Tag Archives: Robert M. Pirsig

Zen and the Art of House Maintenance


I think house maintenance has a better ring to it than boring old housework… this way, instead of being a housewife I could even be called a house maintenance executive, or a house maintenance CEO.

But dressing it up in fancy names doesn’t get me away from the essential boringness of cleaning the bath, vacuuming the house, dusting picture frames and the rest. A recent survey in the UK reported that women spend a year and a half doing housework, men half that. This amounted to four and a half hours a week housework… pea-nuts… In my incarnation as a fifties- type housewife, I did at least two hours housework a day, not including the washing, ironing, cooking and baby care.

When I was first married in 1963, I did it all automatically, every day, and without thinking. Brought up by a dedicated exponent of house maintenance who when I was a child made me strip the bed to the mattress every day, and leave it to ‘air’ before being allowed to make it again, conditioned me to being a domestic automaton. It was a habit I found hard to break as an adult. But becoming a single mother and working full time put the brakes on vacuuming and dusting every day. And later the entry of duvets into our lives changed mine!

I once read that the late Jean Muir, an English fashion designer with a perfectionist ethic, had been taught to make her bed by the nuns at her school somewhere in the West Indies. She said it was then and there that she learned about perfectionism and attention to detail. I have this vision in my mind of a long, high-ceilinged, calm, white convent dormitory with a white robed nun, watching the creation of these little works of art – a perfectly made bed with a white counterpane – and making each child re-make their bed until it really was the best they could do.

I can imagine the atmosphere in a room like that, where everyone was putting their hundred per cent into what they were doing… when something like that happens in a room, it affects the atmosphere. When I did a series of personal growth courses for seven years, one of the things we had to learn to do on a gruelling two week residential course, was to ‘Zen’ our rooms. It was the same thing that the nuns were teaching the children.

We had to leave our room in the most perfect state of cleanliness and harmony possible. Few of us managed to achieve this state of indefinable perfection… and most of us were still mystified or defeated by the concept at the end of the course. But over the years it’s something I’ve come to understand and treasure, and it lifts mere housework or house maintenance into another sphere.

When I was a helper on another of these residential courses, and we were packing up to go after all the course participants had left, someone came in while we were having lunch, and said: “Have you seen Hut Number Ten’s woodshed? We all piled out, and one by one stood in the doorway, and experienced an indefinable sweetness… the wood was piled around the shed, and the shed was spotless… but no more spotless than anyone else’s wood shed. I decided that what made the difference was the love and commitment that had gone into stacking the wood and this left the woodshed in a perfect state of equilibrium. Nothing you could see or describe, but something you feel.

These days that’s how I feel about housework/ house maintenance. I want the place to feel ‘Zenned’, as we used to say. That’s difficult with my amount of clutter, but I know it has more to do with the way I feel about cleaning the house than what’s in it. Though there is also a sense of rightness about the things that are in the room… maybe a touch of William Morris’s dictum, “ have nothing in your house that is not beautiful or useful”.

Sometimes I move and do everything at half speed, which means that I have to stay totally present and conscious, and though I’m doing it slowly, somehow everything gets done in good time, and in far better shape than if I’d just done a quick tidy-up.

Sometimes I just do it with my whole heart, not cutting any corners, doing it as thoroughly as I can. And I find when I’m doing this, I don’t find it boring. Something about paying attention to the detail and doing it without resistance, changes the whole equation. If I do the vacuuming grudgingly, it’s a chore. But if I can make that leap of will and give up the resistance to it, it’s a different experience.

More than that, I find chaos or dusty rooms depressing. And sometimes I want my home to feel like sacred space. Needless to say I’m not consistent in my efforts. In fact sometimes I feel like Sisyphus forever pushing his stone uphill before it rolls down again… this is because though children, grandchildren, seventeen dogs and one cat can make a mess, none of them can compare with a husband.

Robert Pirsig in his  ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ wrote that: “Peace of mind produces right values, right values produce right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions and right actions produce work which will be a material reflection for others to see of the serenity at the centre of it all.” But I wonder if you work backwards if the same applies… by doing the right actions, do we discover peace of mind and all the steps in between?

And the right action seems to have a lot to do with detail. I remember our teacher on one of these courses saying how he had travelled from the US to Japan to do an advanced  course with Zen monks, and he was thrown off it on the first day… he had failed for not paying attention to detail… as I’ve grown older and fractionally wiser I can understand this.

God is in the details, and it’s in the details that the satisfaction and the perfection resides. I was reading Celi at www.thekitchensgarden.com  and her blow by blow description of feeding lambs and the best milk mix and best timing for their well-being was a most moving testament to the beauty in the detail.

This every moment of the twenty- four- hour – seven- days- a- week commitment to keeping the lambs alive and thriving, warm in their coats, and cherished in their sheltered corner of the barn, was a demonstration of how attention to detail becomes a labour of love – and maybe not even a labour – but a journey of love.

Unless Celi did this marathon task with love, I wonder if she’d even be able to keep it up, with feeds every few hours day and night, trips to and fro through the snow and the dark between house and barn, heating the milk- not in the easy micro- wave but in hot water – giving the four lambs colostrum from her cow which she milks, and keeping them hydrated through the day with endless sips. But when we do a task with love in our hearts, the love gives us the energy to do it.

It feels as though by paying attention to the detail, we are actually being a channel for love. And this is what can carry me through the washing up and the bed-making. It certainly carries me through the three meals a day routine of feeding an always hungry husband. I do find it impossible to cut corners and give him an overcooked fried egg, or a soup bowl with a splash on it. And though I don’t manage to keep up a constant commitment to Zen and house maintenance, at least I know the recipe for making it less of a chore and more of a commitment to beauty…. which somehow must make a difference to the world, since we are all connected.


Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Chicken mince was on special at the grocer- cum- delicatessen in the nearest village so I took some home for supper. Mixed with chopped onion, garlic  and celery, grated carrot, mixed herbs, salt and pepper, and fried in little patties, they’re good either hot or cold. We ate them with new potatoes and smashed peas, one of our favourites. Fry a chopped onion and some garlic. When soft, add lots of thyme, frozen peas and enough chicken stock ( I used a chicken stock cube) just to cover the peas. Boil until the peas are soft, and the stock almost disappeared. I used to just mash them with a potato – masher, now I whizz them in my new stock blender. Any left over goes into a green soup.


Food for Thought

“Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.”
Sir Winston Churchill 1874 – 1965 Leader of the free world against Hitler until the US and USSR joined in two years later.

He also said:” I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.”













Filed under cookery/recipes, environment, great days, life/style, love, philosophy, spiritual, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized