Bread, Milk, Honey, Salt and Vinegar

For the first few months, married life did not agree with me. I’m not sure what I expected except that it involved, perhaps, more satisfaction and, perhaps, less arguing. There didn’t seem to be much that we agreed on: family, holidays, jobs, time for each other, time for ourselves… but the thing that we argued about the most was our home. Shortly after marriage I moved from a two bedroom apartment into a one bedroom condo that belonged to my husband. We had hoped to buy a house that could be strictly “ours” not his and not mine but thanks to the capricious whims of circumstance this simply didn’t happen. So I found myself moving into a space that I defined both consciously and sub-consciously as “his space” no matter how many times he told me it was ours. And so we fought.

People who knew us well blamed the size of our new living accommodations; the space was too small, they told us, we needed a bigger place so that we could each have some space to ourselves. The advice sounded good on the outside but the more times I heard it the more times I wondered if  it was true. After all, married people have gotten along in much smaller homes than this before now- why did this not work for us? The arguing got so bad it began to feel like a curse. I began putting a broomstick across the front door at nights; a superstition that had belonged to my great-grandmother to keep the witches away. I’m not sure what I thought it would accomplish except to make me feel as though I was shutting the bad feelings out instead of being shut in with them. I went through a bit of a philosophical crisis: I, who scorn superstition and find new age spiritualism a bit too touchy-feely to countenance, felt convinced that a curse was cast on our relationship- or, to put a finer point on it, that someone was casting a curse on our relationship.

The reasoning was irrational, but nonetheless I felt as though I suddenly had a concrete grasp on the situation. I no longer felt helpless and confused within the relationship, but instead felt angry. I was angry that someone- anyone- would stoop so low to try to muck up a marriage; our marriage; my marriage. More than that I was angry, furious in fact, that someone- anyone- would try to break us up at home; our home; my home. I felt for the first time as though this place where I lived was territory that I needed to protect and that was when I decided that if I was going to live in this space as my home that I was going to need to know this space as my own. That is when I decided to do one of the silliest and most irrational things I’d thought of yet: I decided I was going to do a spirit cleaning.

In spite of my extensive late-night online research about spirit cleanings, many of which involved the reciting of poetry, the burning of incense and the hanging of crystals, I defined spirit cleaning as a re-ordering. I would, I decided, empty every object out of every corner and clean every surface until I knew that I had physically made contact with every inch of the space that I was going to call home.Many traditional cultures clean with vinegar: a substance that is sour and caustic but otherwise harmless and (as I discovered) which beads on a dirty surface. Many traditional cultures purified spaces with salt, so I filled a bucket with salt water and began in the bathroom. I scrubbed the fixtures. I vacuumed the floor. I scrubbed the walls. I discovered that the walls were not beige as I had originally believed, but white.

When I finished with the bathroom I turned to the linen closet and the front closet. These were spaces that hovered in the back of my mind as “not mine” and I was going to make them mine. I took everything out, washed the walls and floors, put everything back in and labeled it. In the midst of this my husband came home from a dentist appointment and freaked out. I stopped work and we ate a tense lunch and I went back to what I was doing afterward. That night, we had a fight bigger than any of the others that we’d ever had. A part of me believed that it was a kind of spiritual fallout from the cleaning. A part of me believed that I was disrupting a  status quo on a physical level, a spiritual level and a symbolic one: I was forcing the condo and my husband to recognize that they belonged to me as much as I was forcing myself to recognize that I belonged to them.

The next day I did nothing.

The next day I tackled the bedroom. Up until I began my cleaning crusade I thought the bedroom was the one space that I did have a modicum of identity invested in. My husband and I had started a well meaning attempt at renovation there that resulted in a fresh coat of paint, new floors, new trim and not much else. This room, I think, more than any other, was more difficult to clean because it was so close to being clean already. Even so it took all day. And two rolls of quarters for laundry.

Throughout this whole process I started thinking about the symbolic value of home and I remembered a wonderfully insightful article I had read about the role of bread, milk, and honey in fairy tales. Bread, of course, symbolizes home. Bread is made from flour and flour is made from grain which is a sign of agriculture which is a sign of stability. A rolling stone gathers no moss and grows no grain. The act of baking bread requires culturing yeast- a living organism, letting it rise, punching it down, and letting it rise again. I love making bread but it takes all day. It is an ongoing effort. As I worked I thought about baking bread and the kind of ongoing work that a home requires. Living organisms move into a space, fill it with clutter, clean it out, and fill it up again. This kind of home was going to be a lot of work, but, like fresh baked bread, I figured the reward was worth the effort.

Thinking about effort made me think about honey: the fairy-tale symbol for community. If the efforts of an individual could fill home life with savor like fresh baked bread then the efforts of a whole community could produce a product that was exponentially sweeter. A single bee does not make a hive and it is the hive that produces the honey. Yet there can be no hive without a single bee. I wasn’t sure where I fit into the community. I wasn’t sure what community I fit into or was supposed to be a part of. All I knew was that no matter how much I wanted to I couldn’t just do it by myself.

And then there was milk. In the language of fairy tales milk, naturally, symbolizes motherhood; a topic that I found to be closer to the surface than I was entirely comfortable with. When I got married I was pretty sure that I wanted to have kids. After I got married I wasn’t so sure. Married life wasn’t at all what I expected, after all, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to add any more complexity onto my already resorting-to-superstition take on reality. Regardless of what I expected of myself the outside world was expecting babies and soon! The more signals that I got that babies-are-the-next-step the more certain I became that I-am-not-ready-for-babies. I tried instead, breaking down motherhood into it’s component parts: like milk it is rich and complex and can provide us with everything we need to be nourished and fulfilled. I realized then that milk was symbolizing the kind of nourishment and fulfillment that I needed to provide to my new self in my new life.  I realized then that I, myself, was mother to my own future.

I wish I could conclude this endless missive with “in the end” followed by some tastefully succinct recap of what I learned in the process of cleaning house, but I haven’t finished yet, so it isn’t really the end. I try to make a little progress each weekend but I haven’t yet had the appropriate amount of personal time to make it happen. What I do know is that when I walk into one of the rooms that I have cleaned I feel calm and at home and when I walk into one of the rooms I haven’t touched on yet I feel wound up, distracted and tied in knots. What I do know is that although I still scorn superstition I can’t deny that the arguing has lessened and the satisfaction has increased since I decided to make the effort to define my home down to the last cobweb in the last corner. The devil, as they say, is in the details, but that’s ok- I have a broomstick across the door.

~ by Gwydhar Gebien on March 7, 2011.

5 Responses to “Bread, Milk, Honey, Salt and Vinegar”

  1. Keep on cleaning, but watch out you don’t turn into Lady Macbeth! Want me to send you some New Mexico smudge sticks to burn?

  2. Good for you! Sounds like the plan is working if the arguing is lessening. As for kids, don’t let anyone pressure you. We waited 3 years after we got married before having kids. -R

  3. I recently got married myself and the baby comments started pretty quickly for us too. Don’t let anyone else dictate when you are ready. Take time for yourselves first. Just because we decided to get married later than our parents generation, does not mean we are “late” and need to get a move on making babies!
    If you make time for the two of you, the other details will work themselves out.
    Good luck to you two!

  4. Great story…I really enjoyed it. Best of luck on working on the happy ending.

  5. Hopefully there’s less freaking out happening. It sounds like a good way of making the space your own.

    Don’t worry about babies, I’m not expecting any soon. You’ll know when the time is right.

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