On Saturday we are getting a new dishwasher. It's only been three months since the repairman looked at the old one and shook his head over the numerous costly problems it had. At first it wasn't that bad standing over the steaming sink washing dishes for eight people by hand. The pioneers, right? Solidarity with the poor, hey? And then the glow wore off, and night after sticky night I scrubbed dishes, sweat dripping down my face and my hair plastered to my neck, and the glow of virtue degraded to a stinky flush.
We are the richest people I know, and we wash dishes by hand in an un-air-conditioned house. This isn't a boast or a complaint. It's just how it is. There was no time to go together to look at dishwashers, and the more we researched, the more we bogged down in the minutiae of noise levels and third racks and hard food grinders. Dishwashing by hand became a form of inertia, of inaction being easier than action.
Meanwhile, the rest of the house languishes too. The front bedroom, where the big girls are supposed to sleep, has been primed for a year. I primed it, in a fit of virtue. Perhaps the virtue wore off, or perhaps now I have a twenty-month-old who is not to be trusted, and big kids who are still of the age to think that I have the answer to every question that starts with, "Moooommm?" For whatever reason, the bedroom is still unpainted, and everything seems on hold until that project is completed.
The paint in the princess bedroom bathroom, the one that Darwin and I shower in because the shower in our bathroom has a leak in some yet-to-be-determined location, is peeling so badly that the plaster is exposed in several places. That too has been primed (in places) for a year. One of the pull-chain lights has gone on the fritz, so now it's badly lit too. The place would benefit from a ceiling light, if only we would buy one and schedule an electrician.
Meanwhile, in Europe, refugees are stuck in the Budapest train station (one of the loveliest I saw in my time over there) and children are washing up on the shore of Turkey. An unpainted, unlit, unimproved house is a very small worry in the grand scheme of things, and yet it's the responsibility that I've been given, right now. I cannot stop the war in Syria. I cannot feed the refugees, except indirectly through donations. I can, however, finally hire someone to rewire the lights and the electrical outlets and paint the bedroom and bathroom, and although it doesn't do anything for the children in war-torn parts of the world, it does provide work for my neighbors and allow them to provide food for their families.
I don't know. Would it be better if we lived a life of radical poverty and sent every spare dollar to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless? And yet, how are we to maintain this home for our family without spending money on it? How are we to keep our home safe from the risk of fire without spending money to replace 85-year-old wiring? How are we going to maintain the integrity of the house without doing the maintenance work that requires? Would it be better if this house sunk into even more disrepair, as long as I sent money off to a charity that assures me that of course the overhead is low and the bulk of the money helps those in need? These aren't either/or questions. Of course we have to make a return to the Lord for all he has done for us. It's not a question of should we give, but how much should we give, and how much should we spend on ourselves?
And then there is the matter of beauty. Several months ago I was driving along a road lined with strip malls, and meditating on Psalm 19: "The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament proclaims the works of his hands." That means that every element of creation proclaims God in some way. Trees, grass, rocks: all these in some way reflect God's goodness and beauty. And man, when he creates, has an obligation to use his creative powers to reflect God's goodness and beauty too. Some buildings do this better than others. Strip malls are poor reflections of God. They are ugly and utilitarian, bland and interchangeable. My own house is a good, if shabby, reflection of God's beauty. And in owning it, I have a responsibility to ensure that I keep reflecting God's beauty and goodness through the choices I make. Some of these choices are inexpensive, but some require more thought, effort, and money. Should I buy a ceiling light for the bathroom off the Home Depot clearance rack, or should I search for something more beautiful, more in keeping with the design and age of our house, and commensurately more expensive? It would be a moot point if I couldn't afford anything better than the Home Depot special, but I can. Do I have an obligation to buy ugly, cheap fixtures for my house so that others can eat? Put that way it seems a convicting contrast with an obvious answer, and yet one of the Catholic issues du jour is the status and dignity of the craftsman. How will the craftsman be able to keep crafting if no one employs him? How do smaller companies stay in business if no one buys their products?
In a sense, this is a purely intellectual quandary. I already know that I'm not going to buy a cheap light for the bathroom. I grew up in some ugly, cheap houses, and I don't want to live in one as an adult. More to the point, we have the luxury of being able to give to charity and to afford beauty, and a dishwasher too, if not air-conditioned comfort. Something has to give somewhere.
But the widow's mite still haunts me. We give out of our excess, and we're buying a pretty nice dishwasher after all the dithering. We buy beauty, and we get an earthly return in being able to live with beauty. The widow gave all she had, and looked for no return. And Jesus commended her. I think, "How can this dishwasher, or this light fixture, or this paint job, help me to love and serve God better?" And I'm reminded of the section in The Name of the Rose in which the abbot pontificates on how the beauty of his jewels turn his mind to things divine. And then I remind myself that our house bitter cold in parts of winter and oppressive in parts of the summer, and even some of the poor live a bit more comfortably than we do, climate-wise. And then I remember that other people are at this very moment starving, dying, watching their children die, living in terror, being exploited or abused, and my comfort level seems unbearably luxurious.
Yet God has willed that I live here, in this place and at this time, with the responsibilities and obligations that he's given me right now. There's no virtue in being Mrs. Jellyby, so obsessed with the African missions that her own children lived in squalor and ignorance. Just something else to ponder as I do the dishes next week. Death, taxes, and the dishes, here with us always.
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