Friday, February 20, 2009

Housekeeping to Homemaking: Chores as Vocation

Friend Marta’s recent thoughts about housekeeping set off a veritable firestorm in my brain this week. This may be the first of many entries; to be honest, I’m a bit afraid to start on this topic, because of all the things it seems to be digging up. Lots of food for thought, not all of which is stuff you need to be subjected to. We’ll see. What seems to be surfacing at present, after a great deal of splashing, are my personal definitions for housekeeping and homemaking. I find somewhat to my surprise that they hold distinct places in my head.

Housekeeping, for example, is what one does with and for roommates. It is a way of showing respect for others and responsibility to a community. It probably focuses on shared spaces first and foremost, though attention must be paid to making sure nothing in one’s private spaces in any way will adversely affect others. It may also be what we do in spaces we think of as temporary, or belonging to someone else: dorm rooms, hotels, rented apartments. It’s a fine discipline, I don’t mean to belittle it, but it doesn’t stray much beyond the practicalities.

Homemaking, on the other hand is done with and for family. It’s a way of showing love, though it may go unappreciated. It often has a much wider scope than housekeeping, and implies a level of intimacy that doesn’t exist between most roommates. It can also imply a commitment to the space itself, perhaps as a result of ownership. I think anytime a task becomes a meditation, or even a prayer, then it has become homemaking. Both housekeeping and homemaking can be service to others or caring for ourselves, but so far I see homemaking as the deeper calling, the point when a chore becomes a vocation.
Both jobs can include cooking, cleaning, and general maintenance (and deciding what tasks are involved is probably a highly personal decision). I’ve found that cooking for others almost always rises to the level of prayer or meditation, but no doubt that is because I have rarely had to do it when I didn’t feel like it. In my life, getting together with others for a meal is a rarity, getting to do it in my apartment doubly so, thus there is usually a sense of occasion about it. This makes me look back on the family meals I had growing up (promptly every night at 6pm) with a new appreciation. Yes, I enjoyed them most of the time then too, but now I have a greater understanding for the work Mom put into them, and the way they built a personal foundation and familial bond. Much has been written about the communion of meals, I don’t think I have anything new to add there, but my own gratitude for it continues to deepen. Just to gloat a bit, I’ve also come to realize that I really lucked out with a mom who is both an exceptional cook and a great nutritionist. I was an adult before realizing that was not everyone’s experience.

Cleaning as vocation, that is a relatively new development in my life. I hasten to add that this doesn’t mean it happens as often as I would like. Like exercise, I know I will enjoy it once I start, and I will be delighted with the end result (including that pleasant sense of exhaustion), but even so I spend a great deal more time thinking about cleaning than I do actually cleaning. With the exception of three years with one boyfriend, and two months living alone, I have spent my adult life living with roommates. This means that most of my cleaning has been housekeeping. In the beginning chores and schedules were carefully defined, but over the last twenty years things got more vague. This is largely due to the fact that I’ve mostly lived with people (most of them guys, which is neither here nor there) who shared my relaxed attitude towards housecleaning. One guy characterized it as the ‘lazy dogs in the sun’ approach. We wouldn’t let things rot, fester or threaten our health; one never needed a tetanus shot to walk barefoot into the bathroom. Mostly it just meant that clutter, even dirty dishes, might be allowed to pile up longer than would be acceptable in other households. Dish washing is an interesting marker of my evolution from rigid rule-keeper to lazy dog in the sun. Early on in my shared living experience (starting in college) dish washing was probably the chore that got most discussed, defined, and debated. Specific expectations would get established, yet there always seemed to be one person who just couldn't swing it, or, weirder still, there would be that pile of stuff that somehow managed to dirty itself without a human agent. I don’t want to think of the number of hours I’ve spent in my life arguing, complaining or simply seething about dirty dishes. In the last few years though, I and more than one roommate managed to find a balance on the subject; things might build up a bit, but then one or the other of us washes ALL the dishes, regardless of who dirtied them. A big picture approach seems to have kicked in; we both assume the other guy will do his share over time, or he'll take out the garbage more often, or buy more of the milk or somehow pull his weight. There are some obvious reasons this approach is even possible. The people involved have to share an opinion of what is an acceptable level of clutter or dirt. I don’t know if this approach would work with kids, especially ones below the age of ten. In my case though, I think one of the reasons this approach works is because my attitude towards cleaning has moved from housekeeping to homemaking.

