Keeping Hearth~The Practice of Sacred Householding

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"HOUSEHOLDER-One who inhabits a house on the Earth while living with God in her heart, or the Goddess in her soul. A difficult sadhana(spiritual practice). In India, one on a spiritual path would be a householder for the first part of the adult life and then become devoted to a solitary practice during the latter years. Sometimes the world catches us though." ~Jeannine Parvati in Hygieia, A Woman's Herbal

I've spent my entire adult life as what can be called a "householder". This is a term that, to me, means that part of the work of my soul on Earth is the work of running a household and all that pertains to it. This type of work, or what one might call "spiritual path", is probably the most challenging and wrought with pitfalls that will test the tinder of the strongest of hearts.  The challenges, however, are great teachers that, when mastered, cultivate great reward. I've not always been conscious and grateful for this form of service because I've often found it to be an oppressive burden placed upon me by conscription from a variety of internal and external forces. One being my dearest and most formidable complex of perfectionism along with a solid, well-embedded pattern of OCD. I also inherited my Italian immigrant grandparents motto of toxic shame that still rings in my ears to this day, "We may be poor but we don't have to be dirty," so clean, clean, clean. 

Because cleaning is not, particularly, how I'd like to spend all of my time, this familial pressure brought feelings of resentment and overwhelm. These, as I have discovered,  are part of the medicine because, being as I believed I could not escape this calling and, being as I have a strong, fighting Irish/Italian spirit that can survive famine and fascist invasions, I was determined to make the most of my lot. Actually, "making the most" is never enough for me as I must make more than the most and have always been irresistibly compelled to discover the sacred beauty in everything and where I couldn't find it, I've learned to make it.

So the story goes that I have spent the past 24 years living in an 1850's built farmhouse, raised 4 children and then some, several dogs, many, many cats, horses, chickens, and even a few stray humans (the horses and chickens weren't allowed in the house but everyone else was). This household has included woodstoves, lathe and plaster, 150 year old dust, led paint and old wallpaper along with a few unwelcome ghosts and a few respectful ghosts that we let stay.  Mix all this together and you've got a pretty big mess and alot of endless hard work leading to exhaustion, back pain, and a constant feeling of inadequacy because "housework is never done". I used to daydream about running away to join a monastery where I would hope to get a small room with nothing in it to sit quietly alone in and eat plain bowls of rice. But, hence, my adventurous nature, an insidious and perhaps pathological Libran (Libra is the sign of the scales and they are the taskmasters of harmony) tendency to create peace and sanctity begged me to stay.  And, in my staying, I did what any natural living being would do and grew roots into the soils of richness and grace that connected to what I feel to be a deep inner knowing of the great honor and blessing of this family life. 

The concept of "home" means different things to all of us and it's root in Old English, ham,  means "dwelling place, fixed residence, house, or abode" and from Old Norse, heimr, meaning "world" or Gothic, haims, meaning "village". Also stemming from other root languages; the Sanskrit word for "dwells", Armenian word for "inhabited" and Lithuanian "village". Our home is the place we dwell on Earth and is the village that holds our physical being and  our closest relationships.  As our bodies house our souls, our homes house our bodies and souls within. The characteristics or material form that our homes take is individual and the style, structure and temporal appearance is not what's most important, but our sense or feeling of being "home" when we're there. Care and upkeep of our Earthly dwelling is an important, necessary and albeit, inescapable activity of life that is simply just another aspect of self-love and self-care with the "self" extending beyond even our personal needs and into the needs of family and community. 

The primary axis of balance for myself, in relationship to the daily and constant activities of householding, swings between obsessive cleaning "because I have to" and an imperfect but joyous expression of love, art and creativity that sweeps, wipes, washes and straightens the material edifice of the living spirit or vital force that is the dust of creation. After all, all that dust we want to make go away, that's where life begins. From dust to dust. Our home, whether it be a tent, a trailer, a cardboard box, a couch in a friends living room, the back of a pick-up truck(been there), a mansion or anything in between is our temple of our embodiment along with the space wherein we contain many aspects of the messy and mundane. Allowing for messiness or piles left unsorted, dust bunnies in the corners and sticky spots on the table has become a metaphor for me about the cycle of life, death and rebirth that is never completed and always in motion. Having a "perfectly" clean house is not only impossible, but attempts to staunch the natural patterns of creation that include the aspects of entropy and decay that feed creation. Instead, I am in a continuous practice of honoring the undone, the incomplete and the unfixed that has transformed my home from a source of burden and angst to a nest of my own creation and respite. 

To accomplish this I had to devise some of my own cleaning, clearing and ritual householding practices to facilitate a peaceful, clean and relaxing environment in which to dwell. The list below is simply strategies and recipes that have worked for me and are intended to inspire your own based on your own needs and circumstances. Everyone's need for order, organization and cleanliness will be different. For instance, I have mold and dust allergies so this is an area that I have always focused on. Some people work better with all of their things scattered about and some of us, like myself, can't keep track of items that way and need everything to have a place. This is a process of self-exploration as well as a meditation and a practical application.

