Little lessons learned

Things Moses has taught me

  1. I apparently have a wretched memory for lyrics, demonstrated by my fraught desire to sing hymns to him while he drifts off to sleep. I can only get through a verse before I start making up lines.
  2. I have, perhaps, idolized having a sense of “control” over my daily life.
  3. It is therefore hard to have one’s idols toppled.
  4. I consistently miscalculated how hard this would be.
  5. It is silly to be frustrated with a baby.
  6. Babies cannot be reasoned with.
  7. But I will still try, and I will drive myself to the edge of madness trying to apply reason to the baby’s behavior.
  8. I thus become comfortable with living on the edge of madness.
  9. This edge of madness seems like a new (albeit claustrophobic) home.
  10. So I settle in to this new habitat, congratulating myself for showering, remembering how to drive, and speaking a full sentence in the morning without mixing up any of the nouns.
  11. The new habitat also reveals that kissing babies is extremely delightful.
  12. It is best to do it as many times as possible on any given day.

. . .

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I have an iPhone 5 (yeah, I’ll brag about it); this is the best I can do.

As I suspected, I continue to be very interested in dogs, but I am also more interested in babies on the whole, babies as a universal concept and lived experience. This I did not expect. I even find other people’s babies pretty interesting now. I want to stare and them and find out what they know.

. . .

Pyrrha, our German shepherd, has been a silent angel during these past two months of life with Moses. I wasn’t sure how she’d behave, and I’ve been impressed and grateful for her calm acceptance of this new, often bewildering, creature. She greets him in the morning with a gentle lick to the back of his head or feet, and then she quietly lies down on her rug in the hall, waiting for someone to give her a little attention. She doesn’t stress when he screams (making her the calmest family in the moment).

The other afternoon, I was in the kitchen when he woke up from a nap, and I swear Pyrrha had the purest Lassie moment. I didn’t hear his cries at first, and so Pyrrha got up from her post in the hall, walked up to me in the kitchen and looked me in the eye with concern. She then walked back down the hall toward the baby’s room and stood in front of the door, glancing back at me, as if to say, “Lady, the baby needs you! Please follow me and perform your God-given duties before I have to intervene.”

She’s a good girl.

. . .

During my maternity leave, I was a little depressed to learn that reading is rather difficult while nursing. I can do it if I have a lightweight and semi-floppy paperback that I can hold with one hand, but because Moses has been a rather high-maintenance feeder, I’ve only read a few books during my leave, which is almost up. This has been a bummer. (And no, I don’t want a Kindle. I hate reading on them so much that I’d almost rather not read anything at all.)

As a consolation, I’m really into email newsletters right now. Nicole Cliffe’s has been a daily delight, along with her wise and often hilarious advice column at Slate, Care and Feeding. (Leah Finnegan’s Leah Letter is my other favorite newsletter, but she only writes once every few months. But when she does, it’s worth the wait.) I just wanted to give some public thanks to Nicole Cliffe for getting me through much of my maternity leave with amusing ideas and great articles to add to Pocket and read during that long 3 a.m. feed.

. . .

My esoteric titles are a holdover from my moody days as a teen blogger, which is a real shame, but I can’t help it. I don’t often write posts focused on a single topic, and so choosing some title that could have been a tantalizingly vague AIM away message, circa 2005, well, it continues to appeal to me. No regrets.

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?

Calming rituals

January calligraphy

At the end of a long day, or in the middle of a hectic one:

+ File your nails.

+ Groom the German shepherds you live with.

+ Organize a cluttered drawer, cabinet, or closet.

+ Recycle papers, mail, magazines that are laying about.

+ Write a letter to someone who lives alone.

+ Spend a long time making and then drinking a cup of loose leaf tea.

+ Put on a charcoal or clay face mask.

+ Walk the German shepherds to the park or around the neighborhood.

+ Polish the countertops.

+ Put on some dark lipstick, even if you’re not going anywhere.

It is idle to fault a net for having holes

Home, August 2016
Japanese print in our dining room. Formerly hung in my beloved grandparents’ home.

