February 23, 2015 by rebelwithalabelmaker
For #UULent, we’re all posting about a specific word each day. Or meditating on the word. Or taking pictures of stuff at the Lucy Stone co-op that corresponds to the word. I’m not really sure. All I know is it’s for Lent, and it involves words. Because it’s a UU thing, and words are what we do.
Anyway, today’s word is home. And I have lots to say about home. A whole sermon, in fact. Which is just what you needed today, right? A sermon of homemaking tips from someone who lives in a regurgitated lego store?
I have a secret internet hobby. Certain sites that I prefer to look at when nobody’s around. Content that would be, shall I say, inappropriate for Unitarian circles. Not the fairly mainstream stuff you can get at the corner store, either. Not the relatively clean cut likes of Martha Stewart or Better Homes and Gardens. The fringe stuff. The extreme homemaking sites. Domestic Felicity and SugarPie Farmhouse and even on occasion, Ladies Against Feminism. Stuff from way over on the right—where they talk about the purpose of homemaking, with a deep sense of the God given value of home and family.
Three bricklayers, goes the story, were working side by side.
When asked, “What are you doing?”, the first bricklayer replied:
“I’m laying bricks.”
The second bricklayer was asked. He answered,
“Feeding my family.”
The third bricklayer when asked the question,
“What are you doing?”, responded,
“I’m building a cathedral.”
The women on these sites are not just talking about folding socks. “As for me and my house,” reads the needlepoint above the front door, “we will serve the Lord”.
In these women’s eyes, every home is a cathedral, carrying out God’s purpose in the world. There is lots I don’t agree with there, but every now and then I find a nugget of real inspiration. There is something about their recognition of homemaking as a calling that brings meaning to the task. They put love into the little details. The smell of simmering soup, the cut flowers on the table, or the gentle attention put into kind words and a listening ear.
I don’t embrace the whole package, of course—I see homemaking more flexibly than they do. I believe you don’t need kids, or even a spouse, to be a homemaker. You can have a job outside the home and be a home maker. You can even be a man, and be a homemaker. In fact, I’d argue that if you have a home, you’re a home maker. You may not care much about it, you may not see it as valuable, but you are a homemaker.
When they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would reply glowingly, “a stay at home mom and wife”. I grew up in the 1980s, when working moms were really hitting their stride, and the question was most often asked of me by teachers, who were often working moms themselves. In general, they probably would have responded more favourably if I’d said I wanted to be a stripper. Responses ranged from a kind of wincing disgust, to the more gentle “what else might you want to do, dear?”
My mother was a stay at home mom—the kind with a university degree who would quote Thoreau at you. We shopped garage sales and bargain bins with near religious fervour. We ate organic before it was cool. We had lunches made with brown home-baked bread back when it was very much the reverse of cool. We had no television—my parents believed that kids need lots of fresh air and creative freedom, and a TV didn’t suit their goals. If there was a needlepoint above our front door, it might have read “As for me and my house, we will not serve consumerism, patriarchy, multi-billion dollar industry, or religious brainwashing. What we will serve will have something to do with morality and creativity and intentionality, but the precise nature of it has yet to be articulated because we plan on reaching our final decision by vote”.
As an adult, I married a surgeon. It was a real rags to riches story—with dizzying speed I went from starving student to caring for a giant house with a sprawling lawn, two cars, expensive furnishings and artwork on the walls. I wasn’t so excited about all that stuff, but I was happy to be free of the sense of anxiety and complexity that came with the financial constraints of my childhood. What I was most excited about, though, was that I finally had the job I always wanted—stay at home mom, and homemaker.
I was pretty good at the mom part, but when it came to home making, I was absolutely terrible. I tried to shrug off my growing sense of inadequacy, telling myself that dishes and vacuuming aren’t that important. But the painful truth is that these things matter a great deal. It’s hard to head out into the world with a sense of calm and joy when you began your day hunting through the dirty clothes hamper for socks that seemed passably re-usable. It’s hard to feel relaxed after a long day at work when you come home to an apologetic wife who forgot to get toilet paper again and offers the ambiguous suggestion that “we all just make do”. A warm family dinner is still possible but not quite the same when we are all gathering around a selection of cut veggies and meats and breakfast cereal… no matter how nutritionally sound such a supper might be.
I yearned to be good at homemaking, and was confused as to why I kept failing. Lots of people pull this off, I thought, and juggle careers to boot. My mother pulled this off without any of my financial advantages. My grandmother did it without electricity. And my great grandmother—well, she was able to get dinner on the table back when the recipe for roast chicken called for, among other things, a live chicken and an axe.
I turned to Martha Stewart. She was useless. Learning about homemaking by reading Martha Stewart’s advice is a little like learning about healthy diet and exercise by looking at the models in fashion magazines. It might inspire you, or depress you, but it isn’t actually designed for living. People don’t actually do all that stuff, with the notable exception of Jan Lancaster, who spent a whole year trying to do all that stuff and summarizes the adventure in a book titled Why I’m Never Getting All That Glitter Off of the Dog.
