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In my late 20s, inspired by some casual thing my mother said (if mothers ever say anything casually) about starting the New Year with a "little elbow grease," I began a ritual of deep cleaning on December 31. When I was living in small apartments by myself, this task consumed nothing more than New Year's Eve and made me feel righteous while others were out carousing away the last few hours of the old year. I hated the holiday anyway. It seemed pointless to go out into the cold dark night and come home tipsy, only to wake up to a fresh year—when truly anything could happen—hungover, with my belongings in the same dusty piles I left them in last year.

When I met my husband, Dan, and found he was even less interested in New Year's than I was, we jumped full bore into this cleaning tradition together. In those days, we'd start early in the morning on the 31st and end sometime in the wee hours of the first, having stopped to clink glasses of ice water over our mops at midnight. Somewhere along the line, one of us thought of making egg rolls on New Year's Day. We made a huge pile that first splendid morning of January and nibbled on them in our spotless kitchen throughout the day. Something about slaving away with the goal of both a fresh start and egg rolls quickly became a tradition—one we kept up even when I was hugely pregnant with our son. That year, I hovered awkwardly over the toilet bowl, doing all the "low to the ground" jobs while Dan did the endless washing of our rugs, sheets, blankets and curtains, and—this is his trademark—wiped down the walls.

Okay, I probably lost you at the wall washing: "These people are fanatics," you're thinking. I agree that wall washing is a little insane (baseboards, okay, but the walls?). Still, you wouldn't believe how much dust and grime stick to them, especially in the kitchen. Nevertheless, though walls may not be your thing, believe me when I tell you that when you wake up on January 1 to a clean, orderly home—no holiday decorations or detritus in sight—you'll feel ready for anything. Even January.

Over the last 10 years or so, as Dan and I have dusted our books, disinfected our fridge, thinned our closets, scraped our stove top, washed out our trash cans and sorted the looming pile of papers sneering at us from our office, we have learned a few lessons (some more easily won than others):

A Day of Cleaning May Take More Than a Day
A few years ago, Dan and I realized we could no longer leave this job until the 31st. For one thing, there is the problem of how many hands one actually has free when one has a baby. Not to mention that since we both hit 30 (and then some), our stamina has waned. Lastly, the washer in our rented mansard-roof apartment, which doles out only cold water for clothes, can't handle all the bedding, rugs and curtains for a family of three. So, now we start on the 27th.

Whatever You Need to Do, You Can Do it With Citra-Solv
I don't know what they put in it, but this natural citrus cleaning agent degreases and polishes even the cruddiest bathtub and the ickiest stove top. Because it's concentrated, you can buy it and water it down in an old spray bottle, which makes it super affordable. And it leaves your floors and house smelling lightly of fresh squeezed oranges, and who wouldn't welcome those balmy scents of citrus in January?
Never Underestimate the Power of Your Personal Ragbag of Memories
Whatever clothes you can't mend or donate (or maybe can't part with), consider pulling out the scissors and cutting them up to make rags. This seems so obvious, but honestly, it didn't used to be for me. I used to waste many dollars (not to mention trees) on paper towels and, one year, was suckered into a special kind of fleece cleaning cloth a friend had given me. But there's nothing paper towels can do that you can't do even better with a nice soft piece of a favorite old Duran Duran T-shirt or an Elmo bib your baby especially loved. I do, however, have one word of advice: squares. Cut everything into 12-inch squares. Once, when a friend's son spilled some juice, I suggested that the dad grab a rag from the bag under the sink. When he came out with an old pair of Dan's underwear, the look on his face was priceless.

Are You Really Going to Leave the Cabinet Under Your Sink Like That for Another Year? Really?
This is all I have to say: Just think about 12 more months of looking at those same dribbled coffee grounds and grimy eggshell bits floating around the base of your trash can each time you open the door.

Take Over Liliana's Laundromat
Or whatever coin laundry is around the corner from you. In 2009, when our son was almost 1, we figured out the advantage of bigger washers and hotter driers. Trust me, when your thickest duvet is dry in 25 minutes, as opposed to three cycles in your home dryer, you'll thank us (not only because of the time saved but because your electric bill won't have spiked!).

A Trip to the Emergency Room Will Not Deter You
That same year, we had a blip on the 30th—we had to take our son to the emergency room. He was fine, and once I realized that, I turned to Dan, my mind rushing ahead to our rugs waiting at the laundry and our unwashed windows and said, "We're never going to finish on time!" Well, we did make it, with Dan finally cooking our egg rolls at 9 p.m. on the first.

Clean Windows Make the World—and the New Year Before You—Feel Infinitely Wider and Full of Possibility
When it's still getting dark at 4 p.m. on December 31, you may not feel it's necessary to clean your windows. But as the days grow slowly longer, one bright January day after another, you won't want to miss a second of pure, unmitigated winter light as it slants around buildings, streams through bare trees and lands in bright, white pools in your home. Every year, just as Dan is unrolling our fresh, clean rugs, I run out to the nearest market and buy the same thing: a lovely bunch of yellow tulips, which I place in a square glass vase on our dining room table. Throughout the month, I replenish this winter extravagance, because when I look at those delicate and hopeful flowers, the dazzling sun cascading through the shiniest clear windows and making them gleam, I always feel so optimistic—it seems, at least for a month, that the world is my oyster.

You Have to Know When to Stop
Okay, despite the fact that I'm sure Dan and I appear to be zealots with this cleaning stuff, we are not. There are limits to our madness (though, really, trust me about washing those walls). When weighing how far we're going to go, I always remember a book I read as a child, one I now read to my son, called Small Pig. In it, a woman cleans her farmhouse until it's spic-and-span and then turns to the outside mess. Before you know it, she's vacuumed up Small Pig's mud puddle. He is so miserable, he runs away and lots of terrible things happen until the farmer and his wife find him and bring him home to a new, wet, muddy puddle. The lesson in the book is clear: Clean well, with all the elbow grease you can muster, but do it within reason. Remember, the world is inherently a messy place.

Caitlin Shetterly is the author of Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home (Voice).

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