Holiness is at the end of a broom
A Psalm for Sweeping
I lift up my eyes from the floor.
From whence cometh my help?
My help comes from a broom,
A gatherer of crumbs and dirt.
My right hand wields it;
I smite the ants, and they scatter.
Behold, she who swings the broom will never rest
Until all the crumbs are gone.
Why do you dirty the floor,
O ye who eat at this table?
Do I not despise sweeping
And growl at those who cause me to toil?
Save me, Lord, from bits of egg
And crackers that cling to my bristles.
See if there be any other way to clean the floor
And lead me to a place of rest.
I swept the floor eight times yesterday.
Each time seemed like it could have been the first sweeping in a week. Surely the amount of dirt, crumbs, and unidentifiable food particles I brushed into the dustpan could not have accumulated in an hour or two! I thought of my friend who loves to sweep…she says it is such a productive chore, that it makes her feel good to see how much dirt she has cleaned off the floor. I tried, as I often do, to reframe it in her terms.
It didn’t work this time.
I remember when The Boy, now four, was at the stage of babyhood where he was starting to eat all kinds of table food, chunks of it, not strained or pureed any longer…which meant he was starting to feed himself with his newly developed pincer grasp. He dropped a lot of food. Then he realized it was fun to drop the food on purpose and watch it hit the floor.
My twin daughters have entered this stage. They love bananas, avocados, plums, peaches, watermelon, cooked carrots, baked potatoes, eggs, ground beef, chicken, toast, bagels, cheese, pasta. Really, they just love food. Even more than food, they love to feed themselves. Their joy at having their own food on their own trays at their own hands can only be magnified by their ability to toss the food onto the floor and laugh about it.
“More, more, more,” Lucy signs gleefully, bouncing up and down. Nora just smacks the tray with both hands, sometimes grunting or adding, “MA!”
After every meal or snack, I carefully clean both babies, wiping faces and hands and necks and leg rolls. Then I clean both bibs, emptying the pockets that are supposed to catch the crumbs. Then I clean both high chairs. Then I clean both trays, scrubbing them thoroughly. Then, I start on the floor.
Preschool-aged boys are not known for being neat eaters, either. Between babies’ crumbs and The Boy’s crumbs, I have much sweeping to do.
Then, there’s the ant problem.
Representatives from two separate ant colonies keep entering the kitchen around the back door. One group are tiny and black, and their path runs toward the pantry. The other tribe of ants are tinier and also black. Their path goes along the baseboard by the refrigerator and behind the dishwasher. Sometimes they even get inside the dishwasher. We are engaged in an all-out war. Just when I think they are finally gone, they reemerge. They move quickly. They can take a crumb from under the table to the wall beside the fridge in mere seconds, which would be admirable if it wasn’t so annoying.
Because of the ants, I have to sweep a lot. Any time I’m tempted to leave the crumbs until after the next meal, I remember that we will be overtaken by an army of six-legged itty bitty food traffickers if I don’t sweep…and I get out the broom again.
This morning, I was really feeling resentful. Eight times yesterday? What does it matter? Come daybreak, I have to start all over again. It is a never-ending cycle of feeding and sweeping. Breakfast, clean highchairs, sweep. Snack, clean highchairs, sweep. Lunch, clean highchairs, sweep. Snack, clean highchairs, sweep. Dinner, clean highchairs, sweep…then begin again the next day. If we use the table for play dough or baking or anything else, there is another sweeping or two. Between sweeping and nursing, I might as well forget everything else.
Why do I hate to sweep?
I’m not sure.
The wood floor in my kitchen is pleasant to look at. The broom works well and is a happy yellow color. I’m creating order, which is something I enjoy. So why have I decided to dislike this task?
Brother Lawrence, a 17th-century Discalced Carmelite monk, writes about being attentive to the tasks we are doing and doing them for the love of God. Often, though, while I’m sweeping (or doing almost anything, really), I’m thinking of something else. (What are we having for lunch? Why can’t I hear The Boy in the next room? Why in the world did God bother to create ants? What in the world is that glob stuck to the highchair? Oh, look, there’s some on my shirt, too…)
Similarly, my Benedictine friends have adopted the phrase “Ora et Labora” (“work and prayer”) as part of their monastic tradition. There is a lot of work to be done around a monastery. If the monks approach their work as prayer, then opportunities abound to commune with the Divine while performing daily tasks.
While my life isn’t at all monastic in many ways, I do have plenty of chances in a day to perform potentially mindless tasks. If I approached sweeping as prayer, would I despise it less?
And so, I’m forced to admit that God (who can speak through Brother Lawrence and St. Benedict and my sweep-happy friend) might be giving me an opportunity, here, with all this sweeping…an opportunity for prayer, or for attentiveness, or for gratitude, or a combination of all of these. What if I approached this task in a spirit of gratitude? Would I experience it differently? Even though the act of sweeping is the same, if I can shift how I experience the sweeping, maybe it would benefit me instead of causing me to suffer. And if I can shift my attitude about sweeping (which I have plenty of chances to practice), what about unloading the dishwasher? Folding laundry? Changing diapers?
I could start a revolution!
Practicing gratitude is part of what I’m about these days. Gratitude while sweeping is as good a place to start as any, I guess. Practice is practice, whether big or small tasks…so I’m going to try taking up my broom (my cross?) and sweeping with a thankful heart.
And if all else fails, I can always do as good Catholics do and offer up my suffering, I suppose.
What’s your least favorite chore? Want to join me in practicing gratitude while you clean your bathroom, or wash your car, or whatever?
Copyright 2013 Abbey Dupuy