Monday, May 5, 2008

More on the Blessings of Housework...

"All the really good ideas I ever had came to me while I was milking a cow." (Grant Wood, artist)

When I posted about washing dishes by hand two or three days ago, I actually had more collected thoughts and book passages related to the idea, but I decided that what I didn't need to do was write another too-long blog post (and now here I am, doing just that!). The washing dishes post and what follows in this post came together by accident, without me looking for them. As I sorted through some of my papers, flipped through a magazine, re-read Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift From the Sea, and babysat my neighbor girl, I kept finding things that got me thinking about the importance of slowing down body, mind, and spirit-- of doing some things by hand.

It started when I was babysitting my six-year-old neighbor girl a few weeks ago. It was a nice day, so she played in our backyard fort while I hung some laundry on the clothesline and did some yard cleanup. She was using my very ordinary broom to sweep the top floor of the fort when she said, "You have a lot of antiques. Like this broom." She went on to explain that people once used brooms all the time when they cleaned their homes, but they don't anymore. :-)

She continued, "And you have an antique swing made out of a tire! I have a real swing from the store, but I like the tire swing better."

Then she asked me if I could believe that people used to wash their dishes in the sink in soapy water. Her mom told her that when her grandma was young, that's how she did dishes. I proceeded to tell my neighbor girl that I do all of my dishes by hand, too. In the sink, in soapy water. I like it better than using the dishwasher. She looked at me in wonderment.

And she didn't even notice that I had by-passed the clothes dryer and was in the process of hanging towels on the clothesline.

I don't do any of this to be old-fashioned. Sure, it might save money and could be seen as environmentally helpful, and I'm happy that it all helps, but I do these things first because I like to. Or maybe because I need to. I certainly don't want to do everything by hand. I like to use my machines sometimes, but I find that it helps my frame of mind when I take my time, when I am more physically involved in some of my daily tasks and routines, when I take the slow, scenic route. There's something good for me in slowing down so that my pace is not always dictated by the speed of machines.

(My grandsons helping me build a fire. They follow me all over as I work!)

I've already mentioned that I've been sorting through boxes of papers lately. One of the papers I ran across was something I wrote for myself one morning two or three years ago just because it was on my mind right then, and I think it gets across the spirit of my feelings. (I actually titled it-- "The Blessing and Benefits of Living Life-- at Least Some of it-- By Hand."):

"As I was kneading bread early this morning, turning, banging, pushing the dough on the counter, my mind and attention wandered to many things-- to the beauty of the early morning sun shining on the western hills; to the clear, bright blue sky of the high desert; to the tasks and projects I want to tackle today; to my children and my husband. I thought and I prayed in the silence of the morning as I rhythmically smacked that dough on the counter. My hands were busy. My mind was free.

"I looked at my stand mixer and thought about putting the bread in it to knead, but, no, not today. I liked feeling the dough; it's easy to get the water-flour ratio correct when you make bread by feel; it's impossible to overknead bread by hand; my arms were getting a workout from manipulating that big mass of dough; and it felt nice to take my time.

"That led me to another thought. I like my time and energy-saving contraptions very much-- my car, my washer and dryer, my food processor, my mixer. But I also choose not to use them sometimes, to be a little more hands-on, to have more leisure in my work for thought and prayer..."

This is something I think about often. Technology or "progress" has made life more comfortable. It's made tedious tasks easier. It's given us much. But I'm not sure we're altogether better off. What have we traded for ease and convenience? What has been lost?

I think Ann Morrow Lindbergh gives a nice partial answer to this question in her book, A Gift From the Sea:

"Mechanically we have gained, in the last generation, but spiritually we have, I think, unwittingly lost. In other times, women had in their lives more forces which centered them whether or not they realized it; sources which nourished them whether or not they consciously went to these springs. Their very seclusion in the home gave them time alone. Many of their duties were conducive to a quiet contemplative drawing together of the self. They had more creative tasks to perform. Nothing feeds the center so much as creative work, even humble kinds like cooking and sewing. Baking bread, weaving cloth, putting up preserves, teaching and singing to children, must have been far more nourishing than being the family chauffeur or shopping at super-markets, or doing housework with mechanical aids. The art and craft of housework has diminished; much of the time-consuming drudgery-- despite modern advertising to the contrary-- remains. In housework, as in the rest of life, the curtain of mechanization has come down between the mind and the hand."

Anne, though, is not suggesting that we eschew all technological aids, going back to an old-fashioned life where virtually everything was done by hand:

"The answer is not in going back, in putting woman in the home and giving her the broom and the needle again. A number of mechanical aids save us time and energy. But neither is the answer in dissipating our time and energy in more purposeless occupations, more accumulations which supposedly simplify life but actually burden it, more possessions which we have not time to use or appreciate, more diversions to fill up the void.

"(Women) must encourage those pursuits which oppose the centrifugal forces of today. Quiet time alone, contemplation, prayer, music, a centering line of thought or reading, of study or work. It can be physical or intellectual or artistic, any creative life proceeding from oneself.... Arranging a bowl of flowers in the morning can give a sense of quiet to a crowded day-- like writing a poem, or saying a prayer. What matters is that one be for a time inwardly attentive."

In today's world, the focus is on efficiency and productivity, which tend to make us increasingly fragmented. And along with being fragmented, we are overstimulated. Fragmentation keeps us physically awhirl; overstimulation keeps us mentally awhirl. As Alexander Schmemann wrote (quoted in the post below this one), media and technology contribute to this, but so can too much study, too many books, too many discussions, and having too many choices. How about too much time in front of the computer? I continually need to evaluate what is keeping me from fully focusing on the best things in life: Quiet spiritual time. My family. Making a home. Nurturing and building relationships. Caring about others. Relationships matter most.

Author and international speaker, Jean Fleming, said, "The goal of much that is written about life management is to enable us to do more in less time. But is this necessarily a desirable goal? Perhaps we need to get less done, but the right things." So there is a continual narrowing down that I have to do. And I think this is true for most people in modern society. It's important to pay attention, to see where we've gotten off the simple way. If, as Chesterton wrote, at home we are freer than anywhere else, then we have power to make choices about how we will spend our days and use our time. We can say no. We can cut back our plans. We can simplify.

We all have situations that make this challenging-- children with struggles and difficulties, many young children at once (this keeps us busy!), or any number of things. And in these cases, maybe it's even more important to streamline and simplify our lives.

Life at home should be lovely. It should be relatively peaceful. We should have time to stop what we're doing, to listen, to look our loved ones in the eye, to smile and laugh, to care, to pay attention to one another. We should have time for spiritual contemplation and prayer even as we go about our business. Pray without ceasing. Blessedly, the unhurried daily routines and rituals of housework and living together as a family are perfect for this. They are a gift. Our hands are busy, our minds are free, our hearts are available.