Friday, October 10, 2014

Eyes Open

Recently, NPR's David Greene and Shankar Vedantam covered a story on why people agree to do boring work.  Their reporting weaved together some new research to the old work of Camus in his "Myth of Sysiphus."  Toward the close of the interview, researcher Peter Ubel observed, "Camus [would say] your life with your eyes open because meaning doesn't lie in the work, it lies in what you bring to the work."

Those words echoed in my mind as I contextualized my life to Camus' work. This is the final year of my most meaningful work: the work of birthing and raising and running and wrangling a family.  It is hard to imagine, in this moment, that I will find work more meaningful than this.  More to the point - it is hard to imagine I will ever find the kind of work again that matches the kind of meaning I've found - created -  in all these years of growing up small people.
I overheard a phone conversation that Jeff was having with a relative who'd called to check in.  He gave a quick recap of graduate school and work; he talked about the kids' teachers and their new hobbies; and then, he seemed to falter over what to say about me.  "Anne's doing great," he said.  "She does stuff with youth group kids.  And she is busy with..." he trailed off.  He didn't quite know how to finish the sentence.

At first, I felt a little deflated, and fussed at him about it. "Jeff," I admonished.  "I am doing good work here!  Important stuff!  My work is Pax, and my work is Aidan and Leo.  You know this,"  I reminded him, yet I knew he didn't actually need the reminding.  Jeff has always been as resolute as I have in maintaining a lifestyle that includes an at-home parent.  "Yeah, you're right," he said.  "I just don't know how to describe your work."

Upon reflection, I realized it is hard to find the words that describe the meaning of my work.  How do I explain the meaning in the mundane, if the answer to "what did you do today?" is a list of generic chores and jobs related to keeping house and keeping kids?  How many days has he come home, tired from his own day, and heard my litany of complaints? For there are countless days I've lamented the mess, of the endless to-do, the hours spent chauffeuring, of the exhaustion I feel.  He knows I've felt resentment at times, when my work load is too great and the return is too little.  Dirt is tracked in on clean floors; bathroom sinks are instantly smeared with toothpaste; the milk supply is depleted well before grocery day; kids and parents are impatient, angry, distant. Where is the meaning in THIS? I've wondered.

And yet - there it is.

The work of grocery shopping, the times I've hauled tantruming children out, leaving a cart full of stuff, balanced by the meaning we create: weighing the cabbages; boosting Pax onto my shoulder so he can watch the woman at the deli counter slice our turkey in the huge mandolin; playing "I Spy" to distract from "no treats today;" spending the time waiting to check out with a child snuggling in my arms, a quiet and sacred peace stolen from an ordinary trip.

The house work:  the endless war against dirt and greasy fingerprints and countertops clear of paperwork.  If there is a Sysiphus-like hill to climb, it is cleaning house.  Finding meaning in the way the vacuuming becomes a delightful event for capable preschoolers who are impressed with their own ability; the inevitable game of "gotcha" that ensues whenever the brush attachment makes its way near barefoot toes; the laughter of littles in the bathtub, playing happily and singing songs with me while I scrubbed toilets and disinfected sinks.

The work of the laundry:  8 loads or more per week - muddy, smelly, sweaty, food-covered, stained, soiled laundry.  Balanced by finding meaning in the laundry basket, recently emptied:  a tool that transforms into a pint-sized vessel (a train; a ship; a plane) for rides around the room.

The work of play:  long walks or bike rides around the neighborhood; mornings with friends; afternoons at the park. Books and board games that divide up our chores; apple picking after gymnastics class, picnic lunches and the occasional adventure to someplace undiscovered.

Pandora played in the background as Pax and I started baking pumpkin muffins this afternoon. We listened to a playlist of well-known children's songs that included Laurie Berkner as we stirred the pumpkin together with the eggs, added the carefully-measured flour. The next song came on, another one by Berkner, titled "Five Days Old"
I'm sittin' here I'm one day old
I'm sittin' here I'm two days old
I'm sittin' here I'm three days old

I'm sittin' here I'm four days old.

(Refrain) One day I'll be a year

then I'll be two then three then four
But as for now I'm sittin' here
I'm five days old and no days more.

..then several more verses, each time returning to the refrain.

We sang and clapped in rhythm; we danced a little around the kitchen; I held him and felt the weight of him in my arms.  Just like that day he was one day old.  That day when he was five days old, when he turned one, then two, then three, then four.  Today, when he is five.

We danced some more, and I sang when my voice stopped wobbling.
Through my tears, I held my eyes wide open... I live with the full knowledge that "meaning doesn't lie in the work.  
It lies in what we bring to the work."


Mary said...
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Mary said...