How to clean your Tohu wa-bohu

There is nothing I like better to read than plans, tips, and strategies for keeping the house clean and orderly. A large household in a relatively small living space quickly degenerates into chaos and disorder without constant vigilance and persistent rectification of why is this sticky. Can I not just once in my life sit down without getting all sticky.

So that’s why I like to sit there with my feet up, reading about how to clean.

I especially like the schedules that tell you exactly what to do, how often. You’ve seen these: mop up spills immediately, tidy living areas daily, deep-clean bathrooms weekly, scrub baseboards monthly, douse upholstery with kerosene, strike a match, and delight in the glorious inferno of the final answer to domesticity quarterly. I mean, “never.” Never even think of that. What is the matter with you?

The one thing I haven’t found anywhere is a guide for what kind of cleaning to do depending on what kind of guest you’re expecting.  It does make a difference, n’est-ce pas, you animal? From my Tohu wa-bohu to yours:

Female guests age 11 and up: Scrub shower curtain, because women are insane and are going to judge you on your shower curtain, even if they aren’t taking a shower. Decades from now, the master of ceremonies at your funeral is going to ask, “Does anyone have a memory to share of our extraordinary friend Simcha, who lived to be 106 years old, won the Nobel Peace Prize twice, and figured out how to desalinate ocean water with a simple wooden spool and a paper clip?” and that woman who stopped by to pick up a free typewriter you listed on Craigslist, and who asked if she could use your bathroom, will stand up and she will say, “Her shower curtain had mildew.”

Did you know you can just put the whole shower curtain in the washing machine? Don’t actually run the machine with a shower curtain in it, stupid; you’ll tear it to shreds. I’m just saying, you can put it in there.

Nice French Canadian ladies named Enid and Célestin who are bringing over a casserole because you just had a baby: Just have the baby waiting by the door. They are there for the baby, and the casserole is their ticket inside. If you want to make them extra happy, hang up some gooey picture of Our Lady of Maybelline. Note: Do not let them leave with the baby. Check their bags. Nice try, Célestin.

Any kids age 7 and under; and boys age 12 and under: Just clear a pathway, practice those breathing exercises for when they start tracking unspeakable things through the hallway, and make sure at least one toilet works and/or you know where the shovel is.

Priest in the house: Buy extra beer and extra meat, and crate the dog. Other than that, do nothing. He really needs to know what goes on.

Husband’s work friend: Meet him in the driveway and shunt him directly into the backyard where the beer is. He definitely doesn’t need to know what goes on.

College friends who always thought you were fairly dim, because you fairly were: Upgrade bathroom reading material. Aim for Lexile score of 1400 or higher. National Geographic is acceptable, as long as it’s not too wet and nobody has written “ha ha boobie” on the African parts. If you went liberal arts, poetry anthologies are a solid choice. No Magic Tree House or Animorphs. They wouldn’t understand.

Anybody: No NFP charts on the fridge. Come on. And yes, everybody knows what “I” or “*” or “:)” or “ha cha cha” notations mean, especially if they’re clustered around the end of the month. No visible cups of pee, even if there is a good and holy reason for having cups of pee hanging around. No boxes of test strips that say “HELPS YOU GET SUPER EXTRA PREGNANT MUCH MUCH FASTER!” Even people who love you, love your kids, and are totally on board with the whole “culture of life” thing are going to stand there, transfixed, their eyes darting back and forth between the forty-six toothbrushes you somehow have, and the toilet paper you’re forced to buy in bulk sizes that would shame an army barracks, and those words “PREGNANT FASTER,” and they’re going to think, “I need to leave before these people try to hide a spare baby in my purse.”

Hey, come on back. There’s plenty of beer in the back yard.

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Image: sketch by Edward Lear via Pixabay (Creative Commons)

Advent is coming. Keep it simple! UPDATED

I know, I know, you’re focused on Thanksgiving right now.  Just bookmark this for next week.

Advent is coming!  I always feel a little silly saying that, because the word “advent” actually means “coming.”  But that’s how life is when you’re In Charge of Stuff:  you even have to plan about planning ahead.  So, if you haven’t looked it up yet, the first Sunday in Advent is Nov. 30, which is . . . soon.

We do try to put off celebrating Christmas until it’s actually almost Christmas.  I claim this is because it would be a violation of the integrity of the spirit of penance and preparation to behave as if Christmas has already arrived; but actually my main reason is that my fine young sons see decorations as a challenge.  A punching challenge.  When some new vision swims before their eyes, whether it’s a pillow or a brother or gorgeous centerpiece bedecked with fragile berries, gilded bells and trembling, cinnamon-scented miniature pine cones, they say to themselves, “Gotta punch that.”

