I must do it today. I must baby-proof my whole condo for the visit next month of my 2-year-old twin grandsons. Some people who love me very much accuse me of unnecessary busy-ness. Others laugh at my insistence on getting that rusty bobby pin out of the middle drawer. I nod, “ya, ya,” and forge ahead into full-blast cleaning.
Last summer was different. Walker and Taylor only crawled. I vacuumed floors and swept pizza crumbs from under the stove. This year they walk, run, climb, open doors.
Around noonish, between relocating the Ibuprofen to a top shelf and rubbing out cough medicine spills from the bottom one, I write this email to our daughter Alisa, the boys’ mother:
Childproofing; what a job! I must get the Tide off the laundry room floor level, which means moving the rags out of their upper closet to that lower one, sanitary-wiping everything, folding the rags (of course) and changing the spacing of the shelves above so they can now fit the tall bleach bottle which has to be repositioned there. I’ll toss outdated stuff and see what survives the house-cleanse. Next I’ll grab the Windex from under the kitchen sink (do I need to shift S.O.S. pads?). Then I’ll decide what WOULD be OK to put there. Ah — water bottles and metal coffee mugs! Safe for the kids. That leads to needing to dust the shelves above for the silver polish. And then the bathrooms. (Can I trash the aerosol deodorant no doubt stolen from some locker room in the 1980s?).
Now we have toilet paper, paper towels, and Tupperware within reach of the twins. Razor blades and electric shavers? They will never see them.
I have too much time on my hands, you say? I’m sure there is more to do – oh, the plants!
Alisa responds, “Mother! You’re making yourself crazy.”
I reply: “Good point! If I pay attention, this making myself crazy will show me its meaning. When I whip myself to frothing like this, a lesson always presents itself. Stay tuned.”
In my breathlessness, I can’t see what I’m supposed to learn. I only feel the cyclone in my mind, thoughts ricocheting from one task to the next. What should I do about the ants on the front steps? Oh, and the cobwebs in the garage?
No, I don’t know what’s going on in me. I do feel the charge behind my charging around. A force propels me like the one that drove me years ago as I started to mow my lawn at 2 o’clock, fully expecting to have it mowed, trimmed and edged by 3 o’clock when Alisa, then a fifth-grader, returned from school. It’s past 3 o’clock here today. I’m not done, haven’t met my goals. But my arthritic hip aches and the finger I nicked last night that bled for hours now throbs. So I sit.
What purpose does this frenzy serve? What messages arise when I stop and listen?
In pausing, I hear the still small voice within, and the belief powering the clear-out chaos reveals itself: If I just get this house tidy enough, if I eliminate every obstacle to their safety, no harm will ever come to those twins. If I scrub fast enough, I can outrun childhood illness and accidents. Now the heart-wrenching truth speaks to me: No matter how much Purell I use, I may not be able to keep Taylor from pneumonia, from another hospital stay. No matter how securely I install baby gates, I may not be able to prevent Walker from tripping again and chipping yet another tooth.
Tears flood my eyes as I allow myself to sink into my human limitations, to feel my grandsons’ human vulnerabilities. I feel the helplessness that Rabbi Harold Kushner describes: Bad things can happen to good people and random events occur in what we wish could be a more ordered and orderly universe.
“Ya, ya,” I say to this insight, but feel compelled to finish. At dusk, I rinse my dust cloths, hide the last of the scissors above the cabinets and collapse the step ladder. “What is left to do?” I ask myself.
The answer is that what is left is not a doing. The answer is in being. The answer comes as questions. How can I be with the messiness of this life? How can I be, as Buddhists suggest, without anxiety about imperfection? Can I leave that tiny bit of dirt in the corner, love the twins when they come and let boys be boys?
As I start to slice broccoli for dinner, I remember Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.
As emotional housekeeping, I repeat it. I get it: What happens is not all up to me. Now I can rest. Now I can breathe.
Susan Lebel Young is a retired psychotherapist, teaches mindfulness, yoga and meditation and is the author of “Lessons from a Golfer: A Daughter’s Story of Opening the Heart.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.