“Am I disorganized because I lost something I didn’t need? In this new cowardice of mine—cowardice is the newest thing to happen to me, it’s my greatest adventure, this cowardice of mine is a field so wide that only the great courage leads me to accept it—in my new cowardice, which is like waking one morning in a foreigner’s house, I don’t know if I’ll have the courage just to go. It’s hard to get lost. It’s so hard that I’ll probably quickly figure out some way to find myself, even if finding myself is once again my vital lie. Until now finding myself was already having an idea of a person and fitting myself into it: I’d incarnate myself into this organized person, and didn’t even feel the great effort of construction that is living. The idea I had of what a person is came from my third leg, the one that pinned me to the ground. But, and now? Will I be freer?”

— The Passion According to G.H., Clarice Lispector (translation by Idra Novey)

Clarice Lispector is blowing my mind right now. I don’t know what she’s on about 50% of the time, but I am so in. I’m committed to whatever game she is playing.

“Don’t you try to Ryan Lochte your way out of this one,” Guion said to me, during a recent disagreement. Normally, we both would have laughed at this off-the-cuff cultural appropriation, but we were too deadly serious in the moment to even crack a smile. I think we can laugh about it now, though, now that “to Ryan Lochte” has become a verb.

No one is ever at the same “life stage” as anyone else and that is OK. (A recent realization.) I used to think “same life stage” was a precursor to deep friendship. It certainly makes it easier to forge a connection with people who are in the same general social/relational place as you (e.g., single, dating, consciously not dating, married but childless, married with just one child, etc.), but I’ve ceased to believe that it is a prerequisite or even preferable. It is silly of me to think that (a) people will always be around who map their lives to my life stage and (b) when they cease to share my life stage, this occasions a natural breakdown of the friendship. Neither is true. When a life stage changes, we may have to work harder to maintain that bond, to find time to see each other, but it is not a moment for grief or an ending. It is good to have people in one’s life who are not consumed with exactly the same things. It is good to be around people who know nothing of your life stage. It is broadening, deepening, humbling.

Charlottesville 2.0 (our post-Europe life) so far has been a continual lesson in patience. And a reminder of the rich, unspoken joys of our community here.

Even amid the oppressive heat and the skunks residing under our shed, everything about my daily life remains good and solid and happy because Mom gave me an e-cloth mop upon our return to America, and it is all I ever dreamed about and more.

*Post title comes from The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson, which she (apparently) lifted from her encyclopedia.

Living among the things

Click for source.

THINGS
Liesl Mueller

What happened is, we grew lonely
living among the things,
so we gave the clock a face,
the chair a back,
the table four stout legs
which will never suffer fatigue.
We fitted our shoes with tongues
as smooth as our own
and hung tongues inside bells
so we could listen
to their emotional language,
and because we loved graceful profiles
the pitcher received a lip,
the bottle a long, slender neck.
Even what was beyond us
was recast in our image;
we gave the country a heart,
the storm an eye,
the cave a mouth
so we could pass into safety.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Happy Friday! Things I am looking forward to this weekend: Attending the greatest event in this town, the annual JMRL Friends Book Sale; arranging a play-date with Pyrrha and Roland; reading; practicing ballet; cleaning the house; resting.

Half-hearted snax

I’m still feeling a bit swamped, so here’s the digest version of snax!

Pup links. You can read the dog-related things that interested me this week. How adorable. (Doggerel)

James: A Computer Hacker. This interview should scare you. This is from the project 100 Interviews, in which young journalist Gaby Dunn interviews 100 interesting people. It’s a very enjoyable blog to follow, but this story in particular really caught my eye. I’m inspired to change all of my passwords right now. And I’m glad I don’t have a space phone. (100 Interviews)

Around Home, Random Shots. I’m a sucker for dreamy domestic photographs. (Jolly Goo)

You Know What Sucks? Ugh. What’s sad is that I know so many people who think this. (STFU, Parents)

This Photo Made My Day. Mine too! You go, girl. (And baby.) (Marvelous Kiddo)

Annoying Words. A list of banned words from NY Mag editor Kurt Andersen. I concur! (A Cup of Jo)

Hormone-Free Birth Control. If only it were that easy. Or maybe it’s not easy to swat a stork from your apartment window. (The Hairpin)

President Obama Has No Idea What Year It Is. I laughed so hard over this. It’s just… delightful. (Daily Intel)

Goat Busters. Apparently, Charlottesville has this wonderful service for people with lawn problems. Temporarily hire a flock of goats to take care of your weeds for you! I would totally do it if I had some land to clear. (Scout Charlottesville)