So I put off Christmas as long as possible for Christmas’ own good.  I don’t want Christmas to get punched.

Advent, however, can take a little smacking around.  One of the great things about any kind of Advent preparation is that, by definition, you have to keep it simple and spare.  A lush, lavish, complicated Advent makes about as much sense as a simple, understated fireworks display on the Fourth of July.

So as Advent approaches, I always remind myself that, while there are lots of wonderful ideas out there for how to observe the season, it’s not only impossible to do it all, it would be contrary to the spirit of the season to go overboard!  I plan small, and we can always add things later on years when we’re feeling ambitious and energetic.  We aim for simple, inexpensive, and edifying.

We do two things without fail every Advent.  The first is to make and light an Advent wreath, which we attempt to light every night while singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (adding two verses each week); but some years, it’s mostly a Sunday thing.  I just bought a cheapo twisted twig wreath at the dollar store, then use about forty yards of thread strapping evergreen branches down thoroughly.  If I can’t find purple and pink candles, I just use white, and tie on bows made of ribbon or cloth in the right colors.  Oh, and after a lifetime of trying to attach candle holders to a wreath, I just gave up, and now use (again, cheapo dollar store) glass candle holders, which I set inside the wreath.  I put the whole thing on a pizza pan, so I can easily move it off the table and store it in a safe, unpunchable place when it’s not in direct use.  Some years we have little golden balls and berries and doves, but other years, it’s just the greenery.  Here are prayers for each Sunday.  Print it out now, along with a few copies of “O Come Emmanuel,” and tape it to your pizza pan or something.

If this sounds unpleasantly practical and workaday to you, remember:  Advent is dark.  Lights out.  Once you have candlelight and acapella singing, it’s just as magical and luminous and mysterious as whatever the Vatican is doing on that same day.

(The child pictured above is utterly failing to think, “Tippy candle?  No pinecones?  This Advent is not impressive at all!”)

The second thing we do for Advent is we all go to confession once or twice before Christmas.

That’s it.  That’s the bare minimum, and some years, it’s also the maximum we can manage. There are plenty of wonderful Advent ideas.  But please remember, KEEP IT SIMPLE.  Don’t go overboard.  Pick one or two, and don’t make it elaborate.  And make sure you get to confession!

If you want a hands-on project for your kids but aren’t feeling very crafty, here is a free printable chain from  Life Made Lovely.  Print it out, cut the days into separate strips, and staple or tape them into a long chain.  You can hang the chain on your Christmas tree if you have one already, or anywhere in the house (hang it high, to avoid punching).  Starting on Nov. 29 (which is Saturday, the vigil of the first Sunday in Advent), you cut off one link each day and read what’s inside. This particular one just has a short description and a Bible verse to look up and read, and is designed for little kids; but if you Google “advent chain 2014,” you will find other styles, some more elaborate that others.

UPDATE: Rebecca Salazar hunted down a link that I thought was lost, so now you can also print and use the Advent chain links that my sister Abby Tardiff made up. These have complete short verses, plus pictures to color, on them. Link here.

If you like, you can color or attach the  paper strips to construction paper strips before you make them into a chain:  purple for the first, third and fourth weeks, and pink for the third week. I like the idea of a chain, because you can see it getting smaller and smaller as Christmas approaches.  You can explain to kids that it reminds us of the chains of sin, which get weaker and weaker until our Savior arrives — and then the chain is gone.

If you do an advent chain that has pictures on it, you could also use the cut strips as ornaments for a Jesse Tree, adding one ornament each day of Advent.  Or, if you’re feeling brave and have kids who are old enough, you could just dump all your craft materials which you have carefully kept organized and . . . sorted . . .

Tohu wa-bohu.

Tohu wa-bohu.

on the table, assign different symbols to each kid, and go hide for a couple of hours and see what happens, repeating the phrase “it’s only once a year” to yourself, and with the firm understanding that glitter on the floor doesn’t count as a mess unless it actually impedes your walking.  We do this some years for our “day after Thanksgiving” tradition.  Lacking space for a free-standing Jesse Tree, I just clip a branch from a bare tree and bolt it to the wall.  It looks good and weird, like a Catholic home should.

Another very easy Advent tradition that we manage to keep as a family most years is to “fast” from dessert except on Sundays. I take what money I would have spent, and buy extra food for the church’s food pantry.

What are your Advent plans?  On the years when you really followed the spirit of the season, what was it like?

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[This post originally ran on the National Catholic Register in 2011.]