The Poetic Homemaker: Housekeeping is a dance

Awhile back our online book club read Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education by James Taylor. In it, he posited a three-stage development of and three-prong aspect of poetic – that is, not logically deduced – knowledge. He called the final stage “connatural,” which was a difficult term to grasp, but to make it simpler and parallel, I will use the word “internalized.” So, the three stages and aspects of non-rationally-attained knowledge are intuitive, intentional, and internalized.
Applied to homemaking and housekeeping, the final stage of internalized knowledge is a dance; we dance the dance of our routines because it makes us happy and satisfied. We simply couldn’t leave the dishes undone at night or the bed unmade in the morning, because it would be jarring and incongruous with who we are.

What tripped me up most is that poetic knowledge, according to Taylor, is the starting point, not the end point. He says we do not begin with rational analysis and end up at the poetic mode. However, I think that is precisely the route I have been trying to take all these years:

  • Read the homemaking books.
  • Read the cleaning books.
  • Write up schedules and routines and lists.
  • Think it all through.
  • Think, think, think.
  • List, list, list.

poetic homemaking

Then supposedly I would work those systems and those habits until reaching the unconscious stage, the poetic “oneness with order” that is the fruit of all the analysis and effort. This has been my mode. And even though I’ve never worked the systems and the lists and the habits to the point of internalizing them, I have always considered this a fault of my will and personality, not a fault with the approach.

And it’s not that it hasn’t gotten me anywhere. It just hasn’t taken me as far as I thought it all promised me it would.
It’s slowly dawning on me, however. The threads are coming together: synchronicity at work.

First, Taylor lays out the three levels of poetic knowledge: first intuitive, then intentional, and finally that grows and matures and blossoms into “connatural” or internalized. So, we will use that as our outline and I will attempt to weave the threads that I have seen.

The Stages of Poetic Housekeeping

  • Intuitive Homemaking
  • Intentional Homemaking
  • Internalized Homemaking

Intuitive Homemaking

Intuition is, according to the dictionary, “direct perception of truth, fact, etc., independent of any reasoning process; immediate apprehension” or “a keen and quick insight.” It is a vision, an internal image that directs and guides, even unconsciously or subconsciously. Almost every housekeeping book I have read addresses wrong thinking as a frequent root cause of poor housekeeping. Often the point is made with pop psychobabble or self-esteem jargon, but I think there is something to that point nonetheless.

In a different context, but applicable and without any traces of self-esteemism, John Piper writes, “behind most wrong living is wrong thinking.”

We can try to analyze and rationalize our current intuitive or foundational beliefs, the ones that function without our even being aware of them, but often that leads to myopic introspection.

Loving the Beautiful

Perhaps a better approach would be to breathe deeply and expose ourselves to right thinking, with the goal of internalizing a right vision: whirlwind clean the house and then open your eyes and see it, notice it, appreciate it; read books or blogs that approach homemaking realistically but yet poetically — that is, lovingly; purge any reading that treats housework scornfully or as a necessary evil.

Sandra Felton, although she often devolves into modern psychobabble, accurately pinpoints many mental roadblocks that separate “Messies” from “Cleanies.”

As long as we look at housekeeping as a group of isolated tasks lined up in order to be done, we can put them off because there is no reason to do them except to get them off the list. The solution is goal-orientation rather than task-orientation. We should never lose signt of our overall goal, which is this case is an orderly house. When we see our work in terms of this goal, individual tasks become a means to an end. […] Is it practical to wash a few dishes? Why not wait till you have a whole sink full and do them all at once? These ideas are practical, but they delay your reaching your goal — a beautiful house.

“Cleanies,” she writes, are usually not even aware of all the little things they do to keep things up:

Cleanies have mental schedules they themselves are not aware of. […] The power that activates the [action] is in the eyes. […] Their goals are visual, and they become uncomfortable if something is out of place. Cleanies are not afraid to use shortcuts because they are confident in their own cleaning ability and don’t feel it necessary to prove anything by doing things the hard way.

In The Messie Motivator, Felton develops the idea that what Messies are often missing is either knowledge (and she really means intuitive understanding) of how to do housework and what a clean house is. She says they are also often missing a sense of dignity. Although she totters into self-esteemism, dignity is important, and she rightly points out that all people are due dignity because they are created in the image of God.

It is wrong thinking to believe that humility or personableness means a lack of dignity.

So housekeeping is not the sum of the correct list of discrete tasks; it is operating under a vision and goal of an orderly and beautiful house. Working with the purpose to check things off a list is actually not a helpful mindset. Using a checklist to help remind you how to reach a goal, however, can be beneficial.

As is so often the case, it is not the externals so much as the heart, mentality, or disposition behind the externals.

