Monday, December 5, 2011

Keeping House Book Study: Chapter Three

(vintage kitchen by janet hill)

We are on Chapter Three of Keeping House:  A Litany of Everyday Life.  

I like the way Margaret Peterson takes a theme and carries it through with a series of reflections on different aspects.  Here in chapter 3, she discusses "Sheltering a Household."    I almost wish I had scheduled two weeks to discuss this chapter because there is so much to think about.  

I put some thought questions after every item.  They are not obligatory, obviously; I just want to be able to come back to this part of the book and think about the questions it raises for me.   I think it's good to really think through our household arrangements, say, once or twice a year or perhaps every couple of years, and so this chapter seems helpful to me in getting at what keeping house is really about. 

1.  Idea of the Dream House.

Part of the American dream seems to be the idea of a "dream house", a spacious, elegant, low-maintenance place where we can enjoy all the comforts of life.  Mrs Peterson suggests that this dream may distract us from the reality of many who have no home at all.  It also may keep us from putting heart into the less-than-ideal home we actually have. 

I can see another side, though, where a dream might work like a vision and help keep our imaginations interacting with the homes we actually have.  Sometimes after I have thought about my dream, my creativity wakes up and I actually make some good changes that affect my real home for the better.

Do you have a "dream house" in your imagination?  Does the dream help you live better, or does it make you discontent and withdrawn from your actual house? 

2.   The Structure of Our Home

How our home is constructed does matter.  For example, she says, many new houses are built with an open kitchen/great room area dominated by a blank wall where a huge entertainment center is meant to be set.   With this arrangement, it seems all too easy to have our family life dominated by TV and the media.

The neighborhood also matters.   Everyone has seen gated communities filled with big enclosed houses where it is obvious there is no real community -- that people spend very little time at home and when they are at home, want to keep to themselves.

These types of things might be considerations when we are looking for a house.  If we already have one, we still have a lot of control over how we live in it.  We don't HAVE to put a huge TV in front of that blank wall -- we could hang family pictures or have a huge bookshelf or board-game center.

What is the structure of your house meant to encourage?  Does it fit your family's values?  Is there any way to make it fit more closely?  

3.  The Size of Our Home

Everyone thinks their home is too small.   Except me.   But I have a big house and with only five people left, it feels like living in an empty lodge.    Everyone thinks they have too little storage space.   Members of our society  tend to accumulate too much stuff and hesitate to let any of it go.  I've gotten MUCH better about this through the past 10 years.  
"The premise of our culture is that limits are not compatible with either creativity or contentment. Christian tradition, on the other hand, has been inclined to see limits as a necessary component of human flourishing."
This seems like a good point.  I'm never so unhappy as when I have too much freedom -- or perhaps, to put it another way -- too few boundaries and parameters.   An opening up of possibilities at first is a rush, and then a burden.

How do the boundaries and limits of your life help foster contentment and creativity?  Have you ever found satisfaction in making do with what you have,  or repurposing in a creative way?  

4.  Beauty in the Home

It's not necessary to have a house decorator or access to glamorous stores and catalogs in order to nurture beauty in your home.  And Margaret Peterson does think cultivating beauty is an important part of keeping house.   She recommends paint as a frugal, simple way of making the house more lovely.   My daughter is very good at adding little decorative touches to a corner or room -- a flower, a bit of lace, a carefully placed ornament.    I tend to like the beauty of clean lines .

What is your idea of beauty in a home?  Does it fit your own style;  is it left over from your childhood or shaped by glamorous magazines?   

5.  Space and How to Use It

Mrs Peterson says we can think about what we want to happen in our house, what we want our life to be like within its walls, and then arrange our house to make those things more possible and likely.   For example, when my husband and I thought about house design (we had our house built about 15 years ago) we wanted a great central open area with a fireplace right in the middle of things so we could gather easily in the heart of the home.  We also wanted a lot of little nooks and crannies so our introverts could always find a little quiet and privacy, so we had window seats and various corners set up for that reason.  We wanted our own bedroom large to give enough room for our babies to sleep close to us.

We wanted a family room where we could relax, and where we'd have enough room for homeschool projects and bookshelves and the like,  but we didn't want it altogether separate from the rest of the house, so we made a loft/schoolroom.   The children had smaller rooms that they shared (except for my only daughter, who has a tiny room of her very own) because we didn't want their rooms to be like kingdoms with endless space for toys and excess clothes.  We wanted it just large enough so they would have a few things for themselves and then most of the toys and books could be in central locations.

