Given that I was a grad student half the time I lived in Boulder, Colorado a couple of decades ago, it seems odd that I spent nearly as much time there chatting about housework as I did discussing my writing coursework. On the other hand, my pals and I were dealing with literary characters even when we were goofing off. Sister Domestica was born in the household of a close gay friend who’d received his master’s in creative writing a few months before I arrived to begin mine. Both of his roommates were other young gay men; one was a recovering Catholic who admired the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a drag charity founded in San Francisco. That Halloween, a mutual friend of ours created the Terminatrix, based on the Arnold Schwarzenegger film The Terminator, and our Catholic pal went to the parties with us dressed as Sister Domestica – I can’t remember if he carried a vacuum cleaner or a broom, but I thought it was screamingly clever camp, and from then on, whenever I felt the urge to alphabetize my books or scrub the shower tiles, I invoked the Sister.
Meanwhile, my heterosexual feminist friends and I joked about another domestic goddess, The Woman Who Does Everything More Beautifully Than You Do, a character in Nicole Hollander’s Sylvia comic strip who was surely based on Martha Stewart. We kidded one of my classmates who had two elementary-school-aged children and was on her third divorce (this husband was an investment banker, so she had financial resources the rest of us lacked) about being The Woman Who… We often dropped by her newly remodeled downtown house for a respite from studying in semi-squalid apartments crammed with grad students to loll about on her Oriental rugs, bask in the quiet, and eat a decent meal. She was a good cook with an amazing kitchen, and when she wasn’t in the mood for DIY, she could afford to buy takeout from the precursor to Whole Foods a couple of blocks up the street.
I was a decent vegetarian chef myself, specializing in homey soups, stews, and baked goods. I added protein to muffins by hiding tofu in them, hunted down the best organic bargains at four or five supermarkets each month, and turned a cheapo “garden-level” (read “basement”) apartment into a cozy little home. The world’s greatest housekeeper I was not, but I wasn’t afraid to show up at lesbian and grad student potlucks with my own creations, and once or twice I fed quite tasty breakfast burritos to a couple of carloads of peace and justice demonstrators in the wilds of rural Colorado (yes, unfortunately “supermax” prisons are out there, too).
Eventually I left Boulder, wandered for a while from writers’ residency to artists’ colony, and settled back in my hometown, where I met a nice genderqueer person online. Fast forward to a city in the Midwest, where ze had found a good job in the academic world and I turned into Sister Domestica on steroids. I was so bored outta my gourd in this city, I couldn’t find anything more interesting to do, and it was my first live-in relationship that had lasted longer than 18 months, so I was excited about having a partner, a new family of “outlaws” (they’re not in-laws if you’re not married, right?), and a really nice rental house. And let’s face it: sometimes nesting just feels good.
I hated that outsiders assumed we were a conventional heterosexual couple, but I learned to get over it – who gives a damn what the washing machine repair guy thinks anyway? Our old and new friends knew we were bi queers, or queer bi’s. We had similar standards for cleanliness, if not clutter, and our “1½-story cottage” had a great layout – at one point it had been a house with a studio apartment, so we had plenty of space to handle my sprawling stuff, hir sweaty running clothes, and our thousands of books. I got into caring for the place, even though it was a rental.
I spent many hours mowing the lawn (for which I received a sincere “My hero!”), pruning the forsythia, creating an enormous black-gold compost pile, and raking the stately maple’s leaves. My partner and I created a gorgeous little vegetable garden, working compost into the rich soil, planting carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, zucchini, tomatillos (the organic seed packets said they were peppers, but no matter), and in the middle, one lone native flower from the farmers’ market, an ironweed that grew to an insane height. The squash, like all zucchini, grew inches overnight, and I picked and grated them to bake delicious bread, sometimes chocolate with Belgian chocolate chips.
After years of living on a grad student income, I loved having a huge kitchen with new appliances, and I baked a lot. One Christmas I made 42 dozen cookies. The following year it was only 20 dozen – six different kinds, plus two bread puddings, an apple pear cranberry pie, tart shells (I think I filled them with chocolate pudding, but I can’t recall), a dozen mini muffins, a loaf of gingerbread, and 18 mini loaves of banana, cranberry, and ginger breads. I bestowed this bounty upon my partner’s and my extended family and my co-workers – I worked with a group of about a dozen editors and a “brand team” of roughly 20 people in a company with more than 300 employees, so plenty of folks were happy to snarf up the baked goodies.
When I look back at that period of my life, I find it hard to believe I put that much effort into domestic pursuits, but it was important to me then, and I had nothing else to do with my time. My partner was constantly occupied with hir job and book projects. I’ve been a political animal since very early adolescence, drawn to Left social change movements of various stripes, but I just could not locate that community in that Midwestern city. I tried for five years, twisting myself into a pretzel trying to fit into a community that felt strange, a Left movement that seemed more fixated on marijuana legalization than anything that mattered to me. I traveled to cities around the state to work with a handful of other Latin America solidarity activists, meeting a few people with whom I’m still in touch. Eventually I stopped trying. I worked at my job, volunteered as an usher at the university arts center for free admission to shows, saw a lot of films, read many books, went hiking and on “field trips” with my partner, kept the house pretty clean, and baked. And baked, and baked.
Now that I live in Massachusetts, I’m blessed with a surfeit of politically engaged, savvy organizers working on a host of issues in a range of movements. There’s so much going on here politically, socially, and culturally, I couldn’t do it all if I cloned myself six times. And I’m now middle-aged, single, and sick to death of all forms of domesticity and obligation. I’m looking ahead not too many years and seeing elderly, ill parents (one of my stepparents is there already) and it seems obvious that this is the last period of my life when I can shirk responsibility and do my own pleasurable, essential work in addition to the full-time job I have to support myself. So you can bet yer sweet bippy I’m not spending my free hours dusting, vacuuming, and scrubbing the moldings. I have books to read and translate, research to do, blog posts to write, trips to take!
These days, my apartment feels like a warehouse for my stuff and a work space for my writing. I turn my back on stacks of books lurking in every room, spiders weaving webs behind the spice rack, and dust bunnies threatening to become stampeding rhinoceri. It’s the first week of February and containers of Christmas wrapping paper, bows, and greeting cards are still sitting on my dining room table and chairs. I have far more important and interesting things to do than constantly clean crap out of corners, and unless someone is coming to visit, I could not care less. Oh, I keep up with the basics, for health and happiness: the toilet is sanitary; the laundry is done every weekend, if not more often; the cat’s litter gets changed, the trash taken to the garage, the pots scrubbed and plates put into the dishwasher. But the rest can wait, and it does. I have a life to live.