Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Christmas Rhythm

Suzanne Guthrie told me to remember that this week my readers would want to know if I ever got my room cleaned. Well, .................... no. But I did tackle a desk drawer. More about that in a minute.

Our Christmas rhythm alternates between demanding and relaxing. We've been through the demanding part, and the relaxing part started on Friday.

Our guesthouse is open from a couple of days before Christmas until New Year's Day - straight through - no pause, no sabbath day, and a lot of guests. It's great in many ways. We see lots of familiar people, and a good number of people we've never met before. We get people who are looking for an intensive living of the Christmas season, people who are tired and need some place to decompress, even people at loose ends during this season and wanting something to do. So for many years now we've been open during this whole season, and we welcome a hoard of people, and it's very interesting.

It's also demanding on the monks. We are used to a rhythm of 6 days "on" and 1 day "off" (when the guesthouse is closed), and not to have that alternation saps the strength. It is a joy to have people who want to share the season with us, and there's lots of happiness in having people come to be part of our life. It's also quite a lot of work to be "on display" for an extended period of time. This community does not keep itself separated from our guests. During Christmas we provide some programming for them each day, we socialize with them, and. as always, we share our meals with them. It takes energy. You can feel the community wearing down as the stretch of time gets longer. We do have a series of what have come to be known as "rolling days off" when one or two of us will be free for the day, and that helps, but it's not the same as being closed for a day.

Why should it take so much energy? Actually, some time ago I found a way to explain our experience to a friend of mine who was puzzled about why we should regularly feel so tired when all we did was run a guesthouse, and that didn't seem very demanding. So I told him to imagine remodeling his rather large basement so that it had a dozen guest rooms. And I asked him to imagine having someone there all the time - sometimes friends, sometimes people he'd never met before. He'd have plenty of help - there'd be someone to come in and cook, and someone to help with the cleaning, but those rooms would always be used for guests, and there would always be someone occupying them, and there would always be non-family at the table. He quite literally shivered and said: "No thanks". And he hasn't asked about it since. Hospitality is our vocation, and it is a wonderful one and we treasure it. But some down time is also a real necessity.

On my rolling day off, I decided that what I really needed was to do very little and to do that very deliberately. So when I wanted something to do I looked around for a task that really needed to be done and decided on the desk drawer in my room. Over the years it's collected a mighty pile of things, most of which seemed like they needed to be saved at the time, but whose usefulness or interest has long since expired. Lately it's been a struggle to open and close it, much less to find anything in it.

So I had a really wonderful morning, deciding, sorting, throwing away, and saving. No pressure to get it done. There wasn't any "next thing" when I finished that task. That was it. I could put my whole attention on one small job. At the end I washed and wiped the drawer, simplified and cleaned what was on top of the desk and then just sat and enjoyed how much better it looked. It was fun. And it continues to please me to look at it.

And then I took a nap.

So - my room hasn't been cleaned, but maybe I have a whole new way to approach that. Maybe I won't get the time to clean the whole thing, but there's always something that's particularly demanding. I can do small pieces of the task. I have an electronic air purifier, so the amount of dust really is minimal, and I don't have to keep after that all the time. I really can pick out a part of the whole thing, and do what can be done in the time I have. If I'm careful about how I approach it, if I do it deliberately and with attention, I find that I actually enjoy it. It even feels connected to the part of my life that is given to meditation and meditative tasks. And it looks really good when I finish. I think I may end up giving thanks for all the things that have gotten in the way of cleaning my room. I learned something more important.

And now New Year's has come and gone. The guesthouse is closed for two weeks. The whole place has sighed and relaxed. It was easy to feel how much we needed this time and we even proved that to ourselves - On Thursday we kept our Sunday schedule instead of the regular daily one, and as the day went on we realized that all of us were falling into this space where we couldn't tell whether is was Thursday or Sunday. I even called a choir practice that had been scheduled for Sunday and everyone came! (Years ago, when I was considering the monastic life, a monk at St Gregory's Abbey in Three Rivers, Michigan told me that there are only two kinds of days in a monastery - Sundays and not-Sundays). But some relaxation will fix that, and we're on our way!

And I am on my way, too. The next three Sundays I won't be here, so this column will be in abeyance for a while. I'm going to Santa Barbara for a meeting of the Order's Council, at which we are going to do a lot of business, part of which will be reflecting on the process by which the community will decide our future on the West Coast after the fire that destroyed our Santa Barbara monastery. On the way home I'm stopping in Kansas City to see some really good friends. But I'll be back, and as my mother used to say: "It will come soon enough."