Tuesday, February 28, 2017

"Women's work" and simplicity

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Friday Morning Session from the October 1975 Conference.

As often happens when I read these Conference talks, this week there were two passages in two different talks that, along with some other things I'd been thinking about, combined to give me the message I needed this week. Here are the passages:

From Elder Robert L. Simpson's talk, "Do It":
Spiritual sensitivity is a gift, freely given, to all who are willing to do their best. It is for those who have a desire to serve and the fortitude to take the first step, even when it doesn’t seem personally convenient to do so. As we complicate our lives, we discourage the gifts of the Spirit.
And from President Spencer W. Kimball's talk, "The Time to Labor is Now". This was a quotation from a letter President Kimball got from a woman who had met his wife at an Area Conference in South America:
I walked with Sister Kimball. I told her I could hardly believe I was walking with her. Know what she said? Well, she told me she is no different than I am. That she washed clothes, washed the dishes, and cooks food, plants vegetables, and does all the same things that I do.
Here's what I've been thinking about: the work of women. My work. Of course I know circumstances vary; I know some people dislike even thinking in terms of "woman's work," preferring instead to focus on how people all have unique roles (and there's truth to that)—but I have come to value the simplicity, the continuity, that comes from placing myself into the lineup of generations that have held these duties and privileges: this work of women. Like this South American woman marveling at the similarities between herself and Sister Kimball, I find peace in thinking about how my life right now consists of, essentially, the same things that have occupied, and still occupy, women the world over: Clothing my family. Feeding my family. Keeping my home.

I guess I bring up that peace not because it comes automatically, but because it doesn't: either because of intrinsic selfishness or because of the culture I live in (or both), it's far too easy NOT to have peace in and satisfaction with those basic responsibilities. A Catholic writer I admire brought this up: 
As I lay on the sofa, lamenting telephonically to my friend about my seriously miserable condition and the mountains of duties beckoning to — no, hurling themselves at — me — especially the baby and my phenomenally, epically, heroically messy, dirty house, she told me this: basically your family needs food and clean laundry from you right now…

So, when you are making your resolutions, at the top of the list do you have these two items: feeding and clothing your particular horde?

Because if you do, things will go well for you this year. And this is why: no matter what other duties you have, the two biggest challenges you will face will be — ta da! — cooking — and laundry.

Conversely, if you have a handle on these two areas — if you have serenity when contemplating dinner or the washing machine — you will be rational in your approach to all other areas of your life: losing weight, saving money, cleaning up, using your time well, loving your family more, having reading time with your kids, teaching them Latin, you name it! It will all go better if you have order in these two fundamental duties. Or at least our inevitable failures in this area won’t upset the peace of our family as much!

And I call these duties for a reason. First, I like using old-fashioned words. Also, some mothers really look at dinner and clean clothes as chores assigned by a particularly demanding, even cruel, parent. But in their heart of hearts they consider them optional.
They actually whine! They complain! They live with a laundry room that has piles of dirty laundry, and a master bedroom that has baskets of unsorted clean laundry! They get annoyed because their kids are hungry! They hate cooking supper!

They think that someone else will come fix all this for them! Then they spend money — their husband’s hard-earned cash — on take-out dinners, or frozen dinners, or drive-through dinners, because they can’t figure out what to have for supper; and on new clothes, because the old ones are dirty!

No, Love, only YOU can solve this problem, the problem of your life; and this is the year to do it!…

Look at it this way: if you had the profession of managing, say, a hotel, you would be darn sure that first and foremost you had a plan, a system, and a clear idea of how you would provide food, clean sheets, and a warm atmosphere for your customers. You would not whine. You would pat yourself on the back for having such a great career! If you did not do this, you would be — fired!

…Now I know you are not like those babies I describe above, those terrible whiners. And you probably have a better work ethic than I do! But still, have you achieved clarity on these two important areas of your home keeping duties?
I had to laugh at that, because of course I HAVE been like those terrible whiners, thinking to myself in all seriousness and self-pity every few hours, "This again?? I can't believe I have to make ANOTHER meal to feed all these people!" And it's hard work; there's no denying that. But I love the perspective that THESE ARE MY DUTIES. This (for me, anyway) is simply what it means to be a woman caring for her family! This is what I do! Why fight it? Why resent it? Why not just…get better at it? Maybe even learn to enjoy it?
And that's where the first quote comes back in. I was struck by Elder Simpson's words: As we complicate our lives, we discourage the gifts of the Spirit. Sometimes I think my life IS complicated. And in some ways it is, or it feels like it. But in so many fundamental ways, it is simple, and it's because of these very duties I sometimes resent. It's simple because of these same basic rhythms that made up Camilla Kimball's life, as well as the life of the South American woman she met: teaching my children, feeding my family, clothing my family.

When I consider these basic, simple, things that fill my life, I can be grateful for them: because I know they truly ARE a gift. And, though they are tiring and repetitive and unending, they also allow me to find space and time (if I allow it) for those gifts of the spirit I so desire: for the spiritual sensitivity Elder Simpson talks about. I know many people, in more complicated circumstances, would happily trade their complications for that sort of simplicity.

