Once upon a time I coveted a house and twenty acres.
Despite great effort (and lots of bargaining prayers) things did not work out the way I had planned. Our house did not sell and we did not buy the twenty acres and a house. Three years later we are still here. Still in the city. Still in the same house we tried to sell. But for a long time after our dream fell apart I felt anything but still. I felt anxious and unsettled. I felt cheated. I felt like a failure and a quitter. I felt ungrateful, and that, of course, led to feelings of shame.
Shortly, before things went south for good, there was a day on which I treated myself to a deluxe package pedicure. I paid my hard-earned money for the full pampering treatment, and after many repetitions of hot wax, hotter water and lots of hard scrubbing, my feet looked ten times better than any other part of me. From the ankles down, my skin positively glowed; from the ankles up, however, I was tattered, worn, and droopy, and covered with paint flakes.
The hours leading up to the pedicure had been spent scraping the seventy-five year old windows on the outside of our house. Scraping windows is one of those chores that can only be done slowly. Repeatedly. Diligently. There are no good shortcuts. And I hate it. That day I was scraping our windows so that we could repaint them a newer, shinier, more appealing, hue of white paint, in an attempt to lure a buyer for our house. I was scraping them because I was desperate. I was ready to move, and it was just not happening, so there I was, outside, in the blazing sun, pushing and scraping our ancient, peeling windows.
In attempt to entice Jesus to show me favor and sell this damn house for me, I prayed while I scraped. I thanked him for our house. For the windows and the flaky paint and the beautiful day to scrape them. I thanked him for our friends who had come to help with scraping the eighteen windows, some of which were floor to ceiling. I thanked him that we even had a house, let alone one with big beautiful old windows, old hardwood floors and central heat and air. While I prayed I tried really hard not to think about how I had hoped these windows would be someone else’s problem by now, about how what I really wanted to be thanking God for was new house and twenty acres.
But it was no use.
Both Jesus and I could see straight through the flimsy tissue-paper heart of my prayers. Eventually I grew tired, frustrated and bored. I stopped scraping and peeling, and went inside, where I was greeted by all the other projects and rooms in the house still waiting to be repaired, finished, cleaned. The living room ceiling still to patched and painted, the laundry was overflowing, and the mismatched kitchen appliances mocked me.
Overwhelmed, disappointed, too worn out to tackle another project, and annoyed with the increasingly whiny voice in my head, I decided to flee the scene. I grabbed a stack of books and headed straight for the day spa. While I sat with my feet in plastic bags filled with hot wax, I switched between reading St. Benedict’s Rule and reading about the Rule in Dennis Okholm’s Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants. I was busily highlighting away like a good student, when I stumbled over these words “Conversion and growth in character happen when we remain, not when we run…. Stability means being faithful where we are – really paying attention to those with whom we live and to what is happening in our common life.” At that moment, these words were the exact opposite of what I wanted to hear, but I could not move on. I was arrested. I read those words again and again, letting their weight, their caution and their guidance, soak into my heart just as the wax was soaking into my skin.
Staying here, in our current home, is not a bad life. It is actually a very lovely life. Even then I had to admit that it might even be the better life for our little family of four. I knew this in the same part of my brain where I make decisions to pay the light bill, take a shower and drive on the right side of the road. But it was the other part of my brain that was making all the ruckus, the part that is all emotion and feelings and desires. The part that stomps its feet, clenches its fist tightly and screams, “This is not what I want!” Staying here may be permanent, or it may be temporary. There may still be a move in our future, or perhaps this little city lot and seventy-five year old house is where we will remain. But on that day, in that season, what I had decided I needed, what I wanted, what I had to have, was that house and those twenty acres. And nothing else would do. Sitting there in the pedicure chair, reading those words of Dennis Okholm’s over, and over, I realized that I had painted myself into a petulant corner, and it was sucking all the joy out of my life
Later, lying in bed, too drained to even clean the dusty ceiling fan that I was forced to stare at day after day, I ruminated again on these words, and on the monastic value of stability. It was then that I realized that perhaps staying put, and caring for the home and life I had, instead of pining for the home and life I wanted, was the only way I was going to move on.
In her book Acadia and Me, Kathleen Norris wrote:
We want life to have meaning, and want to be fulfilled, and it is hard to accept that we find these things by starting where we are, not where we would like to be. Our greatest spiritual blessings are likely to reveal themselves not in exotic settings but in everyday tasks and trials.
Like scraping paint off the windows.
(Which believe it or not, I am doing again next week.)
Read all of Jerusalem’s post in this series:
Week 3 : Mysteries and Mending
Week 2 : Giving Up Piling On… and a Recipe
Week 1 : Remembering
Jerusalem Jackson Greer is a writer, speaker, retreat leader, nest-fluffer, urban farm-gal, and author of A Homemade Year: The Blessings of Cooking, Crafting and Coming Together (which includes a chapter on Candlemas, complete with crafts and recipes.) Jerusalem lives with her husband and two sons in a 1940s cottage in Central Arkansas at the crossroads of beauty and mess with an ever-changing rotation of pets, including a hen house full of chickens and a Hungarian Sheep Dog mutt. As a family, they are attempting to live a slower version of modern life. She blogs about all of this and more at http://jerusalemgreer.com