I heard Anna Quindlen speak at a conference, and enjoyed it so much I picked up one of her books, _Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake: A Memoir of a Woman’s Life_. The pull quote from NPR says: “What Nora Ephron does for body image and Anne Lamott for spiritual neuroses, Quindlen achieves on the home front.”
She has a light, witty style that’s easy to read, and manages to deliver quite a few lines that have more bite than you realize at first. Reading this makes me think about the category of chick lit, and shelter magazines, and the Martha Stewart empire. It makes me think about how our culture treats domesticity, with what lack of seriousness (even contempt) and simultaneous relentless commodification.
I was going to write a poetry book, _Domestic_, at one point, but put it aside because I didn’t really have enough relevant poems. But now I’m thinking that maybe it should be a different kind of book. I can imagine writing a glossy (or even better, matte) lifestyle book, which simultaneously takes home and garden and children and entertaining completely seriously, but also critiques them all. I kind of want to go back to grad school, to have a few years with my classmates there, to help me tear it apart as I write it. I’m not sure anyone would be happy to read it, but maybe happiness isn’t the point.
In some ways, it would be easy to fill up such a book – I’ve been writing it, in Facebook posts, for years and years. The hardest part would be figuring out what to leave out, because the domestic is actually composed of a million tiny things. I stopped Kavi from using kosher salt in the cookies yesterday, and told her it was better for cooking, not baking, that the recipe expected us to use fine table salt. She asked how I knew that, since it didn’t say it explicitly. Similarly, I went to a church dinner last year where some poor woman had had the opposite problem – the somewhat fancy recipe had called for kosher salt, and she had used table salt, not realizing it was make her final dish painfully salty. The domestic world is crammed full of critical, often unsaid, knowledge.
I started a cooking blog this week, which is mostly nothing more than what I’ve been doing on Facebook for years. But separating it out into its own site, giving it that frame, changes things. Commodifies things? I’m not sure I can talk exactly the same way there, without all the rest of the context of my life. While I’m deeply interested in, invested in, the project of creating beauty and deliciousness in daily life, I worry (a lot) about giving the impression that everything I do along those lines is or should be easy.
How to expose the ways in which money smoothes the path for baking cookies with your children? My Polish housecleaner, tasting the mango-ginger shortbread I made yesterday with my daughter, told me that I should open a bakery. High praise. She’s cleaning my toilets now, while I’m about to start a second batch of shortbread, adding lemon zest to see if it improves the flavor.
How to make clear that despite everything I find pleasurable about the domestic, there are still many moments when I deeply resent the incessant grind of it, the requirement that I somehow feed the children yet another meal, wash yet another load of laundry? It is hard to make daily laundry beautiful, no matter how much money you spend on redecorating a laundry room.
Gender is so central to all this, or at least cultural constructions of gender. Quindlen is a Pulitzer Prize winner, and quite feminist, in a marriage where she and her husband expected a 50/50 partnership on all fronts; in a lot of ways, she was ahead of her time there. But she’s also almost twenty years older than me, and while there’s plenty of feminist analysis in the book, Quindlen doesn’t hesitate to make statements that seem tremendously gendered to me. I wonder if that’s a sign of the changing times, or just me.
“One study of college students showed that both men and women valued friendship, but they were deeply divergent when asked what friendship entailed. Guys thought it meant doing things together, women that it meant emotional sharing and talking. Another study showed that while stress produced the old familiar fight-or-flight response in men – or, as we women often think of it, lash out or shut down – it produces what the researchers termed a tend-or-befriend effect in women. When things go wrong, they reach for either the kids or the girlfriends. Or both.”
I read that and think, maybe I’m a guy, by this definition. I’m at least as likely to shut down under serious stress as to reach out. Kevin often reacts to stress by retreating, but at midnight, if I’m awake, suddenly we’re in a three-hour conversation and he won’t let me go back to sleep until it’s all talked out. What are the barriers to him having those conversations earlier in the day? I wonder whether the studies exist yet that try to figure out how much of this gendered behavior is culturally produced. How much that we take for granted as bedrock gender differences are actually malleable. Evanescent.
Still, glad I’m reading Quindlen, even if we sometimes seem to be speaking across a chasm of assumptions. I don’t often find essayists who take the minutiae of domestic life and everyday relationships seriously, even though this is the matter of life, the real life and death of it. I’m in the midst of an essay on friendship now, that is painful to read, thinking of friendships lost that perhaps might have been saved. “I have lost friends, some by death, others through sheer inability to cross the street.” – Virginia Woolf
Tiny bits of wisdom that might make life a little better, if you run across them at the right moment. Before you under-salt the cookies or over-salt the stew.