Thursday, February 26, 2009

Soul Food

Tuesday was Donut Day at the Steiner-Roses, and I challenge anyone to point me to a more rollicking good time than was had here in our little, very crowded rowhouse. On the menu was chicken noodle soup (we participate in a local winter farm share in which we place an on-line order each month -- kale, spinach, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, yogurt, milk, buttermilk, cheese, eggs, chicken, sweet and spicy beef sticks -- yum, yum, yum! -- which we pick up each week at one of numerous locations around the city. The problem is that we cannot alter our order until the end of the month. The other problem is that my oven has been broken for a REALLY LONG TIME ((which is its own blog post soon, I think, when I'm not so frustrated and despondent that every other word would be blasphemous)). So each week I get a frozen chicken, but I haven't been able to roast them, and on the Monday before Fat Tuesday, there were four or five of them in my freezer ... so I stewed up a couple to make soup for the masses. Another is going in the pot today, because I foolishly thought I would have left-overs from Tuesday ... not so much.)

Where was I? Right -- the menu. Chicken noodle soup, clean-out-the-vegetable-drawer vegetarian soup, Julie's homebrew (the Belgian tripel was especially popular), some fruit from Suzanne, leftover from Meg's 7th birthday, and a salad courtesy my dear ones, Woody and Joey, who came all the way from New Jersey and used up a lot of Weight Watcher points to wup it up with us.

But of course, soup, salad and fruit were all side dishes to the main attraction: home made donuts! Usually we use Edna Ruth Byler's potato dough recipe for 100 donuts out of the Mennonite cookbook More With Less, but we had an overstock of buttermilk in the back of the fridge (we apparently overestimated how many blueberry pancakes we could eat each week when we put in last month's winter farm share order), so Jane, who came all the way from Lancaster to help (and "help" is really a euphemism, because truth be told she did most of the work on the donuts; thanks Jane!), modified the recipe, to everyone's benefit it seems safe to say, because those were The Best Donuts Yet (and we've been doing this a lot of years). Then Jane just whipped up some lemon zest glaze and, well, let's just say that the kids weren't the only ones leaving with a sugar high.

But now it's Lent. Last night we sat in silence and candle-lit darkness, sang Taize chants (accompanied by oboe, piano, flute and trombone -- gorgeous), listened to Bob's thoughtful reflections on Isaiah, and had our foreheads smudged with ashes. I actually love Lent. Adore it. It may be my favorite season of the liturgical year. And here we are. Big sigh of contentment.

I usually try to take things on in Lent, rather than give them up. This year I'm taking on food -- eating better, feeding my family better, extending hospitality to my community more. I'm almost done with Michael Pollen's The Omnivore's Dilemma, and I may explore some of this year's Lenten discipline in my upcoming book review. But I'm also taking on the Psalms this year, in a more systematic way than my usual scattershot reading of them. I wish I could have you ALL over for chicken noodle soup tonight, but until we can make that work, here's some food for the soul:

Psalm 1 (from the NRSV)

Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked;
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.

The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Cost and Joy of Discipleship: This I Believe?

I'm loving the conversation about homemaking and housekeeping, and will come back to it shortly.

This is a new series on faith (I had a lot of time to write at my in-laws last weekend; I won't usually be so prolific), one I likewise hope to explore with all my friends.


Our daughter Trixie, who is almost twelve, is participating in our church’s faith exploration program for youth this year, at the end of which she will make a decision about whether she wants to be confirmed and join the church as a full member. (Trixie, who was dedicated but not baptized as an infant, will also, assuming she so decides, be getting dunked in Woody and Joey’s heated swimming pool by Julie’s father, a retired minister, a couple of weeks before being confirmed on Pentecost; this is my idea, because I find the paltry drops of water that are part of our church’s baptism sacrament so deeply unsatisfying, but I’m happy that so far, Trixie is totally on board). As part of her faith exploration process, in which she is guided by an adult mentor, Trixie will be writing her own personal Statement of Faith. (She has already decided that it will begin, “I believe humans descended from monkeys; I believe that human civilization first grew in ancient Sumaria….” I have assured her that this will make her Grandpa Jim very happy.) I have always loved this exercise, which Confirmands at Old First have been doing for years. Their Statements of Faith are always thoughtful, funny, challenging, and invariably make me cry.

