Bit by Bit, Day by Day, Every Day
Two years ago, in 2006, I confessed in Soulish Food 5-23 “An Undone Life” (and again in Soulish Food 5-24, “More Undoners”) that I was coming to terms with a character flaw, the reality that I became enthused about more projects than I completed. In both essays, I gave long lists of all those things in my life undone.
It is now time to report how I’ve been doing with undoneness. I am actually doing quite well: I keep thinking, This can’t be me, Karen Mains, the undoner, getting all these things done. But it is me (or I, to be perfectly grammatically correct). If this helps some of you fellow or sister undoners, I am glad. I did discover that it took me a whole year and a half longer than I expected to expel the personal demons of neglect, fancification, and ennui. Frankly, I will probably be working at conquering this wretched personal condition to the end of my days.
The Biggest Project of All
The first undertaking was to clean and order my writing study, which had become kind of a catch-all for my household records and responsibilities. First, I vanquished anything to do with household management — gardening notes, receipts for expenditures, warranties and guarantees — to two file drawers and a salvaged formica desktop in the laundry room. What a huge difference it makes to have a line of demarcation between my material life and my writing life.
Then, I savagely cleaned out two narrow bureaus and listed on a small clipboard the contents of each drawer — current writing projects, drawer one; office supplies, drawer two; etc. Now, armed with color-coordinated file folders, dusting cloths and the attachment brush on my Kirby vacuum cleaner, I determinedly tackled the two-drawer files under my east window, organized and sorted four bookcases — sending nonessential books to other rooms or down to the ministry office — pugnaciously put all my writing contracts and financial records into good shape, and discarded any papers that had expired past the recommended record retention dates (seven years). Next, the closet; storage for summer clothes all organized — bags to Goodwill — gardening duds sorted, some boxes with periodicals in which I once published, and a few other archival storage bins, the contents of which I dumped.
I tackled some 36 years of prayer journals, which had been carelessly stacked on shelves, and I labeled them according to years (what a novel idea!), then I carefully tore the pages from their spiral-ring notebooks and combined them chronologically in six huge, 5-inch red ring binders. Paper bits snowed for months over my desk and under my desk chair and tracked on the soles of my shoes into the nearby bedroom, but they never melted. This, of course, took months, because I read as I went, reminding myself of a life richly lived, of the wondrous events in our family history, the many names of friends, not forgotten but certainly neglected, all of whom I have at one time loved and prayed for over the days. The story of the pain and sorrow and immaturity and growth and hard-won wisdom of almost four decades are also on these pages. But most of all, most of all, I’ve been overwhelmed with the record of a God to whom I am sure my bumbling, stumbling, pratfall humanity has given a thousand laughs (who probably wanted to say to me again and again, time after time, Oh, Mains. Lighten up!)
Finally, the oversize armoire I bought on clearance at a Sears discount store two decades ago, which somehow we hauled upstairs. It will probably stay with the house; I can’t imagine any of us, particularly as the decrepitude of old age creeps in, maneuvering it back down the stairs. Here are my most important archives — the family file box, the archives of my best writing, the books I’ve collected to research the novel I am stuck in, and the box that contains the pages of that work-in-progress. I tore everything out, tossed away half of what was there and no longer needed, bought storage bins and plastic file cases, put everything back in order along with the six huge, 5-inch red ring binders that contain the prayer story of my life, everything properly labeled, everything necessary, nothing saved for which I have no use.
What a relief!
Now this room has become my sanctuary. I no longer go into sneezing fits because of dust layering the surfaces of my writing study. I watch the cardinal (immature) dip its beak into the water in the birdbath, then gracefully arch its neck upward to drink. Yesterday, the flicker, the doves (a couple), the nuthatch, a migrating scarlet tanager, little yellow-breasted finches, a downy woodpecker, and a blue jay (its species recovering from the fatal assault of West Nile Virus three summers back), all visited the feeders and hopped flight-wise through the treetops.
And I sat at peace in a room in perfect order, content to do the work which I am now settled enough to do because my material place is in harmony. I bought three lovely arching orchid plants at Wal-Mart. They thrive because of the south and west exposures. My house is dark due to the trees that surround our home, but my writing study is filled with light. Last night the western sky was streaked with a pink, orange and grey sunset. What an exquisite place to create! I am writing-ready.
