Betty Duffy

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

"Things are...O.K."

It may be that the hallmark of the modern moment is a certain demi-pleasurable drift—the timeless unspooling of information and entertainment on the Internet, Twittering, partial employment, life spans getting longer (even as the economy shrinks), no end to the reproductive years, midlife reinventions, TiVo-ing everything, four-day-week job furloughs—accompanied by a free-floating melancholy. If the last century crashed into the forces of urbanization, fragmentation and world war, this one seems to be on an endless murmuring skid. Things are…O.K. You know. They’re O.K. Click, click. There’s so much time, at least for some people, but it’s filled with doubts about what, exactly, to do. We can often be a bit frictionless, here at the end of the first decade of the new century. When we’re not feeling postapocalyptic, we hover, paralyzed by choice and what can seem a lack of final consequences.”—Stacy D’Erasmo, The New York Times Book Review, June 27, 2010

D’Erasmo writes what may be the best description I’ve read of culture in the year 2010, and puts into words a gut feeling I’ve had, but have been unable to express: “I’m O.K. Click, click,” melancholy aside.

I embarked on motherhood in the year 2000, loving every pound I gained, kneading my bread dough by hand, and imagining all the songs I would sing to these children I had not yet had. I cooked my husband breakfast in the morning. I plucked the weeds from my garden. And occasionally, until my belly grew too rotund, and then little fingers interfered with my bow, I still played the cello.

It’s a good thing I began with such gusto, because I have counted on the inertia from my first swing at the plate to keep me going for all of these ten years, not without diminishing speed. One by one, certain cares of mine have fallen to the wayside. Purchased bread is a major convenience when one has five kids. The garden reproaches me every time I look out the window, but I’m O.K. Click, click. There was so much I had planned to do.

My cousin has a beautiful, clean home in a charming urban neighborhood with lots of fun restaurants. Sometimes, when I visit her, I struggle with envy. On a recent visit, I asked her how she manages to home school, cook delicious, mostly whole and organic meals, and still have clean baseboards.

“It helps to start with something new, or a fresh coat of paint,” she said, “and then you just care enough to keep it up.” I had hoped she’d admit to relying on some sort of wizardry that would put those clean baseboards out of my reach, like having a closet support staff or a weekly cleaning lady. Then I could chalk it up to her life being different than mine, or special, and I could go on not giving a rip about my baseboards.

But if the difference between her clean baseboards and my dirty ones, her home-cooked meals and my last minute improvisations is just a matter of choosing to care or not care, then I really have no right to my envy. I should not expect my baseboards, which in some corners of the house have not been addressed since we moved here, to look like hers.

And if I don’t care about the foods going into my mouth, I can’t really be surprised when the jeans are snug. Such has been the case since we returned from vacation. After a year and a half of strict calorie counting, I got tired of caring for a few weeks. The first two weeks, nothing really changed, and I started to think that after thirty-four years of battling my hips, I could somehow eat whatever I want and not gain weight.

But weight, like dirt, is tricky. The first few days or weeks, it can go unnoticed, and then suddenly, it’s there...five pounds of it. And one either begins to care, immediately, slow down on the food, wipe up the dust, or one says, “I’ll do it tomorrow,” which really means, “not for a long time.”

I remember a Confession I made many years ago, which was notable not for what I confessed, but for what the priest told me, which is that I need to care enough to come back to Confession frequently, and to examine my conscience every day. “If you sweep the floor often, the dirt doesn’t have a chance to collect. And if you sweep it everyday, it stays quite clean.”

I’ve grown a bit tired of my slacker posture. Saturday afternoon, not looking at the clock until 6 P.M., and darn, I've missed Confession again. I look at pictures on facebook or blogs of the beautiful meals other people are eating for dinner, and I smirk a bit to myself about how they haven’t captured for all of posterity their child misbehaving, or a fight they’ve had with their spouse. No, they’ve captured the sun shining on their ethnic cuisine. Well don’t they have it good? They must have their stuff together. I don’t have my stuff together, but at least … I’m approachable—right? I’m O.K. Click, click.

And yet, by my apathy, I am nowhere near where I want to be. Who cares about whether or not I make my own bread or have a clean home? I do, actually. At least I once cared very much. I'm ready to start caring again.


entropy said...

paralyzed by choice and what can seem a lack of final consequences.

I'm ready to start caring again.

Cheers and amen to that!

Peter and Nancy said...

I read something two years ago about being an "alpha" mom (organic or handmade everything, homemade playdough, room mother at school, uber-organized) or a "beta" mom (happy to be a good-enough mom, letting the baths go for one more day so we can stay outside later, buying snacks instead of making them so we can have friends over, being okay with messes, etc.)

It's hard for me to figure out if I'm really a beta mom or just lazy. I think when I'm taking the path of least resistance, it's laziness . . . and when I don't tend to details because the river is calling, or we all have great library books to read, then I'm choosing beta over perfection.

BettyDuffy said...

