Kathleen Norris and her new book, Acedia & me, must not have a strong Web presence. I presume this because a rambling post I published after hearing Norris speak at the Festival of Faith & Writing last year seemed to gain a lot of hits for people searching “acedia” or “Kathleen Norris acedia.” I can’t imagine the post was all that informative.
Fortunately for Ms. Norris’ Web presence, I’ve seen other articles and reviews pop up, such as this one from USA Today, another from the New York Times, a brief synopsis at Oprah’s magazine, and pretty much a thumbs-down (sorry, Kathleen) at the blog of a Norris-fan who “couldn’t get into it.” I couldn’t get into it, either, but only because the library wouldn’t let me renew it. I had too many books going and couldn’t finish Acedia & me during the loan period. I tried to renew it, but someone else had it on hold. So I’d only read a few chapters when I had to hand it back to the librarian.
But I latched onto something in those few chapters–so much so that I actually typed out a section to share:
The difficult thing about days is that they must be repeated. It may be, as we read in the Second Letter to Peter, that with the Lord, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. What we perceive as slowness is merely the Lord’s patience. But like many children of the middle class, I was schooled in a particular kind of impatience that devalues such chores as cooking, cleaning, and taking out the garbage. An unspoken premise of my education was that it would enable me to employ someone else to perform these tasks. If the heady world of ideas tempted me to despise repetition, it also taught me to value the future over the present moment…(p. 12, italics mine)
I wanted to offer you the context for what stood out to me the most–the repetitive nature of chores. I don’t know that I have ever been in the same “heady world of ideas” as Norris, but I think I did develop a kind of “impatience that devalues such chores as cooking, cleaning, and taking out the garbage.”
For many years, I really hated the unending nature of everyday chores–things that must be repeated day after day. I would think, Why bother to make one’s bed if it simply must be made again the next morning?
Back in the early 1990s, I was in a women’s discipleship group. For a discussion-starter, the leader asked, “What is one chore you don’t mind doing?”
I couldn’t think of one single chore I didn’t despise.
We went around the room, and I must have made a joke about that. I can’t remember.
I did remember the leader’s answer, however. She said, “I like making the bed. It’s not because I like making beds. It’s because it doesn’t take too long and isn’t tiring, yet makes such a huge difference in how the room looks. If you have a few things lying around, but your bed is made, the room still looks pretty good. But if you have the room picked up and fairly clean, but the bed is unmade, it still looks like a huge mess.”
That was the first time a chore kind of made sense to me. After that interaction, quite possibly for the first time in my life, I started making my bed (thank you, Kim; sorry, Mom…and Tonya and Susan and all my college roommates).
She was right. I liked how the room looked when I would come back and see the bed made. When the covers were smoothed out and pillows fluffed, the mess around it was downplayed–a worthwhile return on investment, I’d say.
But there was something else about it…there was something else satisfying about making my bed. Oh well, I couldn’t figure out what it was. I just kept making my bed so that the room looked decent and that was enough.
Then I read those pages in Acedia & me, where Kathleen Norris explained how her intellectual interests were at odds with domesticity. She actually wrote:
I was a bratty kid who didn’t want to make her bed.“Why bother?” I would ask my mother in a witheringly superior tone. “I”ll just have to unmake it again at night.” To me, the act was stupid repetition; to my mother, it was a meaningful expression of hospitality to oneself, and a humble acknowledgment of our creaturely need to make and remake our daily environments. “You will feel better,” she said, “if you come home to an orderly room.” She was far wiser than I, but I didn’t comprehend that for many years. Neither of us could see that I was on my way to becoming a cerebral disaster zone. (p. 13)
Bingo! That was it! I’d already gotten past the idea that making my bed was “stupid repetition.” But this was that “something else” I couldn’t put my finger on: Making my bed was a “meaningful expression of hospitality to oneself.”
That’s what I felt when I walked into my bedroom and the bed was made. It was as if I were saying to myself, “You’re worth it, Ann. It’s my pleasure to give you a nice environment and a lovely setting for a peaceful rest. Be my guest.”
So much of housework is a need to make and remake our daily environments. I discovered that I do feel better if I come home to an orderly room. Now that I’m married, of course, I’m also serving my spouse. All the same, I never had anyone put into words a reason for housework that was so personal, gratifying, and humbling.
Perhaps it’s that word “hospitality” that sounds so warm and welcoming, like a Bed & Breakfast hostess bustling about to make everyone comfortable. As a wife and mother, I can see how small acts of service communicate love and warmth and comfort to my family. I guess I never really included myself in that.
I don’t want to be self-centered–I want to look out for the interests of others–not just my own. But that doesn’t mean to the exclusion of my own interests.
Thank you, Kathleen Norris, for this slight shift of perspective on chores–not just making the bed, but also emptying the trash, washing dishes, vacuuming, sweeping, wiping the table, and folding laundry.
Far from meaningless repetition…it’s a gracious, loving act of hospitality to oneself (and others).
Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I think I left a load of laundry in the dryer…