It starts with the sticks.
Every spring as the weather warms and my thoughts turn outward to the lawn and the landscaping, I always get tripped up by the sticks. Literally. This year, so many sticks had fallen on our sushi-sized yard that we couldn’t really walk to the garage with stumbling over the debris.
So, I go out when I can, in the small increments of freetime my day will relinquish, and begin picking up the sticks. As much as I want to get outside and do the work, to clean up from winter, I struggle to emerge from indoor mode. None of the inside chores go away with spring and summer. The work just multiplies.
And the wind and rain of the Midwestern springs bring more branches and limbs down with them. But coupled with the warming temperatures, they also summon the weeds and the dandelions. Just a few weeks in, I go out with both garbage bag and handheld claw weeder. I fill bags with sticks, and I pry up most of those perky yellow pests from the newly green lawn and dump them in the compost pile. I haven’t even mentioned the mowing and trimming, because Steve usually does those tasks.
This work continues until the dry heat of summer sends the grass and weeds into dormancy and the trees get to hold on to their branches except in the rare summer storm. But by then the flowers have been planted and need watering, the mulch we laid in early June will need touched up, and the tomato plants and basil will be ready for harvest. At least we hope.
Of course the inside chores are just as tedious, with all the sweeping and dusting and washing and folding. We just get the dishes done, the counters wiped, the leftovers put away, and one of the teenage boys in our house is ready for a snack, ready to create new crumbs and leave at least one cup or fork in the sink instead of the dishwasher.
“Arrrggghh,” I say each time I walk into the kitchen to find a new mess. I make a veiled attempt to say it under my breath, but just in case no one noticed, I follow the groans with off-key humming to demonstrate how very patient I am about these frequent discoveries. Then, I either hunt down the perpetrator, or do the wiping and washing myself with jerky actions that also, in a very subtle way, demonstrate how happy I am to be the one to take care of things.
These tasks I return to again and again … why can’t they just be one and done. Why must we constantly make the bed, fold the clothes, and pick up the sticks, when in just a few hours time, we’ll peel off once-again rumpled clothes, climb right back into bed, and listen as the night wind drags down our branches?
In her new book Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home, Jen Pollock Michel talks about housekeeping as one of the burdens of home. In the first half of the book, she paints a grand vision of home as a place of permanence, as the primary longing of being human. But she begins the second half by talking about packing lunches, dusting furniture, and other domestic tasks that spell drudgery to most of us. She cites a New York Times article called “The Case for Filth” in which the author Stephen Marche claims that the only way to get over all the unfinished house work is to just stop caring. “Caring less is the hope of the future. Housework is perhaps the only political problem in which doing less and not caring are the solution, where apathy is the most progressive and sensible attitude,” Marche writes.
I’ve tried that approach. I’ve tried letting the dog hair accumulate in the corners of the floor and the trash spill over the top of the can and the laundry sit half-folded in the basket, never to be put away. But the problem is I actually do care. I feel out of sorts walking in a yard filled with sticks. I feel my shoulders tighten a little when I see a counter scattered with crumbs. After a while, I just have to wash the storm door where our black Lab Tilly rubs her nose while she’s looking out at the squirrels. Even if the tasks have to be done again and again and again.
I think it’s because of this: housework is a lot like spiritual work. It’s not only the clean house or the glorified soul that matters. It’s the daily cleaning, the daily praying and reading and serving, that transform the home and the heart. As Jen writes, “the routines of our domestic lives and the rhythms of our spiritual practice … depend on daily efforts and ordinary gestures; neither is once and done. Each requires a kind of liturgy and routine, as an anchoring weight against the hosts of disordered desires that greet us in the morning before we’ve put a foot to the floor: selfish ambition, acedia, megalomania, greed.”
When it comes to housekeeping, I used to be the person who saved all the chores til the weekend, knocking them out in one frenzied session that would usually take all of a Saturday morning. But that was when I lived alone, and the amount of laundry and clutter and dishes in the sink was limited to what I generated on my own. By just putting things away when I used them and cleaning up after myself after meals, the house was relatively clean all the time, even come cleaning day.
