I get myself in knots over this sometimes.
It’s not that the person with whom I share my house is a slob, I repeat to myself sternly every time I return to Montreal. It’s just that he has a different definition of what a home – a cozy, comfortable place of solace and repose – might be and of what has to be done to achieve that state.
He will cringe, for example as I flick into the air the minuscule amount of dirt that I’ve just dislodged from under a (very short) fingernail. Civilised people, I am patiently taught, gather all their fingernail dirt neatly onto a piece of tissue and from there the offensive stuff is disposed of in the garbage bin.
When I return from times away, on the other hand, it will sometimes take me up to a week to gather the accumulation of fur from the various animals that share the space as well and to tidy and align and wash and sort through the reams of chaotic matter that – in my opinion – make the whole house feel disgruntled and abandoned.
And then, of course, there is the plaster-patched wall in my office, the cobwebs in all the corners, the dusty paintings and other assorted flies in my ointment that glare at me all day, every day…things that neither one of the humans in residence has been able to catch up on and of which the cats and dog seem blithely ignorant (though they could be bluffing). Bouncing between two centenarial (actually one of them is tri-centenarial) homes does not make anything simpler….and one of them is a farm, with all farm = dirt stereotypes intact.
The maid culture sometimes has a disturbing allure.
Running a household on one’s own is a wearying affair – the cooking, cleaning, laundry, maintenance and repair required to transform a house into a home is a time-and-a-half job. If the home is slightly bigger than a breadbox, if there are multiple inhabitants and any of them sport permanent fur coats, or even if the people living together have anything at all else to do with their lives, the equation becomes complicated. Who has the energy, much less the will to do it all?
More importantly, perhaps – where did the idea come from in the first place that we ought to be able to do it all? I am very well aware that not everyone is as burdened as I with distaste for the employment of “Help”.
My brothers and I were raised under no illusion as to why our parents begat us in the first place – why would you need Help when you have kids? But then when I was 13 years old my family returned to visit The Relatives in Trinidad. My grandmother’s horrified and classic “What will the neighbours think?” upon catching me red-handed in the process of ironing my own clothes, was the beginning of a deep rift between me and my Indian West Indian (sic) roots. I was most definitely Canadian – shocked at the idea of being served by anyone, much less having others do for me what I was capable of doing myself.
In my leftist-populist middle-class (adolescent) perception, those who had maids and nannies were simply a modern-day extension of slave-owners. Being the only “person of colour” (other than my younger brothers) in school until Grade 9 amplified the issue in my life – individual and minority rights became an important part of my dialogue with the world.
Born in the 50’s and hanging out with people just that much older than myself, I was in the midst of the back-to-the-land hippy cooperative movement as well….We were striving to be self-sufficient, making our own food from scratch – growing it when possible. Hand-cranked flour mills, woodstoves, herb tea, Harrowsmith and Mother Jones, folk music….Paying someone to come in to clean your tipi just doesn’t work as an image, but it wasn’t really an issue either – we didn’t own much and dust was organic.
When children happened, priorities had to be made. Either I could have a clean and tidy house, or I could spend time with the kids. Actually, that’s a lie. There was simply no possible space – no choice whatsoever – for Control and Material Order amongst the essentials of feeding, answering questions, breaking up fights, keeping a garden and eventually raising my four children and home-schooling them as a single mother…. What we learned to achieve was order within chaos – the kind one finds perhaps in a jungle… or an asteroid belt…
Some friends decided once, while we were away somewhere for a few days, to come over and clean the house for us. The older (childless) woman in this rescue mission was apparently shocked at the disorder that I allowed to exist – especially in the boys’ bedrooms….! I can still feel the humiliation of that judgement in my body, years later. My consolation and vindication are that with time – and their own abodes – my children have all become masterful in the High Art – the feng shui – of Home.
There is such guilt associated with an unkempt house – the worth of a woman has been tied to the kind of home we keep for millennia: “What a woman ! You could eat off her floors!” When my mother was doing her doctoral studies and my father was retired, “my poor father” was clucked over by family members who felt my mother should have been there cooking and cleaning for him. And the joke is still repeated of how one of my uncles, visiting his brother and new wife for the first time, swiped his finger over the doortops looking for dust. Although this is a joke, imagine! – my aunt was embarrassed at not having dusted the tops of the doors !
Working women with or without spouses, feeling the need for a “wife” at home, will often hire someone to cook and clean, but so often express guilt about not being able to do it all themselves. “You made your bed, you can sleep in it”… Cleaning up one’s own mess – being responsible for the consequences of one’s actions – is part of a social contract that has become ever more important with ecological awareness. How can I demand that Exxon and BP clean up their mess if I don’t do the same for myself? Mind you, we weren’t really asking them to clean up after themselves, were we? We were actually asking them to pay for the cleaning to be done. If I extrapolate this to my household, I should feel ok about hiring help.
It is partially a question of money…There never seem to be surplus funds available for the luxury of having someone else clean the house. Or rather, I never can justify spending money on household help that could otherwise go to – just about anything else.
I actually really love cleaning and organising my home – what’s more, I’m good at it! I’ve had many homes and created many spaces that people feel peaceful in…. The sense of satisfaction derived from having created order and balance – of achieving harmony within material existence – is only surpassed by the joy of catalysing for others a greater ease and well-being in their lives and bodies.
Our homes are symbolic of our housekeeping of the planet, and contracting the same metaphor inward, of our bodies. Respect and honouring of the home in which we live is simply… respect and honouring of the Home in which we live…. To allow someone into your home is a gesture of intimacy, as those in the dating arena (think: Romans and lions, or for the uber-Canadians: the corner, mitts off) know well. Crossing the threshold of a home holds deep symbolic meaning – think about it ….My feeling is that people who have or had slaves/maids/servants/assistants to take care of all the aspects of their physical existence must be a bit like physicians who develop a superciliously authoritative and detached manner to protect themselves from the intimacy of their contact with the innermost functioning of their patients’ bodies and lives. Maybe paying the person coming to take care of the things that one accomplishes with a sense of adulthood and responsibility – of growing up – takes away the stigma …the guilt.
In Central and South America (as in the Caribbean of my ironing youth) one is considered stingy and irresponsible if help can be afforded and is not hired. The colones paid to the maid filter out to the villages in the same way as Canadian dollars every month are converted into Philippine pesos and sent to support whole families that would otherwise falter. Now that I think about it, my father, leaving Trinidad to study, worked in the home of a wealthy American family for room and board and to help pay for his university education.
What’s clear is that I haven’t found peace with this issue as yet…But for now, you’ll have to excuse me. I’m pretty sure there’s a couple of doortops I forgot to dust…..