Over the weekend I did my laundry, as is my custom, and it took my about 30 minutes of actual work—loading, advancing, and putting away. But, let’s say I wanted to do it 150 years ago; that would be a very different story. Most households set aside a full day for laundry, usually a Monday, and the poor person doing it (read: housewife) would spend the whole day soaking, pounding, rubbing, boiling, starching, rinsing, and drying clothes and linens. It involved all sorts of nasty chemicals (starting with lye) and manual tools—such as wooden paddles and dollys to manually spin clothes soaking in a tub. And, all of this assumes that they already had fetched the necessary water and made the soap. Why Mondays? Because the weekend usually left extra meat and other food to eat on Monday, so the housewife could focus on laundry without also having to cook. (Graphic description of laundry courtesy of Forgotten Household Crafts: A Portrait of the Way that We Once Lived, by John Seymour). It wasn’t just laundry, for just about every aspect of home life involved copious amounts of routine labor.
Life in earlier times required copious amounts of difficult, routine labor, and my first reaction to thinking about spending one whole day a week doing laundry is along the lines of “just shoot me now.” Anyone who complains about life today should spend, oh, 30 minutes back then, and they will come back and kiss the ground their Maytag washer and dryer rests upon.
Still, few things are all bad (or all good), and the routine lifestyle of the past had its benefits. It created a routine and rhythm to the day, the week, and the season. It also afforded the opportunity think things over and let the mind ruminate on things while the body is busy with manual activities. It also provided a context for ongoing interactions with family and friends, for you spent a lot of time doing things together in a small space. Given the great efficiencies provided by today’s technology, we have far less of imposed ritual and interaction (think big houses with computers, tvs, and fully-stocked refrigerators), and obviously we prefer it that way, or we wouldn’t buy all this stuff. Still, I find myself sometimes craving imposed routine.
Perhaps this reflects the downside of what I like so much about my job. As an academic, I am constantly learning new things, and I have a remarkable amount of autonomy in that I can study just about whatever I want. (My joke is that I chose to study sociology so that I wouldn’t have to make up my mind about what to study). The downside is that I am continuingly exposed—every single day—to things that I don’t know or haven’t done before. The more that I know, the more awareness I have of what I don’t know. When I read an article, I learn not only what that article has to say but also learn of dozens of articles cited by that article that I probably haven’t read. I can feel overwhelmed by all this information and novelty.
This may be why my hobbies tend toward the routine. I love cycling and its rhythmic nature—80 spins of the crank per minute for an hour or two or three. I also walk and hike—one foot in front of the other again and again—all the while thinking about ideas, experiences, and conversations that have occurred since the last ride or walk.
I also routinize my work. I try to write for four hours each morning, from Monday through Friday, and I like to write in the same place each day. I schedule research meetings on the same afternoon each week, and so forth. This superimposed routine is a safeguard against runaway and exhausting novelty.
Similar issues arise in how we do church. Some services have plenty of routine. When I was attending Catholic and Episcopal churches, you could stop them at a random point, and most the people in the audience could tell you what is supposed to happen next. This type of routine, called ritual in this context, frees the mind up to ponder the more mystical and abstract, though I suppose that too much of it could be tiresome. In contrast, a charismatic or evangelical service can be much more spontaneous. When I was attending a Vineyard church, the pastor would occasionally change direction completely mid-service. It could be exhilarating, but too much of it is disorienting. The community church that I attend now has a nice blend of routine and spontaneity, as is intentionally planned by our pastor.
A balance of the routine and novel seems important, both in our personal life, and in our faith.