If you’ve spent any time with me recently, you’ve probably heard me mention this incredible book that I can’t stop thinking about, Keeping House by Margaret Kim Peterson. I read the last page last Saturday and have since gone back through it to reread all of my underlines. It’s good stuff. The entire book was fabulous. I don’t expect that everyone will have the same opinion. But the author spoke so specifically to my existing desires for my home, and she put such eloquent words to ideals I couldn’t have expressed on my own.
For a long while now, I’ve entertained thoughts here and there of the value of housework. I don’t love cleaning my house, and my house is certainly not the most tidy one around. But I was beginning to wonder if the purpose of doing housework might go deeper than the obvious result of having a tidy home. Isn’t there value in washing and folding my husband’s white shirts so that his drawer is never empty? Isn’t there something worthwhile about wiping down the dining room table so that it’s clean when someone sets down a stack of papers or attempts to set the dishes out for the next meal? If our family is a community of sorts, and our home is to be a place of welcome and safety and rest and sending forth, then aren’t the monotonous housekeeping tasks we perform day in and day out all a part of growing us as individuals and uniting us as a family?
Peterson speaks to these exact questions. I had hoped to write a pretty thorough book review, because I’m a nerd like that, but I don’t see it happening anytime soon. So I’ll just post a few favorite quotes. If you’re interested in the subject and curious about the book but have no desire to read every single quote, at least skip down to the last two. They’re the meatiest passages.
“Housework is akin to these natural and human rhythms of the day, the week, the year. We fix lunch because it is lunchtime. We wash the clothes or the windows because it is Monday or because it is sunny….As we engage with the litany of everyday life, we engage with life itself, with our fellow human beings, with the world in which God has set us all, and thus with God himself” (p. 20).
“Every morning, people need something to put on. Having clothes ready to wear in the drawer or in the closet is part of creating an expectation that in this home we care for one another. Our needs are not a perpetual emergency but are anticipated and provided for ahead of time as a matter of course” (p. 100).
“Meals need not be individually memorable to be nourishing. Many of a congregation’s individual celebrations of the Lord’s Supper may be largely indistinguishable from one another, and yet the sustained practice of sharing together at the Lord’s table is one of the ways the household of God is nourished and built up together over time. So too a Christian household’s shared meals may include many occasions that are rather routine, and that is the point. It is routines like these from which the fabric of our common life is woven…” (pp. 140-41).
“Efficiency can be the enemy of hospitable housekeeping, especially in the face of small or large emergencies. All too often, efficiency is just another name for being spread too thin” (p. 155).
This one sums it all up for me:
“Things do not go as planned; they always take more time than it seems they should; they have to be done twice when it seems that once should be enough. And the more complex or difficult the circumstances, the greater becomes the need for the kind of basic nurturance that housekeeping seeks to provide. People need dinner even on good days, and on bad days they need it even more.
A truly human life is one that is lived not only in life’s strengths but in its weaknesses as well. A well-kept house is thus a house in which it is safe to be weak, because the members of the household take care of one another. And in a more everyday way, it is a house in which it is safe to be hungry (there is food in the cupboard), safe to be tired (there are places to sit and places to sleep), safe to need clean socks (there are some in the drawer, and if they all happen to be in the hamper, someone will put in a load of wash soon)” (p. 155).
So the repetition of housework does have a purpose: to provide a home of safety in which all members of the household can experience the “truly human life” of both strengths and weaknesses. And this passage I just quoted makes me tear up a little bit, because I desperately desire my home to serve that need for my family and for our guests.
Peterson doesn’t stop there, though. There is a greater purpose!
“A well-kept house thus possesses a kind of sacramental quality. It is no substitute for either the kingdom of God or the church. But it is a kind of foretaste of the kingdom. A nurturing and hospitable home can be a reminder that God has always been in the business of making a home for people, that God desires that people should have the food and clothing and shelter associated with home, that one day our tattered and partial provision of these things for one another will be gloriously supplanted by God’s perfect provision of shining robes and a sumptuous feast in God’s own house.
This sacramental quality of home means that a well-kept house is a means to an end, not an end in itself” (pp. 163-64).
In discussing seemingly mundane aspects of sheltering, clothing, and feeding a household, Peterson has offered a challenge to view these tasks not as futile, but as exercises in faithfulness (p. 39); to establish routines that provide for the needs of the house and the people in it (p. 85). She’s quick to say that this does not require a large house or a hefty income or a subscription to the trendiest magazines for interior design. In fact, she speaks against these things, or at least our culture’s obsession with them.
And I like that. With our humble home and our limited resources, I can keep house in a way that provides for our needs, encourages us to care for one another and for others outside of our home, and directs our attention to God’s greater, gracious, undeserved provision.