But I love Statements of Faith in general. When I taught Sunday school, my class memorized the UCC Statement of Faith, and when those kids were confirmed, and stood before the congregation and recited it with us, I brimmed with pride … and, of course, I cried. I love the UCC Statement of Faith for lots of reasons: I love its poetry; I love that it is a corporate profession (“We believe” rather than “I believe”); I love it because it is the first Statement of Faith I ever learned (I’m an adult convert to Christianity, and Old First is the only church, and the UCC the only denomination, that I’ve ever belonged to), and because I say it with my church family most Sundays. It goes like this:

We believe in you O God, Eternal Spirit,
God of our Savior Jesus Christ and our God,
and to your deeds we testify:

You call the worlds into being,
create persons in your own image,
and set before each one the ways of life and death.

You seek in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin.

You judge people and nations through your righteous will, declared through prophets and apostles.

In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Savior,
you have come to us
and shared our common lot,
conquering sin and death
and reconciling the world to yourself.

You bestow upon us your Holy Spirit,
creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ,
binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues and races.

You call us into your church
to accept the cost and joy of discipleship,
to be your servants in the service of others,
to proclaim the gospel to all the world
and resist the powers of evil,
to share at Christ’s baptism and eat at his table,
to join him in his passion and victory.

You promise to all who trust you
forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace,
courage in the struggle for justice and peace,
your presence in trial and rejoicing,
and eternal life in your realm which has no end.

Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto you.

I also love the Apostles’ Creed, which was the second creed I learned. I love the Apostles’ Creed for its rhythms and spare poetry, for how such a bare bones statement can sum up so much. I also love that the Apostles’ Creed is so ancient, and that I can say it with Christians across space and time, and that in saying it, I participate in the Body of Christ. Here is the Apostles’ Creed:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

I still don’t know the Nicene Creed by heart, and I’m always jealous of my Catholic friends when I go to Mass and it rolls off their tongues so effortlessly. This is the most ancient of Christian creeds, and it feels to me the most mysterious and elemental and sacred. I can just hear the passion of the folks who wrote it, like it mattered so much to them that we understand what they were trying to share with us. When I say this creed, I feel like I am in on a special secret that I still don’t completely understand. It’s like a love poem to the Christian faith. I love this creed a lot and regret we don’t say it more often:

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of live,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son
he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

A lot of people I know have a hard time saying these ancient creeds – or even new ones, like the UCC Statement of Faith – because they feel they are telling a lie to say words they are not sure they believe. It seems to me that this is to miss the point of saying creeds. For me, to say these ancient words -- even the new-fangled versions -- is itself an act of faith, independent of what the words actually mean. Which is not to say that the meaning of the words is irrelevant. For me, wrestling with what these words mean – these and many other mysterious, scary, difficult, awesome words -- is important (and why I am a Christian, and not, say, a Unitarian). But wrestling with what they mean, and saying them as an act of faith, are two very different things for me; and when my wrestling stirs up doubt, which it most often does, the antidote is to say them more often, not less.

You see, I believe (and herein begins my own Statement of Faith), that Belief is not a very useful entry point to faith for me. I believe that whenever I start thinking too hard about what I believe, I end up feeling like a fraud, and wonder if I even have the right to call myself a Christian. I feel this especially around Christians who seem so clear about what they believe, for whom belief and experience seem to line up quite neatly.

On the other hand, I believe that practicing my faith – worshipping regularly, praying the Psalms, following the rhythms of the liturgical year, celebrating the festivals, singing the songs -- brings me into relationship with God, helps me experience God in my life … and that Belief has very little to do with it. I believe that if Belief matters, it will follow (I’m still waiting), and conversely, if it doesn’t follow, maybe it doesn’t matter all that much.

