Saturday, March 8, 2014


I have always hated vacuuming, ever since I was a kid, when it would fall to me occasionally to haul the Electrolux (a sausage shaped model from before the second war that my mother had inherited from her mother-in-law) around the living room. “But what is the point?” I remember saying fiercely to my mother once, when she’d discovered the less than wonderful job I’d done of vacuuming the carpet. “It just has to be done all over again in a week. So why bother?”

Why indeed. But we need to keep dirt and pests at bay, it’s a fact of living in houses, apartments, caves, any kind of fixed dwelling. And so we sweep and dust and mop and wash, and some of us vacuum.

Rather than growing out of my old attitudes, I have continued to dread the thought of having to vacuum. My mother’s hand-me-down Electrolux seems a miracle of efficient sensible engineering compared to the vacuums I have come across subsequently, which were either heavy and awkward, or lightweight, breakable ones which failed to suck up anything.

And so for some years now I have not vacuumed at all. I have limped along, with a not very clean house, relying on mopping, sweeping, and dusting. No, I don’t have anyone come in to clean; I take a stab at it intermittently and encourage my housemates (my grown kids) to tackle cleaning chores occasionally too.

But recently there’s been a revolution: a dear friend and I have bought a vacuum, to share, and it’s a miracle of good design and ease. I thought I’d never seee the day, but I have to admit that, while I don’t love vacuuming, I now take it on without dread, and with a certain satisfaction at the vanishing of the dust and dirt.

It makes me wonder about how many other things could be made easier or more enjoyable, with an improvement of design. I’ve already discovered the delights of a well-designed stove (two years ago, another revelation), but this vacuum thing is even more astonishing to me. I’m now casting my eyes and mind around to think about what other tools and daily tasks need reconfiguring. There’s wiring - cords and plugs etc - which is always a hassle, getting tangled and needing more sockets than many rooms provide. And then there’s lighting: the new fluorescents work fine, but the design of the individual lights, table and floor lamps in particular, is still aggravating, either inadequate or glaring or ugly, or a combination of all those.

Do I sound like a grump? I don’t mean to, in fact this list is coming out of my delighted realisation that with effort and imagination, small things can be improved in a way that makes a big difference.

All these domestic complaints and musings of mine are nothing of course, I mean they are “first world problems”, compared to the difficulties that face women who live in refugee camps in Syria or in Central African Republic or on the borders of Burma or many other places. They need to haul water, haul firewood, try to find a way to wash clothing, feed their children, and also keep a sense of dignity and order. They sweep and wash and cook and worry. A machine to do the work is the furthest thing from their minds.

So why do these mundane chores oppress those of us who live in comfort rather than out on the street or in a fragile temporary camp somewhere? What right have we to complain?

The fact is that most humans have in their minds an expectation of what the day will bring and what they are “owed” in a day. It’s the gap between those expectations and the reality that sets us up to grumble and feel hard-done-by. We don’t live with an absolute scale in our daily lives, at least most of us don’t. We don’t remember to think about the people who live in impossibly difficult and dangerous situations. Most of us are attached in our imaginations merely to our own expectations; they give us confidence and a kind of road map of who and where we are.

To let ourselves imagine a totally other possible life, one full of hardship and risk, is too frightening, too demanding, for most of us.

And so on March 8, the day that the international world has decided to set aside as International Women’s Day, let’s take a chunk of time to consider the lives of other women and to give them the respect that their valiantness and their persistence deserve. Where we’re born and what catastrophes we find ourselves in are both mostly out of our control. So the fact that you who are reading this are mostly NOT at immediate risk of attack or starvation or other extreme forms of violence (though I agree that any of us may, and many do, encounter anti-woman violence in words and deeds at any time, in any situation) is in many ways a matter of luck.

I don’t think I deserve my luck. If I thought I did it would mean that women born into pain and suffering deserve that, and I cannot accept that anyone deserves that birthright.

And so let’s be grateful for what we have, and spend some reflection time considering the lives of others and giving them help where we can, and respect always.

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