Reflections on Chores


Ported over from my old blog.

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for a while, as it’s something I find myself thinking of often. People’s relationship to chores has fascinated me since I was in college. I had a boyfriend who introduced me to the idea of walking meditation, and while I was unaware of what is known as “dynamic meditation” at that time, it seemed to me the general principle could apply to other repetitive, relatively mindless actions.

Later in college, I was introduced to Albert Borgmann’s notion of focal practices which comes, ultimately, from Heidegger. This blog post cannot be a crash course in Heideggerian ontology, so if you want to know more about the philosophical foundations of what I’m talking about, follow the links or, you know, go read Being and Time (heh). Briefly, focal practices are those that focus our attention on the physical world, the world of physical being. They ask us to pay attention to our surroundings, to our traditions, to our people, to the physicality of our being. When they are personal, such as the focal practices of learning an instrument or hiking or running, they encourage us to consider our own place in the world, to pursue individual excellence, to open ourselves to a sense of awe and wonder that makes us fall silent in the face of the divine that is in the world. When they are communal, such as communal celebrations (think anything from a St. Patrick’s Day parade to your nightly family dinner), they call us to certain ways of being: in tune with all that surrounds us and the ways these events unfold, at ease with the people around us, even strangers, in harmony with the flow of daily life. Our attention is focused in a way that encourages gratitude and grace.

But focal practices are practices; they require work of some sort, work which must focus your attention on the world around you and the daily life you live, work that can be pursued with a mind to excellence. No, that doesn’t mean family dinner will be excellent every night, but cooking is a skill one can pursue with a mind to getting better and making the best food (to the tastes and nutritional needs of the family, of course) one can. To use another example, I play the guitar. I do not do it well, and I will never be Eric Clapton. I can still get better through habitual application of focus. Doing so attunes me both to my body and the physical nature of the instrument and sound itself and also puts me in harmony with the very human tradition of making music with one’s hands. I sing all the time, too, and while I will never be Ella Fitzgerald, I’m OK with that; I sing because I love music, I love the habit of making music with my own vocal cords, and my family loves to hear my voice, even if it’s not the very best, because it’s mine.

What does this have to do with chores? I’ve already mentioned cooking, for one thing. But other chores bear mentioning. Doing chores habitually and with attention to detail is a focal practice of sorts. Oh, it may not be as interesting as playing the guitar, or cooking, but chores focus our attention on our physical surroundings and the nature of our lives in the world. Or they do if we let them.

It seems to me (and to Albert Borgmann, not coincidentally) that we do not let them. We consider them only burdens and we try to disburden ourselves of chores whenever possible, and when we cannot, we try to distract ourselves through them instead of focusing. We do them half-assedly, without attention to detail. We complain and gripe to let our families know that their physical needs, whether for dinner or clean sheets or a bathtub drain that works properly, are an inconvenience to us. We’d rather not deal with it, with them.

But there is no grace or gratitude in that life. There is no room for the 5 minutes of peace in feeding the chickens and watching them settle into their nests at sunset. There isn’t space for lighthearted conversation with the baby during the diaper change. There is no allowance for the love of one’s spouse or children to enter one’s heart while folding their laundry. One doesn’t feel grateful for being alive or feel awe at our presence here on earth but instead feels constantly dissatisfied and grumpy.

I cook for my family of 4 pretty much every night. When I say “cook,” I mean nearly all of it is from scratch, using raw ingredients. Dinner usually takes an hour or so to prep and cook. Still, a Thermomix does not appeal to me. I usually do not cook fancy food, and we don’t eat a genoise or a bechamel nearly often enough that this would make any difference to my normal cooking routine. But more importantly, it’s a technological disburdening, a distraction from the meditative, focal quality of repetitive kitchen tasks and the cooking process.

I am not completely anti-gadget. I use my immersion blender and stand mixer with some regularity, although I tend to use them because they do something better than I could (or would likely) do by hand. I have a food processor, even, that I use primarily when I am canning and have to chop, say, 25 lbs of peaches or tomatoes in a single day. I have 3 or 4 slow cookers and use them abundantly to slow cook roasts and stews, although when we used a wood-burning stove for heat in Idaho, I often slow cooked my roasts and stews on top of the wood stove.

The time I spend cooking is necessary to me as a transition from the work of one part of the day (in the afternoons, I am often busy online, whether paying bills or doing research for the book I’m working on) to a more focused and unhurried time with my family. I don’t want to be thinking of some annoying thing that happened online or some problem I’m stuck on in the book or in learning Haskell during dinner. I want to be focused solely on my family and conversation and celebration of our life together while we eat. The meditative nature of cooking gives me the space to make that transition and focuses me. Because they often hang out in the kitchen while I cook and frequently help with the preparations, it focuses them, too. And by the time we all sit down, we’re attentive to each other and we are gathered together in a gracious ritual.

I am not saying that I am perfectly gracious and attentive at all times. I sometimes distractedly cook, kvetch while I’m doing it, and sit down at the table grumpy and unfocused. It happens. We are not, any of us, perfect at all we aspire to be. However, as Aristotle would say, excellence is a habit; the more often I engage in chores in a focal way, the easier it is to do it again and the less burdensome it feels.

Further reading on Borgmann and his philosophy of technology.

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