Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Domestications

Today is laundry day. Years ago, I decided that it would save energy, both mine and the planet's, if I did laundry once every two weeks. The downside of this is that on laundry day I do a minimum of six big loads of wash, which leaves me little room for higher pursuits.

My generation of women did not consider housekeeping a worthwhile, let alone an interesting activity. We were post-June Cleaver and pre-Martha Stewart. We wanted to do impressive things—fight battles, break barriers, have careers. If there was laundry to be done it would get done in a rush, as we simultaneously ate breakfast and wrote an article. Better still, it would be done by our mate. We were into saving time and energy, freeing ourselves for the important stuff.

By their contrast with the aridity of academic life, certain domestic tasks did strike me as pleasant, even beautiful—making bread, for instance, and growing vegetables. But even as I was doing these things, my mind was on other matters—mostly classes and committees—and I had a nagging feeling that it was somehow inappropriate and unscholarly of me to enjoy any aspect of housekeeping.

Long after leaving campus, I am sorry to report that the nagging feeling is still with me. As I go about my business, be it something I enjoy—hanging the laundry out to dry—or dislike—putting the laundry away—I usually feel that I should be doing something else, that there is a better, more productive way of using my time. If I'm walking the dogs, I should be training them. If I'm reading, I should be writing. If I'm folding laundry, I should be exercising. It's an exhausting and depressing way to live.

Then the other day, quite by chance, I heard a Benedictine monk on the radio say the following: “That instinct, that sort of sacramental instinct to find something holy in everything, runs deep in us [Benedictines]. ...it's tended to make us want to do our best whether it's a humble task or...something more exalted, like a great work of art.”

Sacramental instinct...something holy in everything—the words kept tumbling around in my mind. Of course they brought up echoes of Buddhism—stay in the moment, be present in everything you do. Of course they reminded me that this attitude of reverent attention is the very foundation of aesthetics. But for some reason this time the words were still with me when I woke up the next morning.

For the last couple of days I've been walking around with a different conversation inside my head. I say to myself, “I am carefully washing these vegetables to put into the stock,” instead of “I should have already chopped these. They should be in the stock right now.” I say, “I am doing a good job of brushing the dogs' teeth,” instead of “Hurry up with that brushing. You should be clipping their nails.” It's kind of a forced conversation, and it certainly does not come spontaneously. But maybe someday it will.

For now, the petty tyrant that used to lurk inside my cranium has been replaced by a kindly Benedictine monk. But whereas the tyrant was self-supporting, the monk is going to need regular meals and quite a bit of TLC. I like my monk, and I hope he will stick around. For his supper tonight I will offer him the act of towel-folding, mindfully done.


10 comments :

  1. i have to confess i don't quite get how doing all your laundry at once in six loads saves any more energy than if you did two loads every week for three weeks....

    but i do admire your mindfulness. and i completely understand that feeling that you ought to be doing something else when you're doing something. i tamp that down quite deliberately when i walk the boys--i keep thinking about what i'll be doing as soon as the walk is over, instead of enjoying the walk. it does take determination to live in the moment, even when the moments are lovely.

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  2. Not sure how scientifically valid this is, but I believe that doing one bigger load is more efficient that doing two smaller ones--for one thing, it takes less energy to maintain the temperature of warm water than to heat cold water twice. For me, it means fewer trips to the laundry room. Basically, though, I think the system keeps me free of laundry thoughts for two weeks at a time--and that's what I really like.

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  3. I'm unworthy, and no matter what I'm doing,
    I should certainly be doing something else.
    And it's selfish to be thinking I'm unworthy,
    all this me, me, me, me, self, self, self, self, self.
    If I'm talking on the phone I should be working on the lawn
    which looks disgraceful from the things I haven't done.
    If I'm working on the lawn I should be concentrating on
    those magazines inside, since I have not read one.

    I should learn how to meditate and sew and bake
    and dance and paint and sail and make gazpacho.
    I should turn my attention to repairing
    all those forty year old socks there in that bureau.
    I should let someone teach me to run Windows,
    and learn French that I can read and write and speak.
    I should get life in prison for how I treated my parents
    from third grade until last week.

    I should spend more time playing with my dog
    and much less money on this needless junk I buy.
    I should send correspondence back to everyone
    who's written, phoned or faxed since junior high.
    I should sit with a therapist until I understand
    the way I felt back in my mom.
    I should quit smoking, drinking, eating, thinking
    sleeping, watching TV, writing stupid songs.

    I should be less impatient when the line just takes forever
    'cause the two cashiers are talking.
    I should see what it's like to get up really early rain or shine
    and spend three hours walking.
    I should know CPR and deep massage and Braille
    and sign language and how to change my oil.
    I should go where the situation's desperate
    and build and paint and trudge and tote and toil.

    I should chant in impossible positions
    till my legs appear to not have any bones.
    I should rant at the cops and politicians
    and the corporations-in indignant tones.
    I should save lots of money to leave Audubon,
    plus all the rocks and animals and plants.
    I should brave possibilities for plotting plums of problems
    prob'ly blossomed, plausibly from
    blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah
    blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah I'm unworthy.


    --Cheryl Wheeler, Unworthy
    (written, the story goes, after she noticed she was sitting inside writing song lyrics and thinking she should be outside biking.)

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  4. Alison, thanks so much for typing in this masterpiece, which still makes me laugh after all these years. The 40-year-old socks really got me!

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  5. Despite the time it takes, there's something about doing laundry and grocery shopping, etc., that is rather humanizing...it makes you aware of being like everyone else in some way. From a Roches song, these lyrics:

    Some people really have a lot of nerve
    Everywhere they go they think they
    Should get served
    Everybody in the laundromat is equal...

    [And we are.]

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  6. Yes, these mundane activities do anchor us in our humanity, which is why some say they're sacred.

    (I like the Roches too.)

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  7. i actually like doing laundry.

    i do not much like vacuuming. but i like making the house clean. it appeals to my sense of order. (which, if you looked at my desk, you would think is non-existent.)

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  8. I used to like ironing, back in the days when one ironed. I liked that toasty smell clothes get when they heat up.

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  9. My goodness how did I miss this post? I'm a benedictine oblate. Have you read the Quotidian Mysteries?

    It's one of the things that totally drew me to benedictines--the sacred in the everyday, the everyday in the sacred.

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  10. My high school was run by Benedictine nuns, but I somehow missed this basic message--but my brain was overrun with hormones at that time.
    I LOVE Kathleen Norris, and didn't know she'd written anything after The Cloister Walk. Just googled Mysteries. Thanks so much for putting me on to this!

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