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.
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 organizedit 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.)
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?
My mother used to say that keeping a beautiful home could be seen as her spiritual gift. She has a cornucopia of spiritual gifts, but I agree that hospitality and housekeeping are chief among them. And I use the word “housekeeping” not in the dim, 1950s housewife way; I think of it in the Marilynne Robinson way: housekeeping as a holistic lifestyle, the way that one dwells in a physical space, the way that you create and keep a home. (Accordingly, men engage in housekeeping as much as women do, even if they’re not participating in its most obvious elements, such as decorating and doing such “female” chores as cooking, laundry, sweeping, etc.)
But back to Mom: She has a great eye, which she passed along to Grace. I wouldn’t say that Kelsey and I are devoid of this eye, but we certainly don’t have its abundant powers, which are so clearly manifested in our mother and youngest sister. I aspire to this spiritual gift of the beautiful home, and so I study people like my mom and my sister, and people like Catherine, Stephanie, Ross, Matt and Liz, and Cate, who also have this gift. I want to know how they know what they know. How they can walk into stores that look crammed with junk and find this perfectly patina’d treasure. How they know what works and what doesn’t. How they show such control and restraint.
Can I have a beautiful home if I don’t have the great eye or the gift?
I don’t know, but I do see this ability — to make a beautiful home — as a spiritual gift. A peaceful, welcoming, lovely house shows fruit of the spirit. It’s not everyone’s gift and nor should it be; but I maintain that it is a gift and that it can work on souls with as much power as prophecy.
I read a few books on feng shui during my interior design-reading craze. Although I had trouble believing in many of its essential principles or suggestions (e.g., “Sprinkle sea salt on the floor where you sense negative energy”), the majority of the feng shui wisdom applied to interiors made so much sense to me, even as a western person. It makes sense that high ceilings make the spirit feel freer and lighter and that low ceilings make one feel trapped. It makes sense that mirrors open spaces and that the direction of windows can significantly affect one’s chi. I am fascinated by these tenets, because I have felt the truth of them in many spaces.
Alain de Botton writes in The Architecture of Happiness:
If buildings can act as a repository of our ideals, it is because they can be purged of all the infelicities that corrode ordinary lives. A great work of architecture will speak to us of a degree of serenity, strength, poise and grace to which we, both as creators and audiences, typically cannot do justice–and it will for this very reason beguile and move us. Architecture excites our respect to the extent that it surpasses us.
Buildings work and act on our hearts, whether we want them to or not. And this is why I believe in the spiritual gift of beautiful housekeeping and homemaking. We are beguiled and moved by the physical spaces we inhabit.
Now I just have to figure out how to attain this gift myself. Starting with finding a house with higher ceilings.
As of Tuesday, I have read 100 books this year, a sizable portion of which were how-to books about keeping houseplants alive. My fiction numbers are down considerably from last year, a fact which I still blame on David Foster Wallace.
Headed off this weekend to see my brother Win get hitched to my soon-to-be sister Tracy! Can’t wait.
I am the lax gardener in this household. But I did grow that succulent little watermelon in the photo above. (And by “grow,” I mean plant the seedlings way too close together and leave them to their own devices for two months and then take credit for the beautiful harvest.) We had it for lunch yesterday and it was perfect.
Guion, it turns out, is the better homemaker. He is the champion gardener. He is the master chef. He is the kitchen sink doctor. And I am perfectly OK with him being all of these things. My femininity does not suffer a whit.
I thought it would. When we were first married, I wanted to follow those traditional Southern-woman housekeeping roles. I had to be the better cook. I had to have this instinctive green thumb. I had to fold hand towels in thirds. If I couldn’t or didn’t, I would be a bad wife. Many women imply this, even today. They see this 1950s housekeeping mold as The Gold Standard of matrimony and domestic living: The proper wife stays home, gardens, tidies rooms, makes 95% of the food (leaving only the grilling and the slicing of meats to the husband); the proper husband goes to work, mows the lawn, and fixes broken appliances. These are the roles and you stick to them.
This, obviously, is a fading archetype in modern America. And yet I wanted to follow it. Sometimes, when I do spend time with family (particularly my maternal side of the family), I feel like the lesser wife, the domestic failure. I was raised, after all, by and among these paragons of domestic virtue, the hostesses of wide repute, the kitchen gourmets of local renown. And so it is astonishing to my relatives that my husband is the one in the kitchen, whipping up some chutney from the tomatoes he grew in the backyard. Isn’t that women’s work? The men in my family can barely wash a dish, much less follow a complex English recipe from produce they harvested. And here is my hard-working, housekeeping husband, the culinary trailblazer. He is pure mystery to them all. They stare at him with bemused wonder.