Cleaning Guide for Conscious Householders:

1. First thing I recommend is to identify and eliminate any and all toxicity including toxic cleaners and air fresheners along with laundry scented laundry detergents and fabric softeners. A toxic home is not going to promote health and is not a good place to cultivate the sacred. Fabric softener is really unnecessary and I and my family have lived happily without it for many years as well as thousands of generations of human beings before us. But if you must, there are lots of non-toxic alternatives to chemical fabric softeners along with this one from Wellness Mama: http://wellnessmama.com/361/natural-cleaning-recipes/ 

If you do nothing else, please remove all synthetically scented candles. They are toxic and disrupt endocrine function leading to thyroid problems and a host of other issues. Most chemically fragranced cleaning and air freshening products are made with petroleum by-products that are bought up by the fragrance industry to add to cleaners and perfumes...yuck: http://www.greenamerica.org/livinggreen/candles.cfm 

Here's a list of my favorite non-toxic cleaners:

  • Parsley Plus made by Earth Friendly Products
  • Citra Solv-I use this for pretty much everything. I bought a gallon of concentrate about 8 years ago and I still have alot left. You just use a capful and dilute it with water. I still have alot left and I have OCD, if that tells you anything. Here's a link to info about this product: http://www.citrasolv.com/
  • There are bazillions of good homemade cleaner recipes online and many books on the subject but here are a couple of recipes I use. As always with my personal recipes, I rarely follow them to a tee and often change it up regularly so the measurements are just a baseline. I have not included essential oils in any of them but they are always an option. I do use them, but sparingly because they are not ecologically sustainable and I prefer not to promote their use:
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Essential Soft Scrub         

1 1/2 Cups of baking soda

3/4 Cup of Borax

3/4 Cup of large grain salt

1 Cup of castille soap

3 Tablespoons of vinegar

Mix all together and store in a glass container. Use on tile grout, porcelain, corian sinks, stainless steel. I use it on alot of places I shouldn't so be mindful that it could scratch some surface.

 

Window/Shiny surface cleaner

1 part white vinegar

1 part water

Mix into a spray bottle and use!

 

2. No matter how small, humble, primitive or temporary your home. you can make it yours. This can even include places you go to visit while traveling. Even the worst of living situations can be made beautiful. By "beautiful" here I don't mean an externalized, enculturated definition of "beauty" but the beauty of the embodied home where your surroundings align and ground you. Making beauty here means making love happen and acknowledging our appreciation for having a place to set down our lives even if only for a moment. Living in a house that was always undergoing some form of renovation I often found ways to make things beautiful throughout the process. This doesn't have to be complicated or time consuming at all and can be as simple as:

  • Put up tapestries on old walls or over windows that still need curtains
  • Go to thrift or antique shops to find framed prints to nail up quick
  • Carry small talismans with you while traveling that you can place by your beside or pillowside to make a mini altar. When I used to travel to Vermont for the weekends during my Plant Spirit Medicine trainings I often camped out. It was at a time in my life where I was struggling with anxiety and it was a challenge to leave home. I would bring with me a couple of my favorite talismans, a candle holder and candles, and a little string of prayer flags to decorate my tent with. It made me feel not only at home but like I had a retreat space just for me.

3. Learn to feel the "vibe" of the objects in your home. I learned this from Stephen Buhner although I had been already, unconsciously doing this for many years. He was teaching us how to further develop our "felt sense". This is the sense that you receive from your environment that produces a sensual feeling, kind of like when you walk into a room or a place and you know immediately that you don't like it. You may not know why, but it doesn't "feel" good. This acknowledges that our immediate surroundings have an impact on our sense of well being and our home is the one place where we can influence this climate:

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  • Determine how you personally feel best in your surroundings. Do you like it stark or more cluttered or with objects neatly placed.
  • Build altars. I tend to end up doing this in every room and on most surfaces with some altars being more sacred like the one in my bedroom and some including photographs or more useful items such as candles. I have an altar in my main living room that I change with the seasons.
  • Choose objects, furniture, tables, artwork, etc. that feels good to you. This need not be expensive and sometimes can mean just adding a coat of paint or a stencil.

4. Make cleaning a meditation and set intentions of purpose. I have taken to seeing cleaning as more than the surface level elimination of dirt. It has become a metaphor for clearing, purifying and setting intentions on a more than physical level. When I am wiping a counter or cleaning window I am creating clarity and vision in my life. When I sweep the floor I am sweeping away what is no longer needed. I am also marking my boundaries and acknowledging the edges of my inner world and where it meets the outdoors. I can set intentions here to filter out negativity and to only allow in those energies that would promote wholeness and health into my home and my life. I often include an ritual along with the sweeping, wiping, vacuuming of my daily life:

