#118: Mark this off your to-do list
Thoughts on chores
This week I’m answering three reader prompts, collected from a few weeks ago, that each hit on something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. The first, on chores, prompted today’s essay. The other two I’ll be discussing on the podcast on Tuesday. They are:
1. “Putting down roots.’ What does it look like and when is it too late?”
2. “Getting over being jealous of people the same age as you who are doing ‘bigger things.’ House, kids, travel, quitting full-time jobs, etc.” (Made me laugh that “quitting” is now seen as a milestone.)
Really good prompts! I was feeling like kind of a hater after last week’s anti-astrology newsletter, so I’m happy to cover more gentle/feel-good ground this week. Both itches must be scratched.
“Is being an adult just a never-ending to-do list? Will I never have a weekend to just enjoy?”
Yes, I’m pretty sure life is just never-ending chores until we die, but on the bright side, I don’t think that’s incompatible with enjoying it. In fact, I think chores are integral to our enjoyment of life. It took me a long time to see it that way. I was 25 when a friend first told me about the late poet Thich Nhat Hanh’s theory about washing dishes—that is, that you should “wash the dishes to wash the dishes,” versus washing them simply to get them done. I found the sentiment beautiful, but it would take almost 10 years for it to seep into my life in any measurable sense, and it’s still seeping deeper.
It helped that my life slowed down. Quitting my media job played a big part in that, then Covid, then my cat’s sickness, and then eventually it felt like a choice—to invest more in my immediate surroundings, to learn to cook, to read more, to post less, to dream differently. The relief in that shift was recognizing how much the little stuff always mattered, even when I treated it like a nuisance. These days I really do believe that chores give my life meaning. Not just because they present texture and struggle and a necessary counterpart to rest (all true), but because maintenance is in itself profound. Caring for ourselves, for other people, for our homes, for plants and other animals—these are the unfinishable projects of our lives. We do them over and over not to conquer them, or for personal gain, but to maintain and nourish them, with no greater expectation. Given how swayed humans are by the pursuit of growth, wealth, ownership, and power, I think this is very sweet and pure. Almost spiritual.
Capitalism’s emphasis on growth and productivity discourage us from valuing time spent on these things. As Jenny Odell wrote in How to Do Nothing (and I’ve quoted this before because I think about it all the time): “In the context of health and ecology, things that grow unchecked are often considered parasitic or cancerous. Yet we inhabit a culture that privileges novelty and growth over the cyclical and the regenerative. Our very idea of productivity is premised on the idea of producing (ed note: or experiencing) something new, whereas we do not tend to see maintenance and care as productive in the same way. But we should.”
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most wealthy and out of touch tend to outsource all of their chores to other people. It’s a very “wash the dishes to get them done” mentality. It assumes there’s no purpose to wiping down your own counter beyond getting it clean. I disagree. Wiping down the counter can be meditative, pleasurable. It can remind you of the impact of small efforts, or the fact that you’re capable and alive. When it’s done you get to rest and appreciate what you’ve done. All that stuff matters.
Recently I was staying at a hotel with my brother and boyfriend, and one day, when both of them had to work and I didn’t, I was left to fill my day with something else. There was nothing to cook or clean, no pet to care for, no errand to run. I felt the weight of possibility ahead of me, and also the pressure of it. It was a luxurious problem to have, but unnerving in a way too. It was a welcome reminder that having things I both want and need to do every day provides a natural balance and rhythm to my life. Challenge and resolution, duty and hedonism, work and rest. There’s a pleasantness to the mix that’s easy to miss.
“To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur to us only when we are not doing them,” Thich Nhat Hanh wrote. “Once we are standing in front of the sink with our sleeves rolled up and our hands in warm water, it is really not bad at all.” He goes on to say that if he were incapable of finding joy in washing the dishes, it would sap the rest of his life of joy too, because he would spend all moments of rest dreading the chores that awaited him afterward. “I will always be dragged into the future, never able to live in the present moment.” Finding pleasure in the dishes, then, is crucial to enjoying his life more broadly. “Each thought, each action in the sunlight of awareness becomes sacred.”
I can’t claim his level of spiritual presence (he was literally a monk), but I’m working on it. I spent most of my life dreading chores, but when I stopped seeing them as a barrier to a life well-lived, and instead as a crucial part of it, they felt less like a burden to me. The appeal of fast-forwarding until they were done, or being rich enough to never do them again, disappeared. At their best, chores remind me that life is worth living not because it grows and grows and grows in a linear way, but because it’s cyclical: always starting over, ending, and starting again. Fall always reminds me of this, too. Appreciating this has been one of the more profound shifts in my perspective. I used to feel a lot of pleasure from imagining that everything was going to be perfect in the future. Now I feel grateful that pleasure returns again and again in small doses, and that meaning is available to me through the cycle itself. Bad things always end, and good things always come back. It can be a lot less complicated than we make it.
I know this all sounds kind of trite. There are obviously limits to the extent that “work” can enrich a life, especially if that work is underpaid, unfair, or soul-crushing. There’s no moral imperative to find joy in that kind of thing. But those of us who have the energy and ability to care for the menial aspects of our lives are lucky. Learning to respect and revere the cyclical nature of existence is, from my view, one of the greatest lessons there is. I know how it feels to dread your to-dos—and maybe there’s room for you to revisit what’s important to you, what actually needs to be done and when—but your life will always require care. The effort you put into that will be one of your most meaningful contributions to it.
My favorite thing I read last week was William Shatner’s perfect account of going to space for Variety. Friday’s 15 things also included a wildly quotable book I read in one day, last week’s baking project, an “old and unmarried” woman’s diary, and more. The rec of the week was the perfect mid-weight crew socks for fall.
Like I said above, I’ll be talking about “putting down roots” and jealousy on the podcast this Tuesday. Naturally I have a lot to say about both!
Hope you have a nice Sunday,