In the interests of full disclosure (and at the risk of truly exposing myself as a fraud) I should probably explain that I’m not talking here about arcane doctrines, like, say, transubstantiation (the Catholic doctrine that the elements of the Eucharist do not represent the body and blood of Christ, but actually become them). I spent hours and hours once researching transubstantiation, in the hopes that I could tell Father John at St. Vincent’s “Yes, I believe that,” when I went to talk to him about whether, as a Protestant, I could participate in the Eucharist at the daily 12:05 Mass I was yearning to attend. Bless his heart, he just waved his hand when I brought it up and said, “Who really understands transubstantiation? If you experience Christ in the Eucharist, that’s enough” – which was perfect, because I could wholeheartedly say “YES!” to that. (I still have NO IDEA what transubstantiation is all about.)

But when I say that Belief is not a useful entry point to faith for me, I’m not talking about whether or not I believe in transubstantiation. I’m talking about way more fundamental stuff. Like God. And the Incarnation. And Resurrection. And Salvation.

You see why I worry about being a fraud?

But let me explain. Say you are a “believing Christian” (a phrase a dear friend of mine has used in my presence, assuming, presumably, that such a phrase encompasses both of us, an assumption that causes me no small amount of anxiety … but I digress), and you ask me “Do you believe in God?” For most Christians, that is the most basic, fundamental and easily answered of questions. The answer is simply, “Yes, of course.” And depending on who you are, I might answer, just as simply, “Yes.” I wouldn’t be lying, exactly. But I’m not sure I would pass a lie detector test either, because if I say, simply, “Yes,” my blood pressure is probably rising a little, and my heart is probably beating a little faster, and inside my head a million thoughts are racing. If I have simply answered “Yes” to the question “Do you believe in God,” then I probably have not screwed up my courage to share all of those thoughts with you, but they are racing nonetheless, and if I were to screw up my courage and share them with you, they might go something like this:

“Yeeeessssss, I do believe in God … I guess … No! I mean, Yes! I do! Really, I do, but … but probably not in the way you do … I mean, I don’t really believe in, well, a sentient God, so much … an omniscient, anthropomorphic God, you know? Who acts outside of the laws of nature? And interferes in natural or human history in response to the acts and pleas of human beings? No, I guess I don’t believe so much in that kind of a God.” Here I might pause, and feel anxious, and wonder what you’re thinking. Then I might continue, throwing caution to the wind: “But you know what, I do believe in God, I just don’t believe that God is something human beings are even capable of understanding, really, and therefore it seems to me that every human expression of what or who God is must ultimately be laughably small and absurd.” There, I said it! “But I still think we humans have a fundamental need to try to capture and name what God is -- by which I do not mean the same thing as when patronizing atheists argue that humans (with the exception of a few enlightened atheists like themselves) have a fundamental need to create a God in our own image – that’s not what I mean. What I mean is that human beings seem to have a need to give name and form, out of our own limited vocabulary and experience, to the ineffable and unknowable. You know? And what we call God, and the stories we tell about God, are just our truest and best effort … but at the end of the day, we really have no idea what we’re talking about.” Here I might pause again, as my courage and my clarity fades. “But not really unknowable, you know … because isn’t it a paradox how … whatever it is we’re calling God … can be so intimately known and yet so unfathomably unknowable…?” And then I would probably fade off with a sort of anxious sigh and have trouble making eye contact with you.

(Which is all to say, I am now realizing, that Belief really is just the wrong word. Because it’s not so much that I don’t believe in that sort of God, as that I don’t experience God in that way. But I have no trouble believing that other people do experience God that way.)

