I was never known to be a “homebody.” Home was merely the place where I fell asleep, kept my clothes and took my daily shower. Work, focused activity, real conversations and daily living were reserved for “the outside.”
I was known to employ a fierce dedication at the office, enjoy intimate evenings in cozy restaurants, and look for some crazy-all-out-fun at the latest clubs. As I said, home was for sleep and little more. So my home existed in a quiet place where nothing was happening, on a small conservative block in the heart of Brooklyn.
And the house was somewhat cared for, cleaned, and even organized through the bi-weekly visits of my regular cleaning lady. The refrigerator was kept haphazardly stocked by my supermarket-spreeing husband, and the sink and counters were forever overflowing with his dirty dishes, his magazines, and his psychology papers (he was a graduate psych student).
I went out to the local coffee shop for a quiet cup of coffee alone each morning before work. And I took my husband out of the mess for dinners.
Probably even my dog felt more at home in the house than I did. But then, I was always much too busy being involved with “outside” people — with customers at my sales job, with business friends and occasional personal ones — to take the time to care for such a wayward inanimate object as my house.
And I was always very tired at the end of the day and the house always loomed so large and I never knew where it was up to or even what it contained. All I knew was that it felt like a cluttered stranger, my so-called “home,” and that it always screamed of my husband's and my dog's messes — not mine. My few things were kept orderly in one tiny bedroom where I slept and dressed and occasionally wrote. And I ate on the outside.
But then one day came the totally unexpected shock of my being laid-off from work. And I suddenly found myself in a queasy state of limbo, grappling with such uncomfortable questions as my sense of identity, how to occupy my time, and searching for some ideas of where I would be heading in the future.
The shock, frustration, anger and dismay at dismissal began to wear off, however, about seven days later, and I came to experience a refreshing sense of relief. All of a sudden, I could smile — really smile — not because I had to … to get along with coworkers, not because I had to be polite in response to my boss's inane jokes, and not because I was trying to convince a potential customer how wonderful it would be to work with me as his account executive. I had smile for no reason at all.
So I stopped smiling — always. And then I realized I had begun smiling again — spontaneously, easily and often — simply because I felt like it, liked it, and because it seemed to make those I instinctively smiled upon feel good as well.
Inner calm began to take the place of a constant inner anxiety. And I learned that a sense of purpose could be gleaned even from my simple daily activities and their immediate rewards.
When I found myself alone during the day in the huge house, my formerly neglected dog suddenly became wonderfully friendly and appreciative company. I discovered that my living room in the sunlight held a special aura of airy gaiety. As for my attic workroom, I once again became a regular visitor to this cool space of quiet refuge — to dream, to create, and to write.
But before all this could happen, I first had to claim the house as my own. My cleaning lady quit a couple of weeks after I'd lost my job. This unexpected disappointment, too, eventually proved to be a blessing in disguise. I couldn't really afford her services — now that I wasn't working — but after two years on the job, I hadn't the heart to let her go. But now keeping order was all up to me.
After she left, I grudgingly began to clean and organize the house, slowly and thoroughly, two rooms a day. When they began to shine, I felt good knowing that they were spotless in places that she had never reached. The physical exercise involved in washing windows and mopping floors and stretching to dust the highest shelves did my spirit good as well. As my face flushed from bodily activity, my mind grew calm. I simply felt good. And I took pride in the real, evident and instantaneous rewards of such basic work.
Once I had the kitchen organized and knew the place of each pot and plate, I began to cook real meals once again. For now I had the time to shop leisurely at the supermarket and specialty shops, to gather healthy ingredients, carefully and lovingly picked. And by dredging up the many, almost-forgotten and never-tried recipes of my childhood, together with surprisingly correct cooking instincts, I began to create healthy and delicious dinners in a kitchen which I now controlled and considered my domain.
