Jonathan’s post got me thinking about housework again.
My family has a heritage of domestic help. My great-grandmother had nannies, and servants. However, she loved to cook and was apparently very good at it. Her kitchen was equipped with a special sink with a cover, where she could put vegetable peelings and dirty dishes to await a servant who would come along after she was finished and clean up the mess. My grandmother had a cleaning lady and so did my Mom. In fact, I never really learned how to clean house while living in my parent’s home — I was only taught how to prepare for the cleaning lady to come. Things had to be removed off your dresser so the cleaning lady could dust, and under your bed had to be tidy so the cleaning lady could vacuum. This was not very demanding work. The cleaning lady seemed nice but quiet — she was from Yugoslavia and spoke a small amount of English.
I am breaking with my family tradition of having household help, and not simply because of budgetary constraints.
There is a part of me that bristles at the Martha Cannon quote that Jonathan cites. I am well-educated and have aspirations beyond a clean toilet. Yet I have concerns about the idea that there is any type of work that is unworthy of me, and is more suited for someone else who is somehow “lesser than me”. Such a statement smacks of pride and elitism.
Brigham Young wrote, “To serve the classes that are living on them, the poor, the laboring men and women are toiling, working their lives out to earn that which will keep a little life in them. Is this equality? No! What is going to be done? The Latter-Day Saints will never accomplish their mission until this inequality shall cease on the earth.”(JD 19:47)
Or in the words of Hugh Nibley –“Somebody always pays for the lunch, and it is obvious that some people eat a lot of lunches they don’t pay for, while a lot of others pay for a lot of lunches they never eat.” (Approaching Zion, “But What Kind of Work, p. 252).
Is it important to still engage in work that we might perceive as drudgery? The answer for myself is yes. I know many individuals who don’t like housework or think it is beneath them — yet I still find value in it and have incorporated it into my spiritual practice. By taking care of this aspect of my stewardship, I doubt that I am wasting my talents in the cauldron of modern nothingness.
Please don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of days I don’t want to wash dishes again, do laundry again, or wash the kitchen floor again. And as my family matures this becomes less and less of my work. But housework is generally no longer my enemy. My perception changed greatly several years ago after reading an essay by Kamala Masters called, “Just Washing Dishes”. Masters is a Buddhist woman whose main emphasis is on metta or loving-kindness practice.
At a time in her life when she was over-whelmed by the responsibilities of raising young children, her spiritual teacher taught her about how much freedom and happiness there can be in the simplicity of being present with whatever is happening and how this could uncover deeper truths. He stood beside her at the kitchen sink and gave her a dharma talk that changed her life.
He said, “Have a general awareness of just washing the dishes, the movement of your hands, the warmth or coolness of the water, picking a dish up, soaping it, rinsing it, putting it down. Nothing else is happening now — just washing the dishes.” Then he told me to experience my posture, or just notice that the process of seeing was happening. He said that I didn’t need to go slow, or to observe everything moment-by-moment, but that I should have a general mindfulness of whatever was happening as I washed the dishes. “Just washing dishes”
…So I continued, just washing dishes. Once in awhile Munindraji would ask me, “What is happening now?” When I replied, “Now I’m worried about paying the mortgage”, he would further instruct, “Just notice, ‘worried’ and bring your attention back to washing dishes.” When I told him, “I’m planning what to cook for dinner.” He repeated, “Just notice, ‘planning’ because that’s what is in the present moment, and then return to just washing the dishes.”
Learning something from his sincerity, I practiced earnestly as I washed the dishes many times a day… Doing this ordinary task with intentional mindfulness has helped me notice and experience many things more clearly: the changing physical sensations, the flow of thoughts and emotions, and my surrounding environment are all much more alive … To do this has required me to develop more perseverance, patience, humility, clear intention, honesty with myself and much more. These are no small things. Just from washing dishes! So day by day, dish by dish, a lot of the training of the mind and heart can be accomplished.
Adam and Eve were invited to work even before the Fall — dress this garden, take care of it, have joy in it. I prefer a model like Scott and Helen Nearing who were devoted to a lifestyle that emphasized the importance to work, on the one hand, and contemplation or play, on the other. Is there work that is unworthy of me? I hope not. Instead, I have hope that all my work is worthy of me, that all work can move me on my spiritual path, that all work can advance me as I live this “protracted gleam called life”.