Lucid Cleaning, or How I Learned to Write While Painting the Kitchen Cabinets
September 1, 2017 § 17 Comments
By Stacy Murison
It was too late. I had already unscrewed the hardware from the kitchen cabinets as well as the cabinet doors. I had painted the box frames. The primer dried uneven and gloppy in some places. I sanded. Worse. I sanded some more. Somewhat better. This was nothing like the This Old House videos on YouTube where painting the cabinets took only one weekend. My project was going on week number three.
I had only one thing on my mind this summer: writing. The hazards of my first year teaching three composition sections had been minimal, except for the volume of reading and editing of student work. All of that reading and editing (some 60,000 words almost weekly) left me only tiny fragments of brain space to compose and write my own essays. Summer was the payoff. Summer was when I would do ALL THE WRITING.
But my brain had other ideas. My hands wanted a different kind of busy-ness.
I remember sitting on the kitchen floor one night in May, soon after grade submissions, closely examining the 30-year-old builder’s grade oak cabinets under the sink. That same night, I watched how-to videos. The next day, I was at the hardware store. The day after that, my husband and I selected paint colors. Now I was deep into the project. I cleaned and sanded and painted, all the while angry at myself for reading home improvement and lifestyle magazines. These magazines gave me the false sense that I could attain a level of tidiness not found in my current living arrangement. I also come from a long line of obsessive cleaners. My grandmother’s house smelled like real lemons, not any waxy store brand of polisher. My aunt never allowed a water spot in her stainless-steel sink. And my mother—well, let’s just say dust motes still live in fear of her.
My husband reminds me that, as avid readers and writers, we will often have magazines and papers and books on every flat surface (and, occasionally, sofa arms). I began to see his point. So even though I stopped the “house porn” subscriptions during my Marie Kondo phase in 2014, I still thumbed through House Beautiful, Real Simple, and Better Homes and Gardens at the grocery store check-out lanes, apparently filing away the latest trends in cabinetry and flooring for later projects that would distract me from my writing.
Still, I did not think I would ever paint my kitchen cabinets.
I even knew beforehand that I could not be trusted with all this summer free time and had signed up for a four-week on-line course to help me get back to a daily writing practice during the break. We used Julia Cameron’s The Sound of Pen on Paper, where Cameron advocates a “writer’s backpack” of tools consisting of daily writing (Morning Pages), artist dates, and daily walks. I was doing well with taking myself out for dates (oh, the lattes I enjoyed!) and moderately successful with morning writing. However, the walking was not happening. Painting the kitchen cabinets was.
I lamented my foolishness of taking on this painting task to the instructor, who encouraged me to think about it another way: that this physicality could replace walking as a way to engage my brain in the act of writing.
Her advice reminded me of some articles I’d read on lucid dreaming. Those who believe in lucid dreaming propose that we can control, or at least partially affect or direct, what we dream by asking a series of questions or setting intentions before falling asleep. At the very least, they believe that we should be able to tell ourselves in the dream that we are, in fact, dreaming. Although I’m not convinced that lucid dreaming is possible, I decided to adapt the principle to the cabinet project and combine this with my instructor’s positive spin on what seemed boring old-fashioned procrastination to me. Maybe I could create a form of “lucid cleaning.”
I had to perform a mind-shift though, which was to not be angry at myself for taking on this labor-intensive project. I found a quote from Zen teacher Ezra Bayda in The Mindful Writer:
“Your difficulties are not obstacles on the path; they are the path.”
So, instead of seeing the cabinets—or, insert any cleaning project here—as obstacles, I tried to figure out how to get productive writing time out of this distracting project. I had to ask myself questions from a place of curiosity and not judgment.
The next day, when I went into the garage to get ready for the last coat of paint on the cabinet doors, I asked this series of questions:
-Why am I really doing this?
-Of what or whom does this remind me? How do I feel about this reminder?
-What am I avoiding, or afraid to think or write about?
I let my mind wander with the strokes of the paintbrush. I smelled the paint, felt its creaminess as I transferred the paint from brush to cabinet door, and listened to 70s music on the radio. In this rhythm, I was thirteen again, remembering all the weekend projects my parents squeezed in during those short 48-hour stints. I only slightly remembered the actual projects; what came to me instead were the details: my father’s handle-bar mustache, my mother’s cut off jean shorts and the way she wielded hedge trimmers, and how my parents would celebrate completed labor with a cold cream ale while sitting on the bumper of our family car. From there, I remembered my grandmother’s morning cleaning routine, rag in hand, windows open in winter, and the smell of lemons. Then, watching my best friend’s parents cleaning and baking on Saturday mornings.
Then, I began imagining the life of the previous owner of our house, who had decided on the oak cabinets. She had told our realtor she chose us because she knew we would take care of her house. Was I still taking care of “her” house? Was that what this was all about—some unnamed promise that must be kept, perhaps still making me feel like a renter after nine years?
The most challenging part of how the painting and questions were activating my memory and my thinking was not putting down the paintbrush to go inside and write it all down. I let the thoughts flow into each other, gently asking questions along the way, but not interrupting the work before me.
At the end of this final paint coat, I peeled off my gloves and ran inside, starting two essays which I’ve finished over the past few weeks. Another essay about my grandmother came to me a week later because the images of her cleaning stayed with me. I’ve also started an epistolary essay to the former home owner.
I think about all the writing I might have done had I discovered “lucid cleaning” earlier in the cabinet painting project, or better yet, some time over the past 20 years as I struggled to live the kind of home life only found in glossy magazines.
The good news is I found some more time to practice lucid cleaning. I just took apart my home office to “organize” the space before school starts. Picture me standing in a sea of paper and books, every writing surface covered with something to be shelved, or filed, or hidden in some cute decorative box I bought at the craft store. After asking myself what I was avoiding (confessing to fellow writers that I truly did want to be the Martha Stewart of my generation and failed), I moved all the books off my desk to finish this essay.
Stacy Murison received her MFA in Creative Writing from Northern Arizona University where she now teaches composition. Her work can be found in Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, River Teeth, Hobart, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among others. When she’s not working as a composition instructor or painting her kitchen cabinets, she spends countless hours watching ants in the back yard or zombie movies, depending on the season.