A little jolt of hope

Most of the folks we know (including ourselves) seem buoyed by a sense of optimism this week, which has been a welcome emotion after one hell of a year. No, we’re not out of the woods, but it is exciting to be near the end of the accursed 2020 with a little jolt of hope.

Croquet conclusion this week.

We continue to play croquet every Sunday and count it as a blessing. This Sunday was absurdly warm (not mad about it), and we also witnessed two hot air balloons lifting off from the nearby field.

. . .

I go through cyclical obsessions, during which I throw myself into a topic and try to learn everything I can about it in a given period of time. The latest? Housekeeping.

This obsession was sparked by visiting the house of friends and feeling personally affronted by how clean and organized it was. I consider myself a decently tidy person, but these kitchen cabinets put me to shame. (I felt even more shame when recalling that this super-clean person in this household also built the handsome cabinetry by hand. I can’t even put together an Ikea side table without help!)

I have also sensed that I need to up my game because Guion is constantly leveling up in his abilities as a chef. (Our division of labor in the household is that he makes all food and I clean all things.) I feel that I must also ascend in my abilities as a housekeeper, but I am also not entirely sure what that looks like. Hence this quest.

I am finding fresh inspiration for the never-ending task of keeping our home. Specifically, I am giving myself daily and weekly cleaning tasks and then larger monthly aspirations. Today, I spent a stupid amount of time trying to clean the gross microwave above the stove (a poor excuse for a range hood), and I booked a window/gutter cleaner, which just feels like Christmas morning to me. I am going to do it! I am going to be less gross!

A thought that has brought me peace is the consideration that it is never over. You are never finished housekeeping. Until you die, your house must be tended. I once had this false expectation that if I really tidied the coat closet well, I’d never have to do it again. This is a lie. I will always have to do things over and over again, because we are living here. It’s a comfort.

How do you motivate yourself to keep cleaning?

. . .

“We have taught ourselves to describe our moral convictions as ‘personal desires,’ implying thereby that they need not significantly affect others. In fact, however, there is no morality that does not require others to suffer for our commitments. But there is nothing wrong with asking others to share and sacrifice for what we believe to be worthy. A more appropriate concern is whether what we commit ourselves to is worthy or not.”

The Peaceable Kingdom, Stanley Hauerwas

. . .

Our little dude is 18 months old today and continues to be very weird and amuse us greatly.

Favorite activities include talking about the moon; making sure we observe and admire all passing planes, helicopters, trucks, and cars; requesting story time; asking to be held when Mom is currently trying to do three different things; and eating figs from the fig tree every morning with Dad. He’s having a great time! (And his hair is slowly but surely growing back, praise be.)

Keeping house in America

Home, August 2016
Our simple dining room.

What does it mean to keep a home?

(Is it more complicated and more meaningful than we tend to think?)

Housekeeping is an easy thing to denigrate. It has always been “women’s work.” A man went out and killed dinner or worked in a coal mine, and the woman raised the urchins and swept the dirt floor. Women have done this for centuries upon centuries. Although it was a woman’s full occupation, taking care of the domestic realm has never been considered very important.

Now, men and women share more of the housekeeping and child-rearing and money-making responsibilities with one another. (Men help more than they have in previous generations. Women still do a lot more housekeeping.) It’s the 21st century: Women are not the only ones who can cook any more. Men are not the only ones who get the corner office. Housekeeping, as a virtue, as a thoughtful pursuit, has become rather passé. Being a self-made gourmet is really trendy right now. So is making your own clothes or growing tomatoes on your front porch. Or being a take-no-prisoners lady executive. But being great at keeping a tidy, well-run home? That’s not cool. No one wants to do that.

This is not a hectoring post about how we should all be better at picking our underwear off the floor or how those who fail to disinfect their kitchen sponges every week are bound for domestic purgatory. This is not that.

I just want to think about it a little, about what it might mean to reclaim housekeeping as a thoughtful, hospitable pursuit, and to rescue the word itself from its lowly connotations.

Posture

As with most things, we women learn about housekeeping from our mothers. My mother is a superb housekeeper* (*see how that sounds negative? Like she’s just good at mopping?), and I mean it in the fullest sense of the word. She has an eye for beauty and a perspective of welcome. And I like the way she taught me to think about keeping a house. I still ask her for housekeeping advice all the time.

