Sometimes all you can do is iron the napkins. I’ve discovered that of the blogs I read daily, the ones I really look forward to are the domestic blogs, particularly Julie, and Leah who Struggles in her Bungalow Kitchen. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’ve been thinking a lot about domesticity lately, and the unexpected pleasures I’ve discovered in domestic life. I’ve come late to this, having spent much of my twenties and thirties avoiding domestic entanglement. I had one of those childhoods that make one want to get out of the house as soon as you can, and never come back (if you can get away with it). I have always been an instinctive feminist, wanting a life out there, not wanting to get stuck in the house with kids and sticky surfaces to wipe. The core image of domestic life in my head was my Aunt Lynn, standing at her kitchen sink, staring blankly out the window and secretly drinking herself to death while we all swirled around her, while she shooed us out the door with a popsicle so she could go back to standing there, staring and hopeless. All I knew was that wasn’t going to be me. I was out of there. I was going to have a free and adventurous life.
And yet. A few years ago, when I moved back to the Bay Area after finishing my PhD, I was not in great shape. My free and adventurous life had left me at 34 with a mountain of student loan debt, and unpublished novel manuscript that none of my thesis advisors even liked. I had mananged to finish my degree, but I was looking at a very bleak academic job market, where as an unpublished novelist, without the long list of requisite publications, well, the prospects were pretty grim for finding anything other than an adjunct position. Frankly, I thought I’d failed. Totally failed. Hence, I figured it was time to try something new, time to just find a “real job” and get on with my life. So my brother and I agreed to be roommates. Neither of us could afford a place on our own, and we’ve always been close, so we thought we’d give it a shot. And little by little I discovered that I liked domestic life. I liked making a home. Of course, it was a little odd that I was making a home with my brother and not a boyfreind or husband, but on the other hand, since neither of us had ever really had a home, not since our parents divorced when we were quite young, we figured that an unconventional but pleasant home was better than no home. I discovered I had a talent for it, that keeping a house didn’t have to be a task that was so overwhelming that you might, as my mother too often did, take to your bed in a satin bathrobe. I discovered that you could devise a system, pay the bills, do the shopping, cook dinner at night. That in doing these things one could create a place that was safe and welcoming, a place you could come home to and feel relief and happiness walking in the door. A place you could rely on to be the same today as it was yesterday. That having a home makes taking other kinds of risks possible, that it gives you the emotional space to perhaps sit down and think about what kind of life you’d like to create for yourself. I eventually picked up a second job, teaching in the Creative Writing Program at St. Mary’s, which was a great experience, and which allowed me to stockpile a little money. That, combined with the fact that I had also managed to find a corporate job at Cisco Systems and they were willing to let me telecommute full time, well, for the first time ever, I discovered I had the ability to choose what I wanted to do next. For the first time ever, I wasn’t running away from something. It’s been a year this week that I first came up here and saw my little house, saw that although the living room had horrible green carpet, it also had great light through the southern windows, that although it needed a roof, and wiring, my little house hadn’t ever been remodeled, so at least I wouldn’t have to pull out a lot of bad 1970’s cabinetry. It was a blank slate, but it turned out to be my blank slate.
A year later, I’m in my little house. I never thought I’d own my own home. For most of last year, while I was trying to pull this deal together, there were times I thought I’d never get this deal done. It still needs a lot of work, but it’s a safe and welcoming home. People like coming over for dinner. I’m planning the garden. And yet amidst my little tiny domestic island, I found myself last night, in the basement doing laundry while watching the news. There’s all this terrifying talk of war, we have this ridiculous President and his henchmen who represent all that is wrong with our culture, and I find that all I can do is iron my nice clean napkins that have just come out of the dryer. Ironing napkins somehow seems to sum up how far I’ve come in some odd way. First of all, cloth napkins are an essential element of Living Small — paper napkins are both wasteful and aesthetically horrible. Cloth napkins do cost a little bit, especially if, like me, you have a weakness for Williams Sonoma French prints, but over the long run, since you use them over and over, they make more sense. And ironing the napkins is both easy and incredibly satisfying. They’re square. They come out so nice. And in the face of this madness, madness over which I have no control at all (I’ve written the letters, I’ve made the phone calls), all I can really do is to try to create this space. This space that makes sense. This space where I can have people over and we can at least discuss our horror, our opposition. That maybe a nice dinner, an ironed napkin, can help create the kind of space where we can shore one another up during this terrifing time, where we can plan the resistance.