Thursday, April 30, 2009

Homemaking with Roommates

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.


Marta said...

oh, patrick of my heart! i just can't wait to SEE you this summer so we can really talk. it's too late, and i've been writing too much today, to try to be at all coherent, except to say DUDE! that's exactly right! bloom where you're planted (or, in the alternative, move the hell to philadelphia!)



Greg said...

Oh, this is so great. You and Marta are hitting a lot of high notes here (but the two of you have kept me up too late to also read Johanna's til tomorrow). I especially like the direction you seem to be headed.

"I'm like the wind, Dude" ?!

Killing me with laughter there. :)

Jeff said...

Patrick! Two things:
Uno) Your experiences are exactly why it's so important you have a voice in a discussion on homemaking. You care, and you represent we none-white-picket-fencers beautifully. Even if I one day get a white-picket fence (it'll have Gothic pickets), I'll value that voice. And
B) Thank you for making me think about homemaking. It's very, very important.

Birdie said...

If you're the wind, you must be Colonel Flagg. ("I have no home. I am the wind.")

Having roommates is an interesting dynamic I've never dealt with. It seems to me there has to be an alpha for there to be order, and in this case you're it. You seem to know where to draw the line in order to avoid intimacy. I can see why you'd protect your heart as they come into and go out of your life.

GayProf said...

I avoid roommates. Living with somebody I actually loved was hard enough.

Joe Jubinville said...

I've been enjoying this series, Patrick; I think this one is even better than your last, though it did set the groundwork. There is so much here to think about, and that you've stimulated me to write about. For starters

"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."

A landmark epiphany. I think it's the heart of the matter. In order for the making to take place you have to be settled in your soul that you are in some sense home, if not necessarily at your final destination.

During my decade and a half in Manhattan, my roommate/dwelling habits tended to favor the other side of the equation. The long-running relationship (as our boyfriends came and went) with my roommate Bill was the house through which various apartments flowed. It wasn’t until I moved to Staten Island, and my apartment overlooking the harbor, that I felt I’d come to something resembling the “home” whose paradigm dwelt in my soul, and the "making" began.

By the way, have you tried Swiffer? I love all their products! It started with the duster. I’m so fond of it that it has migrated from housework tool to a place in my homemaking inner circle.

Patrick said...

Marta: I KNOW, we have so much to discuss. By the way, I agree with you, that if homemaking became valued the way it ought to be, more men and women would allow themselves to choose it as their vocation, and more people would make more time for it in their lives. Can't wait to see you.

Greg: part of the fun of getting to know you in the last year, especially in the last few months, has been watching the very conscious, contemplative way you've constructed your nest. Now that the gardening season is upon you, it's clear that your zest for the work is not tempered by the same questions and difficulties you were facing last year. That's great to see, and it must feel even better.

Jeff: Ah my dear, thank you. As with Greg, I've watched you take big, deliberate steps in building a home for yourself and Meggie, emotionally, spiritually and physically. As an outside observer, it seems to me the two of you are already building the home that works best for you both. Whether it has gothic pickets or not, it already expresses who you are, crows, rocker chics, batman and all.

Birdie: I'd forgotten about him! Yes, I'm Colonel Flagg, though I've so far not felt it necessary to break my leg jumping through windows.
Yes, protecting my heart is probably part of what is at work here, though I hope that doesn't shut me down too much (it's a tricky balance). Mostly I guess I'm maintaining a certain level of freedom and space that makes a long term arrangement possible. I liken it to the cordial but circumspect relationship I have with my neighbors; because we are all crammed together in such a small space (building, block, street, city), it's necessary to give each other as much psychic space as possible, while still being friendly.

GayProf: I spent three months living alone after my relationship ended, before economic realities demanded I get a roommate. I'd never lived alone before, and unfortunately I LOVED it. It's just not a financial option for me at this point. As compromises go, this isn't bad, though. I know lots of New Yorkers who share one bedrooms, even STUDIOS, with roommates. I think if a curtain was all I had between me and the rest of the world, I'd go a little nuts.

Jeaux: actually, I had a roommate like that in Seattle too. It was kind of sweet; whenever he speculated about the future, the one constant was always that we would still be living together. We'd each have a partner, probably kids, but the two of us were going to be together forever. Not how it turned out, of course, and he's living a much more traditional life with a wife and kids, but it was interesting to have that time with him. More than one girlfriend had a little trouble figuring out exactly what we were to each other. For whatever reason my boyfriends usually got it more easily. It was maybe my first experience of the bromance; I didn't want to sleep with him, but we definitely had a bond that was loving, even passionate.

I ADORE Swiffer! In fact, it may figure in another entry very soon. I too have moved it to my homemaking inner circle.

johnmichael said...

I don't think you necessarily have to have a "family" to write about homemaking.
Homemaking is something we all need advice about.

Unknown said...

Oh, gosh, roommates. I remember some of the greatest ugliness of my life was perpetrated on my roommates (or by them), and it was always, ALWAYS related to homemaking issues. And yet some of the best times were times with them. It's such a weird, unique kind of relationship.

And I was fortunate enough to live with a bona fide clean freak for a while. Man, I never lived so well.