The Year in Chores

This year, time flew marked by dishes, laundry, trash, repeat. Occasionally I was seized with the worry that I was not doing the correct things.

Rachel Khong is a writer living in San Francisco. She's the author of the novel Goodbye, Vitamin, which was released by Henry Holt in 2017, and...

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2018? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small.

Entropy is often explained, simplistically, as a measure of disorder. It’s a rule of the universe: everything tends toward disorder. A party will not clean up after itself, because entropy. A broken glass won’t heal itself, because entropy. My friend Kate, a poet and physicist, says that simply by existing, we are fighting entropy. To be alive is to be ordered.

What I’d wanted was for this to be a quiet year. I’d wanted to rebuild my life and the routines in it. The year before had been nuts, albeit in the good way: I’d gotten married. I’d had two books released within three months of each other, and gone on two book tours. I’d met innumerable new people and eaten alone in innumerable restaurants—not unhappily. It seemed a sustained reward for the previous year, during which I worked constantly, during which I debated about whether or not to leave a job that was making me miserable, despite the fact that I loved the work itself.

What I wound up doing more of, this year, more than anything else, was chores. Even writing often felt like a chore—a small act that created order, temporarily, but seemingly amounted to nothing. I say seemingly, but maybe it’s actually—the jury is still out. The jury hasn’t even been summoned. Writing pieces of a thing that I didn’t have any great plans for, I felt less like an architect of some grand thing. I felt more like a custodian. 

My plans had not exactly been the best laid. I had given myself responsibilities—probably too many: In December I signed a commercial real-estate lease for the arts-and-letters space I’d wanted to open; in January, we were off to the races. This brought new people and meaning to my life, and also chores. In June we adopted a kitten, which added love to our lives, and also chores. All year, my husband Eli was working in Los Angeles, back for visits to San Francisco roughly every other weekend. Suddenly the chores that we had divided, at home, became mostly mine. Nobody washed the dishes after I cooked. Cooking, which ordinarily I love, became difficult. One weekend, while Eli was home, I took a sausage out of the fridge, peeled the wrapper off, and started to eat it, the way I might have fed myself, alone. “Give me that,” he said, horrified. He pried the cold, naked sausage out of my hands, sliced it, put it on a plate, and microwaved it. He finished it with a decorative swirling of Sriracha. After I was done, he washed the dish. Was that so hard? It sort of was.

Early in the year a librarian told me about Kanopy, the online streaming service connected to public libraries. They had The Great Courses, she said! This excited me. I proceeded to stream “The Mysteries of Modern Physics: Time,” taught by Sean Carroll, a CalTech professor. Time moves only in one direction, and disorder is always increasing. One can mix cream into coffee but one cannot easily unmix it. One can scramble an egg but not unscramble it. (Scientists apparently have figured out a very complicated way of un-boiling eggs.) Entropy, in our universe, had been lower in the past. Entropy is always increasing. There is no end to chores.

Time flies like an arrow, and time flew marked by chores: dishes, laundry, trash, repeat. It seemed like it was always time to swap out the litter in the litter box, and litter is so goddamn heavy. The chores not only seemed interminable, they were; they are.

The average person loses a third of an ounce of skin per week. The weight of a “car key,” according to Hughes Environmental. Our cat Bunny has a tortoiseshell coat, so it’s three colors of fur she sheds everywhere. Then there is my hair, that seems to be falling out at a rate that defies logic. And each of us losing car keys of skin every week, though I guess it’s probably less for cats, and Eli is here only part of the time.  Every week I’m having to contend with a car key and a half of my family’s skin, let’s say.

This year I washed out the sponge-y filter in my vacuum for the first time! I’d never known this was a thing you should do until I Googled it. I washed it with soap and water and watched the water run out when I squeezed it, blackened. Once, tiredly, doing a load of laundry, I forgot the detergent. It seemed like every other week I was scooping molding hummus and salsa from out of their tubs, and rinsing the tubs, and putting them in the recycling bin. The mold was living its best life, and was I? Occasionally I was seized with the worry that I was not doing the correct things.

In less charitable moments I thought: I’ve given myself reasons to feel useful, but what was I doing, really? The feeling sometimes crept in, insidious: I wasn’t building anything solid, or real, or permanent. I was writing pages and pages, and despite all this time spent, I still couldn’t understand where the book was going, or what the point of it was. I’d wash the dishes and take out the recycling, and a moment later there was another dish to be washed or more junk mail in the mail slot.

From time to time I wondered, I still wonder, if it had been a mistake to arrange my life the way I had. In an alternate universe I moved to Los Angeles with my husband and I’ve been writing my masterpiece—my masterpiece I have an outline for—and my burden of chores is shared, and minimal.

Yet I had the loveliest year, and it unfolded in quiet, impermanent, perfect moments: in good people gathered to talk and laugh together for an hour or two; in a little cat purring, its body draped over mine, while I read. These were things that happened, and vanished. Not without a trace—there are always traces. The trash would need taking out and there would be furniture to be put back in to place, and dishes to wash, and surfaces to wipe, and pants to go over with the lint roller. It’s occurring to me now that chores, as acts that momentarily bring order to our universes, are important human stuff. Or at least human stuff. Anyway, they’re not nothing.

Last night, reading a poem by Ada Limon, I copied part of it down: “I took to my hands and knees. I was thinking about the novel / I was writing. The great heavy chest of live animals / I had been dragging around for years;/ what’s life?/ I made the house so clean (shine and shine and shine).”

Rachel Khong is a writer living in San Francisco. She's the author of the novel Goodbye, Vitamin, which was released by Henry Holt in 2017, and earlier this year in paperback by Picador. Her short fiction has appeared in Tin House and The Paris Review. She is the founder of The Ruby, an arts and letters–focused space for women and nonbinary people in San Francisco's Mission district.