Initiation of Housework

Ivan Bilibin_Baba_Yaga

Terrifying, but not evil as such, the witch Baba Yaga.

Baba Yaga is an interesting witch. While she is definitely dangerous–her fence is made of human bone and skulls, her kitchen cabinets pegged with fingers and toes–she is also fair and plays by her rules. Without the magic doll and the intuition it symbolizes, Vasalisa would be a goner.

Vasalisa has courage, though. She does not cower or hide from the fearsome witch, but accepts her, warts, wild hair, and all. She is brave in the face of her own wild nature, even though she is inexperienced and does not know how to do the impossible tasks of her initiation. She has done the housework of the step-mother, and now she faces the Wild Mother. She washes Baba Yaga’s laundry, sweeps the yard and then cooks her dinner.

Dr. Estés says, “Women’s cycles…are these: to cleanse one’s thinking, renewing one’s values, on a regular basis,. To clear one’s psyche or trivia, sweep one’s self, clean up one’s thinking and feeling states on a regular basis. To build an enduring fire beneath the creative life and cook up ideas on a systematic basis, means especially to cool, and with orignialty, a lot of unprecendented life in order to feed the relationship between oneself and the wildish nature.” (p. 102)

Each of the tasks symbolizes the self-care that we need to nourish and feed our creative selves, our souls, our wild nature. Laundry has to do with putting on a persona, sweeping the yard means preparing space for creativity, and cooking the food means paying attention and keeping the fire going. For many of us, housework is outside our normal lives…with “labor saving” machinery, we are not so much in touch with the historical rhythyms of these tasks.

We all have wardrobes of personae, our work face, our mom face, our wife face, our writer face, and whatever other roles we might perform each requires it’s own persona, it’s own costume. A key to cosplay is creating a character, not merely being Laura Croft or Princess Laia as the slave of Jobba the Hut, as fun as that can be, but creating one’s own character and backstory, one’s own persona. Doing someone else’s laundry gives Vasalisa an insight into the witch’s life.

As Vasalisa is doing the laundry, or rather as the doll is doing it, she learns about the roles Baba Yaga plays, how she dresses, how her garments are made. When women knew how to sew, it was not unusual for them to look at the inside of a garment to see how the seams were done or how deep the hem was. I know the elder women in my family paid attention to such, and had a low opinion of store-bought clothing. When I was allowed to order a dress from the Sears catalog for the first time, I knew the disappointment of the reality that did not match the image. The fabric was cheap, and the dress didn’t fit. My home-made clothes suddenly seemed so much better.

In older days, the yard often did not have grass, but was swept down to dirt with a broom of willow or other branches. That kept down the critters and insects which lived in the grass. Here the idea is to clear the decks for creative work, making space and time for it to be accmplished. It’s hard to work on something that must be put away for every meal or any other distraction. That some women manage to write between their children’s naps and activities is nothing short of miraculous. They have made the committment to do what they can where they are with what they have. Clutter takes the mind away from the project, and it takes energy just to look away from it.

I am not a good housekeeper (with no excuses now that I’m the only resident) but I can say that merely sweeping under my desk has made a difference this week in the energy in my office. Maybe I can move the other things to the now empty studio and begin to weed them out, to have my office space just for myself.

Cooking the meal has to do with feeding the fire and keeping an eye on the food, so that it does not burn nor get overcooked. Cooking over a fire is so different from punching a

microwave’s buttons or setting a timer on the glasstop stove, as I usually do. I’ve taken to using timer to keep track of the time I actually spend writing, but it’s important for me to keep the fire of my enthusiasm going as well, feeding teh fire jujst the fuel it needs, neither wasting energy by throwing too much at the fire at one time, nor letting it die down from neglect. It takes constant vigilance–and practice.

Housework is hardly seen in any fairy tale as being rewarding in itself, as the heroine often manages to escape having to do it. Even Baba Yaga has disembodied hands to do the chores that she does not assign to Vasalisa, the ultimate in doing without doing.

I’m sure that my reluctance to keep house is partly due to the presentation of the mundane side of housework as being a punishment, a slavery of the various princesses–even Snow White was housekeeper to the seven dwarfs. In one tale, the old women show the young peasant girl how to get out of doing the spinning she hated, by suggesting to her husband that she would grow as ugly as they were if he allowed her to spin.

So perhaps it is in learning to manage the mundane tasks of self care that provide the  energy to do the creative work of nurturing the soul, of producing new material, or at least reworking that ground which someone else has plowed. But it’s important not to slide into the mundane all the time, and escape from facing the often fearsome tasks of the soul.

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