At some point, cleaning became something a pleasure for me. Perhaps it developed as an antidote to city living. When I needed a sense of control over my space, and greater serenity, cleaning and organizing my home gave me that result. When I need a clean space, I just clean. As a side note, all the career building books and seminars I’ve looked at over the years have stressed the importance of creating a good home when building any kind of freelance career. When pursuing something as unpredictable and ephemeral as acting, say, not only does one need a sense of a safe haven, one also will benefit from having tasks where the goal is clear, defined, and success easily measured. Go to a bazillion auditions, you may or may not ever hear anything. Clean your bathroom, you know when you got the job done. Whatever the cause, I have developed a new sense of satisfaction in cleaning. I seek out eco-friendly cleansers with appealing scents, bringing essential oils of lavender, pine, or lemon into the house whenever possible. I've discovered the exceptional cleaning power of baking soda; it’s the one thing that finally banished the bathroom mold I found living here when I moved in. I’ve fallen in love with my Swiffer. I’ve developed an appreciation for the basics of Feng Shui, noticing an improvement in energy when things are cleaned, dusted, and put away.

I know my loosey-goosey approach to homemaking, housekeeping, whatever I want to call it, is a luxury. No one is dependent on me these days for anything but the most basic of chores; I was tempted to title this essay The Dilettante Housewife, as a way of acknowledging that not everyone gets to choose if and when to do this stuff (I can't imagine my mom always enjoyed cooking dinner). I may also write at a later date about the conflicts I’ve had with roommates over home decor; where I need the serenity of white, blank walls and uncluttered surfaces, more than one guy has needed the stimulation and comfort of loud movie posters and displayed collections. Thinking about all this is clarifying some good stuff for me, though. After years of housekeeping, I’m ready for more homemaking. This seems to be a concrete step closer to the good life I’m always rabbiting on about, and best of all, it’s something I can do right away.


Java said...

You sound really peaceful about this. I am glad you are discovering how you need to make a home. Congratulations!

greg said...

Ahhh...what a good post. Java's right, there's a real serenity here that says you've found the right way to make this work for you.

Gods, you make me think of college housing and that hideous overflowing sink of dishes that would occasionally mount. Ugh, shuddering at the memory. Thank goodness we mature away from such silliness.

These past six months, I've begun to appreciate more the beauty of a clean sink or freshly made bed to greet me when I come home.

I'm glad you've had some success in putting your thoughts together on the subject. You and Marta create a lot of food for thought on this topic, which I think is nearly as infinite as the business of cleaning, itself.

Thanks for helping me see some of it more clearly, too. (BTW, yummy spread...what time's dinner?)

Jess said...

You do have a way of making ordinary things seem magical and poetic, Mr. L. It's one of your many endearing traits.

Funny that you use a comparison to dogs, given the way ours seem to love spending time with you.

I'm curious to see where this takes you next.

Birdie said...

I see my chair awaits me at the table!

Hubby and I have switched roles in our dotage; I used to do all home care inside and out, and now he does most of it. Dishes are the one thing I don't mind doing. Perhaps it is because it's a short-lived task with immediate and satisfying results. In the teaching and ministry professions, as in acting, tangible results are a luxury.

Thank you for this meditation.

Melissa said...

BREAD!!!!! yum. and I love the energizing bed cover! (Although it doesn't quite inspire me to sleep - it kind of makes me want to run around and jump on the bed!!)

But yes - these are much like my thoughts of Home and the questions of what it is and what makes it - though I'm also wondering about the things that make those special places outside of a traditional sense of home feel like home.....

I do like the combination of the two thoughts - almost as if we are striving to make both inside and outside feel like home.

Marta said...

Patrick, I'm coming off of 10 days of non-stop entertaining, and finally grabbing a morning to write. I love love love this, and can't wait to be in touch off-blog about future housekeeping blogging. But rule #1 is no apologizing, because homemaking isn't just for families. It may be more urgent and complicated when you're partnered up and have kids, but every home is just that, a home, and I'm really incredibly interested in the ways we all create home.