Monday, July 18, 2016

Finding Inspiration in Women's Work

Around New Year Philip sat down with me to work on a ‘business plan’ for my Merino-silk Apparel. As part of the process we looked at how many hours I wanted to devote to ‘the business’. We also looked at how many hours I actually had offset with my other chores, which included housework, as well as preparing the BnB for guests. My week is busy. Not considering what I did in the studio, my other chores already took up around 36-hours, almost a full time job. No wonder I can’t seem to make it to the studio for ‘other work’.

There are times when I find myself grumbling about chores that keep me from creative work, muttering under my breath, or sometimes aloud, ‘fuck, what a waste of time is ironing sheets!’ and it’s endless. There was one weekend, where I changed three lots of sheets (not to mention clean the bathroom) for three one-night stays in the BnB room. Something had to give; and that happened when I accidentally bumped into a little book on Amazon called The Quotidian Mysteries, Laundry, Liturgy and Women’s Work by Kathleen Norris (which formed part of a lecture that she gave towards the education and spiritual well-being of women). What gave was my attitude towards menial chores and women’s work. I think for most of my life I’ve resented doing what I associate with servile work. I have always done chores, from when I was a young girl, often before heading to school, more usually on the weekends. Of course, there is nothing wrong with ‘serving’ or being in the service to other people’s needs. However, it’s one of those ‘blocks’ for me, connected to being a woman of colour. Perhaps it’s an indication too, of how I have failed at intimate relationships – because they entail showing your love by ‘serving’, looking after the house, doing laundry, cooking, dishes – all part of caring for another, selfless work, which doesn’t suit the self-absorbed temperament of ‘the artist’ or just the self-absorbed period… 

The paradox is – however – that making felt often feels like doing laundry (rub a dub-dub on that rather large washboard of mine) and it comes with dish-pan hands. If I focus on the labouring aspect, and how hard it is to make, I could, in all honesty give up making felt.

Kathleen Norris was introduced by a boyfriend to the Catholic liturgy, and she found it ‘remarkable’ that in a fancy church, after all the pomp and ceremony, ‘homage was being paid to the lowly truth that we human beings must wash the dishes after we eat and drink’. She had no understandings of the rituals she had witnessed but here was something that she could understand. Norris found comfort in seeing the priest as ‘a daft housewife’. It gave experiencing the Catholic mass an unusual context of meaning, which was housework. Let’s face it the dishes must be done, the floors vacuumed and in my case also mopped, as well as the dirty laundry washed and ironed. As women grow in professional status they’ve usually passed on their chores to other women, who are grateful to have work.

Norris explores the chores, within the context of ‘liturgy’ or ritual/worship, not to view them as a drag, but to suggest that we can find ‘fulfilment, healing [even] ecstasy’, starting from our bodily needs, and in the everyday places. If you find the religious or theological associations discomfiting or irrelevant, you can choose to put them to one side. Unlike the Christian Monastics you don’t have to enjoy doing chores to feel closer to God. You can learn to enjoy doing chores as a devotional to yourself and the life/lot you’ve been given - a practice in gratitude. I feel that a lot of women do find the repetition of simple activities such as walking, baking bread, doing laundry, or the dishes, as inspirational (if you look at the etymology of inspiration – in Middle English, it meant to put the breath, life, spirit back into the body). 

Such mind-numbing work, can also paradoxically turn on the mind to more creative thoughts. And if nothing else, mopping the floor gives me an instant sense of gratification and happiness, even if that experience lasts for half an hour and is fleeting (before Maudie dog walks in with her wet muddy feet). I can look forward to experiencing it again the next time I mop. What a sad person you might exclaim! On the contrary, I choose to celebrate the ordinary business of my life – because let’s face sometimes this is as good as it gets – and I am so like my mother after all, in the sense of being tied to household chores, in spite of my education and a head full of ideas. Not unlike creative work, cleaning is about bringing order out of chaos. Perhaps it can bring me consolation (if consolation is needed) that this is a thought my mother would never have! Although I have heard her say ‘I have to put things in order’… Hmm… 

Norris writes: ‘When confronting a sinkful of dirty dishes—something I do regularly, as my husband is the cook in our house and I am the dishwasher—I admit that I generally lose sight of the fact that God is inviting me to play. But I recall that as a college student I sometimes worked as a teacher’s aide in a kindergarten and was interested to note that one of the most popular play areas for both boys and girls was a sink in a corner of the room. After painting, the children washed their brushes there, but at other times, for the sheer joy of it—the tickle of water on the skin and God knows what else—a few children at a time would be allowed what the teacher termed “water play.” The children delighted in filling, emptying and refilling plastic bowls, cups and glasses, watching bubbles form as they pressed objects deeper into the sink or tried to get others to stay afloat. It is difficult for adults to be so at play with daily tasks in the world.’ 

How can the ordinariness of chores be inspirational and spiritually refreshing? 

Norris offers several situations outside the monastery, to do with children and their sense of wonder, and these are – play, repetition, as well as the intense relation with the present moment. I suppose we can all look back to when we were children and recall moments where we wanted to be included in the accomplishment of household chores. For me, when I was very small my maternal grandmother would keep all the hankies for last, so that under her supervision I could do some ironing. So indeed there was a time when in the context of ‘play’, I found ironing fun, even powerful, in the sense of feeling like a grown up. 

‘The comfortable lies we tell ourselves regarding these ‘little things’ that they don’t matter, and that daily chores are of no significance to us spiritually – are exposed as falsehoods when we consider that reluctance to care for the body is one of the first symptoms of extreme melancholia. Shampooing the hair, washing the body, brushing the teeth, drinking enough water, taking a daily vitamin, going for a walk, as simple as they seem, are acts of self-respect. They enhance one’s ability to take pleasure in oneself and in the world…’  An interesting aside is that when training as a therapist I was encouraged to 'ground' myself in the ordinary things such as sweeping, when working with depressives.

This is what I choose – to take pleasure in myself and my surroundings, rather than grumble – because I am one of the privileged to have a roof over my head (and in such fabulous surroundings), my ‘daily bread’, and the numerous chores associated with running a household. It will become a daily practice of mindfulness – or you can call it spirituality – to feel gratitude for chores. 

One Friday night after the dinner party guests had left, I was left to clean up the dirty dishes, the crystal glasses and the pans (I am the cook and the dishwasher). No one offers to help, and even if they do, like my mother I usually refuse the help. (This has a lot to do with the control freak in us both.) I don’t put it off for the next morning because I don’t want to wake up to last night’s dishes. Bad enough to wake up to a hangover. So after midnight I set about cleaning up and I wasn’t grumbling, rather I looked forward to finishing and surveying a clean and tidy kitchen and the satisfaction it would give, before going up to bed. Though I wasn’t singing, or praising and feeling closer to God, I did do it with a light heart and before I knew it – it was done, and I was rejoicing in a cup of tea before turning in. Perhaps that’s what is meant by the adage ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’.

Next time, when confronted by a sinkful of dishes or an overflowing laundry basket, I’ll simply recall Norris’ statement that God is inviting me to play here, as much as I would in the studio.  And if I start to feel as the launderer in the studio  …