But I do experience God, very much so. Indeed, if you had asked instead, “Do you experience God in your life?” my answer would be simple and straightforward and heartfelt: “Why yes, of course!” I might be brimming with stories to share about baking bread, or making beds and hanging laundry, or the satisfying, frustrating “quotidian mysteries”* of mothering and homemaking. I will definitely want to tell you all about the way the bread and the wine feel in my mouth at Mass at St. Vincent’s, and the way the sun glinted off the water during my last run by the river, and the way Julie’s descant floated above our heads during the hymn we sang at church last Sunday, and the color just under the skin of a peach when you’re canning, and the Psalm I’m praying these days, and what it means to begin letting go of being, quite literally, the center of my children’s universe. If I love and trust you, I might even tell you about how the awesome responsibility of mothering stretches me thin sometimes, and brings out my worst self; or about the shame I feel having just walked away from several communities I care so much about when poverty got too ugly and overwhelming; and about all the petty and jealous and snarky and bitter things that are inside me; and how impossible I would find it to just be me but for the grace of God’s love and forgiveness. But all of this will bring only a flush of pleasure – or at least relief -- to my cheeks, not the sort of anxious argument that a “Do you believe…” question raises.

Similarly, if you ask me whether I believe in the Resurrection, I will probably need to launch into a dissertation on what metaphor means to me (which is: everything; it is what makes us human; it does not merely explain our relationship with God, but IS the very substance of our relationship with God). I would further argue that if you have ever put the word “just” in front of the word “metaphor” in an effort to distinguish a metaphor from what is “real,” then you do not understand what I am talking about at all, and it will probably be unproductive for us to continue talking about whether I “believe” (“belief,” of course, being “just” a metaphor to me) in the Resurrection. But ask me whether I experience Resurrection, and again, the answer is simple: “Why yes, all the time, every new day. Let me tell you about some kids I knew once in a ghetto called Kensington. Oh! And Sr. Margaret McKenna and the recovery community of New Jerusalem. You can’t turn around without bumping into the resurrected Christ at New Jerusalem!”

Incarnation? Salvation? Lather, rinse, repeat. I can tell you story after story of my experience of all these things, but what do I believe? Really and truly believe?

I suppose there are a few things:

I believe that I am in need of love and forgiveness, that I am loved and forgiven by God, and that in God’s love and forgiveness there is salvation.

I believe that for me, God’s love, forgiveness and salvation flow through the historical figure of Jesus in a special and unique way. I believe that the story and Gospel of Jesus Christ is the most compelling way that I can connect my life to God. I believe there is no other figure, and no other story, that can help me so well to make meaning of the world and to live a good life in it. (I believe, if truth be told, that I’m a little bit of a Jesus freak. I’m really kind of crazy about Jesus.)

I believe there is a Spirit of some sort that I can’t name and don’t understand but that works in my life and connects me across time and space with other Christians as the Body of Christ, and with all other people of all other faiths, and of no faith at all, who strive to be part of and to share in the Goodness that is in the world.

Speaking of which, I believe in Goodness. I also believe in Evil, and Sin. I don’t believe that everything is relative (although I do believe that a lot of things are all sorts of shades of gray).

I believe that saying ancient words, telling ancient stories, participating in ancient rituals, and making a joyful sound (i.e. worship) are the fundamental ways that I encounter God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. I believe that something awesome and mystical happens in the Eucharist, even if I don’t have the foggiest notion what transubstantiation is all about.

I believe that if God is love, then Resurrection is hope, the Incarnation is a great, big, wonderfully messy scandal, and Salvation is a sigh of relief, and the reason to keep loving and hoping against all the odds. I believe that being the Body of Christ (that is, a co-conspirator in the big messy scandal of the Incarnation) is all about hospitality, which is where the rubber really hits the road, isn’t it?

And thus ends the first installment of my second blog series, on faith, which I’m calling “The Cost and Joy of Discipleship.” (Julie wanted me to work in "Aimlessness and Sin," but I’m just not that clever.) I’d love for this to be a conversation, and if anyone out there (all five of you! hi friends!) would like to share about your own faith, I’d love to have you as guest blogger. Just email me at marta dot bloem dot rose at gmail dot com.

