Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Joy In the Doing

"The peace that comes with surrendered action 
turns into a sense of aliveness 
when you actually enjoy 
what you are doing." 

Eckhart Tolle 

I have never enjoyed peeling potatoes, really. I think part of the issue for me, is the timing. If you're making mashed potatoes, it's usually just about the last thing you do when preparing a big meal. The roast is done, the chicken has been fried, the ham is cut... Until later in my life, when I stumbled upon the glorious invention of "make ahead mashed potatoes", this task had always required quick peeling, fast mashing and a well-timed table delivery. Because of this, I had earned the title of "fastest peeler in the house". Which inevitably secured my position as chief potato peeler for all time...and eternity...times infinity...and beyond. Lucky me.

And then I got sick. Lot's of things have changed since my becoming ill. And almost all of them have been for the better.

Four generations.
My great-grandmother was a quiet women, at least when I knew her. The picture to the left was taken about twenty-seven years ago. It's a four generation picture of myself, my mother, her mother and my great-grandmother, Hazel Stanley. I wish I had more memories of my great-grandmother. However, out of the few that I have, one that has remained in my mind over time is that of her peeling potatoes. As you can see in the photo to the left, she was a tiny woman. When she would peel potatoes she would sit at the kitchen table, barely tall enough to rest her elbows on the wood. Knife in hand, newspaper below and a bowl by her side, she slowly peeled each potato with a patience and grace that only today do I understand. Unlike the harried, knuckle shaving manner in which I peeled potatoes, she sat peacefully with an open invitation for conversation.

They say that as we get older, we begin to un-clutter our minds. It is part of our Returning in the great circle of life. The gift that this gives us is space. And when we create space in our minds, we find beauty and joy in the simple things. If we are lucky, we figure this out before we grow old. From what I hear of my great-grandmother, she was one of the lucky ones.

I now sit when I peel potatoes. Fatigue and weakness demand it of me. There is no fighting it, no pressing on, no motherly martyrdom, no rush to the finish line. And just as old ages gifts us with a holy un-cluttering, so does illness. I suppose I could fight it. I'm not really sure for how long. But instead, I have chosen to surrender. The kind of surrender that comes from accepting what this moment requires of me...and doing so willingly. And performing any task in a state of acceptance means you are at peace while you do it.

This past weekend I needed to peel some potatoes for a salad we were bringing to a family dinner. I didn't wait until the last minute to do so, because I know better. If I can't finish the job, I need time to ask for help. So I started early in the day, with a certain mindfulness. In a way, I tried to feel what it was like to be my great-grandmother. I thought about her actions, the shape of her hands, the soft smile on her face. I peeled slowly, looking at my own hands. Feeling the dirt left behind on the skin, smelling the earth - connecting it all in my mind. Circles upon circles, connected as one.

And the next thing I knew... I was no longer peeling potatoes. At least not continuously. 

 I had a lovely conversation with Maggie.

I realized that while I was sitting there, life was happening. Waiting for me to participate. Like the watchful eye of Jake, wondering when I'll notice. Pleased at my acknowledging.

I did finish peeling the potatoes - eventually. To be honest, I completely lost track of time. It's funny, I've always looked at the whole ordeal as a sort of "means to an end". I didn't enjoy the peeling...but I sure did enjoy the potato salad! Isn't that how we spend much of our life? Doing this to get that. Waiting for the meaningful. I'll be happy when... I'll rest when... I'll have a good time when... Tomorrow I'll...When you make what you are doing in this moment the focal point of your life, your ability to take pleasure in what you do - and the quality of your life - increases greatly. You don't have to wait for some other time, for something meaningful to happen to start living - Joy is yours now. And the next thing you know - irritating, stressful, boring tasks become enjoyable.

Eckhart Tolle says that, "when awakened consciousness takes over, you may find that an activity that you have been engaged in for a long time naturally begins to expand into something much bigger when it becomes empowered by consciousness." Well, he's right...

As I held my camera that afternoon, I was slowly drawn outside by the moment. Life indeed, was happening all around me.

...filling my rock garden

...bursting in pots

...creeping along beds

...breaking through soil

...sleeping under my deck.

I'm not suggesting that potato peeling should always include an afternoon photo shoot. Most days we just need to get the job done! I think what I'm trying to say is that by un-cluttering our minds, creating space in our thoughts and finding joy in what we do, we not only enrich our lives, but we have the capacity to enrich the lives of those around us. We become instruments of peace. The 14th century Persian poet Hafiz states most eloquently when he writes, "I am the hole in a flute that the Christ's breath moves through. Listen to the music."

I wonder if my great-grandmother new she was enriching my life when she sat quietly in the kitchen peeling her potatoes. Like the seeds that fall in my wildflower garden every autumn, carried gently on the breeze - you never really know when life takes hold. But I am very sure of this -

What is miraculous is what comes through us into this world.



Anonymous said...

There are very few blogs that I read, Theresa - yours being one of those few. As the Creator and Administrator of a number of Facebook Groups (e.g., Lupus w/33,000+ members; Sjogrens; Autoimmune Diseases; among six others), I enjoy your well-versed, thought provoking, every day subject matter in story form. It encourages me - one with Systemic Lupus & Sjogrens (among a host of other health challenges) to enjoy the simple things that life offers - to be at peace with where I am now - a much different place than my professional life of a few short years ago and to recognize the blessings of my present life in spite of my restrictions. I will continue to follow your writings with anticipation AND share with my groups your blog, so others can glean, gain, and grow from the wisdom you're acquiring on this journey called Life with Lupus. Trish Caldwell-Landsittel

Theresa said...

Trish, thank you.
Thank you for your support, as well as all you do with the support groups on Facebook. My very first connection with any lupus community was made on your Lupus Group. For months, I sat glued to my screen, searching for answers, comfort, and validation. The role it played in my movement towards understanding and acceptance was invaluable. And now, I find myself playing that very role in the lives of others. Isn't that what this journey is all about? Life is indeed miraculous!! Thank you again, and Peace to you always.

Anonymous said...

It's me again...
My challenges are not due to a chronic health condition, and yet, the wisdom you share illuminates my challenges too. There are many things overwhelming me these days. Right this moment, I am slowing down, and looking for the parts of this moment in time that I can truly enjoy. Thanks, my dear.

Theresa said...

Hello Jeana,
Knowing when we are overwhelmed and what we need to do about it is the hardest part. If I have learned self care from anyone in my life, dear friend, it has been you.
You are so beautiful.