He's Gone: Now What Do I Do?

He's gone. Is the answer to this heartbreak to found in your own house? This weekend my girlfriend sent me a picture of her half-empty closet.

On one side, her clothes hung in a neat row. On the other side a black plastic hanger clung to the wire shelf organizer. “It is done,” she texted. “He's gone.”

This time her sailor wasn’t leaving on another deployment. This time he moved out, the next step in a long divorce.

We talked about feelings. We talked about endings. Then I asked, “What will you do the rest of the day?”

“Dust all the empty spots. Put brand new purple sheets on my bed. Snuggle my kiddos. And go to the commissary for milk ;),” she wrote.

Of course that was her answer. It was a good answer. Even a brilliant answer. It was the kind of answer so many of us at home learned from years of military marriage--from deployment, from moves, from loss.

Meet heartache with order. Meet despair with comfort. Meet the chaos with cold milk.

There is something so old fashioned against advising a woman to turn to her house during a crisis. It sounds like something Sarah Ban Breathnach would have advised before she went bankrupt spending her Simple Abundance millions on things she swore none of us needed.

But this is what I actually do when I need to calm down. I don’t practice mindfulness. I don’t do yoga.. I work on my house.

I’m in good company. My grandma always scrubbed her kitchen floor when she was worried. My daughter organizes her closet. My mom wipes things—counters, sinks, children.

I’m more of an appliance girl. When I am in the depths of deployment, I will start my dishwasher. Nip something into the oven. Chop onions and garlic into a sauce on the stove. Put a load into the washer. Get the dryer tumbling. Plug in the iron.

Maybe it is the noise that is soothing. Maybe keeping up with all those appliances gets me running around like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice so my brain switches off worry and into overdrive.

When writing her domestic manifesto Home Comforts, author Cheryl Mendelson noted that women in the past identified with their homes. How they completed their housework was a big part of their presentation of the self. Housework was their Facebook.

Today the way we take care of our homes (the housekeeping not the decorating) is more therapeutic. Apartment Therapy’s Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan writes, “When you work on your home, you are working on yourself, and when you change your home, you are changing yourself.”

Maybe that is what we are all doing when we turn to our houses in times of trouble, doing the work of change.

Purple sheets and a gallon of milk are not going to fix my friend’s heartache. Those things won’t heal a broken marriage. Those things don’t mend the despair of children. Those things won’t bring new love to the door or fill an empty wallet or cure the ravages of war.

Those things do make today possible. These domestic things that we do are the way we convince ourselves that we will complete this day. That we will move forward. That there will be milk for our cereal in the morning—which sometimes can make all the difference you need today.

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