Thursday, March 19, 2020

The politics of housekeeping: Plague edition, part 1

It's on us, now

Well dear knitters, I am back (for the moment, anyway) and here we are. On our own.

The TV “president” provided no leadership at any time during his term, provides none now. To his surprise (but not mine or yours) posturing is not leadership, the stock market is not the common good, de-funding public health does not make our country healthier, dosing us with hatred does not leave our country stronger to face challenges. 

We're well into the 21st century, yet medieval-style plague stalks the land. It’s left to us to deal, as best we can.

It’s not our first go-round as a species with terrifying diseases. Lines of gravestones all marked the same dates bear witness in old churchyards: we have been here before. Yet, equally, the fact that you are here walking around means life went on for your particular ancestors. Hopefully, this episode, it will go on for us and our loved ones.


"Somebody has to do something, and it's just incredibly pathetic that it has to be us.”—Jerry Garcia

As science discovered root causes of disease, governmental regulation followed (often by popular demand, not benevolence). Hygiene improved greatly. Therefore, housekeeping techniques developed in former times became outdated.

Milk no longer had to be boiled when it came into the house (although my Austrian grandmother did it til she died). Eggs no longer had to be broken into a glass one-by one to test freshness (although my US "farm-wife" MIL did that til she died). Instead, governmental regulation assured that milk was pasturized and eggs were tested. Regulation assured our health.

Now, that compact has been broken. Regulation in China failed in ways unknowable to us: did this plague arise in a market where wild aimals were butchered in unhygienic ways right next to still-live animals? Was it research gone mad as some believe? Will we ever know? Does it even matter?

The fact is, once this disease was loose and running, a failure of our own governments—those of Europe and the US—was equally bad: head in the sand has been the order of the day. “We have it totally under control,” and “take the family out to eat” was governmental officials' advice until it was suddenly wasn't, and “stay in your home” and “the border is closed” became the watchword. Government of denial by the ignorant. What a world.

Although fast, reliable tests are freely available elsewhere, here in the US, that is not the case.  My husband is on day 13 of his voluntary isolation because he had a cough and fever. Has he got coronavirus? The fever is gone, and the cough almost, but who knows if he can come out and walk among us? Or, should he stay holed up for weeks yet?

If we are all very lucky indeed, after-the-fact regulation such as shut-downs and border closings may slow this situation down until some genius emerges from anonymity to save us with a vaccine or a treatment.

But until then—and best guesses are perhaps as much as 18 months—we are on our own. 

Why focus on housekeeping?

To be clear: I don’t think milk and eggs are in any danger today of being contaminated and causing sickness—boiling milk and cracking eggs one-by-one are indeed outdated housekeeping. 

But other kinds of health-oriented housekeeping which we used to think are outdated? Perhaps those old ways are not so outdated after all.

Once an old-school plague stalks your doorstep, old-school methods may have more to tell us than we once believed. In short, the ancient and honorable tradition of housekeeping is, imho, due to make a return, demanding far more attention than it has received in recent years. 

“It’s like a dance, where you keep practicing the steps”—DS

Yes, I know. No one wants to hear that housekeeping is a priority. Let’s face it. Housekeeping has a baaaaaaad name. It's hard work.  It's hard to make yourself do it. It’s boring. Repetitive. Women’s work. 

In my family of European mutts from all over the continent—housework was indeed exclusively done by women. But make no mistake. It was women’s work by sad tradition, not by deficiency of talent or intelligence. These women were clever—one was offered a math scholarship to the Sorbonne in Paris (but chose to marry and have 10 (!!) children instead). One oversaw a (multi-person) law and real estate office as a side endeavor. One was a University-trained accountant who postponed having children or marrying for years (and was the only woman in any of her math classes)…oh I could go on. Yet, with all the intelligence at their command, and immense unceasing effort, these women were serious, dedicated 24/7 housekeepers. 

As a young person, it was my privilege (although I certainly did not see it that way at the time) to know these women: to visit, and in some cases (my grandmother every summer) to live in their households. It is my thesis that their methods, their rules, their labor and their observations have something to tell us in our current situation, about running a healthy household.

Am I saying that old-school housekeeping is the be-all answer to the COVID-19 virus? I am not—that would be an absurd claim. But I am saying that housekeeping practices formed in a time when contagious illness was routinely prevalent may well have some value now.

Obviously, by taking the trouble to write all this out, you can tell that I myself do believe it would be a valuable tool in the fight where we are on our own to keep our loved ones as healthy as possible. Empirical observation and practice are not to be scorned—people of former generations weren’t any less clever than we today: even if they didn’t exactly know *why* things worked, they saw *what* things worked, and they lived in a time when far more people died of contagious disease than has been the case until now.  Even if these traditional practices only tilt the scales a little, I would find them worthwhile.

But before we get into the how-to of house work (next installment) the first how-to is a "how-do?" How do you get yourself to actually commit to doing this kind of repetitive, repetitive, repetitive work?  

I once asked a professional housekeeper, initials DS—not a relative, but a woman who all her life had earned a living as a housekeeper of other people’s houses—whether she didn’t find the work boring. She said that she had, indeed found it so at the beginning of her career. But as she went along, it became like a dance: variations on a theme, and always practicing the steps, perhaps in slightly different order, or with slightly different emphasis. By paying attention to these details, she said, she became enmeshed in the dance of housekeeping. She was in high demand, and had the same clients for years on end, and kept a waiting list, so I guess that was true, for I knew her when she had been a housekeeper for decades, and as far as I know, she still is one. 

I strive to channel DS’s zen when I am cleaning the kitchen for the second time today (especially when I am cleaning it up after someone else!) Focusing on the health of my family, on how my forebears focused on the health of *their* families, illuminates the value in emulating them doing these repetitive tasks (and makes me write this sort of essay, too!)

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In the next installment: observations on the nitty-gritty of housekeeping as it was practiced in their prime, by my now-deceased householding female relatives.