Today is laundry day. Years ago, I decided that it would save energy, both mine and the planet\’s, if I did laundry once every two weeks. The downside of this is that on laundry day I do a minimum of six big loads of wash, which leaves me little room for higher pursuits.
My generation of women did not consider housekeeping a worthwhile, let alone an interesting activity. We were post-June Cleaver and pre-Martha Stewart. We wanted to do impressive things—fight battles, break barriers, have careers. If there was laundry to be done it would get done in a rush, as we simultaneously ate breakfast and wrote an article. Better still, it would be done by our mate. We were into saving time and energy, freeing ourselves for the important stuff.
By their contrast with the aridity of academic life, certain domestic tasks did strike me as pleasant, even beautiful—making bread, for instance, and growing vegetables. But even as I was doing these things, my mind was on other matters—mostly classes and committees—and I had a nagging feeling that it was somehow inappropriate and unscholarly of me to enjoy any aspect of housekeeping.
Long after leaving campus, I am sorry to report that the nagging feeling is still with me. As I go about my business, be it something I enjoy—hanging the laundry out to dry—or dislike—putting the laundry away—I usually feel that I should be doing something else, that there is a better, more productive way of using my time. If I\’m walking the dogs, I should be training them. If I\’m reading, I should be writing. If I\’m folding laundry, I should be exercising. It\’s an exhausting and depressing way to live.
Then the other day, quite by chance, I heard a Benedictine monk on the radio say the following: “That instinct, that sort of sacramental instinct to find something holy in everything, runs deep in us [Benedictines]. …it\’s tended to make us want to do our best whether it\’s a humble task or…something more exalted, like a great work of art.”
Sacramental instinct…something holy in everything—the words kept tumbling around in my mind. Of course they brought up echoes of Buddhism—stay in the moment, be present in everything you do. Of course they reminded me that this attitude of reverent attention is the very foundation of aesthetics. But for some reason this time the words were still with me when I woke up the next morning.
For the last couple of days I\’ve been walking around with a different conversation inside my head. I say to myself, “I am carefully washing these vegetables to put into the stock,” instead of “I should have already chopped these. They should be in the stock right now.” I say, “I am doing a good job of brushing the dogs\’ teeth,” instead of “Hurry up with that brushing. You should be clipping their nails.” It\’s kind of a forced conversation, and it certainly does not come spontaneously. But maybe someday it will.
For now, the petty tyrant that used to lurk inside my cranium has been replaced by a kindly Benedictine monk. But whereas the tyrant was self-supporting, the monk is going to need regular meals and quite a bit of TLC. I like my monk, and I hope he will stick around. For his supper tonight I will offer him the act of towel-folding, mindfully done.