KEEPING HOUSE: A Litany of Everyday Life
Margaret Kim Peterson
I read a lot of books, and few of them prompt immediate or tangible change in my life or environment. But Margaret Kim Peterson inspired me to make one specific adjustment to my home (and contemplate more). This morning, from a closet, I brought out a right-fine aunt-made quilt and placed it on my bed, replacing its overused, tattered, similarly vintaged cousin.
KEEPING HOUSE asks and answers stimulating questions about why we do what we do. An example: “Putting away things that get daily or weekly use is a way to exercise a kind of providential foresight…Having clothes ready to wear in the drawer or in the closet is part of creating an expectation that in this home we care for one another. Our needs are not a perpetual emergency but are anticipated and provided for ahead of time.”
A theology professor at Eastern University, Peterson has written a book for intelligent readers. On the other hand, as a church “theologian in residence,” she has written in a pastoral voice that is accessible to any reader. She has done a masterful job of encouraging anyone who has home-keeping responsibilities. She neither romanticizes domesticity (like Martha Stewart --- aren’t we having fun?) nor denigrates it.
And her book isn’t a guilt trip. The burdened perfectionist? Peterson calmly convinces that “a well-kept house is a means to an end, not an end in itself.” Her target is “‘good enough’ housekeeping.” The shopper who can’t manage purchased possessions? She digs deeper than what she calls the “secular gospel of decluttering”; ultimately there’s a gentleness in her nudge to control one’s habits and square-footage. Peterson, who shares a modest, two-bedroom house with a husband confined to a wheelchair and a son, writes: “Instead of nurturing dissatisfaction with the shortcomings of our present home…perhaps we can turn our energies toward receiving as gifts the homes we have and to creating in them enough order and tidiness to promote convenience and peace and hospitality.” There’s such grace in her words: “perhaps we can,” rather than “we should”; “enough order…to promote convenience.”
Sandwiched between an introductory chapter (“What’s Christian about Housework?”) and a closing summary, Peterson writes two chapters each on three aspects of keeping a household: sheltering, clothing and feeding. One chapter discusses the issue in terms of a noun --- for example, “Clothes to Wear”; the subsequent chapter discusses the act of “Clothing a Household.” (It does seem that she rather glosses over the not-insignificant act of “cleaning a house.”)
In several chapters Peterson points out fallacies in some fantasies our culture promotes. I especially like the kitchen analysis: people buying better and bigger cookware and doo-dads while all the while cooking less frequently and complexly. “The fantasy of cooking is more visibly popular than cooking itself.”
Especially in terms of clothing and feeding, Peterson relies on liturgical themes, as suggested in the subtitle, “A Litany of Everyday Life.” The rhythm of the church calendar --- the pattern of daily prayers and stretches of ordinary days punctuated by feast days both weekly (Sunday) and annually --- mirrors our home making. “We fix lunch because it is lunchtime…We pack away coats and boots…because winter is over and summer is coming. As we engage with the litany of everyday life, we engage with life itself, with our fellow human beings, with the world in which God has set us all, and thus with God himself.”
I don’t think Margaret Kim Peterson quotes the following verse, but her writing warmly reminds me of an old favorite, in an old translation: “And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord” (Colossians 3:23). Even, or especially, keeping house.
--- Reviewed by Evelyn Bence
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