Despite my positive past experiences with changing my behavior for Lent, this year I didn’t give up anything for those six weeks. Frankly, I kind of felt like I couldn’t handle any more self-discipline, since my schedule was so packed with work, meetings, household errands and projects, and trying to be some kind of a mother to my six-year-old son. As a member of my church’s vestry (administrative council) while our overstressed pastor is on a four-month leave and both the congregation and the pastor are discerning how we can work together more effectively in the future, I attended two hours of meetings per week on average and spent many hours analyzing data we collected at a parish forum. In a way, that was a Lenten discipline! Why not cut myself some slack this year?
But then, the week before Lent began, I wrote a grouchy article about why I should never have started a “To Be Filed” pile, and just a few days later our priest-in-residence asked if anyone could loan him an end table for his temporary home. Well, there was an end table in my pile! Part of the reason I’d managed to keep this pile around for almost seven years was that we didn’t really need this table (which had been cast off by relatives) and therefore didn’t mind having it covered in papers. On the other hand, it didn’t exactly fit where it was, partially blocking a bookcase and making access to the electrical outlet awkward.
I took out the table and set the papers on the floor . . . and suddenly the pile was smaller! Well, smaller-looking, anyway. Much less daunting.
At that point I began taking seriously the advice that my darling Daniel had been giving me, intermittently, for the entire seven years: “Just file one thing every day, and pretty soon you’ll be done!” I’d always blown off this idea because Daniel is a procrastinator-type person who tends to have a lot of trouble completing projects, so what does he know about how to get things done?
Well, um, maybe when a person who is not normally a procrastinator finds herself unable to cope with a project that she knows needs to be done, maybe she should listen to advice about how even a procrastinator can make that specific type of problem manageable! A sudden flash of humility led me to decide to try his strategy during Lent. Dealing with 40 papers would be progress, anyway.
Then I started thinking about another similar problem: my junk mail. I donate to some charities, and despite my best efforts to minimize the mail they send me and avoid getting onto the mailing lists of other charities I’m not going to support, still I get lots of mail. Daniel kindly sorts the mail, putting my bills and such into my inbox and my junk mail into another bin, but at some point I have to go through that junk mail and separate the reusable stuff from the recyclable paper from the donation slips and envelopes I’m actually going to use. At times I’ve had a serious backlog (when we came back from a two-week vacation in 2007, I actually hid the accumulated junk mail under the bed and denied its existence for over a year) but in early March, it was only a three-inch-high stack. So I decided to deal with one piece of junk mail per day, too.
This really felt like the right thing to do, even though it was adding to my daily tasks (why couldn’t I give up laundry or grocery-shopping for Lent?) and I knew, from my 2010 new year’s resolution to write “stretch” on my daily to-do list, that I actually can make myself do a thing almost every day if I simply start expecting to do it daily (and it only takes a few minutes and it is at least slightly rewarding).
Then I read about the idea of giving away 40 bags of unneeded stuff in 40 days, thought about my cluttered house, and decided: filling a bag every day might be too challenging, but I could give away 40 things during Lent.
Right. So I went from thinking I was too busy for Lenten discipline to vowing to add three tasks to my daily life. Terrible plan, huh?
But wait! I wasn’t really thinking about it, because it had started a month earlier, but in a way I had given up a household chore: We got a dishwasher in late January, freeing about three hours a week of my time. Although I was very happily aware that I was no longer staying up ridiculously late to get the dishes done, I wasn’t really feeling the extra time because I was so busy. But I think it’s this time gain that enabled me to get through this season of extreme vestry work (plus everything else) without getting sick or crazy.
Anyway, here’s how it worked out: I didn’t do all three things every single day during Lent, but I did at least one of the things almost every day, I did all of them every day for the first two weeks, and I made a lot more progress than I would have if I hadn’t tried! My junk mail bin was empty at several points. My “To Be Filed” pile is smaller. I gave away some of the clutter that had been bothering me. I even gave away a pair of shoes that I’d intended to sell (because I realized they weren’t going to “break in” but actually didn’t fit, just slightly too late to exchange them, so they were in nearly-new condition and worth about $50) after finding that the prospect of advertising them and connecting with a buyer was so exhausting that I wasn’t getting to it and those shoes were just sitting around uselessly–I took them to Goodwill and didn’t look back.
One strategy that helped a lot was to give myself full credit for every technicality. I’m an exacting sort of person who tends to focus on what I haven’t done, and that’s often meant that I won’t start a job unless I have time to do the entire thing thoroughly, which (especially now that I have a young child distracting me) led to a lot of despair about never having time for anything. Last year, I figured out that if I allow myself to check “clean bathrooms” off my list whenever I have cleaned any part of either bathroom, the average cleanliness level is higher because I’ll do at least some of it every week if I’m “allowed” to clean one toilet on a whim without “having to” scrub out the tub and polish the mirror and do the downstairs bathroom too! So, for Lent, I could check off “file” even if the only things I filed were newly arrived documents that had not been in the “To Be Filed” pile–because my filing them was preventing the pile from growing. I could check off “give away” when I donated money or made food for the homeless shelter, not just when I gave away possessions. That helped a lot. It didn’t lead to my slacking off every day, though–some days I did much more than one thing for each category.
As the paper piles shrunk and the Goodwill pile grew, I felt some relief from my guilt over storing up treasure on earth and my sense of failure and hopelessness. You could say my Lenten fast was fasting from the idea that I can’t get around to dealing with my stuff! I’m very aware that I haven’t finished filing, still have more unused stuff to give away, will have to keep up with the junk mail, and have some other tasks I need to get around to doing. I’ve made progress, though.
Half a fast is better than none! And alongside this half-fast observance of Lent, I’ve been learning so much from my experience with the vestry. It’s a lot of work, yeah, but we’re all doing it together–not one of the ten of us has been a slacker–and we’re all getting along so well! When we had that forum and then I pored over the people’s responses, I was overwhelmed by their wisdom and love and the variety of opinions and skills they bring to us. We all want our church to improve, and we can see it starting to happen and feel the momentum building to move us ahead. I am phenomenally lucky to have this opportunity to use my skills (oh, how I love coding and organizing data!) for the greater glory of God and the improvement of my church home. I’ve had so many moments when I was afraid to voice an idea but did it anyway, and it was okay; nobody attacked me; sometimes they even thought it was a great idea! I started into Lent feeling worried about what would happen to us, all the things that could go wrong, but over the weeks I’ve built up faith in our ability to discern the path toward renewal. We still don’t know exactly where that path will lead, but it’s become easier to take it one step at a time and enjoy the journey.
And once again, while we’ve been working on renewal, God has been renewing our world! Here in Pittsburgh, March was a lion the whole way through, and most of April was chilly and damp, and it was hard to have faith that we’d ever be warm again . . . but spring sprung just in time for Easter! I’m marveling over it all over again, just like I did last year, just like Venantius Fortunatus did more than a thousand years ago when he wrote one of the hymns we sang on Sunday, just like Maurice F. Bell did a hundred years ago when he translated it into these English words:
Daily the loveliness grows,
Adorned with the glory of blossom;
Heaven her gates unbars,
Flinging her increase of light!
Visit Works-for-Me Wednesday to see what marvelous things other people recommend this week! (But if you’re tempted by the hostess’s tip about bottled water in your car, consider a reusable insulated jug filled with Laborade instead. Plastic bottles, even if BPA-free, leach hormone-disrupting chemicals, which are especially harmful to children and expectant mothers.)
P.S. The pun “half-fast” is hardly original. Daniel’s grandparents used to belong to a Half-Fast Hiking Club. 🙂