Here's one more story I ran across this week that drove home the same point. It's from the book A Lion and a Lamb by Rand H. Packer. The book is the true story of a missionary couple who lived in Joseph Smith's farmhouse in Palmyra before the Church owned any other property there. The people in the area hated "the Mormons" and treated them horribly, but over their 24-year (!!) mission, this couple gradually made great friends for the Church. The wife, Rebecca Bean, was constantly housing and cooking for missionaries and others who wanted to visit the Hill Cumorah and the Sacred Grove. There was simply nowhere else for these people to stay, and she graciously accepted them all, night after night (for 24 years!), never knowing who or how many would come, but always making delicious meals and creating a welcoming spot for them to rest. She had her own young family to care for, and a working farm to assist with, and one missionary asked her how she was able to be so cheerful and accepting of the constant extra work. This is the story she told him:
It was a hot summer day and we had a lot of visitors that day. It had been a hard day for me; I had a baby. He was just a year old and I had carried my baby around on my arm most of the day to get my work done. It was too warm and everything had gone against us and nighttime came and we had lunch for our visitors, and we had supper at night and I had put my children to bed… 
Dr. Talmage was there with some missionaries and we had really had a wonderful evening talking together. So, they all seemed tired and I took them upstairs and showed them where they could sleep. When I came down I thought, "Well, I will pick up a few things and make things easier for me in the morning." But I was so weary and so tired that I was crying as I went and straightened things around in my house. Everybody was in bed and asleep but me… 
I said my prayers and I got into bed. I was crying on my pillow, and then this dream or vision came to me. I thought it was another day…I had prepared breakfast for my visitors and my children were happily playing around and I had done my work and cared for the baby and he was contented and happy and then I prepared lunch and I called our visitors into lunch and we were all seated around the table, my little baby in his highchair and everything was just peaceful, wonderful and sweet.
There was a knock at the front door and I went in and opened it and there was a very handsome young man standing there and I just took it for granted that he was just another missionary that had come to see us. I said, "You're here just in time for lunch. Come with me."… 
[After lunch] I put my baby to bed and the little ones went out to play and then I was alone with the young man. He thanked me for having him to dinner and told me how much it meant for him to be there. He told me he thought that the children were so sweet and well-trained and I felt so happy about that. 
Then we walked in the hall together and he said, "I have far to go, so I must be on my way." 
I turned from him for just a minute…and when I turned back to him it was the Savior who stood before me. He was in His glory and I could not tell you the love and the sweetness that He had in His face and in his eyes. Lovingly He laid His hands on my shoulders, and He looked down into my face with the kindest face that I had ever seen. Then He said to me, "Sister Bean, this day hasn't been too hard for you has it?" 
I said, "Oh no, I have been so happy with my work and everything has gone on so well." 
He responded, "I promise you, if you will go about your work everyday as you have done it this day, you will be equal to it. Now remember these missionaries represent me on this earth and all that you give unto them you give unto me." 
I remember I was crying as we walked to the hall out onto the porch and He repeated the same thing. Then He started upward. The roof of the porch was no obstruction for Him to go through, nor for me to see through. He went upward and upward and upward…And then all at once He disappeared.
This story brought me to tears because I could so easily imagine myself in Rebecca's circumstances. Again, though our lives are so different (Rebecca Bean's much harder than mine!), they are also so similar! We care for our babies, we feed our families, we make our homes. And I cried because I had just a taste of a similar experience recently. Not such a vivid one—but as I was up at night, cleaning up my wet, cold two-year-old who had had another accident in his bed, and soothing him and whispering to him in the darkness so that he would stay calm and no one else would wake, I had the sudden thought that God was saying to me, "I am pleased with you for doing this work. It is just what I would have you do for My child; just what I would do if I were there." It was so small and so simple, this task I was doing, and yet I felt God's approval of it.

It reminds me, too, that much of the simplicity is in how I think of my work. When I get caught up in all the details of my calling, and the places I have to get my children to, and the things I've signed up to help with, and the things in the house that need fixing, and so forth, life doesn't seem simple at all. But even with all that, the underlying simplicity remains, if I will accept it. Serving God and His children. Caring for my family. Caring for my neighbors. It's all just…my work, and honestly, it's what I have chosen to do. And I would choose it again. It's what I WANT to do. It's what I'm BLESSED to do. Because in all its simplicity and repetition, the "work of women" does, truly, bless ME most of all.

Other posts in this series:

4 comments:

  1. This was beautiful and exactly how I feel except sometimes (all too often) I forget.

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    1. I know, that's the tricky thing. Keeping this in mind when everything seems so overwhelming!

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  2. Thank you for this. It was just the reminder I needed today after several days of feeling weepy and overwhelmed that I can't "do" anything else. But what else should I really be doing than this simple, repetitive work that he's actually given me to do? And the Rebecca Bean story made me cry too.

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    1. "Weepy and overwhelmed" describes me far, far too much of the time. Which is why I keep getting these reminders as well, I guess! :)

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