take two: working (and praying)

The second half of the series on How We Spend Our Time. Following each author’s insights, I’ll offer another perspective on the same theme. Cathy writes about work as prayer. Here’s my take:

The easier way, of course, is not to let my work be prayer.

It’s far simpler to zone out while doing the laundry or the dishes than to move through the motions mindfully.

It’s more satisfying to grumble about paying bills or cutting kids’ hair than to approach it as a loving act of service.

It’s even easier to jump into the email inbox and the day’s to-do list than to honor the professional work I do as sacred.

But the stubborn truth is that it’s all holy, this everyday mix of action and reflection, creation and repetition. God already blesses work as good; it’s up to us to see the same.

Maybe we miss it when we call it “work,” when we file it under obligation or drudgery. Maybe if we called it all “prayer” – making breakfast or giving baths or compiling spreadsheets or sitting through meetings or running errands or mowing the lawn – maybe then we would begin to understand how God’s eyes see us.

Maybe.

. . .

I noticed a few weeks ago – while stuffing the day’s umpteenth load of laundry in the washer, then scrubbing all the pots from last night’s dinner, then hustling upstairs to help the potty-trainer in the bathroom – that I had marked each of these spaces with a gentle reminder. A small shimmer of beauty next to each place of dirty work.

Maybe I needed to remember that each one was holy.

In the laundry room, two postcards from the L’Arche community where I worked in France.

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I remember cutting carrots with Daniel, washing dishes with Monique, bathing Claude and dressing Bernard. And I’m overwhelmed at the memory of how holy that hard work was, how I knew God was there, too. I re-member myself back into the way of small things with great love.

In the kitchen, a print of Saint Therese lifting high the plates of the monastery as an offering to God, letting the steam rise like incense.

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Washing dishes is a dreaded household chore for me, so I need a nudge to see the prayer in this necessary work. I remember all the plates that have been washed so that I could eat – in restaurants or cafeterias or homes that welcomed me as a guest. And I load the dishwasher with a lighter heart, grateful for a kitchen full of food to eat and hungry children around my table. I re-member myself back into the faith that breaks bread and shares with the hungry.

In the bathroom, a picture of Saint Joseph cradling his newborn son, a father immersed in his late night work.

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Whenever I’m pulled from warm bed and soft sleep by a boy with soaked sheets or a hacking cough, our trip to the bathroom is bathed in more than the nightlight’s glow if I glance at the kindred spirit on the counter. I remember all the nights that my parents sat up with me when I was sick and surely rocked me back to sleep a thousand times before my memory sealed it to heart. And I wipe my boy’s nose or bottom or feverish forehead with more compassion and less impatience at my own rest lost.

I re-member myself back into the love that washes feet and touches the sick.

Because maybe all this work is prayer, too.

carry the load

Laundry round here is eternal.

Diapers, dirty dishclothes, daily heaps of socks and shirts and pants and bibs and towels. It piles up in towering heaps overnight, and just when I slam the dryer door shut with a satisfying thwack and declare it tackled, I turn to find my boys covered in marker or yogurt or (worst) mysterious unknowns.

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I sigh, strip them down, fill the tired barrel of the washer once more, and set it again to spin.

Laundry without ceasing.

. . .

I have a handful of friends who are pregnant, most of them expecting number three or four, none of them amateurs at gestation but all of their hands and hearts already full to the brimming. I’ve promised them prayers, dip into their days with a quick email to inquire how they’re doing, but it never feels enough, not when I know how dark and depressing and downright overwhelming the burden of bearing baby can be. I wonder what more I can do, especially for the far-flung friends, the dear ones far across the country that I can’t surprise with a casserole and a hug and a how are you really doing?

What can any of us do to help carry the load?

Of course it’s prayer, I know that’s the answer, but it seems so small and trite sometimes. An easy promise to hold up, to keep in mind, to whisper good thoughts and happy hopes to smooth the way. I’m still learning, slowly, stumblingly, what I believe about prayer, but I’m quite sure it’s nothing like the power of positive thinking or the secret that stops the universe to grant my heart’s desire. If prayer is about bending myself to the way of Christ, allowing myself to be changed, humbling myself back into the heart of the divine, what does it mean to carry other’s intentions with me as I go?

I’m still not sure.

But I do know one thing: prayer reminds. Even when it may not help or heal, it reminds.

. . .

I pause from the pile of laundry to read a favorite blog, clicking through the pages as I ignore the clothes around me on the couch, half stacked in neat piles of designated owner, half still strewn in a messy dump from the dryer. When I stumble upon the simple post about praxis of prayer, a tangible mindfulness of uniting intention with the everyday, the idea falls into my lap like a soft jumble of small socks:

I’ll carry my laundry for them.

How many times a day do I bend to grab the plastic handles of the bulky baskets, lug them up and down stairs, stagger them around corners, fill them to the back-breaking brim? How many times a day could I easily remember those expecting, each one of my friends who carry something much weightier and more wonderful than even clean laundry? What difference might it make – for them, for me – if I slowed to remember when I stooped to carry again?

The more I muse, the more laundry I fold, the more it seems right. This is how prayer becomes incarnate: in everyday actions.

