monk mode

by haywardhelen


For the last two months I have been in monk mode. In monk mode I go about my normal life, oh that it were, doing my usual things – walking the dog, writing, yoga, cooking dinner, cleaning the house, talking with my daughter – with one difference. I pretend that I’m invisible. I’m not really invisible. I don’t actively avoid people. I just don’t seek them out and, when a social event comes up that it’s possible to duck, I duck it.


If an editor from the US, sadly not a publisher, hadn’t put me up to the changes I made to the manuscript I sent her two days ago, I wouldn’t have made them. Having written my last book in the first person, I was dead keen not to do it again. But the editor won. My agent however wasn’t convinced. ‘What’, she asked, sounding worried, ‘another memoir?’ ‘You mean’, said my daughter with characteristic tact, ‘you are writing about you again?’


Who else but me would write an intimate history of housekeeping? A subject which, far from sexy, has been on my mind for thirty years. Although housekeeping is a bigger topic than housework, I did include a scene in our kitchen which opens with my daughter calling me Cinderella, and closes with me banging my shin on the dishwasher and swearing loudly, to which my son, his hand on my shoulder, says to me, ‘you’re not being horrible because you’re horrible’.


The manuscript I’ve just pressed Send on is about something more personal and interior than housework. It goes back to before I had children, to even before I swore I’d never have children. It goes back to a feeling that I didn’t have words for at the time. It goes back to my not feeling sure that I was worth looking after. Perhaps this is a feeling that many of us experience fleetingly, while growing up, a feeling which, if we have it, we suppress in order to get on with life.


One of the best things about writing about domesticity has been the little things that people told me along the way that made me realise what a big thing looking after ourselves really is. The home-made card from an acquaintance who declined to be interviewed about domestic life on the grounds that, ‘I hate housework’. The friend who convinced me that cooking is a performance and that loud music, a glass of wine and doubling the quantities are essential. The woman who, despite moving home forty times, longs to put down roots and would love nothing more than a bed by the oven so she could bake at all hours. The minimalist architect who can’t sit down to work at home until he’s cleaned up the kitchen and put on a load of washing. The woman who does all her cooking in a Thermomix and washes up before meals. The woman who travels a lot and needs only her cushion, lamp and mug to feel at home. The vegan opera singer who chooses her accommodation on tour on the basis of whether it has an oven in which she can bake which in turn allows her to say to herself, at the end of each concert, ‘Now I’m going home’. The young woman whose father wears a tea-cosy as a hat and sings to himself as he goes about cooking in his cold kitchen. The woman who gave me the idea of going outside to pick flowers to put in a vase as a way of drawing a line after cleaning the house. The friend who enjoys nothing more than a good steam clean in her pyjamas on Saturday mornings. The woman who took a month to go through her house from top to bottom, while working full-time, to cleanse it of her kids’ childhood and to make space for life to come. The woman who pointed out that when a home isn’t looked after, when the spaces aren’t loved, the only option is for it to fall apart.


None of these stories made it into my manuscript, the editor having advised against them in an earlier draft. On the other hand if my mind hadn’t been full of these stories I’d never have completed the manuscript. And I’d have been a heap more lonely in monk mode.


During these last two weeks, when not swimming with my daughter at the local pool, or sitting on the beach while she surfs, I’ve been standing up working at our metre-high kitchen bench, looking up as the lamp in the corner takes on square shadows late afternoon, wishing that a fairy would cook dinner, and ignoring our dog as she stretched out in puppy pose, begging for her dinner and a walk.


Last week I cancelled dinner with friends twice. I didn’t say I was in monk mode, but they got that I was. Knowing I needed to press Send before my editor, 32 weeks pregnant, had her baby, it was as if I couldn’t care about anyone or anything else, over and above immediate family. On Friday evening, despite having a few more hours up my sleeve, and disregarding the three pages of notes I’d promised myself I’d slip into the manuscript, I pressed Send.