*Kathleen Norris's influence on me and my faith cannot be overstated. This is a reference to her monograph, Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and Women's Work, which I love love love. Edited to add: Incarnation as scandal is also Norris's idea, not mine.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Shout Out: Radley Balko

Remember Eastern Hancock High School, where I taught for three years in uncomfortable undergarments? One of my more memorable and perplexing students was the skinny, red-headed Radley Balko: insanely bright, pretty lazy, smirky, snarky, ultra conservative, argumentative and highly opinionated.  He was one of those kids you don't forget, even if his name isn't Radley Balko.  I was his English teacher freshman year, and again his junior year for AP English, where I gave him a B for sheer laziness, even though he was by far the smartest kid in the class, the best thinker, and the best writer.  As I recall, he had the good sense not to argue with me about that, but he argued with me about just about everything else. One debate I recall vividly was about the death penalty:  Radley was outspokenly in favor of it, and, I believe, may have even cited the Bible (an eye for an eye) to support his argument (yes, Radley, I'm having fun at your expense).

So these days, Radley blogs at the libertarian blog The Agitator, which I've been reading fairly regularly for about a year now. He's also a senior editor at the libertarian rag reason. Among Radley's passions as an investigative journalist are criminal justice and helping to exonerate innocent folks on death row (yes, I'm trying very hard not to smirk). I'm happy to say that Radley has grown up to be insanely bright, hardworking, and only occasionally snarky (and then only when it is well deserved). Most of the time, though, I find him remarkably earnest and even a little bit sweet, and as for his political views, I only disagree with him about half the time, and I respect him all of the time.

Radley just published a disturbing, smoking-gun expose entitled Manufacturing Guilt? about two medical examiners in Mississippi who have apparently been manufacturing evidence that has landed at least several -- perhaps many more -- innocent men on death row. You should all head on over to reason and check it out. This is Radley at his best. (I'll warn you, the article contains some pretty gruesome images of an autopsy of a toddler.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Diary of a Mad Housewife: Nuts and Bolts

Hey thanks everyone! I am *loving* the comments. And gosh, thanks for all the kind words.

But first a note of welcome to newcomers: Jo, one of my all-time favorite housewives, has single-handedly increased my traffic by like ten times by mentioning our conversation on her real, live, grown-up blog, The Modernity Ward. Jo's was one of the very first blogs I ever read, and I will write an honest-to-goodness blog review soon, because I can't say every wonderful thing I want to say about Jo in a little aside in this post. But I did want to say "hi!" and welcome to all her readers who have stopped by today. I hope some of you will return. Maybe Jo and I (and Patrick, if he's up for it?) can do a little parallel blogging about housekeeping in the weeks to come!

But I think for now, enough of the Big Thoughts About Homemaking -- lets get down to the nitty-gritty. Here's a little housekeeping meme I'm totally making up. Feel free to paste it into the comments and answer it yourself.

What are your housekeeping routines, daily and weekly? How long do these chores take?

Daily morning chores, do or die (about one hour):
Pack three lunches and snacks
Make bed
Hang up and/or fold and put away clothes laying about from night before
Clean kitchen from breakfast and lunch making
Wipe down sink in bathroom and toilet if it's gross (we have a man on the land, you know)
Put in a load of laundry and/or hang one to dry
Tidy surfaces in the main living areas -- coffee table, dining room table, shoe rack, tops of bookshelves, cabinets, piano, etc.
Vacuum and/or mop if the floors are visibly dirty

Daily evening chores, do or die (about 30 minutes):
Clean kitchen
Wipe dining room table
Tidy surfaces in main living areas

Weekly Housekeeping (four to five hours, not including bills/paperwork):
Put away all playmobile, lincoln logs, cars, trucks, etc. that have been set up and Must Not Be Disturbed in the play room
Catch up on laundry, including bed linens and towels
Make beds
Clean kitchen, including fridge, tidy cabinets if they are a mess, wipe down outside of cabinets and appliances, mop floor
Scrub both bathrooms top to bottom
Tidy everywhere
Dust entire house
Vacuum/mop entire house
Paperwork, bills, kids school stuff, at least once a week, another hour or two

Do you do Spring and/or Fall Cleaning?

