How we mark time now feels so different compared to BC (Before Corona).
The only difference between weekends and weekdays right now, for me at least, is where I’m sitting. On weekdays I work from home, perched either on the dining room table or, increasingly, with my laptop heating my thighs on the sofa. On weekends, I have my laptop playing whatever show I’m comfort-bingeing (currently Buffy season five) while I sit cross-legged and sort through piles of stuff. This lapsed a bit in the summer when we had some freedom but has quickly become the norm again, especially in the third lockdown.
I’ve always enjoyed a big spring clean; I find the act of deep cleaning, decluttering and organising genuinely cathartic. Not only do you get the benefit of a sparkling clean kitchen, finding your old hairbrush and unearthing summer outfits you’d long forgotten. You also get a sense of preparing for the sunny days ahead: stowing away bulky winter coats and wiping away the layers of dust that accumulate out of reach of the vacuum. The dark days are behind us for another year, and you’re ready to embrace it.
One of the barriers, normally, is not having the time to do it properly, but that’s hardly a problem right now. So each weekend I have been taking on a different spring cleaning task and doing it thoroughly. Last weekend was the clothes and storage cupboard, which was overflowing with three boxes of 'important miscellaneous', rumpled linens and summer dresses.
Normally this would bring about a soothing blend of cleaning-induced satisfaction and nostalgia for summers gone by. But things are inescapably different now. It’s not just the demarcation of days which has blurred – the whole structure of the year has been derailed by the pandemic. Where once I’d feel nostalgic and excited for the days to come, I instead felt deeply weird and sad. I didn’t know when the year and the summer I was readying myself for would come. Nobody does. Globally we are at a point where none of us can make any plans for the future, suspended as we are in a state of constant uncertainty. We are in limbo and right now it feels hard to imagine a time when we won't be.
I suddenly felt that the annual spring clean was pointless.
These times of uncertainty bring with them anxiety on a global level in ways none of us has ever experienced. As long as it is not debilitating or standing in the way of one’s daily responsibilities, anxiety is a natural and, to a certain degree, manageable response. However, the scale of what we’re facing can make it very easy to escalate that anxiety to what the psychotherapist and author Lori Gottlieb describes as unproductive anxiety or constant rumination, "which can make our mind spin in all kinds of frightening directions". Instead of being grounded in the moment, we catastrophise and panic about things we’re scared could happen, and get caught in a constant cycle of trying to alleviate the panic through information that only feeds it.
Trying to offset anxiety by constantly ruminating is like pumping oxygen into a fire: it’s only going to balloon. Instead you have to find ways to acknowledge it without centring on it. In her guide for The Atlantic on how to stay sane during the pandemic, Lori points to the 'both/and' concept as integral to getting through this psychologically.
"Everyone copes with horrible situations differently. For some, humour is a balm. It’s BOTH/AND: It’s horrible AND we can allow our souls to breathe." It's how we can be grateful to spend more time with our partners or children while acknowledging the horrible reasons for that confinement.
Allowing our soul to breathe takes many forms. Indulging in cooking, working out, banana bread, skincare, dressing up… All these things are balms, enabling us to stop panicking without denying the huge pandemic-sized elephant in the room. I’d argue that the act of spring cleaning is the most grounding in the space we’re in, even if it may feel pointless.
While it’s important to note that cleaning is not necessarily inherently good for you psychologically (especially if it becomes obsessive as it can in people with OCD and other anxiety disorders), for many it can be a useful and productive way to alleviate anxiety. Alicia H. Clark, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of Hack Your Anxiety: How to Make Anxiety Work for You in Life, Love, and All That You Do, told Good Housekeeping: "We want to be able to do something when we get anxious, and what we really want is to be in control and take action… While there are times we have to accept some situations in life, we do not have to accept an untidy home."
When our physical space reflects the mental clutter and noise it can bog you down further, while subconsciously a clean space is more likely to be linked with positive emotions, according to Sherrie Bourg Carter, PsyD, psychologist and author of High-Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout. It has been associated with improved mood, decreased stress and heightened creativity. And it’s not just the result of cleaning that can soothe – the act in itself can be a mental balm. A small study published in 2014 found that participants who engaged in mindfully washing the dishes (where they focused on not only the action of washing but the sensations around it) reported a 27% reduction in nervousness, along with a 25% improvement in "mental inspiration".
This is all well and good but it doesn’t necessarily make cleaning easier to do – it requires the kind of mental energy that can be hard to summon when you’re in a terrible mental state, and that sense of inaction can compound how overbearing the clutter both in your surroundings and in your head feels. Even if you’re not struggling quite as much, there’s the simple fact that not everyone enjoys cleaning and wants to embark on a deep cleanse of the bathroom, no matter how good it is claimed to make you feel.
But it doesn’t need to be overwhelming. Instead of seeing a spring clean as the consuming, weekend-long task it traditionally is, we now have the time to break it down and stagger it out. There is even a name for this method: the FlyLady Cleaning method, named after organising specialist Marla Cilley aka the FlyLady, which calls for people to handle their cleaning tasks in 15-minute increments. The thinking is that cleaning your space should not be a rushed and stressful process. Breaking it up into smaller duties makes it more manageable, providing you with a sense of peace without overwhelming you.
Despite what I felt, a spring clean right now isn’t pointless; it’s a way to take care of both your current and future self. The world is a scary place at the moment and the endpoint is a mystery, which can make working towards some time in the future feel futile. But the point, which you reaffirm to yourself, is that it isn’t.
No one can know for certain what is going to happen or when this is going to end (as the government's repeatedly broken promises show us), but spring cleaning can offer tangible hope for a light at the end of the tunnel. You may not be able to plan the holiday where you’ll wear your summer dress and read that old book you unearthed, but you can solidify the hope that the time will come again when you can and, when it does, you’ll be ready to embrace it.