Counter culture LOonie Caldecott
Atin interesting collecon of pre-Cluistmas literature has been ccurnulating on my desk. First there was a slim voluine sent by a friend, entitled The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and "Women's Work," written by the American poet Kathleen Norris. This gives an insightful appraisal of the resource that family and home. like a good liturgy, can provide in our overstressed culture.
Next came the Orange (as in mobile) Magazine, with a fear' we on the high-tech home of the future — of which Orange have ctrated the prototype — in which you could order your coffee machine to get brewing even white you am out of the house.
And then comes the coolest thing of all: Electrolux are launching the first robotic vacuum cleaner. Yes: to, a mere thousand or so, the Trilobite will supposedly hoover up your detritus without any assistance from you. So chill out Martha. /Hp is at hand.
Leaving aside the question of whether the Trilobite would be worth its astronomical price, one thing is clear From the programmable washing-machine, to the advent of Internet grocery shopping, we haven't yet reached the limit of innovation in the automation of domestic tasks. As women grow busier, the market for labour-saving devices also grows,
Perhaps the entry of men into
this privileged sphere is also having an influence. (Since we acquired a dishwasher, my husband has made the dishes his special preserve: it's a technological thing, you see, and only he knows how to load it properly). And yet, the Martha/Mary equation is not such a simple matter, as Kathleen Norris demonstrates in her treatment of the subject. For even with the best machines at your disposal, housework, if it is to he done really effectively, remains a highly personal, even labourintensive business. This is because no machine can make the fundamental decisions which enhance people's lives. Efficiency is not everything. No machine can make a home, as opposed to a utilitarian eating and sleeping dock, And ultimately. only the person, or persons, who care about that home can really look after it properly.
The acid test comes when you get old and infirm. My mother. crippled with arthritis and other problems, was obliged to have home-helps from the council. A few of these (usually visiting Australians getting set to train as nurses) were wonderful. But the majority were awful, doing a slap-dash job in the minimum amount of time, and breaking many of my mother's things in the process. In the end, the whole thing got so stressful that I just took over, doing her housework, as well as my own, for the last years of her life. I realised that my hands on the situation had a significance that someone eLse's could not — and this in spite of the fact that I actually do not enjoy housework at all. All the
gadgets and services in the world could not replace a living. breathing human being who could actively choose a nice meal, never mind cook it and wash up afterwards. hoover up the dust under the bed, put flowers in a vase, and tidy up in a way that made it possible to find things again.
To this day I am using my mother's vacuum cleaner. It is not very practical, being bulky and impossible on stairs. But each time I turn it on, I remember the sense of order and security its use afforded a sick woman afraid of losing control of her environment.
Perhaps this subject matter seems, in end, rather trivial. Yet I can't help remembering a homily I heard recently, which chimed with Kathleen Norris's essay, as well as my own reflections. It too focused on Martha the housewife, and on the liturgy. The problem, said the preacher, is how to balance Martha's zeal with Mary's attention to the Other. We can be very busy ill our political or personal spheres. even busy and efficient where the liturgical matters come into play. But if we fail to base our actions on an openness to the Lord and what he wants of us. all our clever organisation, our zealous activism, our liturgical or domestic perfection will be empty and pointless. Sometimes we just need to be still and present, to our neighbour as to Our Lord. As I try to balance Martha and Mary, I draw a kind of ecclesial security from the name and the identity of the priest who reminded me of this fact. It was a Joseph: Cardinal Ratzinger.