The other day I caught Lydia ripping papers out of our filing cabinet. As I sorted through them to put them away, I came across this, written two years ago. If you’re doing the math, that’s before I was ever pregnant. I’m still pondering this question . . .
A professor-friend of mine once told me that she and her husband—also a professor—had a euphemism for doing things that distracted them from their academic work. They called it “canning tomatoes.” “Canning tomatoes” could refer to any activity that kept them from doing their real work, whether it was weeding the flower bed, baking unnecessarily elaborate desserts, picking the dead leaves off the houseplants, whatever. All those things constituted distractions, wastes of time.
Years later, after having a child, she confided in me that she often despaired over the fact that parenting was keeping her from her real work: her writing.
Her cry of despair is not uncommon. This is how we’re taught to understand life: that we’re put on this planet to accomplish certain goals. We’re put here to publish books or solve big problems or discover cures or start important businesses. We’re put here to make an impact on the world. Anything that gets in the way of these tasks takes away from our purpose. Getting distracted with unimportant things like dusting the bookshelves or baking muffins or trimming the hedges is one of the great hurdles to fulfilling our purposes. And we’re always getting distracted.
When I told my professors (different ones from the friends I just mentioned), near the end of my Master’s degree, that I was not going on to do my PhD but instead planned to be a mother, I could sense their disappointment. What a shame, they said with their looks. A bright student like you. You could have been so successful as a scholar. You could have done great things. What a waste of talent, education and potential.
And I can’t blame them. I feel all the time that that’s true. Cleaning my windows and cooking complicated dinners and having lunch dates with my friends are holding me back from my real purpose.
Sure, all of these things are much more satisfying, good for my health, and great for fighting off depression, but they keep me from doing my real work, the important stuff: writing for publication. Advancing my career.
But lately I’m wondering if our real purpose isn’t to “can tomatoes,” so to speak. I’m wondering if we’re not put on this earth to plant gardens and sweep floors and read stories to children. I’m wondering if our careers aren’t getting in the way of our real lives more than the other way around.
Maybe, at the end of our lives when we sit down with God, and we tell him, “I wrote a book that was read by millions, and influenced people’s thinking on the subject for decades;” or “I was a CEO for a large company — I led thousands of people in a very successful enterprise;” or even “I found a cure for cystic fibrosis;” God will kind of look at us and go, “OK.” And then he will look at us more sternly and say, “OK, sure, you did all that. But you hardly made any time for your daughter, often letting the TV do your parenting while you pursued your career. And you took shoddy care of the body I gave you. And you didn’t watch a single sunset that I sent you, and never reveled in the pleasure of a well-baked loaf of bread or a tidily-swept floor. What were you so busy doing that you missed out on all the important stuff?”
He’ll probably say it nicer than that, being God and all, but you get my point. Maybe from God’s point of view, we’re missing the point of life entirely.
Lately I’m wondering if the real living isn’t in the long phone calls with your brother, the birthday parties, the made-from-scratch breakfasts, the moments spent staring out the window, watching the squirrel on the roof of your shed. I’m wondering if all the projects and career goals are the distractions.
I could sense that my professors thought that it would be a waste of my highly-trained, analytical, linguistically-adept brain to spend my time breastfeeding babies and hand-grinding wheat for homemade bread. But lately, I wonder if it’s the other way around. Maybe, by going on to be a full-time scholar, I’d be wasting my nurturing, feminine soul, my God-given compassion and healthy young uterus, writing useless academic papers that would only encourage other perfectly good bodies to write more academic papers. Don’t my fertile body and sensitive nature run the risk being tragically wasted, too?
Since leaving university just over a year ago, I feel as though I have discovered life. I have discovered that I have a body. I mow lawns and make blueberry pies and practice yoga instead of writing essays. And it feels real for once, and meaningful.
I’m wondering if I’m only now getting to the important stuff.
What do you think?
Photo courtesy of devlyn.