"Finish at least one of your projects"

For William Keenan, Opus Dei's teachings in St Josemaría Escriva's book for meditation <em>The Way</

I first came into contact with Opus Dei when a doctor in my parish began holding monthly social gatherings for parishioners at his home. One day he invited a priest of Opus Dei to give a talk. I seem to recall, that the talk wasn’t received too well with many of the liberal Catholics at the meeting. But I found the idea of finding holiness in everyday life and ordinary work fascinating.

I was then a journalist on the Daily Express in Manchester editing and laying out the feature pages, which included the City pages, the Leader page and the William Hickey gossip pages. My working hours were from four or five in the evening until around three a.m. the following morning. If I went straight home and to bed I would often have difficulty getting to sleep. I would find myself looking at the ceiling and redesigning pages and rewriting headlines in my head.

Several times a week when we finished work we would drive to the Press Club in Albert Square for a couple of pints of beer. This would mean getting to bed about four in the morning and rising about lunch time. After lunch I would try to do some writing. Then it was time to go to the office again.

I decided I would like to know more about Opus Dei and finding holiness in work and everyday life. The doctor who had organised the meeting was not a member of Opus Dei but used to go to the monthly evenings of recollection at Greygarth Hall, the Manchester centre of Opus Dei. He said the next time he was going he would take me with him. But he was unable to make it in the next few months so I took myself off to Greygarth for an evening of recollection.

Recollection, I discovered, consisted in a priest giving two meditations followed by Benediction. Afterwards there were tea, cakes, and biscuits. After that evening of recollection what impressed me very much was not what had been said during the meditations but the happiness and cheerfulness of the people I met and chatted to over tea and biscuits. That was the reason I continued attending over the next few months.

One person I seemed to get on particularly well with was a student from the Basque country of Spain who I think was doing a doctorate in electrical engineering. One day he asked how my writing was going and I told him about a play I had just started working on. He looked a little puzzled because the previous time we spoke I had told him about a novel I was writing whose central character was a northern detective called John Marne whose ankle had been crushed by a thieves' get-away car so he would always walk with a limp.

When he asked what had happened to the John Marne novel I explained that I had decided it wasn’t working, that it was no good and that I would be better doing a play. He then produced a copy of The Way -- the book for meditations written by St Josemaría Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei -- which is now a best selling spiritual classic. He showed me Point 42 which says, “Why those variations in your character? When are you going to apply your will to something? Drop that craze for laying corner stones, and finish at least one of your projects.”

The point really went home. I kept thinking about it and realised that of my many unfinished writing projects the detective novel was the nearest to completion. So I sat down and finished it.

I sent it off convinced that it wasn’t good enough, and it was immediately accepted. This led to two other novels and a biography and about eight plays for BBC Saturday Theatre. Many times when I was three quarters through writing them, I wanted to start something else and had to struggle to put the finishing touches to each particular project.

Since then I have met many writers who, when they were three quarters through what they were working on, would decide it was no good. And I would repeat the point in The Way and get them to finish it. A good friend of mine had been commissioned by the BBC to write a television play. One day he rang me to say he couldn’t finish it. It wasn’t working, it wasn’t good. He was going to send the BBC their money back. I took him for a pint and persuaded him to keep the money and finish his play. He did and it was broadcast without need for a rewrite.

I think it only fair to say that the point in St Josemaria’s The Way has not only helped me but also many of my friends and fellow writers.

William Keenan first encountered Opus Dei in Manchester in the 1960s. He is a writer and journalist and he worked for many years on the Daily Mirror as a feature writer, television critic and investigative journalist. He has also written several detective novels and radio plays for the BBC.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Leaving the cleaning to someone else makes you happier? Men have known that for centuries

Research says avoiding housework is good for wellbeing, but women have rarely had the option.

If you want to be happy, there is apparently a trick: offload the shitwork onto somebody else. Hire cleaner. Get your groceries delivered. Have someone else launder your sheets. These are the findings published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but it’s also been the foundation of our economy since before we had economics. Who does the offloading? Men. Who does the shitwork? Women.

Over the last 40 years, female employment has risen to almost match the male rate, but inside the home, labour sticks stubbornly to old patterns: men self-report doing eight hours of housework a week, while women slog away for 13. When it comes to caring for family members, the difference is even more stark: men do ten hours, and women 23.

For your average heterosexual couple with kids, that means women spend 18 extra hours every week going to the shops, doing the laundry, laying out uniform, doing the school run, loading dishwashers, organising doctors' appointments, going to baby groups, picking things up, cooking meals, applying for tax credits, checking in on elderly parents, scrubbing pots, washing floors, combing out nits, dusting, folding laundry, etcetera etcetera et-tedious-cetera.

Split down the middle, that’s nine hours of unpaid work that men just sit back and let women take on. It’s not that men don’t need to eat, or that they don’t feel the cold cringe of horror when bare foot meets dropped food on a sticky kitchen floor. As Katrine Marçal pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smiths Dinner?, men’s participation in the labour market has always relied on a woman in the background to service his needs. As far as the majority of men are concerned, domestic work is Someone Else’s Problem.

And though one of the study authors expressed surprise at how few people spend their money on time-saving services given the substantial effect on happiness, it surely isn’t that mysterious. The male half of the population has the option to recruit a wife or girlfriend who’ll do all this for free, while the female half faces harsh judgement for bringing cover in. Got a cleaner? Shouldn’t you be doing it yourself rather than outsourcing it to another woman? The fact that men have even more definitively shrugged off the housework gets little notice. Dirt apparently belongs to girls.

From infancy up, chores are coded pink. Looking on the Toys “R” Us website, I see you can buy a Disney Princess My First Kitchen (fuchsia, of course), which is one in the eye for royal privilege. Suck it up, Snow White: you don’t get out of the housekeeping just because your prince has come. Shop the blue aisle and you’ll find the Just Like Home Workshop Deluxe Carry Case Workbench – and this, precisely, is the difference between masculine and feminine work. Masculine work is productive: it makes something, and that something is valuable. Feminine work is reproductive: a cleaned toilet doesn’t stay clean, the used plates stack up in the sink.

The worst part of this con is that women are presumed to take on the shitwork because we want to. Because our natures dictate that there is a satisfaction in wiping an arse with a woman’s hand that men could never feel and money could never match. That fiction is used to justify not only women picking up the slack at home, but also employers paying less for what is seen as traditional “women’s work” – the caring, cleaning roles.

It took a six-year legal battle to secure compensation for the women Birmingham council underpaid for care work over decades. “Don’t get me wrong, the men do work hard, but we did work hard,” said one of the women who brought the action. “And I couldn’t see a lot of them doing what we do. Would they empty a commode, wash somebody down covered in mess, go into a house full of maggots and clean it up? But I’ll tell you what, I would have gone and done a dustman’s job for the day.”

If women are paid less, they’re more financially dependent on the men they live with. If you’re financially dependent, you can’t walk out over your unfair housework burden. No wonder the settlement of shitwork has been so hard to budge. The dream, of course, is that one day men will sack up and start to look after themselves and their own children. Till then, of course women should buy happiness if they can. There’s no guilt in hiring a cleaner – housework is work, so why shouldn’t someone get paid for it? One proviso: every week, spend just a little of the time you’ve purchased plotting how you’ll overthrow patriarchy for good.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.