I will not bore you with the grim progress that has been accomplished in the yard—perhaps that report will be suitable at the end of the summer. But let me tell you about some principles I’ve discovered that are helping me vanquish the dreadful state of living an undone life, of conquering this character disorder.
First, one has to be physically strong to cope with the demands of living in a material world. Four years ago, I began to seriously develop a discipline of physical exercise. This spring the results of that labor (which I have mostly hated) are beginning to pay off. I am amazed at what it means to have strength. Stamina was always an attribute the Mains family held in great supply (not Karen Burton, who joined the Mains clan). But this spring, I have had physical endurance. What a surprise—so this is what it means to be strong. I have the energy to do those things I once only thought about. I feel better at 65 then I did at 25, 35, 45 and 55!
Second, undertaking monstrous tasks requires divine cooperation. It’s one thing to get a neglected writing study clean — that’s hard enough. It’s another thing to correct a basic character disorder. Everyday, I’ve begun my prayer journals with the heading: Help me to joyfully enter into co-collaboration with You to co-create an absolutely delightful day. Instead of making my own plans, I pause and check to see if it is the scheme my Divine Co-laborer had in mind for the day. Believe me, this works! When I need (or want) something and don’t have the money, I see if the Infinitely Creative He has any bright ideas. He frequently does.
Thirdly, live with what is, not with a plan that may never be. My personality type is future-oriented. This is good in some ways, when I am designing a program (like Hungry Souls) to be able to see down the future days and conceive of what it might become. However, much of my life is put on hold, because I can foresee a future scheme. Why clean my study now when I might expand the master bedroom, lift the ceiling, and create a writing wing downstairs with walk-in closets and a glamorous bath upstairs. Believe me, the power of fantasizing is remarkable at helping us to betray what is and to betray the meaning of our own living in this now. The battle for me has been to ask myself the question: What is reality at THIS moment? What do you need to do TODAY? Forget what might be. DEAL WITH WHAT IS.
The last and mighty lesson is one I have finally learned after living for 46 year with David Mains, who is its absolute Master.
Do little bits of a huge task day by day — every day! This means that I have finally learned not to allow a mammoth mountain of undoners to overwhelm me so that I do nothing, fainting before what seems to be impossibility. No. No. No. If the writing study is so messy it’s almost unusable, clean one drawer, the top right hand drawer in the narrow bureau. Do that task today. Then, tomorrow clean the second right hand drawer. Then the next day, perhaps you will feel up to drawers three, four, five and six.
Clean one shelf of the spiritual literature bookcase. Wipe clean the bindings and remove all the books so you can dust the whole shelf. Do the top of the bookcase where all your published books are stored. Lay some on their sides. Pile duplicates in flat baskets. Wipe the frame of the icon of Christ that also sits on that shelf to remind you whose work it is you are really doing.
And so bit by bit, day by day, prayerfully every day, we conquer, we overcome, we face down our worst enemy — ourselves. Got any enemy you’re facing?
“In the measure in which I myself live in and with the Risen Lord, I too may co-create with Him such Spirit-transformed life situations. My life may become an inner worldly, contemporary language of God’s love and presence to human.”
Dynamics of Spiritual Direction.
Stratford Shakespeare Festival
July 7 - 12, 2008.
There is still room for about ten more people. For details, go to www.Hungry-Souls.com and click on the "Ontario" button.
Microenterprise Trip Opportunity
If you are interested in studying the effects of microenterprise ventures in Kenya, we are putting together a small group (16) in conjunction with Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology to journey to Nairobi next year, March 25 to April 6, 2009. The itinerary and the pricing are still being negotiated. Contact Karen Mains ( ) or by phone at 630-293-4500 and we will get back to you when this information is finalized.
Due to the fact that I need to be writing about Listening Groups and need to be bringing the Hungry Souls Web site up to mentoring speed, there will be no Chicago Hungry Souls' programs until the Advent Retreat of Silence December 3-4, 2008.
The Soulish Food e-mails are being posted biweekly on the Hungry Souls Web site. Newcomers can look that over and decide if they want to register on the Web site to receive the newsletter. You might want to recommend this to friends also. They can go to www.HungrySouls.org.
"Let me tell you about some principles I’ve discovered that are helping me vanquish the dreadful state of living an undone life..."
Will in the World:
2008 Pilgrimage to France
God Through the
Eyes of the Artist and the Artist In the Eye of God