Sometime back my friend Marta approached me and another blogger, Joanna, about the possibility of doing some shared posting on the subject of homemaking. We both loved the idea, and decided to post our first endeavors today (ed: I'm over an hour late, forgive me, friends!). The first topic we chose is homemaking: who does it? You can find Marta's essay here. Marta and I knew each other in college, but have been getting to know each other much better through blogging. With her I have a lovely sense of getting to know someone new and reconnecting with an old friend, all at once. For Joanna's essay, go here. I have yet to meet Joanna in person, but I've been enjoying getting to know her from her writing. Both other writers have children and spouses, so I feel like a bit of a fraud posting on the subject of homemaking in their company; my thinking will probably be pretty theoretical, compared to their more boots-on-the-ground experience. That isn't stopping me from piping up though. Go read their essays, and spend some time perusing their archives. You'll be glad you did. I've certainly enjoyed it.
"Compared to what we ought to be, we are half awake." William James.
"The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be awake, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware." Henry Miller.
"Everybody, soon or late, sits down to a banquet of consequences." Robert Louis Stevenson
Homemaking: who does it? Oh how deceptively simple that question is. I was tempted at first to be something of a smart-ass and say "short answer: me." I’ve lived most of my adult life with roommates. For the last ten years, while I have stayed in one place, four roommates and one boyfriend have passed through here, and that’s not counting the temporary house-mates (more than a month, but less than a year). In other words, the one constant in this space has been me. My three years living with Brian did teach me some of how homemaking is different with a partner compared to a roommate, but not only do I not think that's enough time to have collected enough data, I also don't want to put Brian on the spot by talking too much about our past. After twenty years of living with roommates, on the other hand, I do think I have something to say on that subject.
I wrote in an earlier post about how I seem to have developed very personal definitions for –and distinctions between– housework and homemaking. In a nutshell, I see housework as the basics required to keep a household going, while treating all the residents with respect. Homemaking, while including that, is also an expression of love: for one’s partner, one’s family, even one’s living space.
When it comes to housework, it’s inaccurate and unfair for me to claim that I’m the only one who does it here. My roommates have always dependably helped with bills, even if I’m the one who actually puts the check in the mail. Splitting expenses, of course, is the main reason most of us have roommates. With each roommate I have usually also developed a list of shared items: certain food staples, spices, cleaning supplies, toilet paper, trash bags. All of that contributes to the running of the household, and I don’t do it all alone. The other tasks I see as essential to running a house -cleaning and cooking- are where issues of intimacy come into play for me.
Let’s start with cleaning. Over the last ten years, I’ve found that while I cannot claim it happens all that often, when it does, I’m usually the one who does it. There has never been an attempt made in this apartment to have a chore chart, to divvy up tasks and rotate them equitably; no rules have been set down for what constitutes a clean bathroom or kitchen, nor how often it needs to be accomplished. I just do it, and I'm fine with that. I should acknowledge that a case could be made that some territory-marking is involved here. I’ll do the cleaning because I feel it’s my responsibility, and I think it’s more my responsibility because this is my place. I have the lease. It's my apartment, you're welcome to live here, I think I'm pretty laidback and accomodating, but you're the roommate and I'm the leaseholder, let's just be clear. I’ve been lucky so far that everyone has been comfortable with that and with the relaxed approach to cleaning; if someone wants the place cleaner, he cleans. (Side note: an additional benefit to being the one who cleans most often is, I usually get to choose the products used; over the years I’ve gotten fond of eco-friendly cleansers for all sorts of reasons, but since they tend to cost more, and require more elbow grease to be effective, I’d prefer to be the one who spends the money, and does the work)
I will also admit that sometimes roommates have occasionally gotten my back up by taking unilateral action on things I thought ought to be discussed, such as putting up artwork ('I’d prefer a blank wall to that poster'), or replacing furniture or electrical equipment with ‘better’ models ('the old TV is working just fine'). There was no malice going on here, I know that, but there were plenty of unspoken assumptions, and not all of them were the other guys’. I found it rather interesting what I was willing to kick up a fuss about (don’t change bills that are in my name, Dude) and what just wasn’t that important (I hate that painting, but is this a shared room or not?). I acknowledge that there are some double standards at play as well; I feel free to take some unilateral actions I don’t allow the other guy. Again, it’s my apartment. Did I mention I’ve held the lease for ten years?
Okay, so maybe some of my motivations to clean are less than noble. Ultimately though it benefits us both, and so far I’m just talking about the basics of playing well with others, right? Maybe a pleasant living arrangement has been created, but I don't think a home has been made.
Which then brings us to cooking. I’ve been surprised recently at how charged this task has become for me. This is what has evolved for me over the last two roommates; if we’re both home and one of us is cooking, he’ll make enough for two, or at least ask if the other is hungry. We may even sit down together to eat. Where I start to get antsy is when attempts are made to plan it too far in advance. The question "will you be home for dinner" sends me into a bit of a panic, and I’m not sure why. I love having meals with friends; shared meals is joyful part of time with my family; Brian and I had dinner together almost every night we lived together, and it was one of my favorite times of day. I firmly believe meals are best eaten with others. So why do I get weird when a roommate tries to pin me down? Why do I even use the phrase 'pin me down' to describe a perfectly pleasant invitation, one I would jump at in any other context?
I think what is at play is a sense of intimacy. We can have a nice dinner together, but don’t make too much of it. Don’t light candles. Don’t garnish the plates. Don’t ask me what my plans are for the day, let alone for the week. I don’t know, Man. Don’t try to pin me down. I gotta be free, I gotta be me. I’m like the wind, Dude.
I’m sorry, what? Who the hell is that? Who talks like that? Who thinks like that? Good lord.
Here’s what I think is going on. The thing about relationships with roommates is, they come with an expiration date. No matter what agreements are made, it’s understood, even expected that eventually one or both of you will find that this arrangement, while it was fine for a time, no longer serves your needs. Chances are somebody is moving in with a partner, or maybe into a place he bought. In other words, he’s now ready to make a home. The roommate situation usually arises as "this will do for now." I’ve had long term arrangements with at least three different roommates, spanning four or more years. But we always knew there would come a point when it was time to move on, and it always did. In every case we parted friends, and I remain on friendly terms with each of them. But we didn’t share a home, and frankly I think that's just fine. Over the years it felt better, maybe even more homelike, for the two of us to develop our own living routines, being cordial ships-that-pass-in-the-night, rather than intimates in any way. Sharing meals just happens to be one of my favorite ways to bond with people. Breaking bread with someone is an act of love, especially if I baked it. So it can happen with a roommate, we just have to tread a bit lightly.
This has all been a useful excavation for me. And yes, one result is I will lighten the hell up with my present roommate and get over my meal planning weirdness, even if I still prefer the friendly but not intimate approach. Another consequence is I may take something of a ‘love the one you’re with’ approach, and I’m not talking about my roommate, nice as he is. I’m talking about this space. Making a home involves creating a haven, someplace that rejuvenates you spiritually, emotionally and physically. What I have right now is a perfectly adequate place to stay, because that’s what I’ve created. And I’ve been making do with this situation assuming that eventually my real home would just show up, somehow. Frankly, that’s the same as waiting for one’s ‘real life’ to show up. This is it. You’re doing it right now, Sparky. The term is homemaking. I was so focused on the first half of the word, I didn’t really notice the second half.
As simple to the point of glibness as that conclusion may be, it actually suggests quite a bit of work ahead of me. There are some deep resentments, fears, failures, and regrets mired in this place, and they’re going to have to be dealt with. Good times. Fortunately I do like to clean. And that’s as good a place to start as any.