The Joys of Housework: Late Have I Loved It

Article excerpt

A friend used to joke that if I had seven kids, I'd be stirring gruel with one hand and flipping the pages of Proust with the other. She was right about everything but the order - I'd be flipping the pages, then remembering to stir. Housework fails to interest me. I shirked most of its chores for years, studiously shunning marriage until I found someone who didn't expect me to retrieve and launder his socks.

Then, as irony would have it, I began to enjoy washing his socks. I started collecting 1950s cookbooks and asking older ladies whether mayonnaise really removes white rings from wood tables. Either I was turning into my mother or this realm was more powerful than I'd thought. Banking on the latter, I plotted out a doctoral dissertation and began researching the symbolic and spiritual meanings of housework.

What I learned convinced me that the chores I'd branded oppressive and mundane are creative and profound, bringing us closer to the earth, to each other and to God.

At least, that's true when they're done with love. Fresly laundered sheets tucked with care can symbolize and reinforce family stability, keeping home a haven from a cold, confusing world. The same sheets, stained and crumpled and flung angrily across the bed, can undermine that security. When women learn housework's power to nurture, they learn its dark side, too. In times of fewer worldly options, many wielded that power like a CEO, manipulating husbands and children into submission.

Once I'd acknowledged the spiritual qualities of nurture, I began testing the long-vaunted link between cleanliness and godliness. There may be more to it than I thought: Dirt, after all, symbolizes wildness and change, death and decay. By plunging their arms into murky washtubs, reaching deep into the drain to pull out hunks of hair and slime, and carrying bowls of vomit from the bedside, women have confronted - and triumphed over - life's most intimate chaos.

Interestingly enough, women's bodies have themselves been labeled earthy, dark, messy, irrational, in need of ordering and subjugation. The Victorian paragon of domestic virtue was called "the angel in the house" to this day, pornography is termed "filth," and family values are said to require "clean living." Why such a tight relationship between dirt and sex? Because sexual "sins" are sins of embodiment, of stained, rumpled sheets, sweat-sticky flesh and broken boundaries. And it is women who are responsible for controlling them.

Anthropologist Mary Douglas studied the "pollution" concept most cultures use to label what is dirty, tracing it, not to hygiene, but to our fear of ambiguity. By walling out certain conditions and setting up standards of purity, we protect cherished ideas from contradiction. What is unclean represents what is unclear; "dirt is essentially disorder," signaling a life both physically and morally uncontrolled.

She who removes the dirt, by contrast, is imbued with virtue@; she aligns herself with higher forces. For centuries, housewives have known this implicitly and used it too well; they've swept to calm a furious temper; tidied to convey disapproval; scrubbed floors to prove their martyrdom.

But they've also done the wash to steal a moment alone for prayer. As monks know well, discipline, when chosen, opens up the soul. And drudgery often taps life's deepest core. One of housework's real gifts, for example,is a sense of time so radically different, it's almost an altered state of consciousness. When I rush through the ironing too frazzled to enter this state, I'm constantly checking the clock, checking the height of the pile, counting the shirts. …