Nancy, I think that's a good point. There really are times when I feel like I'm doing all that I can. And when free time arrives, I can choose to spend it cleaning my baseboards, or doing something...else. What do I value more, a clean house, or a chance to unwind? In the moment, the chance to unwind is always preferable. In the long run though, I wish I had a clean house as a backdrop to those times when I'm doing all I can (and to my leisure, for that matter).

Young Mom said...

Wow, that was a very interesting quote! I struggle with feeling motivated to do some stuff around the house because it feels pointless. And like you say, some days its all I can do to keep everyone alive over here. But on the days I do have some spare time, I'm learning to balance it on things that I love to do. I love to bake, so I push myself to do it with my kids. Cleaning my baseboards? Not so much. I think you are right on the money in pointing out that we should do the things that are important to us, even if it takes more work than just clicking on the computer.

Hope said...

Last week DH was gone for a few days and I spent some of that time deep cleaning. I found my desk and my office floor again. I'm sure the floor hadn't been washed in 6 months. I poured some of that floor polish on my kitchen floor, grateful for the shiny finish that makes me feel like I might have a chance someday of having an organized, clean house.
Later that day when I bent over to put something recyclable by the garbage can I thought "People who keep clean houses go put this where it belongs the first time. They don't make two trips instead of one." I'm embarrassed to say that was a whole new thought for me. Then I thought about how they also sweep their floors on a daily basis and put things away after they use them instead of letting them fall where they may.
None of this comes naturally for me. I have a friend who cleans her bathroom mirror while she is brushing her teeth. I have to remember to brush my teeth in the first place! But cleaning her mirror comes naturally to her.
We are all so different.

wifemotherexpletive said...

indifference? or an appreciation for things other than outer? clean baseboards ? nice, but of what use? i'm ready to start caring for the 'larger than nice' category...
well chosen quote there, as well.

Celeste said...

Great post--lots to think about here!

I think it all comes down to a matter of priorities--no one can do it all. My husband likes a tidy home and healthy food, so those are priorities for me. I feel like some time to run and some time to read are essential for me, so those go on the list as well. Caring for the kids--bodies, minds, souls--is, of course, the entire foundation of my life at home. And beyond that short list, there's not much time for anything else right now. Again, no one can do it all.

And you know what the real secret is? Teach the kids to clean the baseboards while you unwind. ;)

Anonymous said...

I can't tell you how much I love your blog. I think that we would be friends (and I'm in Illinois, so you can always stop by:) I have six kids, starting in '98, and I can relate to pretty much everything that you write. I have a clean house- but, like today, I am walking through concrete trying to get anything done. Sometimes my clean house is more important to me than the things that I'm supposed to be concerned with- because the messiness makes me feel crazy and out-of-control. I think that having a clean house makes things manageable- but sometimes I feel very unmanageable getting there. Some friends and I meet with our priest for a, sort-of, group spiritual direction every other month. The topic last time was "battle-weariness". When I heard the topic it made me cry, because I thought "that's it!" I'm so very tired and rest isn't restful and I'm homesick for Jesus and my very best efforts are getting me nowhere. I guess what I'm saying is that, clean house or messy house, it all comes down to whether I'm trying self-propelle myself through my life or if I'm actually going to God just to breathe and take one step after the other. I am seeing that I can't do ANYTHING outside of the grace of God. And the only thing I really want to do is love- and that I especially can't do on my own. The Bible says that love covers a multitude of sins. I have the multitude of sins down, but I need to learn how to love. That's it. And I am just blown away by how impossible that is for me on my own. I love reading your blog because you are so real in it- and I truly see myself in your writing, but you also help me to understand how much God loves us and delights in us- particularly in our struggles. I can be so hard on myself (pride) instead of just expecting myself to be wretched and throwing myself in God's arms with trust. Anyway, thank you for being so brave and honest.

Melissa D said...

I think it's easy, too easy, to fall into a false protection of self on these issues. As in, "if my baseboards are dusty I'm just keeping it real" or "I don't need to make worldly statements with my fashion choices". Or whatever. Perhaps my way of dressing or keeping up the house does not matter, compared to the internal sins of temper I battle. And yet my good days, after 3 kids in less than 4 years, are those where I write less and spend more time in service to my family, doing the things I used to call chores. (Oh, and I'm making fig jam today, bread tomorrow.) :-)

BettyDuffy said...

The realization I'm reaching is that a clean house, being a well-dressed and well-kempt person, and the prickly dark corners of each I'd rather ignore--really DO matter. Everyone wants to be in the clean room in the house. It's the canvas that allows creativity to have its way. My kids can't play legos when they are spread out by the millions on their bedroom floor. But put them back in the box, and suddenly, they are full of ideas.

My husband and I have been on sort of a work binge this summer. Had our floors refinished in our bedroom so we removed every article of clothing and furniture from their places. It was my fresh start, and I was very careful about what I brought back in to put away. A load of stuff went to Goodwill, and now I can see the back corners in the closet, and the openness feels delightful.

