Two weeks ago I called a carpet cleaning company to deal with some rooms that needed professional help. The owner of the company launched into a list of things I would have to do to get the carpets ready to for the cleaning.
“Make sure there’s no little toys or things on the carpets, move smaller pieces of furniture out of the way, and vacuum the entire room. Vacuum those carpets like you mean it,” he said.
“Most people vacuum like their house is on fire,” he explained. “I don’t know why they’re in such a hurry. You want to vacuum like you mean it. Start with an empty vacuum canister and vacuum nice and slow. Slower than you’ve ever vacuumed before.”
Being a rule follower, I obediently did everything the carpet man asked me to do, while my spouse wondered out loud why I was working so hard when they were the ones getting paid. I picked up all the diabolical toys that hide under the couch: the Shopkins, K’nex, and other tiny plastic shapes in primary colors with jacked-up names that have no meaning in the English language.
Then I vacuumed like I frigging meant it. It took forever. My brain and body were itching to vacuum like I’m used to doing it, like the house is on fire. About halfway through the living room, something unexpected happened. The white noise of the vacuum engine, combined with the repetitive back and forth movement, started to feel soothing. The monkey in my mind stopped clanging her giant cymbals. I was spending so long vacuuming that I was actually running out of stuff to ruminate on. My river of thoughts slowed from whitewater rapids to babbling brook.
In this mentally and physically relaxed state I realized that this was the first time I had vacuumed while I was vacuuming. As opposed to ordering my kids around, or writing a strongly worded letter in my head to the neighborhood HOA about people driving too fast, or berating myself for not writing my son’s preschool teacher a thank you note three years ago…all while vacuuming.
Then I began to wonder when I last did anything like I meant it, which is to say: am I ever simply doing the thing I am doing while I am doing it? The answer is, not really. And that’s a disservice to myself, my loved ones, and the world. How am I honoring the unimaginably improbable privilege of being alive today if I am wandering through my life blinded by distraction?
So then I decided to do all my mundane tasks that day like I meant it. I heard the sound of the water while I did the dishes. I noticed how the dish soap smelled like a fruit that hasn’t been invented yet. I looked at the trees arching over the road while I drove to CVS. I heard my children playing I Spy in the backseat. I stopped in the middle of an afternoon dog walk to watch a mother and father cardinal teach their baby to fly.
All of these things gave me joy. They were simple everyday things, and they made me happy. And all it took was some concentration and intention courtesy of the carpet cleaner man.
Of course the best intentions tend to get waylaid by life. I continue to live in my head most of the time, taking myself on silent journeys of distraction through old wounds, resentments, struggles, and questions I will never find the answers to.
Sometimes I remember the carpet cleaning guy telling me to vacuum like I mean it. Sometimes I try to do that. Sometimes I am able to let my mind rest for twenty minutes while I fold the clothes like I mean it. To let my children see that I am eating dinner with them like I mean it. To talk to my husband about his day at work like I mean it.
Learning how to live life like I mean it? It’s a work in progress. But it helps to know that if I ever feel like I’ve gone too far into the maze of my own endless stream of thoughts, all I have to do is vacuum the living room.
...was the name of my column in Phillips' Finest, my middle school newspaper. If it was good enough for seventh grade, it's good enough for "adulthood."