Ordinary Time

 

When you ask children what they want to do when they grow up, nobody says laundry.

 Nobody says I want to pick up mushy dog poop out of a wet backyard.

Nobody says I want to prepare 1,092 meals every year for a family that complains about 847 of them.

When we dream about the things we want to do, we dream about curing sick people, inventing something new, orbiting Mars, making things.  Our dreams of falling in love and starting a family are filled with Pinterest-worthy images of beach trips, school plays and cozy Sunday mornings. We don’t often dream about ordinary time.

In the religion I was raised in, Ordinary Time refers to all the time during the liturgical year that falls outside of the major holiday seasons (Lent, Easter, Advent, and Christmas). The Sundays of Ordinary Time are numbered, and together they make up the biggest part of the year. And while many of the tenets of the faith are based on the extraordinary things that happen during the holiday seasons, the gospel readings during Ordinary Time are about how the human Jesus lived his everyday life. Before he was the Messiah, he was just a guy who swept up his share of the sawdust in his stepdad’s carpenter shop.

 The rest of us also spend a big part of our lives sweeping up our share of the sawdust. Midlife – when both career and parenting are at peak, and when aging parents need care – is awash in the ordinary. I’m in the thick of all three right now, the trifecta of the mundane, and I am scared there is One Big Thing I am supposed to do and I haven’t figured out what it is and instead I am wasting my ‘one wild and precious life’ on 9 to 5 and dog poop and making sure everyone gets to their doctor appointments.

And given the regularity of midlife divorces, affairs, breakdowns and sports cars, I think I’m probably not the only one who’s scared. I get most scared when I tell myself horror stories about how I have no choice, how these obligations are taking up all of me, burning through my precious time on the planet and leaving nothing for the Important Work (whatever it is) that I am meant to do.

As always, perspective changes everything. When I see my life as a series of soul-killing tasks that I rush through to get to the next series of soul-killing tasks, never quite managing to save enough time for The Important Stuff, then that is exactly what my life becomes. But if I can pause the horror stories about what I think I know, just for a moment, and enter the space of ‘I don’t know,’ my perspective shifts. Right now.

Here are a few of the ‘what if’ questions that take some of the daily-ness out of my day.

What if we need the ordinary? Every life comes with its ration of the mundane. There are certainly people with the power and wealth necessary to outsource most of their ordinary to someone else; and there are those who default on their share of routine tasks to the extent that those around them take it on. But in the main, everyone has to brush their own teeth, put on their own pants – and people who feel themselves superior to the ordinary are not usually a pleasure to be with. There has to be a reason that mindful completion of commonplace tasks is a spiritual practice in many of the world’s major religious traditions. Maybe humans need the grounding, the connection to the world’s heartbeat, that comes with doing a small task with great care.

What if creativity and the ordinary are not mutually exclusive? According to legend, novelist Mario Puzo wrote his first books at his kitchen table – in the midst of his noisy family, his kids’ homework and squabbles, the dinner dishes.  When The Godfather became a smash hit, he used some of the proceeds to build himself a little writer’s cottage…but then found he couldn’t write there, and was soon back at the kitchen table. Some of our most prolific creative minds kept their ‘day jobs’ even after finding success with their art. Maybe the routine, far from dulling our senses, is actually grist for our mill.

What if I could just like this shit? I know – really? Like doing the taxes? The laundry? Cleaning the grout? But as Michael Neill points out in this illuminating post, our preferences are not written in stone, and indiscriminate enjoyment of daily life is our nature. Allowing it back in can make us happier, less stressed, and more productive.

What if we don’t actually know what’s important? I’ve heard parenting compared to the building of a cathedral in medieval Europe – which was such an immense undertaking that the workers who built it would not see it completed in their lifetimes. They glazed windows they would never see light pour through; hewed beams for roofs they would never worship under; stacked one stone on the next and the next, in the total absence of the sense of accomplishment, the closure, we value so highly today. They took it on faith that their work mattered, was part of a larger good.

I love the cathedral as metaphor. (And this is one of my favorite books.) But I’d argue that it’s not just parenting, but life, that is like this. Real knowledge of our impact on the world is rare once we reach adulthood, and we tend to think that the only things we do that matter are the things that get noticed and appreciated. In truth, the world turns on the invisible work of unseen hands. I don’t know who built my house or my car, who picked the beans for the coffee I drank this morning, who made the coat that keeps the rain off me. I will never be able to thank or acknowledge them. All I can do is pay it forward, doing my own share of the invisible work to the best of my ability before releasing it from my hands. I trust it fits in with your work, in a way I will never see or understand.

So give yourself a high-five once you’ve heaved today’s rocks into place. Let’s worry less about what anyone else sees, and more about how we feel while we’re doing it.

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Home is where the anxiety is

A dear friend shared an article not long ago about ‘scruffy hospitality;’ the fading art of inviting people into your home as it is, to share whatever you have. No guest towels, no carefully curated dinner table, no well planned menu. Instead – don’t trip over the toys, pull up a chair, we’re having burgers, and help me finish this bottle box of wine.

