“Keeping House” by Margaret Kim Peterson

Although a quick read, this insightful book will keep you thinking.  There are three concepts that especially stuck with me: first, the idea of sanctuary, second, the goodness of being finite, and finally the necessity of the normal.

The book is divided roughly into three sections after a helpful introduction to the subject of housework in general: the house, clothes and food.  Beginning each of these sections Peterson lays out a bit of a biblical and a historical context for her subject.  The biblical context was simple, nothing deep.  She is a theologian so I suspect that she could have delved deeper but chose not to.  The historical overviews were interesting and helpful in revealing that progress hasn’t always made our lives easier.

Each section seemed to hinge upon an idea Peterson introduces in her second chapter.  As she lists all the things that a house is she suggests, “a home is a sanctuary.  A sanctuary is a place set apart for encounter, whose separateness exists for the sake of relationship.”  That definition floored me.  I definitely could rattle off, thanks to Sunday school, that to be sanctified means to be “set apart,” but for whatever reason it hadn’t stuck that this separateness is for the very purpose of an encounter.  I have been imagining “sanctuary” as a bit of lonely untouched space, a fond image in the mind of a mother of small children.  No.  Susannah Wesley didn’t throw her apron over her head just to get some peace and quiet, she wanted to alert her children she was meeting with God.  Our homes aren’t just places to retreat into and find a comfy chair where we can watch t.v., they are purposeful settings to foster the growth of relationships.

Peterson seems to hit upon this idea again although she never refers to it as sanctuary.  In a chapter on clothing she mentions that the lost arts of handwork, no longer necessary or frugal, “can actually open up time, creating space for thoughts and words and relationships that might not otherwise find room to blossom.”

Later Peterson suggests that setting a table, “can serve to set the meal itself apart from the other activities that fill the day and to create space in which time and attention can be devoted to receiving together the gifts of food and of fellowship.”  The knives, forks and spoons all in their proper places are the cue that this is a time and a place we all submit to in order to meet with and enjoy each other.

The second idea that has stuck is the goodness of being finite.  As Peterson offers some suggestions on keeping an orderly home her biggest bit of advice is to get rid of stuff and simply to not buy it in the first place.  She reminds us that even those who have larger homes than ours aren’t satisfied and knock out their back walls for additions.  I often have caught myself daydreaming about adding on an office or an extra bedroom, but her reminder hit me as a challenge.  Sure, there is nothing wrong with free verse, but there is a delicious artistry to bending and dancing within the confines of a sonnet or a haiku.  To think of the finite poetic structure of housekeeping as a creative challenge is much more inspiring than my unquenchable longing for the infinity of space, time and money.

Lastly, in the section on food she refers to The Supper of the Lamb, which everyone says is marvelous and I haven’t yet read.  Apparently Robert Farrar Capon lays out the idea of “ferial cuisine,” as opposed to holiday or celebratory cooking.  Peterson suggests that in order to make our feasts true feasts and our fasts true fasts our everyday cooking should be about moderation of materials and effort.

This idea of the necessity of normal life is an extension I suppose of the idea of delighting in finitude.   Take for example being “in shape” physically.  When you know your own body and are taking care of it you are then able to both rest well and to exert yourself well.  It does take work to be in shape, but that work can become pleasurable when expected and not demanded.

What does it look like for a house to be in daily shape?  Nothing extravagant, daily needs planned for and met.  Not every day is a holiday, not every day deserves dessert and a movie.  Laundry and sweeping are part of the “normal” bits of life to be incorporated into the pattern of everyday life rather than held of until an emergency state when they are resented.

The goal of housework then is to create an intentional space bound by certain rules to facilitate (and delight in) everyday life.  Put that way it sounds to me like the rules of an art contest, a new board game or the submission guidelines of an article.  It is a challenge and a joy when met.  I therefore also appreciate Peterson’s several references to the fact that living with small children is a constant state of household emergency in the same way as a severe illness or caring for someone in their old age.  Some of the rules may have to slide just to get by.  She says this can be especially true if you didn’t practice the art of housekeeping before you had kids.  If you didn’t get normal down and now you’re in a state of emergency you may just need to do your best and accept the situation.  With a host of supermoms out there giving the illusion of infinite time and energy this was one message I most needed to hear.  I am not a super mom.  Many things don’t get done around here and although that’s not great, well, it’s realistic for now.

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