Friday, April 25, 2008

"Excessively Domestic"?

"Being perceived as excessively domestic can get you socially ostracized." (Cheryl Mendelson in Home Comforts)
A few mornings ago I told Melissa that it felt like a puttery, coffee kind of day, so I brewed some freshly ground beans in my French press, poured the hot coffee into my favorite round mug, and proceeded to sort through a disorganized box or two of papers that have accumulated over the past year or so.
Ever since I can remember, almost everyday, I've written things down, seemingly on whatever papery thing has been nearest to me-- in journals, in notebooks, on the backs of envelopes, on the backs of business letters, everywhere. Grocery lists, to-do lists, goals, what I'm thinking about, things I enjoy, what I've been reading, what I want to read, funny/interesting/nice things my kids said or did, what I'm thankful for, passages from books, spiritual musings, and so on.

I don't know if this writing is a kind of therapy or what, but it's actually been amusing to read through it all. There are bits of mystery writing in the boxes. For example, I ran across an envelope with several passages from a book copied onto it. One of the lines I copied on that envelope was this: "I want the fairytale, and instead I feel as though I've been stolen away, a princess orphaned when June Cleaver was killed by Jane Jetson." Recognize this? (I kinda like it, and I'd love to know where I read it.)

"June Cleaver was killed by Jane Jetson..." Progress, right? I wouldn't say so. Last fall I had a group of women from my church over for a meeting. Since they were coming right after work, I cooked a homey dinner for them-- Cheddar Chowder, a crusty round loaf of bread, and an apple harvest cake with cream cheese frosting for dessert. Some of the ladies teasingly called me June Cleaver, as if cooking that meal qualified me either as hero or domestic martyr. But I didn't mind.

I have always been one of those women who are "excessively domestic." When I was young, I thought it was great fun to watch or help my mom or Grammy with daily chores. My mother's wringer washing machine fascinated me. I liked seeing the clean towels and sheets flap in the wind on the clothesline. You'd often find me hanging around in the kitchen while the women (and the men, I must say; my grandpa was a wonderful cook and my brother is a kitchen fiend now) cooked (this was probably motivated at first by my desire to lick batter off spoons and to eat whatever was being created).

Many of my earliest memories are happy food memories-- warm-from-the-oven peanut butter cookies with crisscrosses on them; Grammy's wonderful gravy and overnight buns; Grampy's heavenly sourdough biscuits and sauerkraut; eating several types of berries from Grammy and Grampy's garden; going out in the boat and combing back with crab and clam for a big feed; raw milk from a small family dairy just down the road; going out into the wild to pick buckets of blackberries with Mom; buying produce as fresh as could be from local farmstands. As soon as I learned to bake, I baked and baked and baked. I took as many Home Ec cooking classes in high school as I could just so I could hang around in a kitchen. I've always loved food and cookbooks and kitchen stuff.

You'd think I'd be a good cook by now, huh? Well, not so much. But I do love food, and I do love being in my kitchen. It's not just the kitchen, though. I have loved making a home for my family and a place to invite my friends. Our house has many eccentricities and problems, but making home is first and foremost a matter of the spirit. Love, warmth, and welcome are the primary things that make a house a home. Without these characteristics, the creative aspects of home are superficial adornments.

In 1972, Joan Didion opened a famous essay criticizing the women's movement by saying, "To make an omelette you need not only those broken eggs but someone "oppressed" to beat them." (Who's going to want to do the cooking if it gets put like this?!) I think the famous "marriage contract" idea of the 1970's attempted to divide housework equally between men and women, to the point of silliness. Of course, it's wonderful when men are very involved in taking care of the home and children, but the point of the women's movement was to liberate oppressed women. And I just don't want anyone pitying me for living the life of an "oppressed person." I happen to like my life. I've never felt slightly apologetic for being a busy and happy at home.

"Oh, goody! A new vacuum cleaner!" (Just kidding. Sort of.)


And I'm not talking only about cooking. I don't feel bogged down by the mundane round, by ordinary day following ordinary day, by the over-and-overness of daily routines and tasks. Actually, they don't seem ordinary and mundane to me. I don't see cleaning bathrooms as undignified or washing dishes as a waste of time. Making dinner and setting the table day after day is not an uncreative drain. To be honest, I don't feel like doing these things every single day (I'd sometimes rather remain in my chair with a book), but there are reasons for doing them. Once I recall my vision for home and determine to get started with a cheerful attitude, the inner resistance falls away. When the acts of making a home for the family are done in love, I see them as setting the stage for very warm, meaningful, influential relationships.

At home I am free. I can set my own schedule. I can read. I can learn. I can grow. I can develop a skill. I can do what I want. I create an atmosphere and build an environment-- one that is perfectly suited to my family. Home is a good base for acts of compassion and service. Neither my creativity nor my intelligence should be stifled by homemaking. On the contrary, I think being busy at home gives me a huge range of opportunities, possibilities, responsibilities, and joys, not the least of which is playing the largest role of anyone in my children's lives. This job has eternal importance.

I like what GK Chesterton has to say about this:

"To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors, and holidays; to be Whitely within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets, cakes, and books, to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people's children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one's own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? ...a woman's function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute."

With a bit of vision, being busy about the tasks of home can be a profoundly influential, rich, full life, even if loving it can get you socially ostracized! :-)