I organized my husband’s sock drawer yesterday. It had to be done, all those mismatched and threadbare tube socks emerging from the drawer making it impossible to close. I also went through his undershirts and put the dingy off-white ones in the washer with bleach. I might have made a bleachy paste to remove the underarm stains, if I knew how to do that. I could have looked on the internet for a bleachy paste recipe, but it seemed more prudent to stick to the task at hand until I saw it completed, and that would not happen if I allowed myself to drift off into internet never-land.
Not long ago, a friend of mine began reading The Devout Life by Francis de Sales, and I decided that I, too, would embark on the devout life, or at least on reading the book with her. Actually improving my soul is such a scary prospect.
Saint Theresa of Avila wrote, “I cannot understand what it is that makes people afraid of setting out on the road of perfection.” Well, Dear Saint, I think I might know. That way leads to eschewing fun on the internet for organizing the sock drawer.
Isn’t it exactly as I feared, that if I kept beating on that glass ceiling of my mediocrity, I’d one day burst through into the realm of holiness where all the holy people scrub the corners of their houses with toothbrushes and listen to classical music, and read only books written before 1945 with an imprimatur?
Isn’t what’s kept me from pursuing a more devout life, the mistaken (and arrogant) assumption that I must actually be terribly close to perfection, and that reaching that final benchmark, that cap where there’s no where else to grow, means spending the rest of my life in a grim martyrdom of boring quotidian tasks offered for all those people still stuck on the other side of the glass in mediocre-land, wasting their time browsing the web, flirting, reading fun books and listening to pop music?
Except deciding to organize my husband’s sock drawer wasn’t like that at all. One could argue that the impetus for the task was fifteen years in the making, as so many of those socks were older than our relationship, and even the most placid temperament must someday say, “Enough is enough. It’s time to close that drawer.” But it wasn’t that either.
Inch by inch, reading the book, doing about a meditation a week, saying the Rosary, showing up at Mass during the week—practicing devotion—the decision to organize the sock drawer was somehow a manifestation of a new freedom—freedom from my chronic “No.”
How many times have I passed that sock drawer, considered doing something about it, and argued with myself that it’s not even my drawer; those are not my socks; if I do it once, he’ll want me to match his socks all the time; and I barely even fold my own laundry. I might unwittingly become a slave to him. Well, I’m too smart for that, I say. I’m not going to organize his drawer; I’m just going to live with the chaos—Ha!
And as a consequence, I maintain an oppressive status quo—the slavery to my “No.”
The “road to perfection” sounds so binding and final. I get hung up on that word, “perfection” and overlook the fact that that’s just the name of the road. Hence, taking that road is actually an unbinding—the freedom to go a different way, not the habitual way—and it goes on for a really long time.
I wouldn’t write this post if I didn’t have other evidence of a personal unbinding, most of which are manifest in acts of huswifery because the house is my battle ground. At the same time, all of this is probably imperceptible to anyone but me.
We are at a time in our lives when it’s necessary to spend a lot of time sitting out in the yard doing nothing. The baby likes to be out there wandering around, and it’s good for him to do so. He has acres on which to wander, but there’s always a small chance that he’s going to go to that one place where he’s not allowed to play. It’s human nature after all, so I have to be on guard. I can’t read, because I’ll become too absorbed. I can’t laptop because my battery doesn’t work for long.
In my “no” phase, I might have been annoyed with the situation, because there’s a load of work to be done inside, and if I’m doing nothing, I at least want to do nothing on the internet. But the freedom to do nothing–nothing but feeling the breeze, roasting in the sun, watching the leaves and the putterings of a little boy who doesn’t need to be convinced that doing nothing is really wonderful–is really wonderful.
But from the outside, I imagine this internal shift just looks to others like a woman sitting around doing nothing, which is, of course, exactly what it is. The great relief and surprise about the devout life, is that it looks similar to the not so devout life I was living last week, except that I am more free, no longer divided by the concepts of myself that I have created.
I just finished reading “The Edge of Sadness” by Edwin O’Connor. It’s the best novel I’ve read in a long time, about a priest who’s been through a period of spiritual aridity and finds at the end of it, the freedom to embrace the life he’s been living as opposed to the life he always thought he wanted. When Father Kennedy finally acknowledges that what he wants is not the warmth and regard of other people, but love and truer devotion to God, his conversion works out like this:
“The mighty changes, of course, did not take place—or if they did they remained invisible to me. Which was natural enough…since a slight increase in the zeal of one man produces no miracles—unless the one man is himself one of the extraordinary few who can and do change history. But nothing like that was involved here. I did my work, time went by…”
And so it does.