I have always wanted to have a real spring cleaning routine, but it always seemed futile.  With all the STUFF to sort through, it just never seemed possible to really do anything meaningful in a week, much less a couple of days.  This past year, though, I've sorted through almost every closet, drawer, box, file cabinet, bin and shelf in the whole house, and suddenly it feels like it might actually be worthwhile doing a deep cleaning.  Right now the week before Easter is on my calendar for spring cleaning -- seems like a great time to start fresh.

If you have kids, what chores do they do?

My almost 12 year old daughter Trixie cleans and dusts her own room weekly, collects and takes out the trash, puts away her laundry (I wash and fold), changes the cat box three to four times a week, feeds her cat daily, makes her bed daily, and clears her own dishes after each meal.

My 5 year old son Micah makes his bed, helps clean his room, helps clean the bathrooms, helps with vacuuming, and clears his own dishes after each meal.

What housekeeping chores do you most enjoy?

I love hanging laundry to dry (we don't have a dryer, just a couple of hanging racks in the laundry room and a line out on our tiny patio in the back). I find hanging laundry so aesthetically pleasing, I never ever tire of it.

Once when my brother and sister-in-law still lived in Philadelphia (*sigh*), I went to synagogue with them, and during the time in the service that's sort of the equivalent of "Passing the Peace" at my church, Claire (who has lived and studied a lot in France)(and who is, incidentally, a wonderful homemaker, on top of having a full-time, demanding, academic job as a French professor, and I have no idea how she does it, except that she does it with incredible grace)( and who is also one of my very favorite people in the whole wide world, but I digress...) -- Claire turned to hug me and exclaimed, "You smell like France!" We spent a long time trying to figure out what soap/lotion/perfume I was using that reminded her of France, and then she realized: "You're hanging your clothes to dry, aren't you? That's what it is!" There may not be anything better than the smell of clothes fresh off the line, especially when it's cold outside. Possibly not even the smell of a newborn baby's head, although that's pretty darn sweet too.

What are your least favorite housekeeping chores? How do you keep yourself disciplined about these? What do you do if you fall off the wagon?

I hate doing the dishes, and I REALLY hate putting the food away. Cleaning the kitchen is especially a challenge if Micah takes a long time to go to sleep, or I get caught up with the computer or a book, and it gets late. Evening chores in general are a plague to me, because I'm so not a night person. But the only thing worse than cleaning the kitchen at the end of the day is waking up to a dirty kitchen in the morning.

I used to be terrible about getting the kitchen clean in the evening, but it's really become a do or die chore for me.  The other day the dining room table was cleared, and I didn't have occasion to go back into the kitchen after I got Micah to bed, and I totally forgot to do the dishes.  In the morning, I was completely disgusted.  I guess I have turned over a new leaf.

I think the main reason it was so hard before and so possible now is that I have -- or at least I can have -- down time during the day.  When I was working outside the home and/or taking care of a baby/toddler all day, I was on total overload by the end of the day.  So wiped out, I guess, that on balance I needed to be done more than I needed to have a clean kitchen, no matter how disgusted I was in the morning.  Now, I can read, run, blog, even nap during the day if I need to.  I used to feel really guilty if I wasn't working at home pretty much the same hours that Julie was working at school, but that's sort of missing the point of having a life that doesn't have to be structured around a typical work day.  

When my housekeeping discipline fails, it's a sure sign that I'm not taking care of myself.  Taking good care of myself is the best way I know to take care of the house and my family.

What housekeeping chores do you find give you the most bang for your buck?

Making the bed is so easy, and goes such a long way to making a room feel neat.  

But the biggest bang for the buck is keeping surfaces clean.  If the surfaces are clear, the house feels clean, even if its not.  I love cleanliness, but in a pinch, the appearance of cleanliness will do.

Which chores can you let go in a pinch?

