The daily routine of most adults is so heavy and artificial that we are closed off to much of the world. We have to do this in order to get our work done. I think one purpose of art is to get us out of those routines. When we hear music or poetry or stories, the world opens up again.
Writer Ursula Le Guin wrote these words; I made a note of them because they resonated with me for years. I often felt little patience for the humdrum duties of daily life: walking and feeding dogs, cooking, cleaning, shopping, dusting, filling up birdfeeders, emptying dehumidifier in the basement, making beds, etc.
I have 1-2 wealthy friends who wax eloquent about creativity, their ability to do their artistic work for many hours during the day, and the rich, endless possibilities of following your calling. I think of writers who boast of writing 8 hours a day. You probably have a wife, I think to myself. Or you can afford to hire other people to take care of you, or at least to do the tasks that need to get done that you don’t want to do.
Bernie was pretty old-fashioned when it came to husbands, wives, and home. He offered to cook twice a week, but his meal options were few and consisted mostly of red meat, so after a while (I eat what I‘m given!) I took over the cooking. Similarly, I did most of the shopping, supervised cleaning, did laundry, the bookkeeping, and took care of dogs.
Indignation was of no avail. If he finally agreed to take over the bookkeeping, I’d find six months of bank and credit card statements on his desk, unopened. His solution for cooking was for us to eat out daily, which I rejected. After he turned 70 and Zen Peacemakers no longer owned the Farm, which had been a big burden for him, he clearly had much more leisure time than I did.
I grew accustomed to pining after less housework, dog care, and food preparation. Like those wealthy friends, I wanted to let the Muse have her way with me, where all I am is an unadulterated channel for whatever She sends my way, uninterrupted by the bing! of a kitchen timer, by Henry bringing a ball to play for the 80th time that morning, or a car that needs to be cleaned and washed.
I think of stories, like George Handel writing his Messiah in 24 days, weeping as the glorious notes fell from heaven dew-like, or the many creative types who say: I didn’t do this, it just came through me, know what I mean?
I think I do. But as the great Zen Master Eihei Dogen wrote in a famous fascicle, And there are further implications.
Recently, however, I notice that there is actually housekeeping work I enjoy doing. For example: laundry day, which is usually Wednesday. I strip the bed, collect towels, take things downstairs, pick up tablecloth and napkins from dining room enroute, and kitchen towel from the kitchen. Then my eyes scan Aussie’s various beds: The red couch cover in the living room? The small blue wool blanket someone had given her draped over the seat of the recliner? The sheet hanging over the futon in my office? Aussie has lots of beds. The blanket on the backseat of the car?
I actually like layering them inside the washing machine; I LOVE to hang them up on the outside lines during summer or else on the basement lines the rest of the year.
I enjoy sweeping. Not vacuuming, sweeping. Maybe because I hope that one day a splinter of marrow bone will jump in the air, hit a dresser, and I will have an enlightenment experience; an equivalent has happened to one of the Zen ancestors. But I think it’s more that I just like to sweep. I like the arm motions, enjoy seeing the dust and dirt collected in one or two spot, at which point I step back, shake my head, and say accusingly: “How come this house gets so dirty?” Aussie just walks off, tail doing its helicopter thing.
I like to roll the trash barrel up the driveway and put it alongside the blue glass/plastic and paper bins already waiting out on the road for collection early Tuesday mornings, and I love to return them by the end of Tuesday to their respective perches inside the garage. We got rid of a load; now we begin again. There’s a sense of following ancient rules, of turning the page, going back to scratch.
I’m well aware that for parents with young children, or those of us doing caregiving, just keeping up with the most minimal housework is a big challenge.
But I experience these things differently now. For years I was locked in by the entrenched idea that I didn’t like housework and was doing it under duress. Now I look back and shake my head. Who did I think I was? Was I really beyond the necessity of taking care of myself, body, food, home?
I am now aware that I really like putting flowers on Buddhist altars (I have five), monthly cleaning of my excellent 8-year-old coffee machine, emptying the dishwasher. I feel lucky I can do them, participate in my upkeep, keep my miniscule corner of the universe dust-free and clean. That’s the practice of this householder: Use what I need, dust or wash, put back in its place. Use what I need, dust or wash, put back in its place.