Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Laundry and Home Making

This morning I read “Cabin Fever” by Ken Gordon in the current issue of Poets & Writers. He wrote about the way some American writers have yearned for, and created, cabins to write in and to write about. Thoreau is the obvious first example, but there are many others.

The piece caused me to recall the sense of wonder I felt the first time I visited the re-constructed log cabin just behind the home of David and Elsie Kline. I immediately felt as if I was “coming home” in this writerly atmosphere. It seemed almost contrived in its random collection of books stacked on top of an old dry sink. There were snowshoes hanging on the wall along with old farm implements. There was a woodstove, of course, worn rugs, a rocking chair and a writing table (not a desk, mind you) in front of a double-hung window with the required number of panes. The single room contained an old iron bed covered with a handmade quilt. There was a loft with a ladder for access. For months afterward I longed for such a space of my own.

I still wish for it sometimes, but like Ken Gordon, I’ve come to accept the fact I’ll likely find my own space in something less taxing to my physical energy—since it’s a fact that these writer cabins are nearly always built by their writer-owners who are men in their prime with skills I don’t have—nor aspire to. (I do know a woman who built a straw-bale house with the help of her female friends.) As these men built their cabins, they accomplished something akin to writing itself. New writing often resulted—which often detailed the process of construction and its inherent life lessons.

My actual home has many cabin-like features—a fireplace, a loft, sunny windows, a table facing an east window that looks out onto a woods where a hawk is building a nest. I’ve gathered the clutter of my writing profession in the loft. Day after day, quiet reigns. I rarely turn on the radio and never touch the television. Unlike the writer’s cabin, though, my space continually begs me to do housework. Besides writing, I cook, clean, do laundry and wash dishes. I live inside my escape. “So you’re living the dream, then?” someone asked me recently. Yes, in a way. . . .

Cabin builders become grounded as they fashion their dwelling. As a woman, perhaps my gift is to find that same sustainable provenance in the homemaker-y work which usually precedes or follows my own writing sessions. In monastic life, every monk did menial tasks. They fit seamlessly into a life of prayer, contemplation and good works. I suspect the “dream” is not complete without physical labor.

In current culture, the division of labor and our specialization results in people having an ever more limited round of duties and chores. There are “service professions” to see to any personal need. Clothing care is outsourced to dry cleaning professionals. Food is catered or bought ready to eat in the deli section. Cleaning professionals efficiently breeze through our houses spraying lemon-scented incense. The list could go on.

But, what do we lose when we constantly rely on someone else to do our “dirty work”? When and why did these menial tasks become so objectionable? What we don’t manage to farm out to a service professional is often taken care of in-house in a most perfunctory way. There are machines for most household tasks. Some of these bring on their own set of maintenance and need for attention—but we mostly ignore these, accepting routine obsolesce.

Psychologists note the build-up of stress in our lives and our increasing inability to care for ourselves, emotionally and spiritually. This is even evident in the realm of self-care—whether it is hiring a personal trainer to help us exercise or a “nail technician” to make our hands beautiful enough for public display. Meanwhile these hands seem less and less capable or willing to perform simple tasks such as washing dishes or handling laundry.

What we’ve lost is our sense of holiness in the mundane and the blessing inherent in performing simple tasks. In an achievement oriented society, we’ve been acculturated to believe menial tasks are beneath us. We were made for better, higher things. There is an expert nearby who is “better at it.”

One of my favorite musicians is Carrie Newcomer. She has a song that includes the words: “Folding sheets, like folding hands, to pray as only laundry can.” She echoes Kathleen Norris who wrote The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and Women’s Work. I relate to the idea of holiness in laundry, although in weaker moments I’m still impatient with no-iron shirts that need “touching up” or the jumble of dark socks waiting to be sorted. I recall the complaint of a mother of four about inside-out socks and the time-consuming task of turning them—her determination to teach her brood the all-important skill. (There are limits to the meditative effects, it seems).

Another woman mentioned the “ritual” of ironing table linens. She said this homely task brought closure to the holiday celebration for her. As she ironed the high quality linens, feeling their natural textures and scenting them with linen water, she meditated with gratitude on the memory of her recently gathered family, saying a prayer for each as she worked.