Well, I used to think that dusting and vacuuming were pretty optional, but lately I find that these chores give a lot of bang for the buck as well.   When the house is dusted and vacuumed, it's like someone turned the Technicolor on.  

I also feel fine letting the bed linens go for several weeks.  And if the mess is behind a closed door (closet, cabinet, etc.) it can wait in a pinch.

If you work outside the home (for pay or as a volunteer), do you pay to have someone help you with housework? 

I do not work outside the home anymore, although until last spring, I worked twenty to forty hours a week -- as a volunteer, and occasionally for pay -- for the previous four years.  Maybe because I wasn't getting paid for it, and because I was mostly working part time, I did not pay for help with housework.  It seemed self-indulgent (I was a "stay-at-home-mom" after all!), and we couldn't really afford it anyway.  But in retrospect, the housework -- and my mental health, and thus our family's well-being -- suffered.  If I ever work outside the home for more than twenty hours a week or so, I will definitely hire help.   It would just be part of the cost of having a job, as far as I am concerned.  I realize that for many families, even two-income families, paying for help is not possible, but personally I would sacrifice a lot of other stuff to make sure housework is taken seriously.

True confessions?

If you look close, my house is still pretty dirty.  I'm working on it, but it takes a lot of time to catch up.  I haven't gotten woodwork, walls, and windows into my routine yet, and sometimes I'm kind of grossed out when I look too closely.  All in good time.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Diary of a Mad Housewife: Interior Landscapes

For three years before we moved to Philadelphia, Julie and I lived in a spacious, two-bedroom apartment full of light on South 10th Street in Richmond, Indiana. Our landlord and downstairs neighbor was Jim Kennedy, who was a librarian at Earlham College, where we had just graduated a few years before. Jim was a quiet, elderly widower who had supervised me in my work-study job in the reference section of Lilly Library through most of college. Other than the fact that he played the tuba – all spring, it was Pomp and Circumstance – we barely knew he was there. We paid $230 a month, had free cable, and could walk to the Coachman, the gay bar on the Promenade, which we did every Thursday night to share a pitcher of bad beer and try not to talk about our students. We were both English teachers in rural high schools, and Richmond was not at all a logical place to live, but we had searched high and low for something more convenient to our work, and there was just nothing along Route 70 that we could bear.

So every morning, with coffee, cigarettes and pop-tarts in hand (ah, youth….), in our little red Chevette (not at all to be confused with Prince’s Little Red Corvette, although it is quite likely Prince was in the tape player on those rides to school), Julie would drive us thirty minutes west to Cambridge City, where she taught at Western Wayne High School. I would drop her off and continue on another thirty minutes to Eastern Hancock High School, where I taught. At the end of the day, which was often long and involved drama rehearsals after school for both of us, I would drive back to pick her up, and she would drive the remaining thirty minutes home. Without fail, as soon as we pulled out of her school’s parking lot, I would begin undressing – the panty-hose or tights would come off first, followed quickly by the bra. I was a veritable Houdini at discarding uncomfortable undergarments without actually taking off my outerwear first. This used to drive Julie crazy, as did my habit of ripping tags out of the backs of her tee-shirts, leaving a little hole in the crew neck. Before either of us had ever heard the term “sensory defensiveness” I just thought of myself as a little quirky. Julie was less charmed, especially when I was pulling a bra out of my sleeve a block from where she taught.

When Micah was a toddler and started having serious fits about things like “bubbles” in his socks, tags in his shirts, the “arm-pitty” feeling of multiple layers in the winter, and messy or sticky hands, I could empathize, bras and panty hose being just the tip of the iceberg. (The resurgence of hip-huggers has been a God-send to me, because I can’t stand anything around my waist. I love the idea of oatmeal, but the texture literally makes me gag. Ditto rice pudding, tapioca, and okra and eggplant if they are not cooked well. In the car, sometimes when the kids are bickering, and Julie is talking to me, and the radio is on, suddenly I HAVE TO TURN THE MUSIC OFF RIGHT NOW or my head will explode. Just for starters….). When Micah was about two and a half, I started doing a little research and discovered the term “sensory integration disorder.” As it turns out, SID does not describe Micah very well, nor me for that matter, but I learned some things about the various ways folks process sensory input that has helped me understand myself and Micah a lot better.

