By Claire Marie Porter
On a windy spring afternoon at the Quaker “Meeting Cottage,” a wide yellowish-brown house on the grounds of the Germantown Friends School, Lois Volta, 36, a musician, writer, mother and professional cleaning consultant gives a tour of her home—and her inner world.
“Home doesn’t have to suck,” says Volta. “But a beautiful life takes work.”
Her home, which smells like wood and dough, is full of trinkets, instruments and art. There’s a wood stove in the dining room. There are fresh-cut flowers and cookies on the table. It is the epitome of cozy. In her living room, instruments are part of the landscape. There’s a table runner on a keyboard, which is decorated with framed photographs. Everything seems to have its place. Volta, in a mustard yellow dress, has a lilting voice and graceful mannerisms. She is one of those people you feel like you’ve always known.
In a sonnet, the “volta” is a turn of thought or argument. Often, the signpost is a “but” or “yet,” followed by a line that changes the entire meaning of the poem. Volta lives up to her surname’s meaning, flipping stigmas of cleanliness and duty and undercutting domestic pressures on women by offering a feminist, meaning-driven service. Volta Naturals is a company that addresses the roots of mess and habit; one that emphasizes confronting indifference and dread.
Teaching someone to clean can be sacred, says Volta. When talking through the intimacies of a closet, or a pile of neglected papers, trust, vulnerability and humility are exchanged, and habits, fears and desires can safely surface.
“I wanted to flip the script on what it means to be a cleaning professional,” she says. “I don’t clean up people’s trash; I take care of people.”
For Volta, teaching someone to take care of their things is the equivalent of teaching them to take care of themselves.
“Self care is washing your dishes,” she says. “I’ve learned so many spiritual lessons while washing dishes.”
Cleanliness isn’t just about sanitation. Volta emphasizes she is not a germaphobe and believes it’s okay to leave things undone. It’s about consciousness in the home: awareness-based living habits.
If you make a mess and leave it, someone else is cleaning it up, she says. It sounds simple, but actually internalizing the concept, as a child or a roommate or partner, can have radical effects.
“If you’re in control of what you do, you have more to give,” she says. “The person who’s cleaning up after you has more to give, and it can be harmonious.”
Health is contagious, she says: “Love draws love to itself. Healthiness draws healthiness to itself.”
Volta grew up in Abington, Pennsylvania, and weaved her way through living spaces in Brewerytown, Fishtown and Northern Liberties as a young adult. She settled down in Germantown with her three daughters seven years ago.
She reflects on her duties as a child. She was taught to clean and care for her belongings while her brothers, she says, cut the grass.
“It’s really clear that girls are raised differently than boys,” she says. “Am I nurturing of the home because of who I am? Or was I taught that?”
She lived in a Germantown commune, but was kicked out for having “high expectations for cleanliness.” So, she started her own cleaning company.
In 2013, she brought on a staff of 10 women—the cleaning “misfits,” she calls them. Those clean-freak roommates who wanted everyone to do their own dishes.
When Volta began feeling sick from using her client’s cleaning products, she started making her own. She uses vinegar and water and an all-purpose spray that she makes from washing soda, castile soap and essential oils.
“The washing soda breaks down the dirt and the castille washes it away,” she says, “while the basil has an earthy smell, the peppermint keeps it bright.”
The smell is invigorating.
“It’s a different kind of cleaning smell,” she says, “I would like to change the smell of clean.”
This isn’t your typical cleaning service either, as you’ll read on Volta’s website. It’s a holistic service that might bring you fresh flowers, bake you cookies or teach you body awareness while you scrub the tub.
“If I can get people to see their own dirt, maybe I can get them to care,” she says. “And if I can make it spiritual...or political, maybe I can get them to care.”
She also wants her clients to see that hiring a cleaning company can be a political statement—a feminist act that helps undercut the social systemic burden placed on women to clean, organize and manage the home.
“We keep talking about gender equality out there,” she says, in reference to the working world, “but our homes are still not equal.”
Not only do we need to work and fight for equal wages, Volta says, we’re still doing most of the child-rearing, housekeeping, grocery-shopping and carrying the mental load, she says.
“If anything, women are under different types of pressure,” she says.
In the era of tidying authority Marie Kondo, followers tend to go through a hazing period when they throw the contents from their closets onto the floor, sift out the items that “spark joy” and discard the rest.
While Volta takes some tips from the KonMari philosophy, and believes it’s a good place for people to start, her emphasis is on addressing the root of mess.
Like Kondo, she believes in organizing. But she also believes in changing the way you live, by addressing capitalism, addressing spending habits and addressing gender inequality in the home.
Paring down your belongings is only one part of that.
“Mess is a byproduct of life,” she says. “That work is never done. Just be patient with it.”
She points out some items in her bedroom, one of which is a pale yellow vanity her husband fashioned from discarded furniture pieces. Most of her furniture is found on trash day or in re-fab stores. The room is tidy but brimming with beautiful things.
In Volta’s own closet, she has a handful of hanging items. She swooshes them back and forth.
“You should have the space to look through your clothes,” she says.
Closet organizing is one of Volta’s specialties.
“It’s a really good place for people to start,”she says. “It’s very personal.”
She opens her dresser drawers. Shirts, sweaters, and pants are snugly lined up in little squares.
“When you fold upright, the stuff you don’t really wear gets pushed to the back,” she says. It’s important to regularly evaluate how many of each clothing item you need.
“Oh, and I don’t do socks,” she says, pulling out a basket of loose ones from under the bed. “The kids can come and get them. Get your own socks, pair ‘em up. I can’t do everything.”
After a few years in the cleaning business, Volta was dying to make some real changes and produce more long-term effects.
“That’s when I got into the idea of ‘Decluttered space, decluttered minds,’ ” she says, a phrase that’s meant to shift people’s perceptions of what cleaning can do for the mind, body and spirit.
“It’s hard work, but it’s valuable work,” Volta says. “It’s not the bottom of the barrel.”
She’s moving away from being a cleaning lady and wants to meet with clients who are interested in a journey—not a quick fix, but a complete reframing.
“I’ll help you push reset, and I’ll teach you how to keep it up,” she says.
We need to be okay with addressing our shortcomings when it comes to our living habits, she says: “The home is a beautiful place to learn that lesson.”
She recently started a zine, “The Inner World of Volta,” which she designs and writes herself. It’s a self-help handbook full of rules, life hacks, tips and musings on gender and mindfulness.
“Intimate awareness of our external spaces brings a more acute knowledge of our internal state—both the good and the grime,” she writes.
There are recipes, and even little sketches of proper clothing-folding techniques.
“Gratitude transforms laborious tasks into things that can and should be enjoyed,” she writes.
The next zine is going to be all about family involvement, Volta says. The emphasis will be on how families can share the household burden.
“These people are going to be taking care of us when we’re old,” she says. “I don’t want them to flop out of the nest, I want them to soar.”
Parents have become too lenient, she believes, due to the pressures of different parenting styles and the fear of damaging the child. As a result, most parents aren’t teaching their kids basic life skills.
“We’re all in this together,” she says. “If we want to be a positive force, if we want to make the world a better place—how can we do that if we’re not making our homes better places? It’s too idealistic. It has to be tangible. It’s gotta feel good.”
“It’s time,” she says, “to look at the dirt.”