I love this concept; it speaks to me of warmth, of being deeply welcome, the easy familiarity of neighbors in a time gone by. It’s real connection, as opposed to the arms-length encounter that is being someone’s guest. The funny thing is, it’s exactly the kind of connection we’re looking for (but rarely find) with all of our cleaning and cooking and Pinteresting.

But as attracted as I am to the concept, I struggle with it. I struggle with having anyone in my home, but especially if it’s not as perfect as I can make it.

I have house shame.

Growing up on the knife-edge of poverty, clean took on an outsize importance. It was the difference between broke and poor – between poverty as an economic fact, and poverty as a state of mind; between giving up, and holding out hope things would be better someday. Families with enough money were free to live in tidy houses or not, as they chose. But for the places we called home – rentals with musty green carpeting and dirt ‘yards,’ trailers with drafty floors, furnished in other people’s castoffs – keeping what we had clean was keeping hold of the last shreds of our dignity; an attempt at belonging, and at trying to make a transitory place feel like home. If we didn’t have solidity, ownership, a place we could get attached to, well –a neatly made bed and the scents of Murphy Oil Soap and fresh-brewed coffee would have to do.

Yet it was never quite enough. In public, I thought I was hiding the truth of my family life behind a bright smile and a way with words (I probably wasn’t). But when someone entered our home, there was no hiding our circumstances. No matter how clean the house was, the bald sofa, stained linoleum and icy walls spoke for themselves, and I would be flooded with embarrassment.

I thought this would end as my outward circumstances changed. I thought eventually my home would be ‘nice’ enough that my house shame would go away. It has not. I am a world away from the way I lived my childhood, but every step up and away only brings brief relief. No matter where I’ve moved or what I’ve done to the places I’ve lived, I still feel like my home is so imperfect that the ‘clean’ part has to be just right for me to be acceptable. The common denominator is me.

All it takes for me to be eight years old again is for someone to stop by while the breakfast dishes are still on the counter and the beds are unmade. Or for me to plan to host a gathering (in the absence of a full-on renovation completed just fifteen minutes before everyone arrives – in other words, any time). Or someone to catch sight of those spaces where I have no control. You know, because I live with other people who get to have a say in how they keep their spaces too, rather than living in constant service to my anxiety.

Cultural expectations play a role too. Women are still judged about how they keep their home – no matter how many other people live there and whether or not they pitch in. Homekeeping is a perfectionist freakshow even without the childhood baggage: a moving target with no criteria for what’s good enough, no finish line, and only a vague hope of avoiding shame and judgment as a reward.

Clearly, it’s the shame and anxiety I need to work on, not my house.

Here’s what I know.

It’s not what I do, it’s how I feel when I do it. I like clean and orderly spaces; they’re soothing to my introverted soul. And there’s an obvious difference in how I feel when I tend to my environment for that reason, versus what I do when I’m hustling for approval or trying to avoid shame. My desk at work is freakishly clear, with a decorative lamp, a bamboo plant and (not kidding) a miniature water-feature. Do I do this because I fear my colleagues will judge me if I have a cluttered workspace? Because I will be ashamed if I don’t do these things? No; I do it without thinking, because that’s the environment in which I feel and work the best. (In case you were wondering, though, they totally judge me for the water feature.)

I can look to other women for wisdom. Other women in my life provide the best examples of how I’d like to allow myself and my home to be, and I have two exceptional role models.

My friend A has a family structure similar to mine – she and her spouse work full time and have one tween. She has a lovely home and a talent for striking that balance between the inviting kind of clean, and allowing her home to look like a real live family actually lives there, even when she has people over. She knows of my struggles, and has been known to initiate conversations like this upon leaving my home:

A: Don’t make your bed tomorrow morning.

Me: Why?

A: Because I fucking dare you.

My other role model is my sister in law. Anthony and Sis grew up in a background similar to mine, so she has a ton of empathy and, I think, similar struggles – she just handles them with way more style. She’s sees the state of her house for what it is – the relative condition of a house at one moment in time, not a referendum on her self-worth – and is candid and hilarious on those days when the whole thing goes off the rails. She once told me of meeting her husband’s friend (who dropped by unexpectedly on an off-the-rails day) on the porch with a smile, cold beer, and the announcement that under no circumstances could he enter the house, because it was crazy in there. In one swoop, she kept what was of value – his company – and let the rest go.

I like other people’s imperfect homes. When I am invited into other people’s homes, I am at my most comfortable when they are not perfect. A little pet hair on the furniture and some dishes in the sink are signs that I have been invited in while there is real life going on. I have never, not once in my life, gone into somebody’s house and thought, “Man, they are horrible housekeepers, and that kitchen needs an update.” I bet most other people don’t either; so I’m not even reacting to the actual people entering my home (who are in the main, nice people, because I don’t invite assholes over). I’m reacting to what’s in my head.

One of the great gifts of my time in therapy was the understanding that, when it comes to emotional baggage, it might not be possible to banish it entirely – and that expecting myself to do that is not kind. The kindest thing I can do for myself is to be mindful of how I’m feeling, rather than try and fix it. When the shame and anxiety percentage dials back from 90 to 40, that’s huge progress, even if it never gets to zero.

Tomorrow I’m not making my bed.