Monday, November 28, 2011

Keeping House Book Study: Chapter Two

(vintage kitchen by janet hill)

We are on Chapter Two of Keeping House:  A Litany of Everyday Life:  A Place to Live.

I will try to keep this short since probably everyone is cleaning up after Thanksgiving.  But doesn't it seem timely to discuss A Place to Live just as many of us have spent this holiday getting together with our families of origin?

Home is at least two things, to us as Christians and indeed, as human beings.  In this chapter Mrs Peterson explores these two different aspects.   Home is a promise, a prophecy.  God often talks about His plans for us in terms of an eternal home.   Many Christian writers have emphasized the pilgrim aspect of our life on earth -- we are on a journey.   We should not stop and rest too soon.   St Augustine talks about this in On Christian Doctrine

Suppose, then, we were wanderers in a strange country, and could not live happily away from our fatherland, and that we felt wretched in our wandering, and wishing to put an end to our misery, determined to return home. We find, however, that we must make use of some mode of conveyance, either by land or water, in order to reach that fatherland where our enjoyment is to commence. But the beauty of the country through which we pass, and the very pleasure of the motion, charm our hearts, and turning these things which we ought to use into objects of enjoyment, we become unwilling to hasten the end of our journey; and becoming engrossed in a factitious delight, our thoughts are diverted from that home whose delights would make us truly happy.

But home is also a present reality, according to Mrs Peterson.  

But home is not just an eschatological expectation, not just an existential category, not just the object of our deepest longing. Home is a practical, daily reality. Even resident aliens need a place to cook and eat their meals, to put away their clothes, to lie down to sleep at night and wake up in the morning. Scripture suggests that God cares about those things.They are, or at least they can be, part of the day-to-day working out of God’s redemptive activity in the lives of individuals and in the world.
 The book asks a series of questions which I will list, with summaries of the answers in the book.

What is a home?

  Because the outside world is hard and standardized, home has become a place of relaxation, a place to express individuality.    But it can also be such things as an inn (to welcome others), a sanctuary (a holy place, a set apart place), a castle (to protect its inhabitants from danger), and a city (a microcosm of society, where people learn to work together in individual ways)

Who makes a home?  

Historically, people often left their families of origin only when they began a family of their own.  Nowadays, adult children often move out long before they marry (though I have read things that suggest, sometimes deplore, that this is changing nowadays with changing economics).  The book describes the various ways that people creatively form households apart from married life.  One example in my life is my three boys up in Oregon.  I like that they are able to live independently but still within a family context.

Whose job is housework? 

Housework is necessary -- it has to be done, or its absence is deeply felt.  You can't live well without housework getting done.  Nowadays we tend to want to hand it to someone else, usually someone less highly educated than we are.   But perhaps this isn't the only or best way.    Keeping house is necessary and important, and it has advantages in keeping a natural life rhythm that we can easily forsake with our modern post-industrial dynamic.    Hardly anyone lives close to the land anymore, so perhaps keeping house is one of the last realms of living by human, natural rhythms and seasons.

The general idea is that we shouldn't try to simply hand it off to an inferior -- we may delegate for various reasons, but not because it's not worth time or effort, or because we think others are better suited to meaningless drudgery than we are.  

What are the characteristics of housework?

Housework doesn't have to be perfect.  Our mythology demands some impossibly high standard, with cute Disney birds and squirrels coming in to help us scrub everything to shining perfection.  But real housework isn't like that. 

Housework is:

Work.   There are no magic wands.   Sure, there are household appliances, but those can't replace our input altogether.   Generally those helps only change the nature of the work, not the fact that it is still work. 

Creative -- yes, even the janitorial part, she says.   In echo of God, we bring order out of chaos, even when putting away the scattered toys or scrubbing the bathroom.  Lack of housework is entropy, and we work in opposition to that.

Productive -- whether paid or not, it has to be done, and is for that reason a worthwhile contribution.

Providential -- as the universe requires God's continuing to keep it in existence, so we keep our household status in existence.

Incarnational -- we are all in danger of "hearing and not doing" (I know I am).  God gets involved in daily, mundane realities.   This is our role, too

Physical.  One complaint about housework is its menial nature, but this is its very glory.   God came to earth as a worker.   He gave us bodies.   His creation is very physical.    Daily reminders of this are blessings, bringing us closer to the realities of things that we might be tempted to ignore. 

Sacramental -- material and spiritual things come together in a sacrament.    Material things come to signify spiritual realities.

Imperfect -- yes, this is not our final home.  We live in a broken world.  Our houses will reflect that, but also hopefully reflect our efforts to "transform yourselves with the renewal of your mind."

Sabbath-oriented.   There is never a ceasing in the need for work.  Yet, God rested, and we are required to rest from our labors and allow others to rest, too.  This is set very deeply in the stone tablets of our Law.  Just because work never seems to end, we are tempted to let it consume our lives, but this is very definitely a temptation, not a virtue.  The traditional vice of acedia or sloth included overwork as well as idleness.

We must let others rest, too.  The woman who works all week outside the home and comes home and starts her second and weekend shift catching up with the housework is unjustly treated, either by herself or those around her who expect that of her.     

This brings up one more thing that I wanted to mention though it is not in the book.  I read a lot of  British Victorian novels about people who live in the upper class.   Before household appliances, most educated people had servants to do a lot of the heavy housecleaning.  In fact, one reason for opposition to universal education was that it would make the servant class discontented with their lot.   There is way more to be said here, but I notice that even during those days, having servants by no means meant the leisured class were best off leading an idle life.  Most of the books I read contrast the industrious gentlefolk -- who managed their households, enriched the lives of the servants, gave opportunities to their relatives and others less fortunate, and helped the poor -- with the idle gentlefolk, who wasted their substance, mistreated their workers, and ignored the needs of those around them.  

So their duty of "keeping house" remained and the responsibility even increased with the upper class.  It did not work this way in practice, and there were many injustices, but this points out that household management is pretty much a universal duty in one way or other, whether it is done badly or well.    We will ALL be called up to account for what we were given and what we did with it.


  1. I'm behind on my reading! I'll carve out some time today to read and write on this!

  2. The movement of house from workplace to refuge is key to understanding part of this, especially since it isolated housework from the family's income-producing work. Now many of us disdain housework, and here's my favorite quote from this chapter: "It is a small step from regarding the work as contemptible to regarding the worker as contemptible."

  3. I made it. :)

    Great summary post, Willa! I'm still chewing a bit on the Sabbath part. We recently did a short study on Sabbath in our Bible study, and I have a hard time reconciling rest and the Sabbath being a feast day as a homemaker. One single young man in the group commented, "Well, you don't do your normal work, but you do still have to make life happen." I, slightly exasperated, exclaimed, "But making life happen *is* what I do every day!" While it was an exasperated statement at the time, I actually have enjoyed using that tagline in my head: "I make life happen." That's pretty cool, really, even if I have to do it on Sundays, too. :)

  4. Hmm, I like how your post ends on a very Advent-y note!

  5. Finally wrote something, though it is rather meandering and vague!


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!