The kids love to see us working. When we did our bathroom recently, we made them play outside all day so we could get stuff done, and they took it as a matter of course. "I am ignoring you right now because I love you, and I want to create for you a functional and respectable home." They were like "Fine, Mom and Dad are working."

When I send them out to play so I can read, talk on the phone, or Internet, it feels like I'm saying, "I am ignoring you right now because I love ME, and I don't give a shit about the pigsty you live in. Just stay out of my hair."
Is there a time and a place for that attitude? Probably--depending on how thin the lines between sanity and insanity are hanging at the moment. It does not feel good to me to play that card every day, however. And the kids know when I'm playing it, somehow, and manage to hang around anyway and make themselves doubly annoying. It's a lose/lose situation.

Anyway, I made my first pie this week (I must be manic)-- organic peach because I never got around to spraying the fruit trees. Had to roll out the crust between wax paper with a baseball bat because I don't have a rolling pin, and the kids got very excited about the idea of pie. They hated it of course. And I have to admit, I've tasted better. But it was all I could do to keep from taking a picture of it sitting on my windowsill in the evening sun. I so would have put it on facebook.

Claire said...

There are those God made who are born organized and there are those like me who just manage to get through the day. God never gave me children and I can only imagine what a mess my life would be if he had done so.

I'm finally motivated to go to Confession more frequently, and believe me it took *years* to get here.

Go to The woman who started this site was not born organized, but has managed to create a system that keeps a home pretty darn clean, or close to clean. I have to get all the clutter out of my house and I have to start following her ways again. She is good.

God Bless! You'll get there...motivation to change is a start...oh how I know. LOL!!!

Melanie B said...


Have you read Acedia and Me by Kathleen Norris? I wonder if the "Things are OK. Click, click," phenomenon isn't symptomatic of acedia. It's not that baseboards matter in themselves: it's the spiritual apathy that underlies ignoring them that's the problem.

BettyDuffy said...

I have not read it, but I did read Sally's post on the subject and found much food for thought. I think there is definitely a connection.

mrsdarwin said...

A few years ago I read this supposed humor column in a Catholic magazine where the mother was laughing about how messy her house was and how things were disgusting all the time, but what really mattered were the kids, etc. And I didn't laugh -- I was completely appalled and for the first time thought, "I don't want to live like that and I don't want my kids to remember me like this." Because sometime mess isn't funny, it's just slovenly.

Melanie B said...

Mrs D,

To me that's the hardest balance to strike. To care and not to care.

I need to be able to care when I can do something about it, which is most of the time, but I also need to be able to detach, to stop obsessing about the mess when I just physically can't do anything more than making sure the kids are dressed, fed and safe. The last few births I've let my worry about the mess make me into a shrew. I wanted everyone else to keep my house in the kind of order I would keep it in. Going easy on myself when recovering is hard because sometimes I'm too much of a perfectionist. And yet I find it too easy to slide into sloth. If I can't do it perfectly, why bother at all?

Melissa D said...

Only a few comments but they are so helpful to me this weekend!

ps - when I said "write less" I didn't mean you, if that came across wrong. I'm a writer by trade and so for me I'm learning the importance of less obsessing over my (ha) career and more attentive presence at home, that's all. :-)

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Choosing to care or not care -- aye, that's the rub!

Your post really hit me because that's the problem I'm struggling with right now.

Right now I don't feel much incentive to care about housecleaning, the growth of clutter, cooking meals. And part of the reason is that I don't have anyone to work for or to share the fruits of my labor with. (I'm widowed and the only adult child at home refuses to eat anything I cook.) I know I should exert myself to make nice balanced meals because I'm diabetic. But I just end up eating bits of things because it's hard to care.

But it's also more than that because if I really wanted to I could cook nice meals and invite over my mom who lives just next door. But it seems like I just don't care enough to exert myself, so we're probably looking at some acedia here.

Anyway, your post gives me something to chew on.

TS said...

Back in the late 19th and early 20th century the Irish were famously more lazy about housekeeping than the more fastidious Germans. So it seems like there's a cultural component. My own great-grandparents were a "mixed marriage" of Irish and German, and the German side always looked down on the Irish side in that area.

Peggy Noonan tried to put the best spin on negligent housekeeping by calling spiderwebs "Irish lace" and by saying the reason the Irish don't keep their houses pristine was because who has time to clean when there is Joyce and Yeats to read?

BettyDuffy said...

CathBib, I think you hit on a point with the cooking--If I'm the only one who's going to enjoy it, why bother? Sadly, the kind of cooking I really enjoy doing goes unappreciated by the hubby and kids, because it's not sausage. And my hips really don't need to enjoy my cooking too much.

TS, I'm afraid I can't blame my bad housekeeping on heredity. Ironically, I am mostly German/Dutch, not a drop of Irish, and all the ladies in my bloodline keep house quite nicely. My husband's a bit Irish, but he's a better housekeeper than I am. I might be able to blame Keats and Yeats though.

BettyDuffy said...

I should add, I exaggerate my sloth. The house actually has looked pretty good since I wrote this post.