I have always thought that my attainment of true womanhood, of authentic femininity would lie in my inherent ability to whip up a pound cake, hem a skirt, and grow daffodils. I cannot do any of these things. I despise DIY home decor projects. I cannot improvise a marinade. I have never learned how to cut a man’s hair myself. And for the first time in our marriage, I am not ashamed to admit any of these things. I do not feel like a lesser woman or a bad wife anymore.
All this to say: I don’t know what kind of wife I am. I am not the traditional model. But I do know that I found myself a very, very good husband. And we make it work.
Girl time = so good. Stephanie and I grabbed dinner on Wednesday night at Monsoon and talked about many things over our virgin strawberry daiquiris, including but not limited to street harassment, babies, and conflicts of etiquette. She is so lovely and bright.
It’s not exactly a gorgeous skyline, but I always like walking over the bridge toward downtown. The view always makes me remember, “Oh, I live here now, in this town where we once arrived as strangers.”
The photo is from Friday night, taken on our way to meet Guion’s beloved professor and mentor Alan Shapiro at South Street to watch the UNC vs. Ohio game. He is delightful company–so brilliant and kind and warm–and we talked of many things. I bonded with him particularly on our mutual love of Marilynne Robinson* and Wei Tchou. (*Somewhat out of the blue, Shapiro announced, “Housekeeping is probably one of the greatest novels in the English language.” And then I felt really justified in my unmitigated praise of that book. It is the greatest. Shapiro says so.)
Last night, Colin and Rita hosted a “Mad Men” season premiere party, in which we were supposed to wear our best “Mad Men”-esque outfits. For men, this just meant wearing a tie (or parting your hair with lots of pomade, as Colin displayed); for women, pearls + dress + pumps seemed to be the easy formula.
Very fun gathering (with great cocktails), but did anyone else think the premiere was kind of… boring? It was funnier and lighter than the closing episodes of last season (Stan always helps with that. And we were all humming zou bizou bizou afterward), but I felt like it was lacking some spark, some solid Draper broody moments. Or maybe the episodes will necessarily be duller in the absence of the incarnation of maternal evil.
For why do our thoughts turn to some gesture of a hand, the fall of a sleeve, some corner of a room on a particular anonymous afternoon, even when we are asleep, and even when are are so old that our thoughts have abandoned other business? What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?
Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great novels, and this one, which was my favorite from the year. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.
Oh, THIS book. This, the most beautiful thing I read all year.
Housekeeping, published in 1980 and distinguished as a Pulitzer finalist, was assigned to me by our church book club. I didn’t know what to expect, but having read Gileada few months before, I figured I would like it. I had no idea how much I was going to love it, though. I read the book feverishly, swiftly, tearing through 100 pages in a little less than an hour, and yet, somehow, I took everything in; every word was absorbed. You have to understand how unusual this is for me. I have an unfortunate tendency to read too quickly, to skim over sentences like a fly over water. But Marilynne Robinson has this unparalleled ability to make me slow down. Not even my favorite poets can make me slow down as much as she can. This gradual consumption of the book, slower than I have read anything all year, contributed greatly to my deep appreciation of it.
When I arrived at the book club discussion, my brain swimming with delight over this novel, my eyes almost fell out of my head when I heard that the majority of the group hated the book. “I didn’t GET it; I don’t like any of these people; they’re so creepy and lonely; they need to get some mental help; I hated it so much, etc., etc.” I think I just gaped at them. Celeste, whose person and taste I admire, despised it and when she said she did, it actually hurt my feelings; I felt physically injured. She was totally rational in her expression of dislike, but my attachment to this book was so strong that to me, it sounded like she’d just insulted my grandmother, the salt of the earth. I flushed and said something rash and stupid in defense of the book, in defense of Robinson, and in defense of Ruth.
Ruth is our lonely and mysterious narrator. We learn that she comes from a long line of solitary, ruminating women, women who don’t say much, women who don’t spend time with men. (In fact, there is scarcely a man in the entire novel; they are either dead or peripheral.) Ruth has moved to Fingerbone, Wisconsin, with her sister, Lucille, to live with their maternal grandmother in the aftermath of their mother’s suicide. They are shuffled between their grandmother and two unhelpful, worrisome great aunts until their mother’s sister Sylvie shows up.
Sylvie is a drifter. She is unaccustomed to household living, to cooking, to wearing appropriate clothes. When we meet her, we understand the irony of the title, for none of these women are any good at housekeeping. Sylvie cares for the girls in a detached, dreamy way, which maddens Lucille but enchants Ruth. In time, we start to see Sylvie and Ruth as mirrors of each other.