How does your house use space?  Is there any way you can make the spaces in your household work better for you?  

6.  A Room of One's Own

Peterson suggests that the homemaker really deserves and needs a space of her own -- if not a room, at least a small corner or craft center or desk -- anyway, a somewhat private and personal space.   In my case, our master bedroom walk in closet is devoted to homeschool supplies and "my" books and things.  My husband and I don't have many clothes so we really didn't need a walk-in closet.   I've also sometimes had a desk of my own in the loft, when I needed to keep an eye on the babies and toddlers.   Now I usually sit in my room or in front of the fireplace.

Do you have a personal space (even if it is sometimes shared with toddlers or teens who want to hang out with you?)  What do you do in this space?  Is there a way to make it more suitable to your own interests and talents?  

7.  Beware of Too Many Masterpieces

This is correlated with the idea of "too much stuff".  It's better to have one special thing (not necessarily an expensive item, just something unique or significant) as a focal point in a room, not a huge jumble.  If you do have a bunch of things to showcase, it's probably better to have a "theme" to organize the display -- my mother in law likes collecting, but she collects in "themes" (like figurines of elephants) so there is visual unity in her displays.    She also has a large collection of vintage family photographs on one wall.  So her house is full of fascinating things to look at, but they don't strike the eye as a jumble because of the way she places them.

Would taking away some things make what is left more meaningful?    Is there any way you can group your treasures to give them a more unified effect?  

8.  A Place for Everything

When you start running out of room, discard a few things or don't buy anything new.   People are finite, she says -- there is a limit to what they can manage and enjoy.   Personally, when I stopped thinking of myself as a curator of possessions and started thinking of myself as someone who does better making do with a few things, I gained so much freedom.   I realized it was more trouble for me to organize and keep track of a non-essential thing I used perhaps a couple of times a year, than to just make do without it.    Others may be more gifted in curatorship than I am, and more capable of ordering and maintaining large amounts of "things".

Do you feel overwhelmed by your things?   Does it take a lot of time and energy to find things, or to dig them out of their storage to use them, or to put them away?  Is there any way to simplify?  

9.  Cleanliness and Godliness?

Here's a bit of perspective for those of us who feel that if people can't eat off our floors, we are failures in housekeeping!   I think this was HUGE with me in my younger days and I am afraid I neglected the other creative parts of housekeeping because I was pursuing a sort of (vain) vision of an immaculate, perfectly ordered house.   Margaret Peterson says that while it's true that cleanliness (purity) and order are identified with righteousness in Scriptures, they only became basically synonymous in the 19th century.   There was a new awareness of the importance of hygiene in medical treatment, and this carried over almost to an obsession with cleanliness as something that divided the cultured class from the disadvantaged class.

I noticed this when I read a book my father wrote about tuberculosis in Alaska.  He quoted many primary sources and it was amazing how often white people would come into Native environments and start scrubbing and disinfecting.   It almost came across as an act of aggression.  Not that cleanliness isn't a good thing, but it's not necessarily identical with righteousness and superiority.

Because cleanliness is symbolic to many people, how clean the house should be seems to be at the bottom of many housekeeping disagreements.   The one with the highest standards, for some reason, seems to be the one who stands on the moral high ground.  You get lots of cleaning-related power plays, from the housekeeper who feels superior to others because her house is cleaner, to the wife and mother who scolds her family because they don't care as much about order and cleanliness as she does.   I certainly don't have any answers here.   I was going to say I don't care much about cleanliness, but in fact I do -- I don't like filth and germs much.   But I am not particularly attached to the LOOK of cleanliness -- a little bit of dust on the windowsills or crumbs on the floor doesn't really bother me much because it doesn't seem dangerous to me.  However, a clean appearance is important to me for appearance's sake -- in that I feel embarrassed if someone comes over to my house and there are crumbs on the floor or a smudgy counter.   I think that is why I have such an ambivalent relationship to housekeeping.   I realize that it's not really a virtue to care for appearances, but at the same time I guess I am intrinsically comfortable with a certain level of messiness so if it weren't for appearances, and a fear of getting too comfortable with disorder, I would be happy with that.

How clean does a house need to be?  What areas are most important to maintain (perhaps bathrooms and kitchens? and entryways?)   What's the balance between your own time and energy, what allows your family to thrive, and what is appropriate for welcoming others into your home?  