In winter I tend to rely on my in-house appliance servants, unlike my Amish neighbors who hang laundry on the line in all kinds of weather. But in other seasons, the rhythm of a day is self-evident with the hanging of laundry to air dry on the clothesline and later, taking it inside before sundown. I feel the romance of a European city when I see white dishtowels fluttering from a line outside my sun drenched window. When I bury my face in air dried clothing or slide between freshly washed and wind-dried sheets, I know I’ve cared for myself and those I love. Then, the simple things of life are gift enough. It’s a satisfaction one can cultivate and nurture, similar to the self-reliance Thoreau and the others raised with their timbers. It’s elemental, and nurtures something a writer—perhaps anyone—needs as they go about the task of building a dwelling for body and soul.
Lofty Thoughts

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

On Being Homemaker-ey

The above title comes from my daughter's comment on the last entry. She and I both explore dichotomies of our lives and the role/s of women in the 21st century. At times I feel a sense of confusion as I examine my own journey from full time homemaker to full time employed outside the home and now coming back home. When I'm baking bread, gardening and hanging laundry on the clothesline I wonder at times why it mattered so much for me to have a career.

But when I sit at my desk writing and thinking of the many contacts with the world beyond my home I've garnered in the past decade and a half, I waver. Which is right? I ask myself. Why did I ever "leave home?" Why did I work in an office for the better part of 15 years of my life? Why did I give myself passionately to organizations, causes, and institutions outside my four walls, only to come full circle back to where I started out?

The questions aren't easy to answer but they reflect a growing sensibility and recognition of my place in the world and the ways that place can shift, change and adapt over a lifetime that is still incomplete. I am really not the same person who baked Leora's whole wheat bread 15 years ago. Today, I've returned to doing some of the same things, but for different reasons and with a different outlook and changed perspectives.

I dropped out of college and married at age 19. I'd planned to major in home economics. But once I was married, I thought my life was settled. Then in the shifting sands of feminism and my quest for satisfaction, I soon came up short. My interest in writing and my desire to be part of something of value and significance beyond my own doorstep, drew me back to college where I majored in communication arts. The choice to study communication rather than literature was a decision based on my desire to leave academia with credentials that would land me a job and a paycheck--eventually.

I say "eventually" because it took me nine years to claim that diploma. I had too many interests--including kids and my part-time job editing the Ohio Evangel. In the process I phased out gardening, canning, and the clothesline. I also quit sewing and replaced my "homemaker-ey" skills with things such as desk-top publishing. (My supervisor called me a "pioneer" for this.) I got a little gray Honda Accord stick shift and started driving myself out into the world. It was a great ride--all of it except for the Algrebra which was a huge looming barrier that I finally broke through.

A decade working the the public mental health system was full of new people, places and social awareness--not to mention new friends and challenges. Toward the end of that decade I began to long for a different life. I was tired of being indoors; tired of being in my car; tired of the routines and requirements. One thing that had remained in all my wanderings was a desire to put my thoughts and experiences into words. Now I wanted that more than ever. I could envision a life I chose for myself. It was different than either of my former lives.

So I came back home to write. It seems perfect, except that I don't make much money at it. But money isn't everything. I'm fortunate to live in a family that can make it on one income. So many people don't have that luxury. I'm also fortunate to no longer live a time-starved life. I found out that isn't a good way to live when you're a contempletive person, and I am one. I thrive on the ability to breath fresh air whenever I need it and to arrange my days as I see fit.

The options available to both men and women today are reminiscent of the choices at Giant Eagle. Now, more than ever, it's important to choose. Maybe some of us need to limit ourselves to shopping the outside aisles. Every choice for one thing is a choice against many others. I now sometimes think the looming future will bring many of us back to something a simpler and more basic than the fast-paced lifestyles and rampant consumption of recent decades.

Simplicity and contentment are virtues. They are challenged constantly by advertisers pushing so many products I can easily live without. I don't regret the opportunities I've had, the resources I've gained and those I'm learning to live without. I needed to do every thing I ever said I needed to do. The common denominator (yeah, I can now use math words without feeling sick to my stomach!) is that each step of the way I've listened to my heart. Today I know better than I once did that my creative spirit is best served by doing the hands-on tasks of everyday life--a gift that became mine when I re-claimed the flexible schedule I value more than I once did.

