Believe me when I tell you that for the past few days, I have been sweating the small stuff. Literally.
I have been down on my knees scrubbing baseboards caked with the grime of two, maybe three, seasons. Dusting lampshades, picture frames, and the far reaches of kitchen cabinets. Getting back behind the toaster oven to catch the crumbs of a hundred, maybe a thousand, pieces of toast: white, wheat, and rye.
Believe me when I tell you I have been sweating the small stuff, washing snow globes in a pan of sweet smelling suds and putting them away, then wiping down the window sills that have held them for the past few years. Cleaning soapstone whales and wood carved Buddhas, some laughing, some inscrutable.
Believe me when I tell you I have been sweating the small stuff, cleaning grout around faucets and mildew on bathtub tile.
The spring cleaning to beat all spring cleanings, at a pace hard to stop: so much disorder and confusion, so many tiny pieces of things to be wiped and restored, or tossed into the large green bags that are scattered around each and every room.
Nothing, it seems right now, is too small for my scrutiny: I open up drawers, often randomly, and begin my inquisition: coupons dated October 2004 for a certain kind of new toothpaste, or alpine Swiss cheese; receipts for books I have not yet read; telephone numbers that may or may not have been called.
It began after Easter, this grandest and sweatiest of cleanings. My kind of resurrection. This mess, this grime, this murkiness that I once called my home and office had gotten this way since last summer — or back way behind that. Clutter from so much moving of things, in and out of our small brick house. The death of my mother-in-law, and those things of hers we chose from her small and orderly estate: pieces of silver that still need polishing; pictures from my husband’s childhood that lie in piles on the bedroom floor still searching for a proper place on what remains of empty wall.
The departure of our youngest child for college, with his room half-empty, things of his — old soccer cleats, outgrown jackets, video tapes remaining behind in unpredictable places.
And then the stuff from emptying out my father’s apartment of 25 years when we finally moved him to what will be his last home in a nursing facility: the emptying of all emptying. Much of it going into a storage locker, stacked in piles to the high ceiling. But too much of it also landing in the trunk of my car and in the living room hall space: odd sheets and old cookbooks, huge cans of dried mushrooms, bags and bags of odd rice. Sitting in limbo for weeks on end. And always on a rickety table by the front door, stuff to take places, bills to be mailed, magazines to be read or tossed.
Stuff, mostly small stuff, stuff surely not to be stewed over in this year of death and dying, of leavings. Of ongoing war, of an election that for me, nearly broke my heart. Of avian flu and AIDS. Of ferocious hurricanes and giant quakes and murderous tsunamis.
Don’t sweat the small stuff, we are told. Focus your energy on the bigger picture, the things that really matter. I don’t know about you, but for me, it is the small stuff that is literally getting in my way, as I trip over it on the way to what is alleged to be the meaningful parts of my life. And it is the small stuff that when it is attended to, gives me the calm and the room to be in right relationship to the world.
This past month I went to hear novelist and essayist Anne Lamott speak in a ballroom at Emory University. Her new book of writings on faith has just come out and we were a fortunate stop on a national promotional tour. To say the room was packed would be an understatement. There were people standing against every wall, and the floor behind her she graciously gave over to some of us who were willing to sit that way for the hour or more she read and responded to questions.
Everything about her spelled simplicity of dress and adornment: plain blue jeans, a gray cotton thermal top with just an edging of purple, red clogs. Only her blondish dreadlocks stood out. Everything about her spelled calm and containment, as she shared her fine and clear prose. Telling stories about her teenage son and the little African-American Presbyterian Church she discovered when she was needing to recover from years of addiction, and the messy complications that can make for a life. Sharing with us that for her, God has become very personal, so she prays her best prayers in the privacy of her bathroom.
I know a bit about her — we come from the same part of the universe — and followed her writing enough, to know that this unpretentious presence, this centeredness, this light, did not come naturally to her. How has she grown herself into such immaculate, such shimmering, clarity?
When a woman in the audience asked Anne if she would be willing to look at her manuscript, Anne told her as gently as I have ever seen someone do, that she refused to read other people’s manuscripts. I fiercely protect living a spacious life, she said.
I keep my house picked up and I focus on fewer things now.
I fiercely protect living a spacious life.
It may have been after Easter when I began my cleaning, cleansing odyssey, but I know that it was these words that entreated me to go this way. In order to live a more spacious life, it is necessary to clear its spaces, and that involves making, for me anyway, a discipline — a practice — of keeping its rooms, windows, cupboards, and closets clean and in good repair.
This is not the first time I have learned this lesson, and I know somehow that it will not be the last. That’s where the intention — I need in my very soul to keep my life pruned and polished — and the attention — I am willing to make sure this happens — are so critical.
When my children were young, I was very bothered by what I was told was the inevitable mess they created. The toys strewn around, the cereal bowls and empty cups, the jackets and bats and balls and dolls, the tiny Lego pieces. I read Dr. Spock and other parenting experts who told me to not sweat the small stuff. Pick your priorities, he admonished. The big fights, the big issues.
That is when I wrote my first book called The Inner Parent, which was based on the very basic notion that we all have, and can carry out, our own way of raising our children and, in the process, continuing to raise ourselves, depending on where we are in our own life cycles, our own interior journeys. It seemed to me that focusing on what others might have tossed off as small stuff, a semblance of tangible organization in the chaotic landscape that is childhood, was just what was needed. At least for this mother. It was not the case that I believed that parenting began and ended with tidiness, with a semblance of spaciousness. I just knew, in that soulful way of knowing, that for me, a certain kind of order was a critical place to start.
The intention was there, but as a single parent for many years and then a fully working parent for the rest, the attention was not. I lived, and my children lived, with a level of clutter and disorder that made it so much harder than I had wanted to model and practice self discipline and responsibility. That God, that meaning and purpose, can be found in the details: in the mindful maintenance of our daily lives.
The commitment to mindful maintenance can be found in religious communities across time and faith traditions. It seems to go along with chanting and meditation and silences. But it can also be found in as unlikely places as New York subway trains, where the research of one criminal justice professor led to the discovery that the simple act of fixing broken windows led to radical crime reductions.
Dr. George L. Kelling, a professor at Rutgers University, began working at the Police Foundation in the early 1970s, and through experiments in policing in Kansas City and Newark, New Jersey, found that consistent preventative maintenance, cleaning, and repairing public spaces, created environments where more serious crimes than vandalism were less likely to occur. Fixing windows, erasing graffiti, washing walls, these were the things that have made a difference in promoting safety, through a sense of care and vigilance.
Mindful Maintenance. A sense and a conviction and a commitment to the premise that attention to that which is around us leads us to more whole and holy lives.
A little book I picked up recently called God is in the Small Stuff was written primarily for an audience of evangelical Christians, whose view of God is more personal than feels comfortable for me and I would imagine for most of us. Nonetheless, it calls for us to closely examine and cherish the seemingly everyday circumstances. It speaks to the notion that in cleaning out, in simplifying, in insisting on more spaciousness, we will add quality and commitment to our lives.
Make it a lifelong goal to remove clutter, the authors write, because God is in the details.
May it be so in your life.
May it be so in the life we share together.