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  • When I'm all done with my specific cleaning tasks such as dusting a room I'll go around with a smudge bundle and smudge the circumference of the room. Sometimes I'll do the entire house or, sometimes,  just wherever I'm cleaning. I owe my smudging skills to my dear friend Luanne who has since passed on. She was a Native American of the Mohawk nation who used to make her own smudge wands to sell, "Luanne's smudge-its". She always smudged when she cleaned. She would start by the front door of her house and smudge the circumference including tables, beds, electronic equipment, and pets and circle back around to the door, open it and sweep out whatever energies she had smoked away. I make may own Celtic inspired plant bundles for this purpose using the sacred Celtic number nine to wrap nine plants into a bundle. I use these to smudge or to hang as charms at entranceways and on thresholds in the house.
  • Add sea salt to cleaning water or in bowls in rooms to neutralize negative energy. I use plain water and a rag to dust, wipe counters and floors. I just add a dash of salt and let it dissolve. Salt is purifying on all levels. 
  • Place a small bowl of sea salt in certain rooms to absorb negative energy and keep space vital and clear. I especially like this in rooms that aren't well used. This could also be done at thresholds and entranceways.
  • Change your perception of "dirty" or "messy". It's not a mess or dirt, it's the result of your ongoing household life. Try to see the pile of dirty dishes as an expression of all who have eaten therein. Eating is a major focus of daily life and lots of thoughts, dreams and discussions happen while cooking, eating and doing dishes. The left over bits of food, the favorite mug, and even the choices about the food we eat fill up our sink with leftover morsels of ourselves. It can also be an organic sculpture that forms as we pile dish upon dish with everyone participating. Just imagine, a new art form or an entire gallery of photographs of people's kitchen sinks full of dirty dishes!

 

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5. Choose one spot in your house as your "hearth". The hearth is the heart of the home and it is the one place I keep clean even when I don't have the time to do any other house work. I think of the hearth or heart of the home as the center and source of all that pulses through our home lives. The heart of our home is the pulse at the center of our days whether we are gone or not and it holds the frequency of our return. It also holds all who live in the same place together along with our communications, conflicts and intimacies. This heart gives us a consistent rhythm and coherence that we can rely on to sustain us through all manner of chaos, emotional ups and downs, disappointments as well as joys and successes. The heart exists regardless of whether we have a physical space to honor it, but when we do it offers us a reminder to bring it consciousness.

  • If you have an actual hearth be sure to keep it swept and clean. As I mentioned, I may not clean anything else but I find that I can feel solid and grounded as long as I have tidied the hearth by sweeping the ashes and wiping up the dust around it. 
  • If you don't have a hearth make something the center of your home. It can be the area around your door, a coffee table, the kitchen table, a small central altar, a windowsill or even a corner. Just make sure it someplace that each household member passes or stops at daily. In the summer when the fire isn't going I often turn my "hearth" into my kitchen sink area and I make sure that I keep that area clean, dishes done and with a vase of fresh flowers on the windowsill above. When I had babies and small children, it was often all I could do to have the dishes done. That was my hearth, and I felt accomplished even if the rest of the house was unkempt.
  • I sometimes offer prayers, burn incense or candles nearby the hearth and set intentions for whatever may be needed in the home that day. I'll sometimes invoke one of the many images of hearth Goddesses such as the Greek goddess Hestia or Roman goddess Vesta. Sometimes I envision Cinderella doing her patient and humble hearthwork that led her to strengthen the qualities of grace and her feminine spirit that led her to actualize her highest dreams (I don't, however, think our highest dreams necessarily have anything to do with a self-centered monarch).  For a post on how to make your own incense go HERE

"Vesta is the goddess of the hearth at the centre of atrium and home. It was in the house and home that Vesta was most important because she was the goddess of the hearth and of fire. Vesta is particularly important to women of the household as the hearth was the place where food was prepared and next to it the meal was eaten with offerings being thrown into the fire to seek the future from the way it burned. The degree of the importance of Vesta and the hearth in Roman times carries on into modern English, where the word focus (Latin for hearth) continues to be used in a variety of ways, both scientifically and metaphorically, that although differing from the original meaning, still carry a sense of focussing or concentration on something of importance."  ~Wikipedia

  Photo attribution :By Yellow.Cat from Roma, Italy (Temple of Vesta  Uploaded by tm) [CC BY 2.0 ( http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0 )], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo attribution:By Yellow.Cat from Roma, Italy (Temple of Vesta  Uploaded by tm) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Above all the work of a householder includes many activities including cooking, bill paying, project managing, entertaining, problem solving and many others that may seem dull and onerous but our actually the cornerstones of what may be our more meaningful or inspiring work of life and, when we take it on as a part of our spirit journey, can be fulfilling and balanced within the creative current of daily motions. I call this a practice because that's what I've found it has become for me. A practice means we are "practicing" it and this is dynamic and imperfect. There are certainly lots of times where housework is really annoying and there are lots of other things I'd rather be doing. Sometimes I just have to clean up the mess and there is nothing that feels remotely sacred about it. Sometimes the sink is just full of dirty dishes and it really bothers me but I ignore it or I bitch and moan and feel sorry for myself. Sometimes I wash them and something else happens that relaxes in the repetitive motion and love of my favorite tea mug that I am always happy to have clean. Sometimes I go on a cleaning binge and still don't feel like the house is clean enough no matter how much I've completed. But I practice pausing, breathing, intending and patiently bringing myself into a less enervated and hyped up struggle to keep up with the chaos and, instead, I participate in it and learn it's ways and find out how it makes life and beauty appear with a few mindful swipes of the cleaning rag or the broom.