Robinson writes like a poet, like a person who has spent much time in thought. Her sentences are careful and beautiful. Housekeeping, she has said, was based on a series of metaphors she wrote while studying for her English Ph.D., as she was largely inspired by American transcendentalists. Her thoughtfulness is evident in every line. In that interview with the Paris Review, she speaks to the mysteriousness that is so infused in her characters:
In the development of every character there’s a kind of emotional entanglement that occurs. The characters that interest me are the ones that seem to pose questions in my own thinking. The minute that you start thinking about someone in the whole circumstance of his life to the extent that you can, he becomes mysterious, immediately.
How could they not be mysterious? They live in passages like this:
We looked at the window as we ate, and we listened to the crickets and the nighthawks, which were always unnaturally loud then, perhaps because they were within the bounds that light would fix around us, or perhaps because one sense is a shield for the others, and we had lost our sight.
Long after we knew we were too old for dolls, we played out intricate, urgent dramas of entrapment and miraculous escape. When the evenings came they were chill because the mountains cast such long shadows over the land and over the lake. There the wind would be, quenching the warmth out of the air before the light was gone, raising the hairs on our arms and necks with its smell of frost and water and deep shade.
Essentially, it is a novel for readers. It is for people who love language and love the mystery of a good character. I loved every minute spent with this book. I finished reading it in the living room and declared to Sam and Guion, “When I grow up, I just want to BE Marilynne Robinson.” Housekeeping is all I’ve ever wanted in a novel. I wanted to live there, as frightening and dark as it could sometimes be.
A novel that relies on memory and lyricism as its foundation is one that will not, naturally, appeal to everyone. But for me? It’s the perfect book. During Ruth’s strange and supernatural visit to the lake, Robinson includes a meditation on the person of Jesus Christ, on his life and presence, and on the ways that people remembered him, people then and now.
There is so little to remember of anyone–an anecdote, a conversation at table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long.
What do we have that allows us remember of anyone? Just words. And the hope of resurrection.
Best book I read in 2011: Can’t tell you yet. Will be revealed when I do my Top 10 Books I Read in 2011 countdown in a few weeks…
Most disappointing book I read in 2011? The worst book I read was easily Night Fall, but “disappointing” implies that I was expecting it to be good, which doesn’t apply to De Mille (I knew it was going to be garbage). The most disappointing book I read in 2011 was either The Surrendered, by Chang-rae Lee, or The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht. I had such high expectations for both of them. The Surrendered ended up being strangely dull, with a string of totally useless deaths, and The Tiger’s Wife was neither compelling nor whole. Both had bright moments, but neither were excellent.
Most surprising book of 2011? What the Living Do, poems by Marie Howe. Outrageously beautiful and heartbreaking. Also The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles, which was upsetting and shocking and mind-bending. But great.
Book I recommended to people most in 2011? Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer’s narrative of the history of memory and how he went on to become the U.S. Memory Champion after a year of training. Our minds are more powerful than we think.
Best series I discovered in 2011? Dog training books by Patricia McConnell? Probably? Does that count?
Favorite new authors I discovered in 2011? Marilynne Robinson, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Marie Howe.
Most thrilling, un-put-down-able book in 2011? Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson.
Book I most anticipated in 2011? Maybe The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides? But I still haven’t read it yet. I’m in position no. 1 out of 113 holds at the library, so I’m getting there! Finally.
Favorite cover of a book you read in 2011?
Here’s a few I liked:
Most memorable character in 2011? Ruth from Housekeeping or Patty Berglund from Freedom.
Book that had the greatest impact on me in 2011?Half the Sky, by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.
Book I can’t believe I waited until 2011 to finally read?The Divine Comedy (Dante) or Brideshead Revisited (Evelyn Waugh).
Book I read in 2011 that I’d be most likely to re-read in 2012? Housekeeping, or the poems of Marie Howe and Maxine Kumin.
What is it about quiet novels about the interior lives of women that resonates so deeply with me? (See: Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson, which I just started and I love. See also: All Works by Virginia Woolf.)
Is it possible to make quinoa taste like food?
What type of birds were flocked together in that tree, wailing and calling others to them? Were they starlings? I would prefer that they were starlings.
Why does Thanksgiving still feel so far away?
Where can I go where I can interact with more animals?
Are American politics becoming more and more dangerously polarized these days, or is it just me?
What do I have to do to make myself like yoga?
How do you know if it’s the Holy Spirit or your conscience or your latent desires?