Intentional Housekeeping

In Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education, Taylor described intentionality differently than I had ever thought about it. “Intentional Parenting” and other such “intentional” approaches seems to have caught on as a buzzword in some circles, and I am generally in favor of intentional living. The dictionary says intentional means doing something on purpose, deliberately, or, in the metaphysical sense, to aim your physical actions toward an abstract ideal.

Taylor, not surprisingly, focuses on the metaphysical aspect of intentionality, and points out that, from the Latin, it means a tendency toward, a stretching toward, an inclination toward the object:

it knows reality by inclination toward the object in a sympathetic manner […] still based in the senses.
So when we have an intuitive vision-goal, the next step of the poetic mode causes us to stretch ourselves toward that vision. We see what is discordant with our image-goal and seek to right it.

washing dishes

And here is where, though I have maintained that the lists are tools and not masters, my lists have failed. I have not sought, pursued, and remembered the end, the goal, the vision, the form, the beauty that is the point.

So, I have floundered in being the master myself, and I am a poor master. I refuse to let my lists be master, yet I have not been mastered by, gripped by, the essence of order and beauty (which are found in the nature of God, eternal and objective). The right thinking, the right vision, grips the soul, the mind, and then the hands and feet, causing one to put right what is disordered and out of place. You make right anything not consistent with the reality seen in your mind’s eye.

And as you stretch toward that ideal in your imagination, the outworking is your daily dance of housework.

There is no safeguard and no joy like that of being under orders, being possessed, controlled, continually in the service of One whom it is gladness to obey. — Elisabeth Elliot, Discipline: The Glad Surrender

Again, Sandra Felton identifies visual perception as a key difference between Cleanies and Messies:

Messies don’t really “notice” how bad things are because they don’t actually focus on things visually. You might say they think nearsighted. They may have good visual acuity, but they don’t “look” at the condition of the house.

However, the Cleanies’ “goals are visual, and they become uncomfortable if something is out of place.” They see well, and they act in accordance with what they see. This is akin to Taylor’s description of poetic knowledge as “the habit of noticing what is happening here and now.” A person working at his craft in the poetic mode Taylor describes as having “not simply an alert mind but an overall alertness of keen senses.”

The poetic mode is a keen looking.

The way you keep your house, the way you organize your time, the care you take in your personal appearance, the things you spend your money on all speak loudly about what you believe. “The beauty of Thy peace” shines forth in an ordered life. A disordered life speaks loudly of disorder in the soul. –Elisabeth Elliot, Let Me Be a Woman

Internalized Homemaking

Once you have the intuitive vision and intentionally reach toward it, you are able to reach the connatural, or internalized, phase: the point at which you gain a disposition of the will to simply act consistently with the Right and Good and Beautiful.

Sandra Felton noticed that “For her [Cleanie friend], the house is not just a location in which she does things. She feels that the house is a very personal extension of herself. […] We were designed by Him [God] to feel at peace when things are in order and to feel frustrated when they are out of control. […] She doesn’t feel she has to prove her worth by producing. The activities she does decide to tackle, she does in the same way she keeps her house — in an orderly and deliberate way.”

Cheryl Mendelson’s introduction in Home Comforts says something similar:

Unfortunately, what a traditional woman did that made her home warm and alive was not dusting and laundry. Someone can be hired to do those things (to some extent, anyway). Her real secret was in identifying herself with her home […] But it is more illuminating to think about what happened when things went right. Then **her affection was in the soft sofa cushions, clean linens, and good meals; her memory in well-stocked storeroom cabinets and pantry; her intelligence in the order and healthfulness of her home; her good humor in its light and air.** She lived her life not only through her own body, but through the house as an extension of her body. Part of her relation to those she loved was embodied in the physical medium of the home she made. […]

It is scarcely surprising, then, that so many people imagine housekeeping to be boring, frustrating, repetitive, unintelligent drudgery. I cannot agree. […] [Domesticity] is just an orientation that gives you a sixth sense about the place you live in, and helps you keep it running with **the same kind of unconscious and effortless actions that keep you from falling when you walk down stairs.**

That unconscious, seemingly effortless, action that Mendelson mentions is consistent with Taylor’s comments in Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education about poetic experience & practice:

This is a poetry that already knows the deep significance of things as they are, so that all that is needed is to arrange them alongside, in vibrant sympathy, the wide range of human responses to life. […] And this power of knowledge must be the constant point of poetic experience and knowledge: it always deals with the really real.

And when we see the really real, when we act in accordance with the really real, we see that the deeper significance behind it is just as really real:

Suddenly, in the illumination of poetic light, these real objects become analogous to our deepest thoughts and emotions.

And here I made an unexpected connection to seeming unrelated reading.