I ate well, and so felt well. I gulped down far less coffee for I didn't have to force myself to work continuously in a way which I disliked, and now there was far less phoniness and anxiety in my life. I also had the time and patience to help my husband with his coursework, and to feed him well. He, too, began to feel happier and more at ease in this home which was now being well kept and maintained by me. And so life became easier and more pleasant between us.
After the daily cleaning and maintaining of my home, I couldn't help but begin to feel close to it as well. I now feel comfortable in, and loving toward, this big house, toward its members and — having aired out my head and reestablished the goodness of who I am — toward myself.
After seven years of a hectic “working” marriage, I find that the art of being a housewife — a rare condition, generally undermined these days — has become a refreshing blessing to my psyche. And I find the pleasures of staying home to be the best working therapy I've encountered to date.
I remain ever active; yet plan my days to my biological system's natural ups and downs. The toughest jobs (or those least desirable) are tackled first thing after breakfast. I can do them best when my energy level is at its peak, and the early sense of accomplishment which I attain at their fulfillment warms me throughout my activities for the rest of the day.
Breakfast is always leisurely and accompanied by the daily paper — but now I read whatever interests me, knowing I can return for more news at relaxing intervals during the day. There's no mad rush to make the train. I dress comfortably, yet well. I need that for my sense of self. And I feel like I'm ready for anything — a bike ride, exercise stretch, as well as a visit to the local bank, shopping center and library.
And I have the time to devote to the people I truly love as I never could before. I can make an appointment to meet a good friend for lunch and know I'll be there … and not have to cancel because of a last-minute business emergency. There's the time to finally buy my eleven-year-old nephew a birthday present; and my husband, some good quality socks.
I make my own schedule now. And I can finally, really, take care of my physical self as well. I'm my own person. Not someone's employee or lover or occasional figurehead wife.
Surprisingly enough, dealing daily with the small matters in life hasn't come to make me petty or narrow — as my own fears and those of others often predict. Rather the opposite: it has seemed to broaden my scope. I've become more in touch with the basic rhythms of living, the things that really matter, the heart and soul of daily life. I can stop what I'm doing to cry — when I hear that a child has been killed mistakenly, or for the victim of a futile war. And I can rejoice in modern miracles of medicine — like the story of a severed limb being reattached to a young accident victim. For I have that time and space to reflect, to feel, and to care and act as I see fit.
I need not hide my true nature under an ever-cheerful and efficient office mask. And — would you believe — I do most of my “real living” at home now and not, as before, always outside of the house. We, my husband and I, can relax in a clean living room. We can enjoy my proudly cooked dinners, then calmly discuss and advise upon matters of our lives after the meal.
We can also leisurely entertain our friends at home now, for I need not worry about not having time, the next day, to clean up. Or having to wake up at six to get to the office and being always alert. Whereas earlier my energies were limited and constrained to one purpose, they are now both bountiful and concerned with all.
I plan to continue to enjoy this unexpected respite of being home and its concurrent pleasures for as long as I can … and as long as my unemployment benefits last. I have no idea as to what type of work I'll seek, and be involved with, after that. But I do know, for right now, I've inadvertently stumbled upon something uniquely precious — a state of grace which I hope to never completely give up, ever again.
For no matter my future employment or my goals, for peace of mind and the fulfillment of my truest nature, I'll always need some time to be by myself — contentedly and happily at home.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I just found this typewriter-printed essay while clearing out boxes for a non-moving move-out after the great flood (see my earlier blog: “Revenge of the Dishwasher”) so my original 1950's terrazzo flooring could be exposed and refinished. I'd written the piece over thirty years ago when I was a 20-something living with my ex-husband in a large, run-down Brooklyn brownstone whose rent was totally affordable at the time.
Upon reading my early work, I was shocked to discover I'd been an active blogger — aka writer of reflective essays — way before blogging was cool, and before I became a “commercially” successful magazine writer. The even greater shock was to realize I'm basically still the same person I was at 27 — at least on the inside. Other than switching the term “discos” to “clubs” so the piece wouldn't appear dated (and substituting my current married name), I changed nary a word.
© 2015 Mindy Leaf