The Joy of Housekeeping – finding focus, meaning, and gratitude in routine chores

There was a time in my life when I got excited to take a personal day from work just to catch-up on housekeeping. Full-time jobs and kids’ busy schedules meant there were never enough hours in the day to keep up with cleaning, cooking, laundry, and yard work. Now that I’m a retired empty-nester, I have plenty of time for routine chores which have always offered a comforting, grounding rhythm to my life.

As a college student, I couldn’t settle in for a serious study session until my dorm room or apartment was spick-and-span. I wasn’t just procrastinating. Getting my environment in order was part of my study ritual. Doing basic household chores can help us practice the focus required for other areas of life.

In a wonderful little book called A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind, a Shin-Buddhist monk shares how cleaning methods employed in Zen temples can be used “as a way to cultivate the mind.” It’s a similar lesson to the one we learned from the karate kid’s Mr. Miyagi when he instructed, “Wax on. Wax off.”

After years of unavoidable multi-tasking, I enjoy giving my full attention to a specific task such as cleaning a window, ironing a shirt, or filling the birdbath. It’s during that time when I often come up with my best ideas.

Especially as we get older, routine chores can give structure and meaning to our days. My husband and I both love creating a happy, welcoming home for each other, as well as for friends and family.

Since retiring, my husband has taken over the cooking. He plans the menus, shops for the best ingredients, and takes his time in the kitchen to lovingly prepare delicious and healthy meals. My domain is still cleaning and laundry. I have a daily schedule that helps me accomplish all of my housekeeping within the week.

We both have our own interests and hobbies, but cheerfully doing our daily chores is part of our love language, and they get us up and going when motivation is running a little low. During the pandemic, when nothing seems normal, routine chores add some consistency to our days.

Going about my housework, I can’t help but be filled with gratitude. There’s so much for which to be thankful. Floors to sweep. Clothes to launder. Dishes to wash. Pillows to fluff. Leaves to rake.

As we get older, we naturally have more time to take care of our homes and, I’ve found, more appreciation for each and every day of our life. I recall folding my children’s tiny clothes with only a vague understanding of how quickly they would outgrow them. I held the soft cotton onesies to my nose and inhaled their sweet smell, pausing for just a moment before rushing off to do something more pressing.

These days, there isn’t so much tugging for my attention. As I dust the piano, prune the geraniums, and hang up my husband’s shirts, I’m intensely aware of the simple pleasure it brings me.

Our lives go through dramatic transitions, but one thing that never changes is the necessity of household chores. There were times when I desperately needed a maid or a fairy godmother to keep it all together. At this stage in my life, I’m glad for the time and perspective to view housekeeping as something that brings me focus, meaning, gratitude and, yes, even joy.

To Everything There is a Season

As summer turns to fall, I feel an equal sense of sadness and anticipation. I will miss warm sunny days spent outdoors but look forward to cozy chilly evenings curled up by a glowing fire. Similar mixed emotions can appear when we say goodbye to one season of life and step into another.

As we travel through our lives, we are like tourists passing through towns and villages with names like childhood, adolescence, adulthood, parenthood, empty nest, retirement and old age. As much as we may wish to permanently settle in any one of those places, we must move on.

Although seasons of life are often of equal length, do you find the journey through each one speeds up as we get older? Looking back, my first twenty years or so seem to take up the most space on my personal timeline.

The same number of years spent raising my children was a blink of an eye. Thirty years as a teacher was a snap of my fingers. It’s as if I was looking out a car window and watching it pass by in a blur.

I miss it like I miss summertime.

Then I remember a favorite Bible verse ~ To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. King Solomon employs the poetic device of repetition to illustrate the ceaseless, often antithetical, changes in life.

A time to break down, and a time to build up

A time to weep, and a time to laugh

A time to mourn, and a time to dance

Solomon reminds us there are good times and bad, and just like the changing seasons, we are not in control. The verse encourages us to enjoy each season of life, no matter what it brings, and rejoice in all of our days.

Quite honestly, I spend too much time looking in the rearview mirror. Doing so can fill me with a deep sense of longing and regret that keeps me from paying attention to the road I’m on. I suspect I’m not alone in this struggle. Perhaps that’s why Ecclesiastes 3 is a compass for so many of us sojourners. We know it as scripture and as song.

Everything is made beautiful in its time, the poet goes on to say. The carefree, verdant spring and summer of our youth fade to a season when daily responsibilities, chores and chaos scatter endlessly like falling leaves. Then, quite suddenly, our days stretch before us as empty as bare branches.

It’s fine to warm ourselves with yesterday’s memories or look forward to the future, but we are wise to show acceptance, gratitude and enthusiasm for each and every day of the exact season in which we find ourselves. §

A Poem as Lovely as a Tree

I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree… 

So begins Joyce Kilmer’s poem Trees. I was about ten when I first read the poem in a book at school. I was drawn to its uncomplicated rhythm and rhyme. At such a tender age, I was also excited to understand a poem not written for a child. Gazing out the library window, I could see Kilmer’s beautiful trees joyfully reaching towards the heavens.

I find it amusing that Mr. Kilmer’s well-known poem is sometimes disparaged for being overly simple, sweet and straightforward. Funny, because that’s exactly how I like things to be! There are more sophisticated poems about nature, but Trees was one of the first to offer me a poetic reminder to be filled with gratitude, acceptance, and humility for my own existence.

Trees

I think that I shall never see  

A poem lovely as a tree

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest

Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;

Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.

~Joyce Kilmer, 1913

Gratitude ~ Kilmer personified a tree that lifts its leafy arms to pray in appreciation for its life and the nourishment it receives from the sweet earth’s flowing breast. Like the tree, shouldn’t we rejoice and give praise for our creation and the abundance of earthly resources that allow us to live and grow?

Acceptance ~ The poet uses clear imagery to portray a tree that in summer may wear a nest of robins in its hair. The tree gladly accepts its purpose of providing shade and shelter for birds and other creatures. It may be covered deep in snow and pounding rain, yet it stands sturdy through the seasons. Can you and I accept our responsibilities and challenges with as much as grace?

Humility ~ More than one hundred years after writing this poem, Kilmer’s message still rings true. As we try to make our mark on the world in whatever way we’re led, we’d be fools to think our accomplishments could ever match the perfection found in nature. It’s humbling (and a bit of a relief) to remember no matter how creative and productive we become, man-made things will never compare to God’s handiwork.

National Poetry Month seems a perfect time for us to reflect on this poem. It encourages me to humbly, though perhaps foolishly, continue writing about the peace, joy, and gratitude I feel for nature’s beauty created by the greatest poet of all. §