds. Its the world of being served by others and the world of serving others. The world of supposed honour and the world of supposed shame. The world of being visible and the world of being invisible. I swing between different titles and roles, which always feels trippy: dressing up to attend fancy business conferences for one part of the job to then clean someone’s bathroom the following Monday for the other feels like some type of cognitive dissonance. Being caught in the middle of these two realities I’m forced to detach, to take a step back and see the bigger picture: it just doesn’t make sense how cleaning-something that inherently makes a space better and helps others-is so looked down upon. It illuminates the truth that the stigma around it is no more than a collective illusion, just one of many other falsehoods that make up the fabric of our society. Its like fuel for our chronic insecurity and comparison games, created to just satisfy our conditioned need to understand who are based on roles and reputation, not essence or character. When you navigate both ends of the societal spectrum, cleaning forces you to shut off the noise of the world around you because its the cultural pressures of over-valuing reputation that seem to create the noise of the world in the first place.
There is an unspoken absurdity of how we’re taught to box ourselves in by chasing status over character, especially in education. I have yet to come across a required $100 textbook that breaks down how reputation is just the summation of people’s opinions about you, sometimes created over years yet can easily be destroyed in minutes. Character is doing the right thing even if no one else does, even when no one else sees you, action taken from a higher intelligence beyond our impressionable brains. This is what inspires Tolu and I to pursue Cleaning as Practice in schools, where students can experience and learn empathy, altruism, mindfulness and community through cleaning activities. For us younger generations, chasing reputation and image will only get us so far until we all have to finally face the mountains of dirt dumped in our paths by those who came before us; it won’t be long until we all have to pay attention to the looming after-math coming our way from climate change, corporate food contamination, growing inequality, and flawed educational institutions. I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned overall is that everyone wants cleanliness but no one wants to deal with dirt. But isn’t it this widespread passivity that’s kept us in this mess in the first place? By teaching ourselves and children that responsibility actually means to help clean up the mess in front of us, instead of just pointing fingers at those who caused it to begin with, we bring ourselves back to some much-needed basics. Someone once said that we all have the responsibility to be more ethical than the society that came before us; for my generation this could not be more true if we actually want to thrive, not just survive.
And it can start with something as simple as this idea: I am a Cleaner. Aren’t you?