There are two things Mom taught me about homes and living in them.

First, her posture toward the home and home-making has always been one that centered on hospitality. A beautiful and welcoming home was something to desire and to strive for because of how it made visitors feel — not because of how it made you look fancy or rich or smart or artistic. A home is a place of invitation and generosity, not of arrogance or selfishness.

Thanksgiving in Davidson
My mother’s dining room.

Second, Mom taught me that good housekeeping is also concerned with order. She was not focused on perfect cleanliness (is that sink spotless?) but rather on arrangement and organization (is the room free of clutter?). An orderly home leads to a peaceful life.

And we think about all of this because we know that homes create moods. They both shape and contain our emotions. A home that is uninviting makes people feel uneasy. A home that is chaotic makes people feel restless and anxious. A well-reasoned approach to housekeeping starts with our posture first and foremost.

Space

We can’t (and don’t) all have bright, flawless Scandinavian lofts or Provençal cottages with stone floors. We have the homes we have. And so we learn to love them.

We live in a 1959 nondescript Cape Cod; they seemed to have churned them all out of factories because there are three identical houses (including ours) right in a row on our street. Our siding is made of asbestos. I cannot keep the paint on the front banisters from peeling, no matter how hard I try. The carpet in the top floor is a weird, lilac-gray berber mess.

But I love our house. I am so happy I get to live there with Guion and our two outrageous German shepherds.

Home in March

I can’t change a lot about our space, but I am happy to approach it with my mother’s posture of hospitality + order. Even if my décor isn’t spot on, even if the kitchen sink has started to look scummy, so long as people feel welcome and peaceful, I feel like I have succeeded.

Objects

“More begets more. It stands in the face of reason, but when we have too much stuff we’re likely to amass still more of it. We forget what we have. We start looking for solutions to contain what is already there, and in the process we bury what we started with and add to our ever-growing pile. We end up overwhelmed.” — Erin Boyle, Simple Matters

An important component of my stance toward housekeeping is reducing clutter.

Clutter doesn’t bother some people. To many, a kitchen drawer full of utensils, sticky soy sauce packets, and expired coupons is not distressing. Life goes on. No one in the household worries about that drawer; on the contrary, they keep adding stuff to it, and soon you can’t even open it anymore. No one is upset. I am not, however, this person or this household; I am upset. I worry about that drawer. I fixate on it. I can’t sit down and have a cup of tea unless that drawer is cleaned out. (This is my weakness. You have yours.)

Still. Even if you are the soy sauce packet hoarder, I would like to posit this: Clutter is emotionally burdensome. It is taxing on our physical space, of course, but I also think it is taxing on our psychological space. Too much stuff is overwhelming and depressing.

As Erin Boyle implies with that quote, until we can break the cycle of clutter, we will remain trapped in its vicious loop. Stuff begets stuff. I used to think that stuff was the answer to my stuff problem, back in the early days of marriage and housekeeping life. I thought if I could just get more closet space or just buy more plastic bins from Target, THEN I’d have my organization problem solved. The organization wasn’t the problem. It was the stuff itself.

Closet visit

My sister Kelsey and brother-in-law Alex are masters of the clutter-free life. They live in a 500-square-foot studio apartment, and they run a tight ship. Kelsey has boundaries: We can only have five magazines at a time. We cannot accept any gifts of kitchen tools or mugs. We have everything we need.

The older I get, the closer I get to living out of this mentality of sufficiency and simplicity.

Here’s the surprising secret: Getting rid of stuff makes me want less and less. This still amazes me. We tend to think that throwing things out will make us regretful, and then we’ll have to go buy it again. Nothing could be further from the truth, in my experience. Once I let it go, I realize how little I needed it in the first place. And now that my shelves are so clear and orderly, I cringe at the thought of packing more stuff in there.

Habit

We go through life, floating on the highs and lows of fragmentary emotion, and our homes hold us in. They shelter us in our best and worst moments.

Homes deserve a little gratitude. I rely on habit to help me care for my home. We’re all creatures of habit, some of us more than others, and I, for one, love creating domestic rituals around “home care.”

