The Jasmine was a housewarming gift that arrived last January, already budding. The instructions attached were quite specific: 1) place in a cool room that is bright with indirect sunlight; 2) make sure the room has no artificial light coming in at night; and 3) in addition to watering, keep a tray of water under the plant to keep it hydrated. Within days, it was covering in small, white, fragrant flowers – offering just enough fragrance to notice and appreciate.
With a move to another house a few months back, I wasn’t sure the Jasmine would bloom this winter, but buds appeared in mid-January. In spite of many being eaten by my son’s cat (they are non-toxic), the first few have opened up – a flash of white on green and a hint of fragrance in the air.
Sometimes, I think that chores in general are much like tending a plant: the means for a flash of beauty to grow in our lives. The effort it takes to do this daily work is what gives us the eyes to see the beauty and the heart to love both the process and the result. Without doing the chores, perhaps no beauty would bloom in our lives; without doing the chores, we might not notice it even if it did.
From start to finish, it takes about half an hour. Once it’s done, it looks great until the first handwashing. Then there are water spots on the mirror and a little dribble of soap down the newly wiped dispenser. The hand towel is wrinkled and no longer hanging straight.
When anyone in the house is sick, there’s extra disinfecting and cleaning. The toothbrushes have to be sterilized in the dish washer, and the towels changed out frequently. Maintaining a clean bathroom is a thankless and necessary job offering little satisfaction when it’s done. I slog my way through it with little joy or gratitude. When the job is done, the best I can say is that no one will catch a dread disease by using it – and the towels on the bars are all clean and ready for use.
Perhaps there will be a day when I appreciate cleaning the bathroom. That day was not yesterday, when I cleaned it, nor will it be when I clean it next. The best I can say now is that I enjoy it in a secondary sense: it’s wonderful to sink into a clean tub full of hot water after a cold January day. Enlightenment in all tasks and thoughts eludes me still. Maybe some day…
I can tell how busy I am by the level of the laundry in the hamper. If I can’t shut it without a good push, it’s been busy; if I’m out of socks, it’s been hectic; if I’m out of clean towels, there’s too much on my plate.
I’m not sure why the laundry reflects the state of my life pace. Is it because I can’t do without it, and I can’t avoid the consequences of not doing it? Laundry is an outward sign of my life’s inward state, a revelation of how I am living in this world and inside my own skin. When I lose touch with my own life, all I have to do is open my closet door and look at the state of my hamper.
Every meal, every snack, every cup of tea or coffee in a thermos adds to the daily pile of dirty dishes. Eating meals out or bringing in take-home doesn’t really change the task much – it’s just the number that varies, not the necessity of doing the work.
Having a dishwasher helps, especially when company comes for a meal or a weekend of meals. Still, there are pots, pans, and delicate glasses that must be done by hand. There are also the other tasks that fall under the “doing the dishes” heading: clearing the table, putting away various condiments and leftovers, wiping down the stove and cupboards, and cleaning out the sink.
Making the daily bread and cleaning up afterward takes time and a willingness to see in the repetitive nature of it all an opportunity for contemplation – or at least the ability to value the result. Because there’s something about a clean sink and a cupboard of dishes ready for the next meal that’s a doorway to something important. Perhaps that’s why doing the dishes before bed ranks up there with making the bed each morning for beginning each day with a sense of peace, order, and hope.
Lord of all pots and pans and things…Make me a saint by getting meals and washing up the plates!
Sweep, dust mop, vac, wet mop – so many options for cleaning the surfaces I walk on every day. Hair, food bits, shedded cat claws, lint, dust, spider webs, dirt, pebbles, sand – the usual things I see as I remove them from the floors. Not counting spot-cleaning for spills and quick sweeping for the mess at the door, I spend about an hour each week cleaning floors. If I Murphy’s Oil Soap all the wooden ones, it’s an extra hour. I can’t say that I look forward to doing the floors, but I can say that the result is very satisfying. The house looks better and feels calmer somehow – happier to have the week’s dirt collected and taken away.
Lately, cleaning the floors has taken on additional significance. The stuff I sweep into the dust pan is a tangible reminder that I affect the spaces around me, leaving traces of myself behind as I walk through the house and the larger world. It isn’t just dust and hair, it’s a word spoken and a deed done, consciously or not. Whether the my passing through leaves a blessing or just a headache/soulache of a mess behind depends on whether I walk in love or not.
We got sixteen inches of the white stuff while we were at the Water Street Inn in Kittery, Maine. A father and son shoveled the inn’s walkways and cleared the snow behind the two cars in the guest parking spaces.
The next morning, my husband and I grabbed a shovel and scraper to help free the car for the other guest at the inn – a lovely woman from North Carolina. Clearing away the snow was the only reason we got to meet her, and the only reason we met the father and son the day before.
When we got home later in the day, a few inches of snow topped our own walkways. I cleared the side path and Dave took care of the front walk. No one was there at the time, but someone dropped by later in the day. Our shovel work cleared the way for comings and goings, for engaging in daily life.
Shoveling isn’t particularly fun, and sometimes it’s exhausting. It’s usually only appreciated when it hasn’t been done – in its absence. Then its value is revealed. With snowflakes falling as I write, I’m inclined to think that the spiritual life is all about seeing and appreciating the value of such things. A mature spirituality allows us to know the value not just after the work, but before and during. Perhaps, with enough snow, I’ll work my way closer to it.
I turned sixty yesterday, and today I took down the Christmas decorations and tree. It’s a yearly task, getting back to the usual decor by removing the Advent and Christmas extras. It’s also a task that I put off until after my birthday – it’s a wonderful thing to have twinkling lights and birthday candles as I begin my new natal year.
Going through the ornaments as I put them in boxes and bins is a walk into the past; baby’s first Christmas ornaments for both of my sons, the sparkly drummer boy on a crescent moon that my parents bought in the late 1970’s, the star tree topper that my older son chose, and the angel my mother-in-law gave me after my engagement that my younger son prefers. They are markers of the people I love and the time I spent with them as much as they are decorations.
I’m not one of those who wants to keep Christmas decorations up for more than three or four weeks. They are meaningful because they aren’t permanent parts of my living space. And it helps me to separate the cultural holiday that I enjoy – presents, Christmas music, decorations – from the miracle that is God-With-Us.
Putting away the decorations while doing my best to live in the grace of the incarnation through the year is a visual reminder that Jesus/God With Us is not an object in my world, no matter how wonderful and holy: I am a beloved child in God’s world.
It’s not just the shopping, it’s everything that goes into it before I ever get to the store – checking the ongoing list of things that need to be replaced, planning meals, looking in the cupboards for recipe ingredients, checking the calendar to count the number of meals that need to be made, seeing what’s on sale where, and remembering to bring the canvas bags.
Then there’s what happens after the trip to the grocery store – putting things in cupboards, figuring out what needs to go in the freezer, and starting the new list for the next round of grocery shopping. Keeping the cupboards adequately stocked and trying not to waste any of the food purchased takes time and effort. But I think that’s true of anything that sustains life. After all, getting the groceries is an answer to prayer:
It’s the stuff we have to do that doesn’t seem to get us anywhere: laundry, floors, bathrooms, groceries, paying bills – the list goes on. The work is noticed and appreciated only when it doesn’t get done because it’s only in its absence that we see its true value.
2024 begins in a little less than fourteen hours. I think it’s a good time to take a look at all the tasks and chores that life requires to see what blessings they might contain. Want to lend a hand?