I spend my days doing the same work, over and over again. (See: sweeping crumbs, feeding children, folding clothes, et. al.) For years I’ve told myself this is my cross to bear; the aspect of my vocation that makes me deserving of extra sympathy and/or commendation. I’ve looked forward to some far-off future season when I can get some work that is less open-ended.
I’m beginning to realize I’ve been thinking about it all wrong.
Here is what (I think) is actually true: No one’s work is ever done, and satisfied people are the ones who have learned to embrace this reality. They don’t fight against the recurring aspects of their daily work, they enjoy the cycles and rhythms, they find pleasure in the doing, not just the having done.
I’m a million miles from mastery when it comes to actually putting this theory into practice. But I’ve been trying to keep this perspective in mind as I approach my own daily work, and now that I have this concept in my head, I find that I’m running into it everywhere. (I take this as a sign that it’s really, really time for me to learn this.)
Exhibit A: Laundry, Liturgy, and Women’s Work
It began almost a year ago when I read Kathleen Norris’s small book entitled The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and ‘Women’s Work.’ In it, Norris pointed out that repetition of mundane tasks is not the particular bane of mothers and homemakers, it’s the work of being human. We make our beds, we brush our teeth, we wash our faces, we fill our stomachs. To neglect these basic tasks merely because they keep needing to be done is not a sign of liberation, it’s a sign of depression. A healthy perspective embraces these tasks as the liturgy of the everyday, as daily opportunities to develop habits of worship, diligence, humility, graciousness, service.
Exhibit B: The OB/GYN
Early in my pregnancy with Nathaniel, I sat in the exam room for an extra twenty minutes or so. The doctor finally arrived, delayed because he’d been attending another patient who was having her baby. “You just caught a baby five minutes ago?” I marveled. “Well, I didn’t do the catching, but I was there,” he clarified. “So, sixteen weeks! How has your nausea been?”
What better end product than helping a woman deliver a healthy baby after nine months of careful care and attention? And yet, there was no time to revel in the job well done; for every woman delivered of a baby, there were ten more lumbering down the corridors waiting for their turn. In this moment, I began to realize maybe I wasn’t the only one whose job kept resetting to zero all day long.
Exhibit C: Learning to Love What Must Be Done
I’ve just recently discovered Mystie Winckler’s work (thanks, Catie!), and it’s been resonating with me in a major way:
Perhaps there is actually glory in repetition, if we had the eyes to see it…Life is not only full of, but built with and upon, repeated actions and processes, change upon change.
The fact that housework is repetitious, then, is actually an opportunity. If we are what we regularly do, then every day we have the opportunity to become a person who cares for her possessions, a person who serves others cheerfully, a person who offers hospitality to herself, her family, and her community by such simple acts as making beds, doing dishes, and cleaning bathrooms.
Learning to love what must be done is not only 1) knowing what must be done, and 2) learning why it must be done, but also 3) feeling affection for and delight in the what and the why.
Exhibit C: The Greatest Chef in America
Just yesterday I (finally!) finished an audio book called The Soul of a Chef, which ended with a long profile of Thomas Keller, widely regarded as the greatest American chef at work today. Here’s a man on the top of his world, still finding great satisfaction in the tasks that we’d assume are now far beneath him.
At the bottom of Thomas Keller was a capacity to absorb himself absolutely in the mundane tasks he performed daily. It began, apparently, at the Palm Beach Yacht Club under the watch of his mom, Betty, as he made hollandaise sauce daily…Every working day, for two years, he never tired of it. On the contrary, he reveled in it; it was the high point of each day. He never took the Hollandaise sauce for granted.
It was never perfect, he never mastered it; if he ever had, the task would have become monotonous, if not unbearable. But instead, he pursued the perfect Hollandaise sauce with relentless intensity, and to this day, he will tell you that he still derives great pleasure from classical emulsion sauces…and that he likewise derives great pleasure from all the tasks he repeats daily.
I love that last idea from Thomas Keller because it is such a reversal of what I’ve been trying to do. Joy is found in the pursuit of perfection, but not in the attaining of it. As long as you’re in process, there’s room for improvement, for creativity, for innovation. There’s something inspiring about the idea that even when I am doing a good job, there’s always a way to make it a little better.
I’ve been writing about the same goals since I started blogging: hoping to be more organized, more healthy, a better mom, a better homemaker. But I’m starting to realize that the fact that I’m still striving in all these areas isn’t a mark of failure; it’s a sign of life.