Alternate Routes: Cleaning Baseboards

By Hallie Waugh

Editor’s Note: It’s easy to feel overwhelmed or apathetic when faced with the sheer volume of need in our world. Writing a check or volunteering with a local organization are important steps in the walk of justice, but they’re not the only steps. This article is the latest in our “Alternate Routes” series, which explores imaginative ways of cultivating empathy and restoring the cracked pieces of the world. 

 

I receive a text from my friend on a Monday. It reads, “About your birthday present: I seriously want to help you clean your house. I would love to have it on my schedule once a month.”

She’s referring to a casual conversation we had the week before—she mentioned coming over monthly to help me clean instead of buying me a gift. I had brushed it off, because offers like this can feel superficial. Let’s get coffee! Yeah, we totally should. But when her text pops up, I realize she has considered this offer and the time it would take. I respond with an enthusiastic yes, and we pencil it in.

She knocks on my door at 7:15 on a Tuesday evening, about a month later. We each give little recaps of our day, hitting the high and low points; when she asks what I need help with most, I say the baseboards.

“They’re filthy, and it’s been bugging me for weeks.”

After some digging through a closet, I locate two buckets and two rags, and we trail each other around the house, switching from our hands and knees to sitting criss-cross style, chatting about personality types and her daughter’s schoolwork. Sometimes the conversation lulls, and I become hyper-aware of the globs of dog hair on my rag. For a few brief moments, I wish I hadn’t let her come. But then we slowly work our way into the good stuff, like our dreams, our relationships, what we’re learning about our souls. I confess how short my temper has been, how quick and sharp my words can be. She tells me that she and her daughter have also been quick to argue and slow to listen. And it feels like something inside of me has cracked open to let the fresh air in, like a cut that’s been under a bandage for too long. We dip our rags in the soapy water and keep wiping the boards.

After we’ve wrung out our rags and draped them over the edge of the tub, I invite her to sit on the couch for a bit. I pour us both a glass of merlot from a box. When I thank her again, she returns my words.

“No, really, thank you. It’s good just to be together. And I know it takes bravery to let someone see the dirtiest parts of your home.”

It feels like something inside of me has cracked open to let the fresh air in, like a cut that’s been under a bandage for too long. We dip our rags in the soapy water and keep wiping the boards.

I joke that I think it requires a whole lot more bravery to show up and clean someone else’s dirty house. But I realize, now, what she meant. Being together, really seeing each other, takes bravery on both sides. It can be uncomfortable or humbling or awkward, and it’s easy to opt out, simply because it doesn’t feel worth the effort. But it seems we both received a gift that night (and the many nights since). There’s something about being together that feels like a salve, like cool air on a summer night, like being made whole. After she leaves, I understand that togetherness is well worth the awkward pauses and the fact that she’ll forever know how filthy my baseboards are.

I think this same type of presence—the simple gift of being with—is what makes Jesus’s life so appealing to me. As He went about His days, He consistently gave people the gift of time and attention. He lingered at the well with the Samaritan woman, who was hopping from relationship to relationship, perhaps in hopes of finding peace or wholeness. He invited himself to the house of Zacchaeus, a man hiding behind his own wealth. He tied a towel around his waist and scrubbed the feet of the disciples, knowing full well their loyalty would only last a little longer. Sometimes Jesus offered miracles and marvels, but other times, He just offered His presence.

I imagine each of these people—the Samaritan woman, Zacchaeus, the disciples—felt uncomfortable about having a teacher and miracle worker up close in their business. But I also wonder if, after the awkwardness subsided, they began to feel like they could breathe again, like something was being put back together. I wonder if, afterwards, they felt like they had received the unnamable gift of being seen and known, the rare dignity of being worth someone’s time. If it felt anything like the times my friend comes over to clean, I imagine they felt love in its most tangible form. Paul put it this way: “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (1 Thess. 2:8, NIV).

Sometimes Jesus offered miracles and marvels, but other times, He just offered His presence.

It is so simple to offer time and attention, and it is simultaneously so difficult, particularly amidst our distractions and full schedules. But if this is how Jesus went about initiating the healing work of God in the world, perhaps we can go about it in much the same way. If we want to extend the hospitality and kindness of God, if we want to play an active part in the world’s healing, maybe we don’t need a platform or the perfect thing to say. Maybe all we need is our own presence, attention, and the bravery to show up for life together. And when things get messy, in our homes and otherwise, perhaps we can do a great deal of good with the simplest of offerings—like an hour to listen well, or an extra place at the table, or a rag and a bucket of soapy water.