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Routine Reflections

February 20, 2019

My mother-in-law gave me a set of seven white cotton dish towels back in the 1970s, which she had embroidered by hand in the 1940s for her hope chest but never used. Each one bore a stitched picture of a little domestic kitten—an actual kitten with whiskers, paws, and a tail—doing various house chores according to the day of the week. Monday was washing, Tuesday was ironing, Wednesday mending, Thursday marketing, Friday baking, Saturday cleaning, and Sunday resting.

That particular schedule of chores didn’t exactly fit my life at the time, but I started my years as a “Mrs.” with that mindset and desire—to take care of housekeeping tasks in a systematic way. I wanted every day of the week to unfold predictably, with only a moderate amount of wiggle room for the unexpected.

I loved those dish towels. They were decorative yet functional, playing right into my love of routine. Though very large and absorbent, they eventually began to show their age, and now after 47 years of marriage, only a couple of them have survived, rarely used these days. I think they’re folded and stored in the back of a kitchen drawer.

For the first ten years of our marriage, I taught fifth and sixth grades, so an orderly approach to housework was important since I was usually in my classroom Monday through Friday from 7:30 A.M. until 5:00 P.M. Over the course of those ten years we moved from one apartment to another and then to a small duplex, with only a meager inventory of worldly possessions. Our spartan lifestyle helped me stick to a routine at home, which in turn helped me keep on top of full-time teaching responsibilities.

As time went on, I began working on a graduate degree, started dabbling in freelance writing, switched to teaching English to college freshmen, took up needlework, held down extra summer jobs to help support us during my husband’s master’s and doctoral work, had a baby, moved to a 3-bedroom house, began writing novels, started teaching creative writing courses, graded tons and tons of papers, played on a tennis team, and helped both sets of our parents when they moved to SC, all the while acquiring more furniture, more clothing, more earthly goods.

Our days were busy but full and rewarding. My housework routine continued through all of this, with only a few corners cut here and there. Youth is a wonderful thing. It allows a person to take on more and more—a little here, a little there—while finding innovative ways of shaving effort and saving time.

The years passed one by one, and I gradually began to notice small changes. Then one day I realized it was getting harder and harder to keep the “little here” and “little there” balanced with my available time and energy.

Anyone reading this knows what eventually happens in life. All of a sudden at some point, Big Changes come along. I’m talking about the troubling kind of big changes. Maybe not in the same quantity Job experienced, but it comes to us all—trouble, as the sparks fly upward. Mine started more than four years ago. Two overlapping family crises knocked me off my feet. A year later I knew it was time to retire from teaching, but that certainly didn’t fix everything. The Big Changes were still there and still hard to face every morning. New developments brought increasing complications.

The thought of washing on Monday and ironing on Tuesday and all the rest was almost laughable now. Even ordinary chores like going to the grocery store or ironing a shirt made me feel like Sisyphus pushing that boulder up the hill. Some of the meals I put on the table during this time were truly pathetic. I remember looking at one of them—a sad plateful of leftovers I set in front of Dan one night before he had to leave for a rehearsal. The picture is branded in my mind: five little dabs of incongruous food items, all recycled—lima beans, spaghetti, gummy rice, overcooked broccoli, and a single grilled chicken strip slathered with barbecue sauce. It was enough to make me laugh or cry. But I had forgotten how to do the former, and I had done too much of the latter, so I simply stared.

Thankfully, Dan went with the flow. We were both struggling in our own ways, but we knew the other was trying hard to hold things together, so we didn’t waste our energy complaining about little matters like food or neglected house chores.

Fast forward to 2019. Somehow more than four years have passed.

Time doesn’t heal all wounds, of course, but it can give the wounded a new perspective. Though we have been slow and imperfect learners, we know God has used our trouble for our good and his glory. The cliché is true: God does his deepest work in our darkest times. No need to elaborate on that, except to acknowledge that we can cooperate with that deep work or fight against it. I have done both and recommend cooperating.

(Let me pause here and offer a heartfelt thank-you to those of you who contacted me after reading my last newsletter back in May 2018. I appreciated all the encouraging words to keep writing, “mistakes and all,” and I’m happy to report that I’m back at work on the manuscript I referenced in that newsletter. It will need a good bit of tidying and tightening when I finish the first draft, but at least it’s moving steadily forward.)

So now another Big Change is headed our way, but this is one we know is coming: My husband will be retiring at the end of this school year, so we will both be home together all day. I get all kinds of responses from other women when I share this news, everything from sympathetic hugs to smiles and applause, comments from “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry” to “You’re just going to love it!” People are asking Dan, “What are you going to do with all your free time?” and he’s thinking up various corny answers.

I have an idea that my love of routine may be challenged a bit in the days to come, but I’m preparing myself. It’s never too late to try to learn the art of flexibility, right? Notice I said try. I’ve suggested to Dan that this will be a good time to divvy up the house chores so we can both enjoy more free time, a suggestion he has met each time with a quick change of subject.

And since retirement means a “fixed income,” we’ll surely be looking at ways to trim our budget--for example, washing our dishes by hand instead of using the dishwasher. I’ve told Dan about the good memories I have of doing the dishes every night with my sister when we were growing up. We sang duets as we worked. I suggested to Dan recently that he and I can do that, too. Another quick change of subject.

But I've checked the kitchen drawers anyway to see if I could find those vintage dish towels, and I did.