Paying attention to the "heart" is a good thing to do on this Valentine's Day. Spirit, my "eatenbyseminary" daughter suggests in her comments, is a Holy Homemaker. Now there's a concept . . .Thanks "Lou" And, Happy Valentine Birthday to YOU!

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Homemaking Arts

Homemaking Arts

I’m baking bread. I can smell it while I’m writing. It’s 3:30 in the afternoon and I’ve washed three loads of laundry and baked three different bread recipes. It’s been a good day so far.

When I filled out my blog profile I put the words “homemaking arts” on my list of interests. Imagine my surprise to find I’m the sole blogger in this category. I don’t believe for a minute it’s true. Either the other writers don’t think of these things as a bona fide interest, or they have broken it into smaller chunks such as cooking, sewing, gardening, etc. I suppose no one has declared laundry or defrosting the freezer as worthy of putting on their profile—things I’ve done in the last two days.

I once read an essay by Wendell Berry in which he said we need to renew the homemaking arts. Fine for him to say, I thought. I hear he doesn’t even type his own manuscripts. His wife uses an old typewriter. He doesn’t have a computer. I guess he’s a purist or something. Probably just old fashioned. He farms and writes. He plows with horses.

I’m interested in sustainability, same as Wendell Berry. The more I learn, the more I’m convinced our environment is under siege and it’s our own fault. We are consumptive to the death of us—or at least to the death of our children and grandchildren's inheritance of the planet. It's enough to send me back to the old ways. (Please excuse me while I go empty the oven and the dryer.)

I hope to write about some of my homemaking arts--including laundry-- in my next few blogs. Writing is a way to discover what we think, so perhaps I’ll develop a bit more clarity on these arts as I continue with the topic. Now, about baking bread.

It is easy enough to get excellent bread in a store. Even if I want specialty breads or a “homebaked” style I can purchase it at Buehlers—our best local supermarket chain. At health food stores like Wooster Natural Foods you can buy Ezekiel Bread in an orange wrapper. It is made of sprouted wheat and contains the ingredients mentioned in some obscure Bible verse in Ezekiel. So, why bake my own?

Since I defrosted the freezer yesterday I realized there is room in there for some bread. If I buy the kinds of bread I prefer they are expensive. It was a cold and seemed right for baking so I got out my old recipes. I baked French bread using the recipe in the More With Less Cookbook. I used my new authentic French bread baking pan. (I bought it at Ms. Gadgets at Berlin on the fateful day Java Jo’s burned). French bread has the fewest ingredients—water, oil, salt, a bit of sugar, flour and yeast. I used white high-gluten flour which isn’t best if you’re striving for authenticity. You'd want regular unbleached flour. The loaves look a little oversized and soft, but they’re nicely browned.

Next I turned to the tan-covered Kidron Mennonite Cookbook and a recipe for 100% whole wheat bread. This is Leora Gerber’s recipe and I remember it from back in the early 1970s. Leora developed this recipe herself and perfected it. It’s more challenging to use only whole wheat, but the bread has a soft moist texture if it's done right, and a nutty flavor. The recipe takes powdered milk, honey, butter, and two eggs. Today I made it using organic wheat flour and two cups of organic spelt flour. The recipe made one regular sized loaf and three smaller loaves.

My final bread batch was a recipe for oatmeal bread that I saved from a long ago bag of oats. I compared several recipes before choosing this one. This one had more oats than the others. (I recently learned I’d dropped my cholesterol by ten points just by eating oatmeal every day). This recipe also calls for molasses. I used my locally grown and pressed sorghum molasses. In both the wheat and oatmeal breads I used half butter and half organic first cold pressed olive oil. I rarely use margarine or shortening anymore. I still like the taste of butter and the fact it’s a natural food.

Much of my day was taken up with producing our “daily bread.” Bread has so many religious and spiritual meanings for me as a Christian. Buying a package makes it easy to forget the truth of bread. When I make my own, I measure each ingredient. I see the granules of crushed wheat. I watch the yeast bubble in a cup until it practically overflows.

