HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) Updated April 15, 2012
Someone tweeted me the other day with the message, “I hope the housework has been kind to you…. LOL.”
She was referring to life here in Sydney where people have no household help and thus do all the work at home. Here, cleaning, washing dishes, wiping the tables, checking the mail, taking out the trash, doing the laundry, fixing the beds, cooking, mowing the lawn, and other mundane chores are all part of the daily routine.
Pinoys who live abroad often complain about having to do all these chores and not having time left for what they really want to. Although I agree with them and count myself among those who whine about housework, I do so with some reservation. Because, well, I admit, I often (okay, sometimes) enjoy housework.
This article is in praise of the unglamorous, repetitive, and often regarded as insignificant task that is housework.
I grew up in Manila and our family always had maids or kasambahay. They came to the family when they were very young and stayed on until they died or retired at an old age. The family treated them well. In fact, they became part of our family. When Inay, the oldest of my Mom’s house help died, my Mom gave up her own memorial plan to be used for Inay’s wake and burial.
At home in Manila, our Nita has been with us for 26 years. The other kasambahay and the driver have also stayed for almost that long. They are now getting old and we are looking after their medical needs.
When Lydia and I were married, we rented an apartment and decided we did not want household help. We wanted to be alone and do things for ourselves. But when we had our first child and moved to our own house, which was bigger and had a garden, we decided that we needed help.
But here in Sydney, we do everything mostly ourselves. Lydia, who has stayed here longer than I have and who has higher standards of cleanliness, functionality and aesthetics, does a lot of things herself. She knows every nook and cranny of the house and the things in it and is aware of what needs fixing, improving or changing. In the process, she has learned some rudimentary carpentry, and she can assemble and disassemble furniture, fix cabinets, align drawers, upholster chairs. She also sews, fixes curtains, paints the interiors of our house, mows the lawn, trims the hedge, etc.
Although I can also do a lot of those things (okay, maybe only some) I admit I play second fiddle to her. In other words, Lydia is the boss and I follow her instructions.
But I do feel some secret joy in sweeping the terrace, scrubbing the floor or mopping the living area. I feel good doing physical work. For one, it gets me off my butt and makes my body active. Housework can be compared to a workout except that one is not dressed for the gym and doing repetitive movements with machines. I also experience a thrill in seeing previously shabby, dirty areas looking spotless after I am done with them.
Aside from the pride I feel about a job well done, there is a spiritual dimension to housework. There is a Zen story where a student asked an old master what Zen was. The master answered by saying, “Get that stick and clean the shit over there.”
If you were expecting a deep answer, I hope you are not disappointed. Zen, in its simplicity, can sound anywhere from cheeky to perplexing with appropriate answers to someone looking for a special spiritual high or an esoteric experience. Zen is not about active seeking or attaining some spiritual peak but doing what needs to be done, and doing it with full attention and presence. And in the process, maybe a great transcendent realization may happen.
Washing the dishes in a quiet moment and being one with the experience is suggestive of a religious metaphor. It is like confession or baptism where one’s sins or imperfections are washed away clean and one is restored anew. It makes me feel good.
The Benedictines say, “Ora et Labora,” “To labor is to pray.” I agree. The sayings about earning one’s keep or singing for one’s supper may be old school but it is perennially true. Work is good for both the body and the soul. There is a good feeling that accompanies a body that is aching due to work when it rests at the end of the day. Something was earned and it was done in an honest way.
At the same time, however, I can understand the common resistance to doing physical work. It is hard, uncomfortable, it strains the body, and can give it pain. I do not seek it nor do I always volunteer to do it, but when I have to, I resign myself and do the best I can. When that moment of resignation is reached, I welcome the opportunity and immerse myself in the task, even enjoying the sweat my body produces from the physical activity.
“Sweat cleanses from the inside. It comes from places a shower will never reach,” wrote the late author-runner-philosopher George Sheehan. How true. A drink of water after working replenishes the body in such a basic way. Compare that to just sitting around aimlessly drinking a soda or sipping coffee while doing nothing.
There is something spiritual that underlies all the biological activity, if we care to listen to it. Every movement is best done purposefully, especially if it is hard to do. That is the way to make the job better and to feel better about doing it. You cannot enjoy it if all you want is to finish it as soon as possible.
Lastly, a word about laziness. I agree with the late psychiatrist and best-selling author M. Scott Peck, that laziness has to be the biggest sin of all. To only seek pleasure and shun all work, to not want to try at all is to turn away from life itself.
To cap, François Gaston, Duc de Lévis, who commanded the French forces in Canada in the 1700s, had this to say about work: “Boredom is a sickness the cure for which is work; pleasure is only a palliative.”
Now you’ll have to excuse me while I store some boxes in the garage.
* * *
1) To my Singapore readers, I will be doing a one afternoon workshop there on April 28. It will be fun and we will learn a lot from each other. Call Earla Aquino at +65-82336595 for details. Reserve now. A few slots left.
2) Manila readers, I will have a Basic Photo Workshop on May 14 from 1 to 6 p.m. in QC, P3,920. Call 0916-8554303 and ask for Olie, or write me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.