I would say that I am quite “sensory defensive,” meaning I have poor sensory filters, and am quite easily overloaded by all sorts of sensory input. Micah is similarly fine-tuned to sensory stimulation, but, with a few exceptions, is highly “sensory seeking,” which, for a musically gifted, highly kinetic five year old like Micah, involves a LOT of noise and movement. Micah is his own one-man, Bobby McFarrin-esque rhythm section, and quite talented too. But as you might imagine, all this tapping, pounding, humming, thumping, clicking and “beat boxing” (as we like to call the amazing combinations of sounds he can produce with his mouth, simultaneously and unconsciously) can be, well, a little overwhelming for a sensitive gal like me. (Add to this sensory overload the fact that Micah is an extreme extrovert who is still quite attached to my extremely introverted self, and rarely wants to be so much as one room away from me, and, well ….) Micah is an exquisitely hi-def boy in an analog world that will often misunderstand him, and it’s a blessing that I can empathize enough to understand his quirkiness and help him negotiate his way.

But it takes a toll. Before Micah arrived, I was pretty good at arranging my life around my “special needs,” and making sure that I didn’t get too over-stimulated. It used to annoy me that my house was often messy, and I certainly preferred when it stayed neat and clean, which was some but not all of the time. But when other things had my focus (a tendency to hyper-focus being another quality Micah and I share), housekeeping would often suffer. But I could generally manage. If I needed a calm place to relax and read or write or study, I would just clean one room and close the door. But it seems that there is some sensory input threshold past which my delicate self just can’t endure, and I think that Micah, exquisite and inescapable, pushed me through that threshold (I’m sure that peri-menopause plays a role in this drama as well). Which meant something else had to give. Housekeeping is no longer something I like to do when I have time, but an integral part of my mental health regime, and central to taking care of myself so that I can take care of my family.

My friend Patrick, who blogs at Loose Ends, recently wrote about how hard city life is on his brain, and how important time in nature is to his mental health. In a post titled Resting My Brain, Patrick summarized some research suggesting that the particular sensory stimulation of an urban landscape, as opposed to a more natural one, can be really hard on the human brain. It seems to me that there is plenty of sensory stimulation going on in nature – every bit as much as in an urban landscape – but it also makes a lot of sense to me that nature’s sense of design is one that our human brains – even brains like mine and Micah’s -- have evolved to find calming, and not too over-stimulating. But just as a chaotic, messy urban landscape can be jarring and harsh on a sensitive brain, I’m finding that so too can a chaotic, messy interior landscape. The research Patrick summarized got me wondering what an era of over-crowded, messy houses is doing to our collective brains. Urban landscapes have been with us for a very long time, but until recently most people lived in rural areas with access to natural landscapes, and most people had much simpler and calmer lives inside the doors of their homes. We now live in an era when many more folks live in cities, consumption and the accumulation of stuff is our patriotic duty, and housekeeping, if we attend to it at all, is certainly no longer a respected art; now our interior landscapes – in our homes, and, I suspect, in our brains -- are just as crowded and cluttered as the most busy city street, with no natural or calm oasis in sight. Knowing the toll such chaos takes on me and my family, I just can’t help but wonder about the collective effect of all that chaos and mess, inside and out.

We’re really fortunate that we don’t need a second income and that I love homemaking – a combination that I recognize is quite rare these days. But our current solution is hardly the only way to take housekeeping seriously. I’m intrigued by the diverse ways that folks I know create oases of calm and order for themselves and their families, and I’m hoping to feature some of them and how they make it work in future posts. Do you like to think and talk about housekeeping? Is it something that matters to you, and that you approach with seriousness and discipline? Or, is it something that matters to you, but you just can’t figure out how to make it work? I’d love to hear from you!