Musings on Housework


Susan lugged the laundry hampers down to the lavandería we often used in Zihuatanejo when we vacationed there; a small shop on the sidestreet where laundresses would weigh the hampers, quote a price, and a time to come back to collect the cleaned clothes. The relentless Mexican sun made the streets and sidewalks an oven as she walked back to the house where we stayed. She wondered if it was too early to open a cold beer.

Meanwhile, I walked through the tall grasses on the plain, bending under an equally fierce sun a continent away, pushing my staff ahead to flush out the snakes and scorpions, wading through the knee-high weeds around the safari campsite with cautious steps. I knew somewhere in the taller grasses a hyena could be lurking, waiting for me to get closer so it could pounce. I heard a soft rustle ahead of me and tensed for the confrontation.

Well, Susan was actually in the downstairs laundry room feeding clothes into the grey machine, and I was around the corner running the vacuum cleaner over the carpet. But it was fairly hot, yesterday, for a mid-May afternoon. Maybe not quite Mexican or African hot, but warm enough to picture myself elsewhere, and then to step into another character when I plugged the vacuum cleaner in.

It’s a lot more entertaining to imagine our daily chores as an adventure, something with excitement and panache. Making a meal becomes a TV cooking class broadcast to millions. Stacking the dishwasher is assembling a NASA satellite. Taking the recyclables out is to join Scott in his Antarctic expedition. In the summer when I mow the grass I’m with Stanley as he struggles through the jungle in his search for Dr. Livingston. Taking the folded, cleaned clothes upstairs is a slow walk along the Northern Col of Everest as the peak grows nearer. Going into the basement to feed the cats is a descent into the laboratory of Dr. Moreau. Or a  trip behind the scenes at the circus. Planting our little tomato shoots makes me a settler on a new world, struggling under the glare of a binary star system, digging in the alien soil to build a life, light years from Earth.

Or they can be, if you have a vivid imagination. And why not? Mundane chores can only benefit from a little role-playing. Imagine yourself doing something exciting or being someplace different instead of merely washing the dishes or dusting.

I was walking our dog late one night last week for her final pee, and looked up to see the bright dot of light of the ISS passing overhead. And at that moment I was aboard, looking out the domed window at the planet slipping by below. Don’t you do that, too? And then I thought of those scenes from the movie Gravity and I was floating outside the space station, tethered only by a thin cord. For that brief moment, I was an astronaut. Then my dog finished her business and we walked back home.

Do you talk to yourself while you’re doing housework? I do. Not aloud, but there’s a constant chattering conversation going on in my head, drawn from what I’ve seen and read. 

I re-live scenes from books, movies, and TV shows to imagine myself within them, as I putter about the house pushing the vacuum cleaner ahead of me. I exchange dialogues with Pop Larkin, Captains Janeway and Picard, Mr. Norrel, Henry VIII, Caliban, Captain Ahab, Will Shakespeare, and many others; I re-imagine the scenes and settings, expanding and exploring other aspects of them, changing the dialogue to include me. I’ve travelled all over the world this way, and even into space to explore the galaxy. All while I scrub, clean, and mend.

I write, too, while I work. In my head, of course: I rework some fiction I have simmering on a hard drive, rewriting lines, adding and subtracting, building new characters, remaking old ones. I wrote this blog post, too, imagining what I would write while I vacuumed the upstairs rooms today. Of course, when I sat down to write it out, I had forgotten some of the witty lines and sharp observations I imagined earlier. And the act of writing changed much of it, although the basic idea remained intact.

I do it when I turn out my light to sleep, too. I relive scenes and moments, reconstructing them from the books I read before bedtime (we read at least an hour in bed every night). I do it even with nonfiction books, making my stories meld with whatever I’m reading. I’ve discussed philosophy with Socrates, debated strategy with Napoleon, argued civics with Machiavelli, questioned Darwin, verbally sparred with Cicero, and talked duty with Confucius. And sometimes I’ve invited several of them into my head together for a conversation.

I’ve done this ever since I can remember. When I was very young, I read a copy of Tarzan of the Apes my father had brought with him from England. For months, maybe years after, I dreamt of being with Tarzan, in the jungle, in deserts, in lost cities; I wrote many more adventures for us to share every night. I did the same when I discovered Burroughs’ Barsoom series and spent many happy hours on Mars with John Carter.

Imagination helps keep me from living the “life of quiet desperation” Thoreau wrote about. Besides, it certainly makes the pandemic lockdown more interesting if you can step outside your current self, even if only for a few minutes. 

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