My return to the kitchen after my son’s birth was gradual, but to me it was the sign that I was healing, finding space and energy again. The first meal I cooked after becoming a mother was roast chicken. Rubbing the meat with olive oil and fresh thyme, sea salt and cracked peppercorns—a basic, good cooking task—made me feel grounded. My husband was retrieving his sister at the airport, and baby was asleep. I could hear the sounds of my work.
Scents of clear broth and white wine rose from the oven. The side dishes were simple, steamed rice and green beans. I served it proudly. Until then, my husband had made easy meals—tuna melts and grilled salmon. Friends had brought salads and soups. But this was my meal, to serve my friend of a sister-in-law after her long trek from London to Los Angeles.
The next meal was in Big Sur. Heeding others’ advice to travel when the baby was small, we had found a cabin in one of the most sublime places on earth. On a whim, I planned meals and bought ingredients. How grateful we were that I did—our cabin was along a tortuous road, and going out for milk and potatoes would have been a burden. While my husband held our son by the fire, I worked in the corner kitchen. I roasted acorn squash and mushrooms, pan-fried a strip steak in butter. With a good red, we sat down and enjoyed our meal in the glowing dark.
The next big meal was for my husband’s birthday—a nod to a classic Texan buffet for my Irish husband. After an early start, baby and husband went back to sleep, and I got to work. I brewed cinnamon coffee for cold punch. Prepared a bountiful relish tray. Got cheese dip ready in the slow cooker. Put the potato salad and coleslaw in colorful bowls. Set out mustards and rolls for sausages and tri-tip that would be grilled later. That afternoon, when our small apartment was filled with friends, I would treasure how the morning hours had found me in my kitchen.
When my other sister-in-law flew in from Ireland, I wanted a warm, simple meal to offer. I served spinach leaves and avocado, velvety cauliflower soup spiced with coriander, a baguette and lemon butter. Earlier, pounding the softened butter with lemon peel and juice, I loved the doing of it—the shadows in the kitchen, spots of light, the sounds of my wooden spoon against the cream.
And, finally, there’s the meal I made for my mother and grandmother when my son was sixth months old. It was my mom’s second visit—her first in May was resplendent with her own cooking. Now it was October. I made a “harvest meal” complete with a hand-written menu propped up against persimmons. Four courses gave us plenty of time to talk and laugh—handmade artichoke tapenade with almond crackers, smoked trout with hazelnut quinoa salad and lemon-roasted Brussels sprouts, fresh dates with aged Gouda and espresso, flourless chocolate cake with Sauternes.
The meal was cherished. Mom and Grandma asked about recipes, requested seconds. I felt returned to my kitchen in full—at ease, imaginative, strong. And I found, across the months, that my return to the kitchen was both a homecoming and a becoming, a space for my familiar self to work out new motherhood. For the act of cooking is both grounded and liminal. The kitchen is a room and a threshold, offering us the chance to exist and explore, simply be and abundantly create. I treasured all this.
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And as I write about these meals, I appreciate the poetry that can be put toward the doing of household work. But now my son is over two-and-a-half, and I can honestly say that the doing of homemaking is one of the hardest lessons I have had in God’s grace and resourcefulness. So many times a day approaching the kitchen sink yet again makes me want to crawl out of my skin and start yelling from the rooftops. Is it boredom or angst or angst posing as boredom? Relentless questions dart in and out of my mind all day. Is this all there is now? Cutting green beans and trying to get milk stains from the carpet? What have I done wrong—why wasn’t I further on in my career? But would I really trade it for these days? God, what wouldn’t I give to trade it for these days! Round and round the train on the homemaking track goes, questions like train whistles piercing my ears.
And all the while, it is in the crux of cutting green beans and wiping milk stains that something has happened. Is happening.
I think this “something” has to do with love. With being loved—with finding the experience of being loved in little pouches of a real day, brought about not despite but because this real day is enmeshed with household chores and cares. Like a small child’s curious finds on a walk through the neighborhood—tiny acorns in their shells, a dull penny, flattened begonia petals—tiny little finds throughout the day speak of a new way of being loved than I had before.
These “little finds”—what are they? How did they come about? How did I find them? I trace back my mind, and I see a pattern of fresh ideas that have come my way so that my daily round is not so at odds with my spiritual walk, but woven around with it.
The doing of household work and homemaking has been, throughout church history, a very special place to meet God. When St. Benedict wrote to the monks of his order to treat the dishwashing as one would treat the vessels for the Eucharist, he was putting in explicit form the grace of immanence—that in suds of soap and soaking soup bowls, we are at a threshold of turning to God, of even caring for God.
This grace of immanence seems to glimmer out to me in two ways. In all things, chores or leisure, the hand of the Creator can be found. But specifically in the doing of homemaking, there is a unique tangibility of the elements at hand that offer a special connection to realizing God’s presence. I think of how God “made home” in the wilderness, with acacia trees for beams and exquisitely woven curtains. I think of God as weaver, that metaphor in Isaiah, working with woof and warp at the loom. I think of Jesus as carpenter, crafting in wood and angles. I think of Jesus’ night before the crucifixion, how he used the meager atoms of water and towel for piercing his disciples’ souls, the humble items of bread and wine for becoming everlasting love.
The humble, workaday tasks that include water, towels, bread, butter, linen, tomatoes, grocery lists, soaps suds, fruit on the plate, curtains, wooden beams of the house—these are all open and waiting to be used in such a way that the resplendence of the Trinity shimmers through, and caught as we are in daily exhaustion and worry, if we can but turn to it, we realize we hold props for the divine drama in the human heart.
