“Shinto is essentially a religion of gratitude and love.” — W.G. Aston
After moving from a house that was more than twice the size of the one I’m in now, I bit the bullet and started watching Marie Kondo. That’s when I realized that her system is based on Shinto.
She tells you to thank the house, a garment, a book and to treat what we consider inanimate objects like slacks, blouses and buildings as if they were alive and conscious. This is all inspired by Shinto belief and practice.
When I first got to Japan, one of the older American missionaries warned me not to sit on a desk or put my feet on a chair. “The Japanese believe that the desk has a Kami, and if you use the desk in a way contrary to what it was made for, it disturbs the spirit of the desk.”
My eyes widened. “.. the spirit…of the desk….” “OK,” I thought.
According to Shinto belief, everything has a Kami, an inhabiting spirit: desks, chairs, houses … your old faded Levi’s…
In my American education courses we were advised to sit on the desk because it was less formal and made you more approachable. So, no desk-sitting in Japan. Got it.
I think my household Kami are more like Christian heretics than Shinto spirits. They are more Gnostic, a belief which held that the material world is evil and the world of the spirit (or the mind) is pure and holy. (The Catholic Church denounced this as a heresy a long time ago. Close call). But if you think the physical world is bad, why take care of it?
With Marie Kondo, I try not to get too distracted by what underlies her system, and to just focus on the method. If Marie wants me to thank the jeans I just unloaded … um, I’ll take a pass on that and simply thank my Creator for allowing me to have clothing at all. (Happy now, Marie? I am not going to thank my jeans).
The basic idea is that you keep just the things that “spark joy” and that you really need, use and want: then, you cherish and take good care of those things. That makes sense. If you look at houses that are more than a hundred years old, you won’t find too many walk-in closets. People had less, but they cared for their things more.
Some years back I’d stumbled across another book that inspired me to mend my ways and take pride in housekeeping: Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House, by Cheryl Mendelson.
Raised to be a farm wife, Mendelson says that by the time she was of age there were virtually no job openings in that field. The family farms had been sold to agribusiness, and the old life had all but vanished.
Her disappointment led her to go to college, then on to grad school to take a master’s degree in philosophy, followed by a law degree.
There is an unspoken but very powerful attitude among female professionals and academics: housework is scorned. It is barely tolerated and either outsourced or ignored.
Our houses reflect this. “Look at how dedicated I am! I’m far too busy working in my discipline to be bothered with mundane, bourgeois trivialities like housework.” Meanwhile the laundry and dishes pile up till someone, anyone, (but usually a female) just can’t stand it any longer.
Mendelson caught a tremendous amount of static when she was working on her book, which has a better bibliography than most Ph.D. dissertations. It is a masterwork on the subject of housekeeping.
At a certain point the feminist movement convinced many of us that too much attention to domestic pursuits was a betrayal of the cause. To say that some women now have this fraught, complex, emotionally over-determined relationship with housework is possibly the last taboo subject. People don’t like to talk about it. Mendelson argues that it doesn’t have to be this way.
There was one professor I had in grad school who was very like Mendelson. She had to take a trip, and she made a luncheon for us as a consolation prize. She left the key to her apartment with a student and invited us all to hold our seminar at her place. We all met there and let ourselves in.
Her modest apartment was absolutely immaculate. Pristine. Calm, beautiful. Not a pin, a pen or a paper clip was out of place. It was spartan and minimalist, but warm and charming at the same time. Of course, the luncheon was superb.
She’d grown up in the Midwest on a farm. She knew how to plant and tend a garden, how to cook and bake everything from scratch; how to can vegetables and fruit and sew all her own clothes.
Additionally, Laura Kendrick managed to become one of the world’s premier experts on Geoffrey Chaucer.
Maybe Kondo is right, and houses have a “spirit” that inhabits them. Professor Kendrick’s home was an exquisite example of excellent housekeeping. You could feel the presence of the farmgirl she had been. You also knew you were in the home of a scholar.
If it’s true that dwellings have a local spirit of some sort, then mine has been slouching in an armchair in disgruntled pajamas watching TV, drinking beer, scarfing pistachio nuts and throwing cans, shells and empty potato chip bags all over the floor. My domestic Kami is a sullen, rebellious teenager who needs a good kick in the pants.
Who knows, really. I’m not sure if it’s some external entity, or if it’s an abstract attitude created by the mental energies of the inhabitants. Either way, a home that is orderly and clean is more fun to live in. (But I’m still not going to talk to my jeans.)
Mendelson understands me. Kondo inspires me. Kendrick set me an example. The struggle continues.
Cherie Calletta was born and raised in Hammonton. She graduated Saint Joseph high school in 1977, then graduated from Rutgers College in New Brunswick and went to Japan for four years to teach English as a foreign language. She later spent about five years in Germany outside of Frankfurt am Main. After several years in Charlotte, North Carolina, she returned to Hammonton in 2002, where she and her husband make their home.