10.  The Value of Space

Wrapping up here -- Mrs Peterson suggests that space is worth at least as much as stuff.    I mentioned how I had changed my views on this during my married life.  I used to collect "just in case".  It's easy even for people with low incomes to collect a lot of pretty good but not necessary stuff.   I've walked out of thrift stores with a box of fairly good childrens' picture books for $5 or less.

In order not to burden myself with "just in case" things, for me, meant assigning a positive value to emptiness and trying to ensure that drawers were not stuffed to capacity, bookshelves not double-stacked, parts of the walls left clean and empty.   I admit it was way harder when we lived in a tiny, tiny house, but I still think that having some clear empty spaces and surfaces really soothes and blesses the spirit.   If you do have to stock a house almost to the brim, the second best is to have it beautifully and meticulously arranged, but if all that stuff is actually being used, especially by children who can't arrange cupboards like 3D jigsaw puzzles with every piece nested in proper order, then face it -- you will have a lot of trouble using all that stuff AND keeping it from swamping every available space in your house.

Looking at space as a positive value, are there any things around that just clutter up the space and don't add much?  


From now on in this study I am going to try to think of something to actually DO as well as think about.   Now that we are getting into the more concrete part of the book (and getting well into Advent, where I like to try to make some changes and resolutions) it seems like a good time. 

So for this week I'm going to try her suggestion of thinking about what I want to see happen in my house, and then working backwards in imagination to what should be there (and what should NOT be there) in order to make those things more likely to happen.    I would like to think through her ideas about beauty, space, structure, cleanliness and so on, and try to see what in our house is not quite working for our family goals, and what could be improved.

I suppose in a way this connects to the litany idea.  Surely there is a sort of household "litany" of things I really want to see increase and bear fruit in my home -- things like good eating, prayer, reading, quiet study, teamwork, creative projects, and conversation.   There are also things I might not care so much about but that are important to my family.   For instance, though I'm not much of a movie-watcher, my husband loves movie-watching, and it has become a family type activity.   So then it's a matter of arranging household time and space around things that are important to my family and in general, that promote the common good.


  1. I am really enjoying this series. It is very closely along the lines of what I'm exploring in my own home. The book I am reading is specifically about home design (the Meghan Method), but a huge chunk of the book is helping you come up with a vision of what you want which involves deciding what you want to do in your space. I do like how she explains the nuts and bolts of how various design elements work to create the feeling you want. For instance, talking about "balance" in arranging furniture and possessions, how your fight or flight instincts work to make you feel uncomfortable in a space that feels off balance but calm in a space that is. Anyway, I've been trying to reflect on this highly secular book in a more spiritual way (thus modifying her ideas to fit our lifestyle), and your reflections have been very timely for me! I always enjoy your thoughts, and I definitely think of you as "reflecting" rather than "intellectualizing."

  2. Thanks for the great book recommendation, Willa! I was surprised to find it is a recent book -- as is evidenced by her talk of electronic entertainment. I have all sorts of swirly ideas running around in my head - I am definitely a 'tidy, but not germ-free' person, abhor blankness, but love clean slates. Your house design sounds ideal to me except for the loft (unless you've got an elevator?)

  3. Lindsay, I am glad you are reading! I will have to check out that book you mentioned.

    Carolyn, no elevator. My kids have experimented with basket lifts over the years but nothing bigger than an beanie baby has been safety-tested : ).

  4. I live in a small house with a large-ish family, so I found this chapter very comforting. It's good to be reminded that "enough is as good as a feast".

  5. I love the way you've described your spaces -- the large central space for the whole family, the school space that's not too secluded, and the smaller, cozier spaces for the introverts.

    I do have a dream house. I've told my husband before that if we ever do build our dream house I'm going to build a kitchen/keeping room first and if there's any money left over we can add other rooms. ;-)

  6. There really was so much to think about in this chapter! I wish I had more time to explore all those areas you brought out. I will definitely have to revisit this chapter during a quieter time of the year.

  7. The parts of this chapter that struck me were:

    "It means taking material things seriously enough to be wiling to get rid of them or to decline to acquire them in the first place."


    "But if there are places to put things and it is simple and convenient to put them there, then picking up the house becomes a kind of active meditation..."

    I think there is a lot of value in these ideas.
    I'm afraid of the next chapter (clothes) because that's where I struggle most with getting rid of and declining to acquire more!
    It is about being mindful, about understanding our behavior and motivations in acquiring and keeping stuff.

    It is so true that I really don't mind tidying up when it is simply a matter of putting things away. It is the decisions about what to do with the items that don't have a home or a purpose that are stressful and cause procrastination instead of tidying!


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!