But with a family of five, plus Tilly and our cat Shadow, waiting for the weekend to do all the chores means all the chores don’t get done. Just like the sticks that accumulate in our yard need regular gathering, so do the shoes and the earbuds and the cereal bowls and the laundry. When life gets busy, those things drop off, and the clutter begins to accumulate, which in turn leaves me feeling anxious and agitated. (Cue the off-key humming.)
It’s no wonder, then, that the thing that usually helps me the most during times of stress is the housekeeping. Last week, I spent 20 minutes typing up all the various household chores I’d like to do on a regular basis into my digital to-do list, and then I assigned each one to different days and created recurring due dates. Now, along with my writing deadlines and client tasks, matters of housekeeping pop up on my task list each day. Today, for instance, I’ll “dust downstairs.” Yesterday, I vacuumed the living room and hallway and mopped the kitchen. Now, I don’t worry about what needs to be done. I know eventually it will pop up on the list, and I feel some of the tension easing.
But my issues go beyond a better chore schedule. When life gets so overwhelming, something feels broken. Recently, I’ve found myself laboring over the direction of my life. Have I invested myself in the wrong career? Is owning my own business too much for me? Am I really cut out to be a writer? I’ve prayed and journaled; I’ve talked with friends and family members. But today, while reading Jen’s book, I realized the answer: I have a housekeeping problem.
The Hebrew word for housekeeping is ‘avodah, which according to Jen is translated as “work, service, labor, duties, ceremony, ministry.” It’s the same word that is used to refer to the work of the priests in the tabernacle. “‘Avodah reminds us that worship—and its attendant call to vocation—can share the banality and ordinariness of everyday work,” Jen writes. I need to learn to see all my life, especially the ordinary tasks like putting the dishes in the sink and responding to emails that are easy to let slide, as worship work, housekeeping.
But even beyond that, I need to see the everyday work of caring for my body, my home, my friends and family as more than just the marginal … or optional … work of life. “The lie that pulses at the heart of every act of idolatry or injustice is that we are unfairly constrained by our promises, duties and obligations—all of which are marks of our creatureliness, our dependence and contingency on others—rather than graciously freed by them,” writes Andy Crouch in his book Playing God. Like the continuously updating chore list, which keeps me present to the needs of my home, I need to find the appropriate cues and rituals to help me attend to the needs of my body, my family, my community, and more. This is the true housekeeping that too often gets overlooked.
More sticks have fallen in our yard over the past few days as the wind and rain settles in for a long stretch in Indiana. Our yard needs mowing and the weeds need pulling, and as soon as soon as the weather breaks, we’ll be back at it.
At the same time, I’m working on better routines for praying for my family and spending time with friends and getting a good night’s sleep and exercising.
Just like the nose prints on the storm door don’t mean we need to replace it, neither does a stressful schedule or feelings of isolation mean I need a career change or a new hobby.
Mostly, I just need to do a little housekeeping.
I’m thrilled to announce that I will be hosting a book discussion of Jen’s Keeping Place here on my blog during the month of June. Why so far away? Well, Jen’s book won’t even be released until May 9, and then there’s the little matter of May, which for our family is filled with birthday parties and end of year concerts and this year, a high school graduation. Since June ushers in the slower months of summer for our family, it will be the perfect time to host a book club. Look for posts each Wednesday of June where we’ll talk about three chapters a week. If you want to write about the book yourself, please make sure you slip a link to the article or post in the comments section each week.
Need a copy of the book? As a member of Jen’s launch team, I am excited to offer you a 30% off promo code (READKP) to use at ivpress.com. Also, I have a copy of Jen’s Keeping Place to give away for those of you who are interested. Leave me a comment on the blog, share this post on social media (don’t forget to tag me!), or just send me an email to tell me about your relationship to housekeeping, and I’ll enter you into the drawing. I’ll announce the winners and send out the book the week of May 15.
I hope you’ll join me in discussing what home means. This isn’t just a book or a discussion for women. According to Jen, “The message of Keeping Place is bigger than gender roles and responsibilities. It’s about the human longings for and losses of home, the human labor and love that’s required for God’s people to ‘keep place’ in the world until Christ comes.”
*I received a free preview copy of Keeping Place from Intervarsity Press. Any comments or opinions about the book are mine.