On Sunday I caught myself folding laundry just a little less hastily than normal. It was surprising to discover in my hands a new sort of patience for the task. With so many months of relentless farm work nearly behind me, this menial job suddenly had become a moment of pleasure. It may seem silly, but the simplicity of the situation made me downright giddy.
For some reason, I then remembered Eisenhower’s Matrix —the classic time management tool that prioritizes tasks based on their importance and urgency. With respect to laundry, I mused, Eisenhower’s Matrix only works so far. Depending on your philosophy, laundry starts in the delegate or decide category. Unfortunately, this isn’t the White House. So the number of assistants I can simply delegate such a task to is a sum total of zero. In the decide category (in which you schedule time to do the task yourself), my classic approach was to mentally throw the laundry in the “Take a number, the line starts way over there” bucket. Neglected, it often languishes until a critical point is reached. Usually that critical point is NCU (no clean underwear). Per Eisenhower, at NCU, the task moves instantaneously to the most critical category: important and urgent.
I’m on a roll, so I might as well air all my dirty laundry. I have never been the one who folds clothes with military precision. My shirts do not hang all in one direction and my socks often co-mingle un-attached in the drawer. None of my towels align precisely at the corners, and my sweaters are rarely stacked evenly on the shelf. At some times of the year laundry that is clean is the only attainable victory. In the peak of the summer season, folding is bypassed; the clothesline acts as my dresser.
Clearly laundry, it turns out, is at the bottom of my “priority” hamper. So last Sunday, when I experienced a moment of enjoyment from the task, and subsequently was mulling over Eisenhower’s techniques, I though more about time and priorities. As I reached for a few more clothes hangers, I began to think how I habitually determine certain tasks to be wasted time. The implication of this value judgment? If I don’t like it, or I consider it a frivolous but necessary inconvenience, I callously rush through it. The rushing is fueled by the belief that I need to be doing more important things, and when I am doing important things, I won’t rush.
I began to take notice of the possibility and power contained in all these little moments of ‘wasted time.’ I saw how often I rushed thru the household tasks because I deemed them less valuable than the big important works of managing a farm. This value judgment seems correct – pigs need fed, thirsty plants need water: both are more important and more urgent than matching up socks, and yet in a flash I recognized the fallacy.
By rushing thru the unimportant tasks, I set a dangerous precedence. I energize a hurried mentality that without consciousness can permeate everything I do. Haste spins up this cycle. Oblivious, I begin rushing through the important tasks too. Totally unaware, I find I am constantly racing headlong toward a future that I perennially deem greater than my immediate experience.
Then, quickly came the realization that I had this choice regardless of the time of year; being present has nothing to do with the pressing nature of the workload. I thought to myself, “You know, even in July, I have to clean my clothes. Spending an extra five minutes on laundry is not going throw a big wrench in any schedule.” In fact, quite the contrary occurs. Taking a mere ten seconds longer to turn a long-sleeved shirt right side out? In a tiny but powerful way, that makes me feel right inside and out.
This mindset goes part and parcel with accepting that the farm (and my life) is a work in progress. It’s utterly defeating to think as I fold clothes, “How many more times will I have to fold these clothes?” By contrast, when I plant tomatoes each year, I never, ever, think to myself, “How many more years will I have to grow tomatoes?” Yet watering, transplanting, weeding, pruning, training, and harvesting tomatoes is infinitely more work than any minuscule time I spend hanging sheets on a line to dry!
If I prioritize little chores as less important and proceed to rush thru them, it sets the pace for everything that follows. For each task, in turns feels less important than the “bigger” things I’d rather be doing. It’s like a habit, which unattended sets me on autopilot. Now, I don’t expect I’ll ever fall in love with folding fitted sheets or matching up pairs of socks. But I think it wise to give each task its due time. If I haven’t practiced some small measure of steadiness with a mundane task, how will I have the competency to stride with a measured pace into the bigger endeavors of life?
On Sunday evening, my young nieces and I went walking in the canyon behind the farm. Patches of the forest path were covered with the classic sign of fall: one section of the trail was hidden by the mossy bright green of alder leaves, another by maple leaves in an impressive rainbow of orange shades. We spotted a little newt and squatted to inspect the vivid colors of its skin – the reddish brown back and carroty colored belly. I broke the spell first, and stood up, then immediately wished I’d let the girls, who were still fascinated by the little creature, continue watching him for as long as they were enthralled. Once again, my rushing habit had programmatically overridden the gift of the immediate experience. But this time, I’d noticed it.
Fortunately, Nature gave me another chance. A little gust of wind blew more maple leaves from the treetops so they came careening down around us. We looked skyward, giggling. It started raining. I laughingly said, “It is a beautiful day for a walk!” Nearly three-year-old Mae chimed in, “It IS a beautiful day for a walk!” Julia, at 5 years old, agreed. She paused, adding thoughtfully, “I hope the leaves do this next year.”
What a powerful, openhearted statement. She was full of gratitude and appreciation for the richness of this one common moment. Yet in her innocence, she was not racing forward to take any of tomorrow’s gifts for granted. I felt determined then, to find a way to live each day without the waste of haste.
From here on out, the leaves of fall will serve as a reminder that each and every day is a beautiful day for laundry. Each and every day is a beautiful day for a walk. Clean clothes to fold, Ike’s power of priorities, and the three of us, there on the forest floor, with the help of a woodland creature: this is the unlikely tribe that taught me about tiny, measured intentions, that taught me how to give up rushing. Surrounding me, I see now a multitude of diminutive minutes that indeed, are one big rehearsal lesson. The pace at which I walk through the little moments informs how gracefully I navigate the big ones.
You know what? I want such grace. So I’ll practice in petite ways. For starters, I’m planning to ask two little girls to go again with me, in search of a newt. ~AJ
“Life is determined by a lack of attention, whether it be to cleaning windows or trying to write a masterpiece. ~ Nadia Boulanger