I am addicted to making lists. I was a scatterbrain growing up – forgetting to do things, to make submissions in school in time, and all the rest. One of my earliest memories is of a little strip of paper my dad would keep on top of a cabinet where he would jot his to-do list down and strike them off as each task was done.
Maybe I picked it up from him. Often, I would make lists on a post-it note while at work and then bring it back home in the evening and go down the list doing the chores. Sometimes I’d use a bigger piece of paper, a notepad, to make a list for multiple days. Sometime ago I graduated to the Notes app on my smartphone and have recently started using the Reminder app. Now, I can make to-do lists anywhere : in the grocery store, while riding an elevator or while waiting in line for my bus to arrive.
While to-do lists are great, they can be overwhelming too. I am a big procrastinator. Sometimes when I wake up on a Saturday morning and see that my to-do list includes doing laundry, writing bills, cleaning my office room, getting my car serviced, buying grocery, blowing leaves in my backyard, running to the post office to ship parcels and cooking I’ll often mumble to myself, “none of this is urgent, all of this can wait till next weekend,” and roll over into bed again.
But, next weekend is no different from this one, and while my list will undoubtedly grow in size by then, elves will not magically appear at my door to take care of things for me.
In one of its definitions Merriam Webster defines ‘chore’ as ‘a dull, unpleasant, or difficult job or experience.’ Little wonder I tend to procrastinate on getting to the ‘dull’ and ‘unpleasant’ stuff.
A few weeks ago I visited a friend who lives in Northern Jersey. She has recently added a bedroom on the second floor in her house above the garage and while the addition was complete the inside still needed some touch-ups before she could transfer her furniture and move in. There were spots on the walls that needed to be fixed, the trim, the doors and the windows needed to be painted. Being a single lady she did not have much help so she requested me to help her with painting the doors while she worked on other parts of the wall.
In truth, I’m not particularly fond of painting doors. I view the task as a chore. I have painted doors in the past but try to avoid doing it as much as possible. I have a door in my house that needs a second coat to match the finish on the trim and I’ve been ignoring it for the last couple of years. However, her eagerness to be able to move into the new bedroom was so obvious that I agreed to help her.
She handed me the roller, the paint, the mixing tray and a liner and I started work. It was white paint and I was using a foam roller which made it easier to paint into the ridges and valleys on the door without a brush. I finished the first coat, worked on the trim while letting it dry and then went back for the second coat. Painting a door white can be tricky, you want the grains to show but you also want the finish to be uniform. You use the roller on the flat part and the ends of the foam to go into the crevices, making sure there isn’t excess paint.
As I worked, it was fun to see the old color disappear and the new shine take its place. It was a challenge to achieve uniform texture throughout. After working on several doors and windows I found that not only a great deal of time has passed but I was also enjoying the work.
That came as a bit of a surprise. I wasn’t yearning for breaks. I wasn’t looking forward to getting the job done, I was actually enjoying the process of performing the chore. I was involved in the tiny details, my whole attention focused on the paint droplets that needed to be smoothed out, on the excess paint on the roller, on the areas that weren’t dry enough to paint over yet. I was fully inside that room, by the door, not thinking about work, not thinking about my next overseas trip or the upcoming dinner invitation.
I was then and there. I was giving my full and undivided attention to the task that needed to be performed. Not glossing over the little stuff but enjoying the little challenges. The mundane and boring had suddenly become challenging and exciting.
I was experiencing every moment of my immersion. I had no other goals at that moment but the successful completion of this ordinary task at hand. This is very contrary to my nature. I get bored with mundane stuff easily and thrive in the excitement of big challenges. I have chosen a profession that is fast-paced, high strung and packed with adrenaline. I thrive in such environments. I love extreme sports, I skydive, zipline and fly sports planes.
And yet on that day, the very ordinary task of painting doors provided me with as much fun as anything else I’ve ever done. What was different? Why hadn’t this ever happen before? Why was I constantly seeking fun when it was present in each moment already?
It happened because I was there, at that place and time, and I had allowed my full attention into the task. I was experiencing the immediate reality around me, permitting myself not to drift away. Like a cheetah on the African Savannah, her ears picking up the slightest sound, her nostrils the faintest scent, her skin fully aware of the wind blowing against it, her eyes intent on the slightest perturbation in the grass. A being that is fully present in its immediate reality, not thinking, not ruminating, not reminiscing. Just being.
There are two ways to look at life : as a series of hops between destinations that need to be arrived at. Mega destinations like getting into a good college, landing a fabulous job, getting married, buying a house… Or smaller destinations like getting a pay raise, the next vacation, the weekend dinner party… With this approach life becomes a steam of boring and mundane days punctuated by some fulfilling ones.
The other way is to look at life as a journey. Where the journey between the stops is as important, or even more, as the destination itself. Where each moment is an opportunity, an offering to us, to be relished, lived and above all experienced, with every last drop of juice extracted from it.
Then, magically, every moment becomes a moment of joy. Anonymous chores become memorable experiences. When we are fully immersed in the reality around us we cease to seek a greater reality. We marvel at how beautiful and how exciting every moment and every little thing is. Life becomes a steam of never ending joy, sourced by the fountain of wealth that is around us and our capacity not to ignore, but to experience every iota of it.
But, we have to be here, and now. Physically as well as mentally.
So, when I go back home today I will run down my to-do list and do as many task as time will permit. Not as chores, but as events to be experienced. I will look at the creases as I fold the laundry, smoothing out the fabric while feeling its texture. I will observe the spots while scrubbing my pans, feel the warm water between my fingers, enjoy the warmth, look at the beauty of the bubbles forming on the surface.
Today. Not tomorrow, not the day after. Today is the day.