That Hour a Housewife Rises

IMG_0039In a passage of the Aeneid that reminded me of Proverbs 31, Virgil speaks of “that hour a housewife rises.” It’s pretty clear from the context that that hour is early:

And then,/ when the first deep rest had driven sleep away/ and the chariot of Night had wheeled past mid-career,/ that hour a housewife rises, faced with scratching out/ a living with loom and Minerva’s homespun crafts,/ and rakes the ashes first to awake the sleeping fires,/ adding night to her working hours, and sets her women/ toiling on at the long day’s chores by torchlight  –/ and all to keep the bed of her husband chaste/ and rear her little boys — so early, briskly,/ in such good time the fire-god rises up/ from his downy bed to labor at his forge.

At first, I was inclined to dismiss these lines — as I once dismissed Proverbs 31 — as a hopelessly unattainable ideal. To work from (before) sunup to (after) sundown, apparently never slackening or complaining? Impossible!

The motivation Virgil ascribes to her — the satisfaction of her husband and the education of her little boys — scarcely makes it more believable. The fear of a husband’s infidelity in those peace-starved days might be fiercely potent, but enough to cast off the covers just past midnight? Never!

Like Elizabeth Bennet as she dismissed Caroline Bingley’s sycophantic and preposterous description of an “accomplished” female, I wanted to say, “I’ve never seen such a woman. She’d certainly be a fearsome thing to behold.”

The more that I thought about it, though, and, upon rereading the relevant chapter of Proverbs, I began to believe that such dutiful, fortitudinous, disciplined women did exist. They might be endangered in our own time, but that’s not a reason to assume they never flourished on the face of this earth.

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After all, for most of history, men and women alike had to labor with such intensity and reliability simply to contend against the elements, to survive, to — as Virgil puts it — “scratch out a living.”

Obviously, I’ve never lived in a time other than my own and I’m not an historian, but literature furnishes ready sketches of these women. Kristin Lavransdatter, for example. Caroline Ingalls, for another. The specific characters are fictional, but their basis is historical.

Precisely because so many of the duties of the postmodern, millennial mother do not seem necessary to survival, it can be difficult to whip up our motivation to remain at our own labors for the amount of time it requires to really perform them well.

“Ah, well,” we think. “What does it matter if I leave the laundry for another day?”

We have to eat, of course, but we can usually scrounge up something from our pantries — peanut butter sandwiches, for example — and thereby procrastinate a trip to the grocery store.

Virtually everything we do seems unnecessary when we consider it in isolation from everything else — until, suddenly, the house is in utter chaos, the children are unruly and we ourselves have no time for the various spiritual and intellectual pursuits that enable us to actually feel and understand the meaning that undergirds our lives.

The truth is, our every duty — however humble — does matter to our overall quality of life. Of course, we must be able to prioritize — to let the dusting go when a child is sick, for example — but prioritizing our responsibilities is very different than ignoring or neglecting them.

To really “get out ahead” of all that we must do on any given day, we’d have to get up at, well, “that hour a housewife rises.” Rising early is next to useless, though, if we’ve gone to bed at so late an hour that we have no energy with which to greet the day at hand.

The very simple key, then, to rising early is this: Go to bed as many hours before midnight as you possibly can.

Somewhere, I read that an hour of sleep before midnight is worth two after, and I believe that.

As an avowed nocturnal, I’m notoriously terrible about this. My premarital habit was to stay up until 2 a.m. more often than not and to sleep until the very last possible minute to arrive about 15 minutes late for my first appointment of the day. (It’s true, and I’m ashamed to admit it. I was horribly, chronically late for everything — even Mass.)

The Oilman’s habits are more regular and, under his tutelage, I’ve improved. Lately, though, I regressed again.

Then, last week, it all came to a head as I began to make the kind of stupid, elementary mistakes a person only makes when she is really, really tired. I left my credit card at Sonic. I locked the Oilman out of the house. I took the wrong car to a meeting and left him essentially trapped in the house.

In his kind way, he’d had enough — and so had I. It was time for me to “relearn obedience.” So, we decided that needed sleep training. My bedtime is 10 p.m. — and, if I can beat it, so much the better. I’m on Night Four — and, so far, it is working.

The first night, I took a long time to fall asleep. The second night, I fell asleep immediately. The morning after the third night, I woke — feeling well-rested — before the sun was up. I did so again today.

“That hour a housewife rises” — I’d like to bring it back. Who’s with me?

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