Holly Pierlot in A Mother’s Rule of Life, after telling her story and leading her readers through her process and practicalities, delves into the deeper life and explains how it was only after her thoughts and actions were working in harmony with each other that she then became able to see God in the moment, in her ordinary round of duties. She experienced communion and fellowship with God on a deep level. Union. And then in One Thousand GiftsAnn Voskamp, tells of her journey to joy in the ordinary and freedom from fears through gratitude, which led her almost unsuspectingly to this deeper level. Union. And here is Taylor using the word to explain what connatural knowledge is: “the first reflex to experience knowledge as union, possession, with the essence (the form) of the thing to be known. And this is the poetic tendency of the cognitive [interior?] life, this getting within the immaterial reality of the objects of knowledge […] [the poetic impulse is] always in search of union.”

What both Pierlot and Voskamp describe is an abandoning of their analytic, self-focused strivings and an embracing of happy, trusting obedience, after which they unexpectedly began to see behind and beyond the ordinary things and duties to how those things and duties spoke of God, thus experiencing a deeper, more communicant, relationship with Him.

Housekeeping isn’t about a clean house after all. It’s about obedience and holiness and love, about seeing and praising and serving God Himself.

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10 Comments

  1. Hi Mystie,

    I loved your thoughts on “poetic housekeeping” because I struggle with many of the same issues as you do.

    I think you are right about “connatural” being something the same as “internalized” but from what I understand, the word also implies actually SKIPPING the reasoning or learning process. I couldn’t find the actual quote, but Cardinal Newman in one of his homilies talks about how a simple but just man can actually have opinions whose wisdom and truth would put many learned men to shame. The idea is that living close to God, a person can basically fly past the normal stages of learning. That wouldn’t mean they would become physicists to rival Stephen Hawking, because that kind of learning is based on study and specialized information, I suppose it’s more like the way in the Bible that human wisdom is contrasted with the wisdom of the righteous man.

    Thinking about your post, I wonder if I tend to read those organization books sort of like I might follow around someone as an apprentice — to sort of acquire their habits and way of thinking. That might be like what Circe Institute calls Mimetic Learning. THat would probably explain why even though I “know” how to keep house, I still read and reread those kinds of books.

    I think the best way to learn “connaturally” is by becoming a better person, ie a “just man”, closer to Our Lord and participating in His life… SO you are on the way by those indirect means.

    Sorry to write a comment that’s almost a post! Something I’ve been thinking about a lot, and I loved the way you tied together poetic with housekeeping.

    1. I love your comments, Willa! Never apologize for being too long. :)

      I agree about the apprentice aspect of the housekeeping books; that’s a good way to put it. Especially since it is usually the “pep talk” portions I return to rather than the more instructional bits.

      My latest stage (or perhaps I should say my last growth stage; I’m in decline now during pregnancy!) has definitely been one of focusing more on “learning to love what ought to be loved.”

  2. Sigh. Willa, that comment makes me miss you! I always loved having you in book club!

    Mystie, I have wondered what impact literature might have on something like housekeeping, and if it might have a good one, what books would be best.

    I do think that the “ultimate housekeepers” are simply being themselves rather than acting out a set of rules. The question is how one becomes that sort of person…

    1. I wrote a bit about literature being what woke me up from approaching it purely logically (which was leading me further and further down the road of “it doesn’t actually matter”) in My Journey. For me, the books were Mansfield Park by Jane Austen & Bleak House by Dickens. I do think they contain strikingly applicable characters and situations, but they were also [providentially] what I was reading at the time I was struggling with the issue.

      Yes, that is the real question, isn’t it? :)

    2. I miss our discussions, too, Brandy!

      I am sorry to hear about your health issues and will be praying.

      Yes, that’s exactly what I wonder too — “how one becomes that sort of person” —

      I am somewhat guessing that God enjoys some diversity in the details of housekeeping. At least, in other things He seems to cultivate variety rather than uniformity.

      I am also guessing that the essence is hospitality; everything else is secondary.

      But those are general principles and I know it doesn’t help with the longing for specific examples and methods.

      1. Ooh! I like this Willa: “the essence is hospitality; everything else is secondary.” Of course, the former is a major weakness for me. I have a big mental block when it comes to large groups. This doesn’t mean we aren’t hospitable, but no matter how many times we do it, it still feels “hard” to me, if that makes sense.

        I’ve decided that Mystie’s next food eBook should cover two things: (1) meals for crowds and (2) meals for delivery. If she could include specifics on delivery CONTAINERS that would be great. I still can’t figure out how to deliver soup, even when people seem to actually need soup. I do it, but I feel like I always make a mess!

        1. So far that is the best I have come up with, also. I could tell you the story of how once upon a time one of those soup kettles overturned in the back of my Suburban. It wasn’t pretty! I keep thinking there has to be a better way (beyond freezing soup in a bag and heating it up later at their house)…

  3. I hope you get your health stuff corrected and your energy back. My former triumphs, too, are mostly disappeared. I’m hoping they will come back to me with less work when we’re back in form again.

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