Reading daze

Houseplants get watered every Sunday morning. The main floor gets vacuumed and mopped once or twice a week. Clothes are always folded and put away at the end of the day, even if you don’t feel like it (you usually won’t). If you’re not traveling for a while, you can buy yourself some fresh flowers for the table. Air dry most of your clothes and take pleasure in how the fabric reshapes itself.

I don’t always follow all of my own rules. Sometimes the house gets gross. Sometimes the dogs undo an hour of cleaning in two minutes. Life happens. But I am at peace. In consistency, I have order.

Inside/outside

I am still piecing together my domestic philosophy, as I’m sure you can tell, but I like the challenge of putting it into words. More, perhaps, to come.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear about how you approach housekeeping. What inspires you about your house? What are your aspirations, tangible or intangible, for your home?

On the emotional effect of clutter

I love online shopping, but I’m really bad at it. I’m constantly buying clothes that fit me poorly, and because I’m often too lazy to deal with the hassle of returns, I stuff these garments in the back of my closet or in a dust-gathering bag that says “TO TAILOR.”

This year, I’m trying to commit to the “one in, one out” principle with my wardrobe. If I buy one new item, I have to donate or toss one old item. I’m getting addicted to this buoyant, weightless feeling of throwing things away, of making room, of seeing space recreated. (And, I also took two pants to the tailor this week. Little victory!)

210/366
Grace’s closet, circa July 2008. It still looks like this, even though she doesn’t live here anymore.

I’ve always loved throwing stuff away and then organizing the remainders. It’s a quality that Kelsey and I share with Mom. My mother is very organized and sensible about her purchases, and she rejects clutter in all forms. We elder sisters have adopted this lifestyle from her. Kelsey in particular keeps an immaculate, minimalist studio apartment that is just zen.

But we can also take it too far. For example, last year, Kels famously threw away all of her tax documents in one of her cleaning frenzies. (Grace, on the other hand, missed out on this tossing gene, and any space she inhabits looks like an art supplies store/Salvation Army exploded. See the photo of her childhood closet, above. She is the purest definition of an artistic pack-rat, and this drives the rest of us family women insane. Sharing a bathroom with her feels like sharing a bathroom with 100 bag ladies.)

As a girl, I was more nostalgic for my short life, and I saved everything, especially letters. I pined for the Austen-esque days of handwritten correspondence, so my nerdy girl friends and I wrote hundreds of letters to each other — even though many of us only lived a few miles apart. I had boxes upon boxes of letters about the most adorable, inane things. At the sage age of 12, we liked to write in a highfalutin style: “That boy is the most preposterous creature I have ever met in all of my existence!”

Work time. #calligraphyI kept all of these letters for years and years, stuffed under my childhood bed. But when we moved to our new house, I threw them all away (saving only letters from precious relatives, particularly my late Great Aunt Lib).

This seems harsh and heartless to many, I am sure, but I had to have a hard conversation with myself. What was I saving these letters for? I was never going to go back and read them. Did I think my future offspring would find them interesting? Hardly. Instead, these letters — albeit cute and nostalgia-inducing — were taking up valuable real estate in my home, and were weighing me down, a burden of clutter. I did not need to keep them. I still have the memories of how much joy those letters brought me and how delightful it was to write and receive creative, strange letters as a girl.

The simple truth? Clutter affects me emotionally.

Although I am not as pristine and spartan about my cleaning regimen as Kelsey (who is?), a cluttered home — particularly a cluttered kitchen — makes my brain feel disordered. As my eyes scan around our messy kitchen, I begin to feel unhinged, unsettled, uncertain. I have to take immediate action.

Devoted assistants
Man and dogs in kitchen.

Being in a cluttered space makes me feel breathless and anxious; I feel like my heart rate is rising. It’s really something of a personality weakness. Because, clearly, clutter does not bother some people at all, and I do not fault them for it; Grace, for example, thrives on clutter, as an artist. (And maybe “clutter” is a judgmental word for it? What could we call it? Piles? Of important but disordered stuff?)

I am not immune to clutter. There are plenty of pockets of clutter in my house. The console table in the dining room has a basket full of unsorted items. My closet is far from pristine. (I haven’t ironed a single thing in months.) And I don’t even attempt to deal with Guion’s various piles around the house; that is his emotional business, not mine.

And so I clean and organize my house — not because I feel like I have to, not because it makes me feel superior — but because it keeps me sane. I’m all for the preservation of sanity.