The last time my in-laws came to visit, I made a new discovery: I don’t finish tasks.
Now, having a German mother-in-law teaches a woman many things about her housekeeping skills and standards, not the least of which is when to raise them and when to laugh and know you’re a different person with different priorities. The fact that they have come to visit us for 1-4 weeks every year since I can remember has been very good for teaching me what I wasn’t doing and what I might do. It often raised me up out of the survival mode of motherhood in those early years into a mode where the house thrived. Eventually I realized that if those standards were good enough for guests, well, who were we? Chopped liver? No, we also deserved a certain baseline of household harmony. (A certain baseline. Mine, not Anni’s.)
This last visit I realized that I would leave things mostly done. I realized it because I often felt like a child caught in the act of some small transgression. I hate that feeling. I don’t like feeling small and rather disappointing. (It’s important to note that this is the way I felt, not the way she made me feel.) What would happen is this: I would get the bulk of some task done and wander away ‘for a break’. And it was when I was on the break, dishes done but counter unwiped for instance, that she would walk by and I’d feel embarrassed.
Discomfort is a wonderful thing. Really. It’s a sign that something needs to change. You’ve got to take the pebble out of your shoe. Or switch to a better fabric softener. Or get off your butt and stop watching so much television before sections of you go numb. The internal poking and pinching that is mental discomfort is a signal that part of you knows better.
Here’s the thing: when I complete a task first – even if I am weary, even if I have to push, even if I am feeling like a martyr – when I am done, the break feels real. Like time earned rather than stolen. And let’s be frank – life is busy, with hundreds of demands and more than enough hobbies, and I often don’t get back to finish.
Lately, I’ve been missing Anni’s presence because without that external check, I’ve fallen into my old ways. I’ve been longing for the way I perceive time when I complete tasks rather than leaving things dangling and telling myself it’s multi-tasking. When I finish something, time seems mine. When I’m leaving things incomplete so that I can start the next thing – making breakfast but not tidying it away before starting homeschooling for instance – I feel like I’m the tool of the To Do List. I feel mastered rather than the master. In other words, somehow this notion of finishing tasks implies a luxury – the luxury of enough time.
It’s been coming on slowly, but yesterday and today are the dawning of the realization, the yellow-white light cresting the horizon.
Don’t put things down, put them away.
If it’s worth starting, make every effort to finish it.
Don’t scramble. Breathe.
Pay attention to the task at hand. It has its own elegance.
Tend and nourish.