of the love & work in a three-layer cake

I got the blues thinking of the future, so I left off and made some marmalade. It’s amazing how it cheers one up to shred oranges and scrub the floor.

In Thich Nhat Hanh’s Anger: Wisdom For Cooling The Flames (a favorite book of mine) the renowned thinker and spiritual leader spoke of being asked why he didn’t spend more time writing books and less time caring for his own home. The implication was that his wisdom and writings were services to the world so beneficial to us all that he should be “freed up” to devote even more time to them.

I paraphrase here: Nhat Hanh responded that it was during his gardening, and the dishes, and the day-to-day tasks of life that he was writing his books. Only mindful performance of these duties – only doing his calm, present best at the laundry while doing it – enabled him to find the spiritual knowledge within that would later flow from him when he sat down to write. He called the wisdom that would grow within him while he practiced mindfulness, a baby. A baby to be delivered unto the world.

This stunning parable is one I have taken to heart. As a housewife who loves her work, I cannot express how wonderful this view, this concept, would have been for me growing up – and most especially as I began a family. The world I’ve been raised in has steadily put down and vilified the work of the home, the body, the garden. Look anywhere in our media and you see housework relegated to a dirge, something to purchase chemicals and gadgets for or, if you can, hire out (to someone of lower socioeconomic class and/or brown). Cooking likewise should be eased by shortcuts, easy-to-prepare meals, or handed through the window of a fast food restaurant where the managers work to make sure the average car spends only ninety seconds after ordering. Diapers? Ugh, get a service (if you can afford it), or use disposables, seal them up in a plastic trash liner, and bury them deep in the earth.

My upbringing – the social one more than the familial – made my first stint at homemaking far more unpleasant than it could have been. I was sure I was supposed to hate cleaning the kitchen (yet I was also supposed to keep it clean and organized in that Martha way). It was my American right, Manifest Destiny, to dislike housework and see it as “mind-numbing”, “boring”, or even “demeaning”.

And I think I did kind of dislike housework for a while. But time and practice have made me wiser. It is possible – and mind-blowingly amazing – to practice a joyful mindfulness during the laundry, the diaper changes, the toilet scrubbings, and the nine hundredth dish of the day.* In fact, when I practice this mindfulness it somehow leaves me with more energy as the day draws to a close; energy to sew a bit or leave the busyness of the day behind and sit with a book and listen to my husband roughhouse with the kids, or – like tonight – make a three-layered buttermilk chocolate cake and invite friends and neighbors over to share. Working in this manner leaves my heart open – open to my children, my husband, and open to my spiritual nature.

Today Sophie received her final book of nine in the Bone series and she spent dinner preparations in the kitchen alongside me, reading aloud with the most open, happy smile as I kneaded the homemade bagels for bagel pizzas (Nels’ suggestion). While the bagels boiled, and then baked, I sat down and showed her how I pick good corn ears (without peeling them) and how to shuck and prepare them. I learned corn selection from Froghill and the method of cooking the ears from Cynthia; our corn was dressed in butter, lemon, and the seasoning salt our friend Mickey makes each year.

As I wash the last few dishes and remove the steaming eggplant parmesan from the oven Sophie puts her book aside and sets the table, pouring water for the four of us and chattering excitedly about the first corn of the season.

I’m passing down the wisdom to my children. I’m grateful for friends and family who help me make my way.

* It is also possible, and mind-blowingly amazing, to take some time off from doing or thinking about house duties, which I try to do daily.

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