December 3, 2014

If It Looks Like Work I Tend to Avoid It

I ought to have majored in home economics. Not that there was any such thing by the mid-1980's when I was a university student. What self-respecting young, urban woman growing up in the age of bringing home the bacon would opt for classes in frying it up in a pan? Not I, surely.

I grew up believing my self-actualization depended on a professional career. My talent as a student prompted the frequent query, "Are you going to go to medical school?" notwithstanding my aversions to bodily fluids, hospitals, and science classes. A lawyer, maybe? Given my affection for school, I declared I would be a teacher and got an English degree as a down-payment on my future.

But what I really wanted to be, always wanted to be, was a homemaker. I am an old-fashioned soul and I aspired to an old-fashioned life. I wanted to be a wife and a mother more than anything else. My true disposition was obvious not least in the bent of my girlhood play -- baby dolls, tea sets, Mother's Helper, and Mystery Date.

In time I married my mystery date, replaced my baby dolls with babies, and became the mother in need of some help. Nothing in my education had prepared me for my vocation.

My own mother was a model housekeeper, her skills the bitter fruit of a neglected childhood governed by two blue collar parents who spent long hours at work and left the upkeep of the home to their competent only child. My mother knew how to do everything, and the way she did everything was the right and only way to do it. She didn't delegate.

My mother's house, even in her days as a divorcee raising three little girls and working full-time, was neat as a pin and clean as a whistle. No one ever wanted for fresh underwear or a warm meal. Order was a given. I, meanwhile, left for college never having washed a load of laundry in spite of being the oldest daughter and a latch-key kid from the age of ten.

As a new wife I knew the standard, but I had no idea how to achieve it. I was born with less than a full measure of my mother's tireless discipline. I recognized early in my married life that I could neglect the weekly cleaning I had assigned to myself and nothing happened. Yes, the mess continued to accumulate, but the authorities did not come to my house to inspect and find me unworthy. This was a problem.

My housekeeping style developed into a pattern of obsessive fits and failed starts. Not unlike my other attempts at establishing self-discipline -- around eating and exercise, for instance -- my efforts at keeping a clean and tidy house were characterized by enthusiastic bursts of perfectionistic excess which flamed out into the ashes of martyred defeat. No one was impressed with my sparkling toilet bowls or homemade vegetarian goulash. If I wanted accolades, I realized, I should have gone to medical school.

I had not learned to appreciate work for its own sake.

I'm naturally inclined to sloth. If it looks like work, I tend to avoid it. On this basis, I had clearly chosen the wrong career. My education lacked as much in inculcating the value of hard and thankless labor as it did in cooking, cleaning, and sewing instruction.

I would like to say that the recent accumulation of dirt in my house is the result of my four months of incapacitation. That would not be true. Rather, I had allowed a not-insignificant layer of grime and clutter to take hold while I was fully able-bodied.

It is also true that when I reclaimed my kitchen, I saw that I am a better housekeeper than I had realized. There are many little things I do in tandem with cooking and dish washing that had not been done. At all. In a long time. I was simultaneously horrified and gratified. My kitchen still needed me.

Working around the house has taken on a new luster. Sitting immobilized in a chair watching others do one's work focuses one's attention. I wanted to clean my own bathrooms. I longed to chop a carrot or wash my own dishes.

Yesterday, for the first time in months, I cleaned my own shower. I am able once again to get on my hands and knees and get back up as many times as I want. My shower is clean. I dusted and moved clutter from place to place and swept and whatnot for several hours. A little voice inside of me said what I have been reluctant to concede, You like this.

I do?

You do.

This little truth had sneaked in when I wasn't looking. Hard work is satisfying, dare I say fun? There's not a lot to think about, so I can pray or allow my mind to wander or tune in to endless Fresh Air podcasts through the Bluetooth. I'm doing my duty in accord with my vocation; washing a dish or sweeping a floor is always in keeping with God's will for me. True, the work is never done, and that does rile my perfectionism, but if I can accept the inherent pleasure in it, its undoneness can become a feature.

The next time I face a task that looks like work, I expect that the spirit of avoidance will loom before me. I know its voice: You don't want to do that. It's going to take forever. You're too smart to be doing something so menial. But I plan to roll up my sleeves, queue up Terry Gross, and remember that this work is God's Yes to my girlhood prayers.

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