If we can but turn to it. Ha. This is the trouble for me. I have found it so difficult to lift my eyes from one way of seeing the dishes to another way of seeing the dishes. I have set timers on my phone, tried to memorize prayers from Brother Lawrence—one of the best teachers in finding God in daily tasks—tried to write my own prayers following the Celtic Christian tradition, which finds a reason to pray in any task from milking a cow to stepping over a threshold.
But my eyes are enmeshed in my tiredness, and I just want to get the darn task done with already. I want to pick up the living room and get my son to bath and bed so that I can put my feet up and watch television shows. Really, what does it matter that I could turn to God over the boiling hotdogs? I’d rather turn to God when I’m finally horizontal, when my feet ache less, and when I have the mental energy to put three words together. What is so great about immanence anyways? The grace of transcendence is far more beneficial and life-giving: that God is more than all this wearying budget talk, more than trying to organize with my husband who’s going to lodge checks and tell the apartment manager about our broken sink.
Like this, my heart pushes against the grace of immanence. It becomes deeply irritating, chafing against my need and desire to escape. It makes me feel like I have to resign or just fall in step with these big looming responsibilities that have their dictates in the home.
Yet some measure of grace manages to crack through the knot I tie myself in. Because the grace of immanence brings another kind of grace: that of creativity. As the presence of God glimmers through tiny acorns and dull pennies and flattened begonia leaves, it calls us to see the tasks at hand with craftsmanship. And this creativity becomes a form of agency, albeit working in small, homespun ways. It isn’t just seeing God in drudgery (though that may help); it is bringing to bear to household chores a sense of resourcefulness and even beauty.
When my son was born, I got a book in the mail. I couldn’t remember ordering it, but I was so pleased with myself for having done so—it was Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowan Farm During the Great Depression by Mildred Armstrong Kalish. I found out soon that my friend Ann had sent it to me—a really wise friend, because she knew exactly the right book to give someone who just had a baby. This book is about doing, but it’s about the craft and joy of doing, almost for its own sake, a kind of zestful record of all the small tasks that make up a handmade, agency-made, and creative life.
In recalling farm life, from handmade rubs for bee stings to draining milk cans to marking the seasons by what birds are in the garden, Mildred Kalish doesn’t celebrate the kind of cultural pressure women might have felt to have the whitest laundry out to dry the earliest in the morning, but she does celebrate the fact of doing the laundry with intentional ownership. This is because it’s not just doing. It’s making. Doing in this manner becomes making—a home, a place, a space, that doesn’t merely represent comfort, belonging, coziness, order, well-being, togetherness—but is those things. And here is an insight into immanence I never had before: it’s not only that God shines out from orange slices and bookshelves. It’s that with grace, these things make love and goodness. These things—caring for these things, building and cleaning and keeping these things—make a place for the heart to rest and be cared for.
Setting out clementines in a blue bowl. Trying a new recipe. Folding the towels and storing them away (though my “linen” cupboard is a raucous mess—I stuff sheets around my writing files and jars of brewing kombucha). These all make something intangible tangible: thoughts of beauty and love get into molecules of fruit and cotton. It’s astonishing work, really, this homemaking work.
And yet. Some days are really tough. The corners of the house seem to close in.
I’ve written this essay in bits and pieces, starting out one way, turning to another. I keep wanting to arrive to a safe shore where I can rest easy in the work of making a home. But I can’t. As soon as I finish a paragraph that cultivates a kind of tangible spirituality that sounds so good to my ears, a rough day spins my way. There’s crying and frustration, and not just from the toddler in the house.
So I’ve wrestled with the grace of immanence, that glory in the dishwater, because I can meet God there. And I’ve reveled in the grace of creativity, that expression of agency sparking from our deep, singular selves that turns doing into making. But in the rough spots, I’ve encountered another kind of grace, weaving around me and my attempts to find God into this daily round.
It’s the grace of receiving.
For God is the real homemaker, that exquisite figure in Proverbs 31 who does not sleep nor is unkind, who makes clothes of purple and invests in harvesting fields. And this is why the tough days—the uncreative, dim, dreary days—become altogether very gracious. I get to be guest in my own home. Sometimes this means relinquishing my need to have my home just so. Sometimes it even means that my hoped-for reconciliation with all things homemaking does not happen either. But this grace of receiving is less about doing household work; it’s not even about making a home. It is about being home. For God’s hospitality is one of refuge. It invites all those looking for rest, to rest.
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There’s another meal I really like making. I take frozen breaded chicken breasts out of the freezer and put them in the microwave. I sit down with my son and we eat grapes while the chicken cooks. Dishes are piled in the sink, and the pretty arrangement I made a week ago with pine boughs is scattering rotting pine dust over the table. If I think about them, the bath and bedtime rigmarole looming ahead makes me shiver right through.
Yet it’s like out of the corner of my eye, and I somehow catch it: God gave us such grace to make a home, to handcraft whatever spots of warmth we can. What grace it is to keep it by kindling or microwave wattage.
Jessica Brown lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son. With graduate degrees in literature and creative writing, she is now studying at the Institute for Spiritual Formation at Talbot School of Theology. Her essays have appeared in Dappled Things, Image Journal’s Good Letters blog, Journal for Spiritual Formation and Soul Care, and in the book Jane Austen and the Arts. You can follow her blog Salt+Water at http://saltandwaterblog.tumblr.com/.