It isn’t just her standards that make Martha useless. It’s the fundamental premise that’s flawed. There is no right way to keep house. In this multicultural country, we inherit complex sets of attitudes, skills, and feelings around homemaking, as the author of this morning reading points out. Our image of home is shaped by culture, wealth, world events, personal histories, and more.
I realized that part of why I was struggling is that the home I was making was far removed from what I grew up with. Firstly, the values were different—people in Erindale tended to have different priorities and values than I did. The work that was demanded of me to fit in felt meaningless, because it wasn’t what I was taught was important. And I didn’t know even know how to do a lot of it. The skills needed to be a surgeon’s wife are very different from the skills needed to manage a six person family on one income. My new world brought with alien tasks like managing the cleaners, yard workers, and repair people needed to keep that scale of house running. Figuring out how to shape family life around a surgeon’s schedule. Taking care of multiple cars, dry-clean only clothes, and the kids’ many elaborate extra curricular activities and a culture of play dates. “Play date?” I thought, “You’re a kid. Just play!”
Gary and I solved this problem with a kind of subconscious compromise. We owned all the trappings of an upper middle class life, and I let them fall apart while making granola from scratch with the kids. Compromise. When everybody gets what nobody wanted.
The sign might have read “As for me and my house we will—come quick, the baby just poured yogurt on the Allan Sapp painting…”
As the Twitterers would say, hashtag first world problems.
I turned to Unitarianism. I shepherded my family through the doors of this congregation with a vague sense that good families go to church, and a hunch that this would be the only one that would let us in. Like many people who walk through our doors, I was filled a variety of yearnings and expectations that I didn’t understand and certainly couldn’t articulate. Unsurprisingly, many of those needs went unmet.
We don’t talk about homemaking here. Which is kind of strange, for a religion. Buddhists will talk about it—of the meditative nature of sweeping, or the importance of being mindful as you chop bright red tomatoes. They place spiritual value on these tasks. As the saying goes, “before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” Christians definitely talk about it. As for me and my house, goes the Bible verse, we will serve…
We will serve something, according to Emerson. Whether we think it important or not, we are all homemakers, and our homes mean something. Day by day, we build cathedrals. When we choose what to buy, or how to spend our time, or how we will negotiate the complexities of relationships, we are doing spiritual work.
For me, the first step in digging my way out of a home that wasn’t mine was connecting with what I was serving. The wisdom of multigenerational church community played a big part in my journey at this point.
“This house”, declared eight year old Acacia one day, “is a ‘yes’ house.”
This became our mantra as we started to streamline. We asked of each possession, routine, or action: “Is this part of being a yes house?”. Instead of berating myself for not knowing how to keep several thousand square feet of expensive clutter organized and cared for, I thought about ways to have less space and less stuff. We streamlined our schedules, too—asking ourselves what mattered most. We started thinking of our household chores and routines differently, organizing around giving ourselves the time and space to do the things that were most valuable to us. And I started paying attention—really paying attention—to the homes of others. Noting which touches made them personalized and warm.
Let me take you on a tour of some of the houses of people in this congregation.
If you visit Ann and Ewen’s house, the first things you see as you walk in will be Ewen’s piano, and the family selection of books. You will almost certainly be served tea. Real tea, too—where the tea bags are put in first, and then the hot water is added, often served out of china teacups. Ann’s roots in England are apparent in the way the house is kept, but there is no sense of stiff upper lip. The china pieces might easily be mismatched, and there’s an easy practicality to the comfy chairs and family photos. You will notice the seasons, when in their house. In summer, you there might be sweet peas on the table and garden produce for snacking on. In the winter, you might gather around the fire—noticing the highly energy efficient insert, and the way that blankets have been draped in some parts of the house to be mindful of energy conservation. In spring, you might see this passion for nature evident in the daffodils blossoming on the windowsill, or in a bag of fresh spinach that Ewen’s figured out how to grow when the snow has barely melted.
Joan Adair’s house isn’t a house at all—it’s a condo. This works well for her, as she travels frequently to visit family that doesn’t live in Saskatoon, and makes regular pilgrimages to Turtle lake. It overlooks the river—and the whole place has a feeling of airiness and light. If you’re lucky enough to be visiting from out of town, you’ll quickly realize that it’s a home set up to accommodate visitors—things are organized to make it easy to find your way around because Joan regularly opens her home to billets. Hospitality and relationships are a priority for her. If you’re lucky enough to visit on Labour day weekend, for example, you might even get to watch the fireworks from her balcony. Joan herself is always at Turtle lake that time of year, but she doesn’t allow her dedication to hospitality to foiled by small details such as, say, hundreds of kilometres.
