When I was growing up, my mother used to tell us, “The floor isn’t dirty until your feet stick.” I thought this was funny, considering my mom usually kept the house quite spotless.
Fast-forward a couple of decades: my feet stuck.
It was a summer day, and I was working as a freelance editor. I’d been on the computer all day while the children ran in and out of the house, helping themselves to whatever they wanted in the kitchen. And between the popsicles and the Kool-Aid and the watermelon and the peanut butter—well, need I say more? So I spent half an hour cleaning the floor. Then I loaded the dishwasher and threw in a load of laundry. All while fighting the vague impression of having done this before.
That’s the thing about housework. And yardwork. Cooking, grocery shopping. We have to do these mundane tasks of life over and over and over again. The cycle never ends.
It reminded me of the Israelites’ manna and quail. God sent them enough food for the day, and they could collect only that. They couldn’t save it or store it, but they were to continually work and wait for their meals. Similarly, our lives are set up in such a way that we have to engage in routine, repeating ordinary tasks in order to survive.
Even Adam and Eve were supposed to work in the Garden. And like everything else in their days, this work was "good." But after the apple, God told Adam, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food.” With that, the land would no longer easily yield its bounty and work would become hard. Our fate of endless meal preparing and dishwashing and laundry folding was sealed.
The tedious chores of survival remind us that we are fallen humans meant for the toil. In fact, we might even say that the obligation to work is one of the very things that makes us human. It's how we do our part in the stewardship of our own lives, and one of the primary ways we serve others. But is there even more blessing in the daily toil than we realize?
FINDING THE GIFT
Lately, I've been having conversations with a friend about these menial, everyday tasks and how they provide wonderful opportunities to let our minds loose to process, roam, and explore.
We live in such a noisy world. Whenever we're driving or cooking or jogging, it's tempting to always have our cell phones in our ears, or the TV or radio on in the background. How desperately we avoid having a few moments of silence.
But I am becoming more aware of the importance of allowing our minds to be free once in awhile. We can create silence—when our hands are busy—so that we can hear our own thoughts, so that ideas can form, so that our subconscious can help us solve problems. And ultimately, so that we can hear the voice of God. When we constantly have "input" into our brains in the form of music or voices, we rob ourselves of the crucial processing time our minds need in order to be creative and at play.
I'm not talking about dedicated prayer or meditation time, though that is important in its own right. I'm talking about mowing the lawn, walking the dog, cleaning out the car, or driving to work—times when our hands and bodies are busy doing something that doesn't require our entire brain's worth of concentration. These are times we can stop seeing as boring or wasted time, but as valuable "free time" for our minds. We can enter them with no agenda. We can get used to the solitude and eventually come to appreciate the riches that can be found in the quiet.
One of my favorite books is The Quotidian Mysteries by Kathleen Norris. In it, she encourages us to treasure rare moments of solitude and silence and to avoid distracting ourselves with television and the like. The menial tasks of everyday life, she says, can be "islands of holiness" in an otherwise chaotic and noisy life. This has been hard for me to get used to. I'm constantly downloading podcasts. I always listen to music when I go running or work out at the gym. But I'm trying to open up some of these times to the silence.
As a literary agent, I work with writers, and we frequently have conversations about how important it is to have these times of silence. This is true for anybody doing creative work, anyone whose job involves deep thinking or writing or intense brainstorming. The mind needs open space to create, to solve problems, to clarify our position on an issue, or to come up with just the right word for that problematic sentence.
Your daily "quotidian" tasks need not be something to dread or simply ‘get through.’ They are a gift from God: a time to allow the silence and discover its treasures.