This weekend I finished two books that felt like generous hugs. The first is the extremely popular Lessons in Chemistry. This book tells the story of Elizabeth Zott – a chemist who quietly and fiercely determines that she will not be relegated to all things feminine because she is a woman (and though the book says it doesn’t matter, it points out on multiple occasions that not only is Elizabeth Zott a woman, she’s a beautiful woman). She’s brilliant but also incredibly immune to societal stereotypes about what a woman can/should be. She had a deeply disturbing childhood, but managed to emerge with determination. In the early 1950s, she meets Calvin Evans while they are both working for Hastings, a second-rate chemistry lab in Commons, California. Despite her aversion to relationships in general, she falls in love with Calvin. From there, their life unfolds in unexpected, and sometimes tragic, ways.
We know from the earliest pages of the book that Elizabeth will have a child, Madeline, and will at some point become an incredibly popular television personality, renown for a television cooking show. The joy of the book is in watching how it all unfolds for her. It’s a feel-good book, despite some tragic elements. This is the sort of book where everything works out for the heroine, so no worries about even the sad or frustrating elements causing too much tension. Elizabeth Zott’s life is full of trouble, and loss – she does not have it easy, at all. And yet, she’s the type of person who can pick up an insanely difficult sport, like rowing, and just miraculously become adept at it. She can remodel her kitchen to create an at-home chemistry lab, while pregnant, and manage to cook perfect, nutritionally balanced and delicious meals regularly – all while looking so stunning that others regularly comment on her appearance. There’s romance and revenge, and it’s hard to ask for more than that of a novel sometimes. This isn’t a hard-hitting look at the sexism faced by women in the 1950s – that topic is certainly prevalent in the book, but it isn’t dealt with in any sort of philosophical or serious manner. Things happen to characters, and sometimes they’re quite negative and that impacts the characters a lot. But there’s never a question about the moral center, the right or wrong side of the equation in this book. Sometimes, we crave that simplicity.
Speaking of craving simplicity, How to Keep House While Drowning offered some really gentle, specific suggestions on maintaining self-care when you’re dealing with something in life (depression, ADHD, family changes, or just general overwhelm) that makes care tasks difficult. I have always struggled to keep my space clean – my car is a notorious mess (the children are a convenient excuse but the mess well predates them), I’ve always been the terror of roommates and partners. Having children did help me to put some boundaries in place – it’s one thing to let a sink full of dishes sit unwashed when it is only me who is looking at them – but my children need clean clothes, and certain dishes. What I didn’t realize was that children brought increased function to cleaning – and, as Davis states, that’s the purpose of cleaning. It’s not a moral good to have a clean house – it’s a functional good. It makes it easier for me to do the things that bring me joy when parts of my house are clean.
This shift in mindset, away from shame (which I feel about the state of my house regularly) and into kindness, is so helpful. I have finally firmly established a mindset that helps with getting the dishes into the dishwasher regularly and the loads of laundry moving on the weekends (even if those loads of laundry sit, clean and folded inside a clean laundry basket for much of the week – my strategy has been to fold everything right as it comes out of the dryer, then bring the folded clothes upstairs where each of us can take / put away what we’re responsible for – or fish in the laundry basket for what you need for the week). But I am always falling behind on organizing, dusting, keeping the floors clean, etc. I’ve got a system for changing the sheets, but that system falls apart regularly when the weekend hits and I’m feeling too tired to remove every stuffed animal from my daughter’s bed. Treating myself with kindness when those tasks don’t get done rather than shaming myself is so important – the job itself won’t get done either way, but in one scenario my house is dirty AND I feel badly about myself; in the other, the house may still be dirty but I feel better because I’ve been kind to myself. And with enough kindness, over time, we will find the motivation to do the things we need to do.
The book has some specific skill building tips (such as the “five things” method – everything in a room is either, trash, dishes, laundry, things with a place not in their place, or things that don’t have a place). It’s designed to be user friendly – the font, including bold print, helps to make the most important points clear, and there is a guide for how to skim through the book effectively if you’re feeling too overwhelmed to read even this much. Credit is given to women of color for their specific tips, and acknowledgement is made that some – many – of the tips in the book require a varying level of privilege not shared by everyone.
Both of these books are keeping me afloat as we prepare for the last two days of school before the Thanksgiving holiday break. I’d recommend picking up one, or both, and enjoying them this holiday season!