The dust bunny revolution

I’d rather save the world than sweep the kitchen floor. In fact, right now I should be cleaning up the damn dust bunny beside my computer desk, but I’d rather work with ideas than dust.

I’d rather save the world than sweep the kitchen floor. In fact, right now I should be cleaning up the damn dust bunny beside my computer desk, but I’d rather work with ideas than dust.

I wish I felt differently. I wish I could see household work as a soulful practice, not an intrusion. But I’m not there yet. If I end up with spare time, my first impulse is to chip away at my advocacy and organizing job, not bake biscuits or clean neglected corners. Like the finger-wagging truism on the fridges in too many left-leaning houses says, “Everyone wants a revolution, but no one wants to do the dishes.”

Along with dishes, I put the following tasks in the category of household work: growing one’s food, cooking, cleaning, laundry and caring for children, the elderly and others who cannot manage the essentials of life (I’m referring largely to the unpaid versions of these tasks). The list could be longer, but you get the idea.

Making pickles

It’s not that I harbour categorical disdain for all such tasks. I don’t mind making pickles, I love hanging out with my little boy and I could write an article about the satisfaction of growing my own potatoes. But the truth is, I’d rather write the article than dig the potatoes. I’d rather advocate for better farm policy or organize a local food campaign than labour in the dirt. In fact, part of me would like to eat Cheerios out of a disposable bowl three times a day so I would have more time to make the world a better place.

In her playfully indicting poem, “A man has to make waves,” Robyn Sarah says household and family will “warm” a man, but “an unquiet thing in him” will drive him to make waves out in the world. I’m guilty as accused. I want to be an excellent husband, father and gardener, but that’s not all I want. Of course, it’s not only men who are afflicted with extra-domestic compulsions, but gender dynamics are a key factor in the devaluation of household work.

Other cultural biases join with gender factors to enforce a hierarchy among different kinds of work. One could say that progress itself – a cultural cornerstone – is a move away from household work. Progress moves us “beyond” subsistence, which bears a resemblance to household work, and beyond manual labour, a category into which most household tasks fall. In her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver laments the “powerful presumption that education is a key to moving away from manual labour and dirt.” Education prepares us to do “more” than “just” household duties.

Amount of work

Cultural value is also attached to the amount of work done. The common success stories are of tireless people who achieve. Workaholism may carry some negative connotation, but its results are regularly lauded. Productivity reigns, often at the expense of the household.

Part of me would like to eat Cheerios out of a disposable bowl … so I would have more time to make the world a better place.

This value system has shaped me all too much. It has also shaped the “progressive” world-changer subculture. There are exceptions – Gandhi and Dorothy Day come to mind – but look at progressive media and note which sort of people are held up and why. They’re more likely educated, well-travelled (the further from home the better) overachievers making their mark in the world than people who cut back their NGO hours to care for aging parents.

Unlearning these values is essential to creating a better world, even if it decreases our productivity. In my slow attempt to rearrange my perspective on work, I try to focus on living out fairness in all aspects of my life. I remind myself that if I don’t do household work, someone else will, whether that’s my wife, a migrant cucumber picker in California, or an energy-sucking Cheerio-making machine. My aversion to household work implies that some people (like me) should do “important” work while others do the unimportant work. This hierarchy hardly seems like the path to a fairer world.

Extract ourselves

Exploitation is often related to the fact that some work is considered more important than other work, and, as an extension, some people are considered more important than others. When we do our own work, we extract ourselves, at least in some cases, from exploitative dynamics.

This also provides occasion for practical solidarity. When I’m bent over a row of onions, I experience solidarity with people bent over in fields around the world. The same is true when I’m cleaning the toilet or washing clothes (at least if I can quit grumbling and become present to the task). This solidarity, limited though it is, can add an element of ritual to my work.

Household work has a leveling and humbling quality. As such, it is the perfect antidote to ego-laiden wave-making. And perhaps it is exactly those qualities of household work that make it more vital to creating a better world than my productivity.

All that said, writing about it is easier than actually readjusting gut-level impulses. In the end, the best I have is Robyn Sarah’s advice. She says the only way to still the “yen to make waves” is to “seize it by the horns / and offer it up to God.” That’s more poetic than specific, but maybe discovering the poetry and art of household work is exactly the point.

Will Braun is a former editor of Geez.

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Issue 17, Spring 2010

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