It wasn’t that big a decision. I could do it. I could totally do it. There are two categories of people in this world—those firmly rooted in the bedrock of what is, and those for whom reality is more the fluid fluttering of tomorrow, of yesterday, and the tomorrows and yesterdays that never really happened. And sure, I might be slightly more inclined toward the second category. But I could do it. Why couldn’t I? “Why can’t I do it?” I asked somewhat belligerently. My roommate tilted her head to one side in confusion. “You can do it. You could totally do it. I was asking you to do it.” “Right.” It had been her idea; that was true. “Are you having arguments with me in your head again?” I considered. “Maybe. Not saying. So when do I start?” Halfway through a wonderful year in Neve Yerushalayim, I already knew that I wanted to stay for another year to cement everything I was learning and to take it from my head, where it made sense, and send it to my heart, where I could live it. There was only one issue; my savings were slowly drying up, and I had been complaining to my roommate how outrageously expensive everything was when you had no money. I began waxing poetic about all the things that I wanted to buy, in alphabetic order. She broke in at s for strawberries. “I wish I could taste just one,” I sighed. I rolled over on my unmade bed and stared longingly at my beeping alarm clock. “Just one perfect strawberry.” “You know, they served strawberries after lunch yesterday,” she said rather dryly as she reached over and turned off my alarm. She then returned to her half of the room and pulled her blanket into perfect hospital corners. Well, they looked perfect to me; she didn’t agree. She gathered the blanket together and began the process again.
Out of all the Category One people with whom I have ever had the pleasure of interacting, my roommate took the prize for being the Category One-est. She had zero patience for the dramatic. I had zero patience for the practical. We were model roommates for all of those shiurim about learning to get along with those who are different from you. “But anyway,” she continued after the covers were finally smoothed to her satisfaction, “if you’re quite done complaining, if you need money, why don’t you go out and earn some?”I thought my options through and came up with nothing except a burning desire for strawberries, and that’s when my roommate mentioned that she had been cleaning apartments for pay in her spare time—and she actually had another offer that she didn’t have the time for. Did I want it? I looked at her. She was fully dressed. Her bookshelf had three dust-free books and a lonely teddy bear, its nose polished to a high gloss. Her cupboard contained tightly stacked lines of shirts, organized by color and season, and her shoes stood at the door lest she tread dust on the little round carpet at the foot of her ship-shape bed. She was reaching for her siddur. Class started in 45 minutes.As for my side of the room…well…I didn’t consider it my bed unless it had at least five books within arm’s reach and, oh look, yesterday’s socks were there too, just in case I should suddenly have a need for them. I wasn’t exactly messy, but no, I did not own a bottle of the Israeli equivalent of Lemon Pledge and a bucket full of sponja cloths, like my roommate did.
My morning routine did not involve hospital corners or cleaning fluids of any kind; instead, I usually dozed off or read until five minutes before class, then jumped out of bed, threw on some clothes and performed my patented “30-second pickup,” which basically involves running around like a small personal tornado and sweeping up fallen books and socks and stray pony holders. I davened while walking to class, doing my best to avoid hitting all the trees when I bowed my head. I have been known to sweep things under the rug, quite literally. But I could do it. I could clean for people. I could so do it. I was all over it. “They’re neat people, though,” my roommate said, looking at me and my surroundings as if perceiving them, and me, for the first time. “I can be neat!” I said. “Sure you can!” she said. “But…maybe don’t tell them that I recommended you.” Armed with that bit of encouragement,I called my first clients. The next day, after three wrong turns, I knocked on a door that was answered by a teenage girl. “Ma!” she hollered. “The help is here!” The help was shown the cleaning supplies cabinet and asked to start in the bathroom. Perfect. I could do this. When I was younger, my job at home had been to clean the bathrooms before Shabbos. I used to clean them while dreaming myself into all different versions of Cinderella. It took me approximately five hours to do each bathroom. Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the greatest example of my cleaning prowess. But it was a decade later now. I was no longer the girl who was sent to get a box of plastic forks from the basement and returned an hour later only to present her mother with a jar of mayonnaise. I was all sorts of grown-up and responsible, and I could so do this. I was on top of it, like Lemon Pledge on a spot of dirt. Speaking of which, the bathroom. I cleaned the toilet and the sink, and then looked around. There were some black spots on the tiles over the bathtub, so I decided to tackle that.
There were so many of those black spots. I did not notice how many there were and how dark they were until I started cleaning them, and wasn’t that interesting? When you cleaned one spot, you noticed the rest of them more. It was as if the cleanliness in one area actually emphasized the dirt in the others. Now, wasn’t that fascinating! I cleaned a spot and then stood back to see the effect. Huh. Wasn’t that a great mashal for life, though? You think you’re all perfect and fine until you start to actually work on your middos or whatever, and it’s only then that you see what a massive amount of work needs to be done. It’s depressing, really. Maybe it would be easier not to work on yourself at all. I know that it is definitely easier not to work on yourself at all. Because the things I had been going through that led me to the wonderful, welcoming doors of Neve Yerushalayim in the first place were bad things, but—and this is hard to explain—they were my bad things, and they were comfortable. Know what I mean? It’s like the spots weren’t really such an issue, they weren’t all black to me, until I started working on changing, and then, oh yes, then I saw the black spots. And it’s hard once you see the black spots, because then you have to clean them up, and it’s hard, it’s tedious, but you can’t give up. Because once you’ve seen them for what they really are, there is no going back… And that was a good thing. And that was a hard thing. And that was someone knocking on the door so loudly that I slipped and fell to the floor of the bathtub with a shriek.“Everything okay in there?” “Y-yes!” I called back equally loudly. I scrambled to my feet. I was holding a rag and spray. Because I was here in someone’s bathtub, and the reason that I was here in someone’s bathtub was to clean it. I knew that. I brandished my rag and my spray. I sprayed the wall. I wiped it.
The door opened a crack. I was spraying, wiping, spraying, wiping. I was industrious. I had not been daydreaming for the past— how long had it been? “You’ve been in here for a half-hour or so,” said the woman apologetically, “and I also want you to do the windows. And dust. And do sponja.” “No problem.” I could do this. I could so do this. I was all over this. I raised the spray bottle again. Spray, spray, scrub. “It doesn’t look like you’ve gotten very far,” the woman said. Her gaze sharpened, and I turned to her, shamefaced. “I was thinking about black spots,” I confessed. She was going to think I was an airhead or a space cadet, like my siblings used to call me when I was a kid. “What do you mean?” she asked. In for a penny, in for a pound. I gestured somewhat feebly at the tiles on the wall. “I was thinking about them, you know—how hard they are to clean, but more importantly, how clearly you see them once you start cleaning them.” Her eyes lit up. “You have just described my life!” she said. “I have the best book to lend you! When you’re finished cleaning, of course. You’re going to love it!” I returned home with three books, a box of strawberries, 55 shekels and an agreement to return at the same time next week. The next week I put too much soap in the sponja water, and it was reported to me that the entire family skated around the house in stockinged feet on Shabbos. The week after that I ended up not having to spread water everywhere because the bathtub that I had accidentally left running did it for me. The following week my services were no longer required due to my services not being exactly the kind of services that they required. But I still came back every week for a while to return a book and borrow another and to talk to the woman who lived there. There are two different categories of people in this world and two different kinds of black spots. One day I would learn how to clean them both.