. . .

Laundry seems endless in these early years: the late-night laundry, the soaked and stained laundry, the kid clothes and grown-up clothes all tumbling together in the dryer. Pregnancy can feel like that, too: endless and oh-so-bodily. Good work, necessary work, but so tiring, so cumbersome, so overwhelming.

I remember at the end of my pregnancies when my husband rushed to grab the basket out of my hands before I lugged it up or down the stairs, balanced on my basketball of a belly. Let me help! he’d say with exasperation. Let me carry that – you’ve already got enough.

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I’d laugh to myself (what did he think I did while he was gone all day?) but without protest I let him help. Let him carry the load. Let myself rest for a moment and remember how much I was already carrying.

Maybe prayer’s like that, too: a willingness to carry and be carried.

To learn when to remember and when to rest in each other’s arms.

God of the baking

And again he said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

Luke 13:20-21

Here’s why I love to bake:
You start with nothing –
an idea, ingredients
of possibility, a plan and hope.
You slowly start to mix
measure and pour,
the transformation stirring with your spoon.
And suddenly it starts to look
and smell and taste alive –
creation sticky in my hands,
smeared between my fingers,
streaked across my hair.

The baker’s art takes patience,
planning, careful watch of
oven’s heat, directions’ time.
Forgiveness, too –
for cake that falls, deflated;
recipes that failed to rise.

Baking’s best as company affair:
Sometimes I cook with children –
grabbing cups and spoons to spill,
enthusiasm trumped only by sugar.
I sit and watch the wise work, too –
laughing, telling stories while they bake
with wrinkled hands,
forearms strong from years of kneading dough.

I ought to say that sharing is the best part –
breaking loaf and offering steaming slice in love.
But secretly I like to chew in silence:
taste alone the crunch of crust,
sink of teeth in softer middle’s heart.
Because creation’s sweetest in still morning
before the rest wake round me
greeting day with yawn and groan.
I love to feed their bellies,
but I need to rise alone.

God of the dishes

Wash away all my guilt; from my sin cleanse me.

Cleanse me with hyssop, that I may be pure;

wash me, make me whiter than snow.

A clean heart create for me, God; renew in me a steadfast spirit.

Psalm 51: 4, 9, 12

Dirty dishes stacked so high,
porcelain towers on my right and left.
I take the sponge in hand,
wring out the water, squeeze on soap,
and crank the faucet hot.
Steam rises as the stream heats, steady
I plunge plates and cups
into the bubbles swirled below.
Swish, wash, rinse, repeat;
the stack grows smaller as I go,
plates now neat and nestled
drying silent in the rack.
My hands turn pink and bright in sink's hot bath;
my fingers pruned and white by end of night.

Long ago I ate alone:
the solitary rinse of single
spoon and knife and fork.
These days I’m elbow deep in pans,
scrubbing steel pots ringed
thick with soup, browned casseroles
of dinners passed with family, friends
all those who gather for my meals.

Cynics see the stubborn cycle
of the grimy, gooey junk
caked hard on dishes left to sit too long
(pardon my love of lingering one last glass)
as dirty proof of life’s depressing rut:
the endless drag of meals and mouths to feed,
a plate’s only escape the break
that sends it swiftly to the bin.

But I delight in dishes,
love the dirty and the clean:
how they slide in slippery hands
before I scrub in circles swift,
how they flash with water’s drip
each time I lift them up to rise,
inspecting both sides slick and sheen,
then dry them satisfied.

For dishes prove that someone shared the meal,
that there was food to pass,
safe time to spare.
Companions, plenty and a pause
are no small good
in world of loneliness, 
want, rush and fear.
And if I'd none to wash,
that would mean no one took the cup.
What a tidy, terrible mistake
that empty would have been.

God of the sweeping

Or what woman having ten coins and losing one would not light a lamp and sweep the house, searching carefully until she finds it? And when she does find it, she calls together her friends and neighbors and says to them, “Rejoice with me because I have found the coin that I lost.” In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.

Luke 15: 8-10

Every night I take the broom in hand,
both of us worn and tired
but still working.
As I stretch out arms
to reach the bristles’ brush,
the steady rhythm comes back easy,
drag of dirt across familiar floor.

Every day it slides the same:
crumbs, hair, dust, food 
all piled into tidy heaps
left waiting for the bin.
One swift dump, then goodbye.
But making clean is holy work –
refreshing for another day,
forgiving what is past and gone.
To gather, to release 
and then repeat
makes way, always
for one day more.

I know the time it takes,
the pattern of the pulling
corners into center,
how to turn and switch
the broom’s direction when the grit is stubborn.
Sometimes I even do my sweeping in the dark
when all the world’s asleep.

Only when I lose the precious
slipped under couch,
rolled into corner dark
or simply disappeared –
then only do I blaze the lights,
look steady as I clean, search
focused on the finding,
knowing work that will not fail.

But if I did not sweep each day,
memorize these floors,
their stains and scuffs,
then I could not seek what’s lost
when it’s the coin that matters most.
So thus it was and always must it be:
pull creaky closet door to find old broom,
swish brush, brush swish
reach pull, pull reach
and then again to rest.