The Meditative Joy of Cleaning a Community Kitchen

For three-out-of-four of my years at Carleton College I have lived in Farm House– an exquisitely lovely “interest house” centered around food, farming, sustainability, and community living. The house has been a central feature of my college experience. It has helped me keep busy and social, and many of my fondest college memories occurred within the houses walls or in its expansive yard.

The house is loosely associated with the student farm, which is located just outside our door. (The farm is managed by a farming club and two or three student workers over the summer, but there is often overlap between the farmers and the residents.) We divvy up household chores, take turns cooking, eat communal dinners, and put on events for the campus.

It occurs to me that I have devoted a great deal of time to cooking in, and cleaning up, this house’s kitchen, a task that is absent the lives of many of my peers who opt to remain on the meal plan all four years. Some say “I’ll have to cook and clean for the rest of my life, I want to enjoy the dining halls while they are here.” And I understand that sentiment. But I have found the cooking to be quite manageable when we share the responsibility, and cleaning the Farm House kitchen often feels less like a chore and more like a soothing respite from the bustle and stress of college– a kind of meditative joy. I am not a huge lover of cleaning in general. I don’t particularly like to clean my room, or organize files on my computer. But the difference is that those tasks require a lot of thinking. I have to decide, over and over again, what I should keep and where I should put it. I find that exhausting and stressful, and tend to put it off as long as I can.

But cleaning a communal kitchen like ours is different. Everything has its rightful place. There’s a system. There are labeled shelves for plates, bowls, cast iron pans, and so on. There’s a drawer for clean towels and drawer for dirty ones. There’s a bottle of soap, a sponge, and a drying rack. So I can start cleaning, and just get lost in the ritual– one simple, repetitive, mechanical task after another. I can socialize, listen to an audiobook, or think deeply for a while. And as I complete these little tasks, I get to see the kitchen being restored to all its glorious, bucolic, functional, splendor. It’s very peaceful and very gratifying.

The other thing that makes cleaning a communal kitchen better than, say, cleaning your room, is that it’s a gift. It’s an act of kindness and generosity, towards a community of people you care for. Others usually notice and appreciate your work. And that it makes it much more appealing than cleaning your own room or desk, which is just for you, and not to the benefit of anyone else.

So while living in Farm House has had some costs, including a great amount of time devoted to cleaning our kitchen, I don’t regret anything. Cleaning that kitchen was a kind of meditative joy, that made me feel grounded, connected, and at home throughout my time in college.

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