If you’re headed to visit Natasha and Salaash, pause for a minute before you even walk in the door. Look up and down the street, and notice how different the front yards are from what is typical in this city. You’ll see sandboxes, front porches, play equipment, and above all people of all ages, just hanging out. It wasn’t always like this. When they moved in, it was a normal block. People drove up, entered their houses, and hung out indoors or in their back yards—a custom that seemed odd to their family’s Kenyan sense of community. They immediately built a front porch, and then—here’s the weird part—they just hung out on it. And slowly, the neighbourhood transformed. Now, you’ll see kids racing about, and neighbours dropping in unannounced, and even backyard chickens meandering about. Inside, you’ll notice the remarkable sense of calm and order for so such a tiny house filled with such a large family. In large part, Salaash’s attitude towards “stuff” is responsible for this—they don’t own things that are unloved or unused. They take a similarly mindful approach to the time commitments they make.
None of these homes would measure up to Martha’s standard, but each one is undeniably, uniquely, deeply a home to those that live in it. Over the years, the imprint of the lives that fill each house has shaped everything from the furniture to the way people speak to one another. Each family is filled with tiny touches that tell their story and express their identity and values. Each person is surrounded by details that are uniquely theirs, that provide a foundation for their lives, and say home to them in a language that is uniquely theirs and deeply intimate.
If I were to write a homemaking checklist, it would be different from Martha’s. It would go like this:
1) Know yourself. Know the history, skills, values, and sense of what feels like home of every person in your household.
2) Connect with the meaning of it all. Know how valuable it is to make and care for a home. When you are packing lunches, imagine the feeling of the child that opens the lunch the next day. If you are cleaning the bathroom, connect with how it will feel for each member of your household to walk into that fresh and gleaming space.
3) Know what your home is. We will all build cathedrals with our lives, so know which cathedral you are building. What do you say about your values with the little tasks, purchases, and decisions of your daily homemaking? What is the feeling of your home?
4) Think outside the box. Your training for this task was probably not that good. After all, the world is changing quickly, and I’m not just talking about the old changes like washing machines and feminism. There are people telling stories about the olden days before the Internet when cooks gathered recipes on cards from books and friends, and only select professionals knew how to troubleshoot a computer network. Used to be you didn’t start sentences with “I remember back when…” until you were, say, well into your thirties. What we are doing—the technical skills—are changing fast.
It used to be that a homemaker was a layer of bricks. She may have known in her heart that she was building a cathedral, but most days were spent getting her hands dirty. Now, we also need to be architects—thinking about how the spaces we create will be used, and how best to make them fit the shape of our family’s very specific identities and lives.
And, for bonus marks,
5) Take a minute to think about how this stuff applies to our congregational home.
People arrive here, too, with a whole host of subconscious yearnings and expectations, looking for home. Organ music and gleaming pews may feel like home to one person, and like oppression to another. A casual scattering of children’s boots and coats may look like community and coziness to one person, and sloppiness and a lack of pride to another. An open Facebook page with lots of photos and details may look like hospitality and warmth to one person, and like a violation of safety and privacy to another.
We struggle with the meaning of tasks here, too—the myriad of chores that pile up and can feel overwhelming. The connection between typing minutes and creating beloved community isn’t always easy to see, and we have to awaken ourselves over and over to why we do what we do. How the little tasks and routine connect to what matters most—and if they don’t connect, why are we doing them?
And then there’s the question of vision. How is our home, our home? There are many styles of church, and many purposes. What cathedral are we building here?
And lastly, there is that rapid pace of change part again. We have inherited skills and structures from decades and centuries ago, and are working almost on a daily basis to try to keep pace. Sometimes, in my ministerial studies, I feel like I did when I first took charge—sort of—of that mansion in Erindale as a new mom. Overwhelmed by the hugeness and complexity of it, all the time wondering what is wrong with me that I can’t quite keep up. With this nagging sense that I need to work harder to realize the visions laid out by the Better Homes and Gardens and Churches of the ministerial world, when in reality all I want to do is gather around a dinner table for a good meal and good conversation with people I love.
This church year, we’re going to talk about mission. Not everybody is instantly excited by that conversation. If you’re one of the ones that isn’t, let me frame it for you a little differently.
We have inherited a home. I’m not talking about the literal Church, but the metaphorical one. The structure, the routines, the covenant. It’s an old home. It was built hundreds of years ago, and it carries all kinds of history and memories and emotional investments. If we are going to live here, together, and I mean really live—not just successfully tick off enough tasks to keep things running… if we are going to thrive, here, together, we are going to need to have a deep conversation. We will need to know what makes a place feel like home to one another. We’ll need to know about our individual and collective history. We’ll need to know about which values we want to share and express, and we’ll need to evaluate how best to structure things to support those values. Things might change—our minister might get part of her funding from grants and do much of her work in the community. We might have a broader idea of what it means to be a “real” Unitarian than Sunday morning attendance. We might learn to think not in terms of membership growth as an end in and of itself… We might think instead in terms sustainability in many forms, and impact in people’s lives.
We are called to take time away from building, to think like an architect. We can no longer make do with plans we’ve inherited. We have to think about all the things an architect things about—culture, history, the feel of the space, the values it will express, what technologies and resources are available to build it, and above all, what is it’s purpose?
From there, we can begin and continue the sacred work of welcoming one another home.