tending to the divine

2014-07-09 07.07.33

Simplicity is a luxury, and, like all luxuries, elusive. Often you have to make the choice to power ahead without it.

For my family, June brought houseguests, a busted washing machine, two road trips and a visiting guinea pig. As it happened, also in June, the money ran out before the month did; the dishes piled up in the sink.

But a storm also blew in during June, bringing multiple visits to the hospital and the sort of news about someone you love that you never want to imagine, let alone actually hear.

All of a sudden, the clutter didn’t matter. The dishes didn’t matter. The money didn’t seem to matter.

It’s called perspective.

That’s all I’m going to write about the hospital visits. I will be keeping that time private.

Instead, I offer a story: One day, not so long ago in June, I was driving through town with my younger brother, the one who has everything figured out. I’m not being sarcastic: He is organized. His Sioux Falls home is clean and spare. He actively maintains an honest-to-goodness savings account. (With cash in it even! Not just like my “savings account” that sports a double-digit balance. How does he do that?)

It had been a spontaneous day for both of us, but not necessarily in a good way. In other words, we woke up that Saturday with reasonable plans and ended up doing something more urgent and completely off the rails. Now the day was wrapping up and we were both hungry. I turned the car toward our favorite restaurant.

Suddenly, he remembered he had laundry in the wash. He was just reminding himself, really, it wasn’t as if he wanted to skip dinner and rush home to hover over wet laundry. But still. It hit me somehow.

“It doesn’t matter, you know,” I declared. “Laundry doesn’t matter.”

I have backup for this assertion—my Gram, whose home was relentlessly spotless and artistic and infused with the luscious smells of baking and creating and entertaining. I remember sitting at her dining room table, late in the season of her life, and allowing myself to whine a little about my own home, with its strewn-about mishmash of notebooks, toys, and—let’s be honest—dog hair and dust.

Like everything I said, Gram took my words seriously. She glanced around her own home, seeing it perhaps as I saw it for the first time—perfect. A clean house doesn’t matter so much when you don’t have anyone to clean it for, she told me, or something along those lines.

This is how I took her meaning: She had spent a lifetime keeping a lovely home, not for herself, not because, as a woman, it was what she was ordained to do with her days, not because she was twisted with perfectionism. She tended her home simply because she adored the people in her life and wanted them to feel comfortable when they woke in the morning and stumbled to the kitchen to slide half a grapefruit into the breakfast china or check the morning newspapers.

She was telling me that it was the people inside the home that mattered. Everything in a home serves them, not the other way around.

Her linen tablecloths were spotless and pressed and waiting on hangers for their next turn at the table. Years later, those tablecloths are still spotless and pressed, and they take rare but significant turns at my dining room table. I think it’s fair to say no one really needs table cloths anymore. I could release them in my quest to simplify, maybe find them a home with a larger, more elegant family. I could release myself from the entire chest of drawers I keep of her linens and handkerchiefs and cloth napkins.

Why on earth would I?

I have come to realize early in this simplicity challenge that I will never be a true minimalist. I’d like to call myself a sentimental minimalist, but that probably would be an exaggeration, because there is a whole lot that I have no intention of streamlining. There are entire drawers and closets and bookshelves of my life that I have no intention of reducing or making less complicated.

What is simplicity if not a reordering of your priorities so that you are spending the currency of life on the things that matter to you … which might be drastically different from the things that matter to me?

In June, I forgot to change the sheets on my bed, but faithfully changed the bedding of the guinea pig we are pet-sitting. I ignored a messy kitchen by anyone’s standards and chose instead to play cribbage with my mother-in-law, who was visiting from Maine. I tossed more clothes than needed, more music than needed and more snacks than was responsible into the car and scooted north (for the second time in as many weeks) with my child singing along in the back seat, happy as a lark to be on the way to celebrate her Minneapolis uncles, where we would be surrounded by hundreds of thousands of other Twin Cities Pride participants.

I bought an extra outfit so I wouldn’t have to go to the laundromat as much. On credit. The opposite of simplicity, some would say.

And I ate one of the most satisfying dinners ever with my younger brother, even though he could have been finishing his laundry and I could have been cleaning one of my perpetually-overrun-with-detritus closets. We turned off our phones. We took our time. I listened to him well, something I don’t do nearly often enough. We’ll remember that meal forever. I bet he’s already forgotten that he went home and finished his laundry.

At the beginning of 2014, I was paranoid that something would happen to me, and my loved ones would struggle to clean out my cluttered house. That seems flippant and silly now. Have you heard the Ukrainian folktale about a woman who is invited to visit the Christ child at his birth, but stays behind to tidy her home? She misses the child, not because she is tending to those in need or even because of doubt. She misses the arrival of the Messiah because she has chosen to dust the mantel of her cottage—to tend to the transient rather than the divine.

Yes, we must address the details of daily living: the dust-darkened corners, the mountainous paperwork, the dog-drool-smeared window panes. And yes, the more organized and simplified you can run, the swifter and lighter your journey may be. But in June, I ignored all of that.

In June I tended only to the divine.

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