For a few years, I had a bread machine. It died in a suicidal leap from the counter one day while it was mixing. I decided not to replace it. (I’m sure Mrs. Berry doesn’t have one!) I knew I could live without it, because I had before. The machine is convenient in its own way--you don’t need to concern yourself with temperatures or kneading. Today, each loaf I baked had to be kneaded by hand--for ten minutes. I set the timer and worked the dough while I watched birds at the feeder and thought about the arm and shoulder muscles I was exercising. While I’m kneading I can pray and send love to important people. Value added.

Will I begin making all our bread? Doubtful. But I do know it’s a good way to spend a winter’s day. By baking my own bread I may have saved a trip or two to the store. The bread will be stored in plastic I’ve saved from bulk food purchases. I’ll be able to pull it out if guests come. It will taste good for supper and make great tomorrow’s toast.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006


This morning I read the newspaper headlines as I carried the paper in from the box. The headline said “Rekindled.” “Oh no!” I thought. A favorite coffee spot has burned down—Java Jo’s in Berlin. Behind Java Jo’s in the same building is Nature’s Market, a thriving health food store I often visit when I’m in Berlin.

I'd been there on Monday when I decided to “go south” and visit several furniture stores and outlets. I was looking for an end table for my mother-in-law. She’s housebound and spends a lot of time in her recliner-lift chair. The clutter beside her chair was piling up and the wobbly round table had outlived its usefulness. I’m not much of a healthcare worker but I do love shopping and “homemaking arts” as I like to refer to my nesting instincts. Shopping for the new table was a good job for me.

After stopping at several stores, looking for possibilities, I ended up in Berlin. This little town is a “tourist trap” full of all kinds of interesting shops. It’s a great place to go for a personal get-away when I don’t have much time to get away. I parked near Zincks, the fabric outlet and went into a furniture place nearby. Then I walked down the street to Java Jo’s thinking I’d get a sandwich and coffee. It was past lunch time. The town can be a zoo during tourist season but on a winter Monday, things were pretty quiet. I bought a chicken salad croissant, a cup of coffee and a bottle of water for $7. I sat at the bar overlooking the street and read an article about the history of the old railroad station that was moved trail-side last summer.

When I finished my food, I walked to the back of Java Jo’s and entered the health food store. Someone working at the coffee shop said: “We should probably get out of the building. I don’t believe this day!” She was shaking her head. “There’s a fire upstairs I think.” She went toward the stairs and I noticed a bit of smoke and the odor of what might have been an electrical fire—or melting plastic. Someone was on the phone calmly calling 9-1-1. I went into the health food store. Customers were paying for their stuff and everyone was leaving, so I gave up on shopping there.

I went across the street to Ms. Gadgets. Soon fire trucks came charging down the street. Traffic backed up on the road and I could see smoke coming out of the building. I left Berlin and eventually found the required end table. On Tuesday the newspaper had a front page article about the fire, which had been put out. Store owners had gone back to clean up smoke damage and said they were thankful the damage was minimal.

This morning the news was different. During the early morning hours, the fire rekindled and the building and contents were destroyed except for a few large items that were removed. The building is still standing but will need to be torn down. It was one of the oldest buildings in the town—gone.

It was a comfy place with good coffee. I remember how my friend Marilyn and I went there for a special lunch the week before she left for two years in Liberia. I remember a time I’d read some of my work at a small poetry reading there. I remember a delicious cranberry-turkey sandwich with alfalfa sprouts I shared there with my daughter some years back.

Finally, I thought about the word “re-kindled” (I like to think about words and their meanings). “Rekindled” is another one of those words we use sometimes in a spiritual way. We talk about how the Spirit will “rekindle” a holy fire within us—spark renewal.

Interestingly, while I sat in Java Jo’s on Monday afternoon, I was reading about the way the old depot was renewed when they moved it to the trail-side and re-named it Hipp Station--this is a better fate for an historic building. "Rekindled" might be a good word in the right place and time. But for me, countless patrons, and the owners of Java Jo’s and the other businesses who’ve been left temporarily homeless, "rekindled!" is language that leaves us cold. As I’ve said before—metaphorical language has its limitations.

For now, the best I can do with this experience is note the ironic connections. I, Jo--thus called by my family for most of my life--was the last person to order a cup of “joe” at Java Jo’s. This, apparently, is my dubious distinction. What else can I think or say about this strange and ironic turn of events?