If animism is about learning to have relationships with non-human persons then how about cultivating a relationship with one’s home?
“Women’s” Work: What is it Good for?
When I was growing up my mom and her friends (who enjoyed considerable privilege to have this kind of wish) dreamed that their daughters could have respectable careers outside the home. They wanted to break us out of the prison of unpaid domestic duty. Any job that could get us out into the “real” world to “earn a living” was by definition not just good but better.
So we learned about different career paths, how to dress for success and how to climb the ladder all the way up to the glass ceiling. For many of us those teachings replaced learning about the arts of cooking, clothing, cleaning and even child care. The work of women was seen as not important, maybe even as demeaning.
Now, when I hold that phrase “to earn a living” in my mind, it bothers me a little. It suggests that living itself isn’t a birthright. At the poker table it could be considered a tell about what our society really thinks. The idea being: if a job isn’t blessed by an exchange of money than it isn’t worth a damn.
Choice of course is good. It is great that women have more vocational choices and I am proud of that generation’s fight to make the world better for its daughters.
At the same time I regret that some of our choices – the ones that arguably connect most directly with our everyday quality of life – have been nearly completely devalued. I regret that the men of that generation didn’t feel an equal passion to leave the paid workforce to fully participate with the domestic world.
The unintended consequences of this cultural shift have reverberated through our culture. Generations of people do not know how to cook. For many, cooking involves heating up a highly processed package of food. Numbers and ingredients are listed but missing is a sense of where the food came from and why it might be special. For many, eating has been reduced to the act of consuming calories. How bizarre. As Robert Rodriquez once said, “Not knowing how to cook is like … not knowing how to fuck!”
Many people do not know the basics of how to organize and clean. Faced with untidy and disorganized homes, we feel guilt, shame and ambivalence about where we live. The most privileged hire workers to do their chores but domestic workers are not generally treated with respect. Wages tend to be low. Domestic workers enjoy few to no legal protections. Many are trafficked, exploited and abused.
Since we’ve forgotten how to make or repair clothing we rely on sweat shop labour for fast and easy purchases of clothing made with poor quality “disposable” fabrics. In the process, we victimize women and children living in countries that happen to be poorer than our own. We foul the land, air and water with incredible amounts of waste.
This is not an animistic lifestyle.
Bigger and Newer Isn’t Necessarily Better
When I walk through my neighbourhood I see further evidence of the problem. My neighbourhood boomed during and just after World War Two. The houses built were cheap and sometimes shoddy. They haven’t necessarily aged well but I feel a sorrow each time one of them gets razed to make way for a new home promising to be bigger, better and more spectacular.
The new homes going up are made with toxic materials guaranteed to age even worse. Bigger homes mean less space for wildlife and less space to soak up rainwater. This is a recipe for flooding and reduced biodiversity. For now, our neighbourhood hosts magnificent displays of fireflies in the summer. Elsewhere in the city they have disappeared. Replace fireflies with bigger homes made of toxic materials? I’ll pass, thanks.
These McMansions are bullies, pushing out the families who originally lived here — many of whom are Black and working class. Their parents and grandparents were model citizens. They got jobs and worked hard all their lives to build some wealth for their families. But as taxes increase these families are forced to sell their homes. As one of the last affordable neighbourhoods in my city, these families have no place to go. The wealth they accumulated despite Jim Crow laws and policies slips between their fingers like dry sand. Losing wealth is bad enough but to move away is to leave behind the greatest wealth of all — a network of friends and family built up over generations.
Gentrification is not animism.
Banishing With Extreme Kindness
If my observations are correct, it would seem that a lot of people have uneasy relationships with the places we call home. This ambivalence is starkly reflected in genre fiction. As our houses got more and more cluttered, we saw paintings of neglected ancestors looking at us and following our every move. Their eyes were larger than life and they did not approve. Housewives dreaming of glamorous careers saw images of people frantically trying to escape buildings where the doors wouldn’t open. Domestic chaos was sometimes so extreme the walls and pipes bled. To watch a movie about a haunted house was to see our anxieties not just reflected but magnified.
Speaking of horror, IKEA recently did a little poll. As a furniture company they naturally assumed people felt home meant a safe space – a place to shelter from the storm — but almost half of the people polled said they go to their car, not their home, when they need some relief. That impulse makes some sense to me. It is a common phenomenon for even non-animists to talk about the relationships they have with their cars. A lot of people even gift their cars with names. But I was surprised and a bit disturbed that so many people do not feel safe at home.
With all this happening in the background I can now appreciate why many people in the alternative spiritual communities feel the need to routinely do banishing rituals.
But a house isn’t evil or bad in itself. If a home feels stagnant or grim maybe that is a reflection of the energy of the people inside. Maybe one could encourage a positive spirit through nurturing a relationship with the house itself. When my son was little he used to go to a friend’s house while I worked. And it was always a delight to see how he would lovingly touch the door frame as he entered. Each morning that house said, “Welcome, little one!” I always felt good about leaving him there because I knew he was in good hands.
I want that kind of spirit in my own home.
How can a house become en-spirited?
To build a relationship with my home I’ve started a few simple practices. I try to say hello or goodbye when I pass through the door. I open the windows daily to let my house breathe fresh air. I imagine it enjoys being touched by sunshine and being able to hear the music of birds and of people passing by.
I try to see housework as less of a chore and more like care giving. When I wash floors or walls I thank them for their stability and for keeping us safe. When I wash the windows I do a little ritual based on a Marie Kondo teaching. Before I begin, I set my intent. I imagine what it is I want to see on the other side of the window. I ask myself about the energy I want to invite into the home. As I clean the windows I thank them for all they do to protect us from harm. One can add this kind of intent and imagination to cooking, to repairing things, to decorating … to our whole lives.
Some people set up an ever changing decorative display on a shelf or table. Some set up altars. Setting aside a space devoted to beauty and harmony seems like something a home would like.
Some people always eat dinner together. The really busy may choose to set aside one day a week for family fun time. I think every home wants to hear people laughing.
When I care for the land I try to get to know everyone who lives there and anticipate their needs. I want a home that has spirit but as charming as the Addams family was I don’t really want to live in a haunted house surrounded by dead things. So when the venerable Magnolia grandiflora tree insisted it needed mulch to protect its fragile roots it got what it asked for. The mulch extends nearly to the drip line. This spring it thanked us with a magnificent display of blossoms that never seemed to quit. In years past it flowered much more grudgingly. Birds and squirrels seem to have received the message that they are welcome to come here to garden or do whatever it is they do all day. Frogs and lizards make little homes in hidden spaces. Opossums and raccoons mysteriously pass by in the night. A haunted house is barren; the loved home overflows with life.
What is the value of a home that is loved? When a home “sparks joy” it means we are aware of its personhood. It is reminiscent of pregnancy. At quickening, when I felt the first flutterings of my son I suddenly realized there really was another person there. Our homes and housework may seem unimportant on the surface but I am coming to believe that this relationship can be very magical indeed. So to cycle back to the beginning of this essay … I think I have an answer to the question about “women’s work” and what it is good for. Absolutely everything. If someone is wondering how to be an animist in an urban environment, I can’t think of a better way to start than with the place where one lives.
Does your home spark joy or does it feel more like a haunted place? I hope you will feel comfortable sharing your experiences with your home in the comments section; or, if you have a lot to say send us an essay!
mitsubachi spends a lot of time with bees and flowers.