What to Do with Too Much to Do

What do you do with too much to do? 

I remember carrying that question around in my head for quite a while before, one day, a classmate of mine asked our professor how to find her own voice in the writing assignments we did for class. By way of an answer, the professor asked another question:

“What do you enjoy reading?” After a pause, the professor continued: “Find the voices you love, spend time with them, and they can tell you a lot about what your own voice might become.”

I hadn’t been wondering how to find my voice. All the same, the professor’s response (another question) seemed to speak to my own unasked question of what to do with all that I had to do. The names of plenty of people popped into my head: writers I’d enjoyed over the years as well as people or things that I’d found energizing. I knew I didn’t feel that way about our classes. Interesting as I’d found it to work with our class topics and readings, the efforts of school drained me. No wonder going back to school while working full time had left me feeling weary. It meant less time with what I loved.

Bodhisattva the cat
(Image by Callie J.Smith)

I think a friend must have heard the weariness in my voice. Leading up to the Christmas holiday, she sent a care package in the mail. I opened the package and stared inside, stunned. She’d sent things that only someone who’d known me as a child would have thought to send: pastels, pastel pencils, colored pencils, watercolor pencils, charcoal pencils, sketching and drawing pencils. I spread it all out on the kitchen table, where I sat with a little black cat named Bodhisattva (or “Bo”) on my lap. I hadn’t thought about drawing in years. Really, I didn’t have time to start thinking about it then, either, but I took time. I pulled some sketch pencils over beside me and started filling a sheet of paper.

What do you do with too much to do? 

What if we asked, instead: what do you do that you enjoy doing? What suggestions do those things seem to offer?

I remember the year I discovered pastels in elementary school. Mrs. T arrived as the new art teacher, and I fell in love with the broken pastel sticks that she kept in shoe boxes in her classroom closet. On the days those shoe boxes came out, I’d press the chalky colors into soft paper, making pictures of horses and dogs and interesting faces. At the end of class, we’d shake our extra pastel dust into trash cans before setting the pictures with hairspray. I’d take those pictures home to show my parents and, come the weekend, to share with my grandmother.

We regarded my grandmother as “the artist” of the family. She’d taken an oil painting class after she and my grandfather retired, and her years of painting blossomed from that. Her pictures won ribbons at fairs and sold at festivals. She painted things she found interesting, like old barns set back from the road and the lilacs and marigolds in her yard. Sometimes when I’d visit, after I’d show her my pastel pictures, I’d ask her to teach me something about drawing or oil painting. We’d sit down together at a table with her supplies.

Granny’s lilacs
(Painting by Katherine Ridinger)

As a young person, I remember feeling bad for my grandmother that she had to wait until retirement before finding something she ended up loving so much. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve come to appreciate the lateness of her discovery. My grandmother had raised a family. She’d done crafts at home and told “felt board” stories for Sunday school classes. She and my grandfather had spent years working and saving. Her oil painting may not have spanned her entire adult life, but it did meet her just in time to shape a new phase of it. As her world changed with the beginning of retirement, it seems to me that she spent time with something she loved and let it show her what her life might yet become.

What do you enjoy? What do you love? I wonder what those things might be showing you just now about your own life.

The winter that my friend’s care package arrived, I didn’t quite know what was up with my life. I decided, though, to take some time with those art supplies and see what I could do with them. Homework received much less attention. I sketched a few evenings a week, finding photographs of friends and colleagues whose faces I tried to draw while Bo the cat sat on my lap. It took a frustrating while before the faces in my sketch pad looked human, let alone female or male, but eventually they started suggesting particular people. 

Sometimes, finding a way to capture a face showed me that face I thought I knew in an entirely different way. One night, as I tried to draw a colleague’s nose just right, I suddenly realized that he must have broken it. Surprised, I sat back and put the pencil down. I’d looked up into his face all this time and never once noticed that sign of an old injury. I saw it in the photo clear as day now, though, with the sharp angle that the bridge of his nose took just between the eyes. I stared at his photo, wondering what else I hadn’t seen. 

Odd as it may sound, I relished the way those sketching evenings felt like a pause with what I loved: the cat on my lap, the people whose faces I drew, the memories of my grandmother filtering back over time. Those evenings didn’t lead me to the beginning of a new artistic career. That wasn’t the point. Those evenings did give me some helpful perspective as I made decisions about which things I wanted to keep in my life and which ones I could bring myself to let go of. Taking time with what we love can tell us a lot about what our lives might yet become.

Bodhisattva in the sun
(Image by Callie J. Smith)

One sunny Saturday, I finally set aside the sketch pencils and charcoal that I’d been working with and unwrapped the set of pastels my friend had sent. Bo warmed herself in the window ledge with her little face turned up to the sun, and I’d noticed with amazement how many colors showed up in that black fur. I took a picture of her and sat down with it, picking up the brand-new pastels, ready to see what they could do. Working on this pastel portrait of Bo, I realized I hadn’t done a pastel portrait in over 30 years. I hadn’t done a self-portrait in all that time, either. I wondered:

“What would I see now if looked at my own face?”

I made a mental note to take a selfie for my next project.

Handling the Holes Created by Loss

I’ve never worked in kintsugi gold, but I’ve begun enjoying the other kinds of repairs that I do manage to do. Repairs feel like a form of care for the things that go with me through my days. On the bookshelf, a Joy of Cooking cookbook I inherited from my grandmother has its cracked spine reinforced with packing tape. A favorite coffee cup still holds up well with its super-glued handle. I even brought out my sewing kit recently to tackle the holes in my shower curtain.

Pulled threads and puncture holes—that curtain has seen better days, for sure. My black cat Bo caused most of the damage. Between playing with the hem, reaching for the tassels, and grabbing at the fabric when she’d slip on the bathtub ledge, Bo left her marks on that shower curtain. When I gave her away, it took me a while to think about repairing the curtain. I had so many other things on my mind.

My father passed away not long before the pandemic began, and I didn’t know what to do with a world that didn’t have him in it. I grieved that presence that had always made sure our family had what we needed, made sure we knew that things would work out all right. I worried about my mother, too, facing her own grief and pandemic isolation, suddenly living alone. I knew that my mother and father had come to love my cat, their “grand-kitty,” and I asked my mother one day if she’d enjoy having Bo move in with her. Without even pausing to consider, she answered, “Yes!”

So, I gave Bo to my mother. I felt glad that Bo would be sharing her warm, playful little presence with someone who probably needed it. All the same, I missed her. I missed my father. I missed the cute cat pictures I’d take—like Bo napping on a peach-colored bath mat—to send to my father to make him smile. I missed telling him stories about her, like the bulge in the shower curtain where Bo would hide on the bathtub ledge, peeking out to watch me get ready in the morning.

I cried often at first, sad and lonely for loved ones missing to death and to pandemic distances. Human lives can break in so many ways, but loss and grief make up one very common kind of hole that we find in our days. Some days, I felt like I had about as many holes in me as the shower curtain had in its fabric.

The more I let myself cry, though, the more I discovered something else happening alongside the tears: I’d be smiling or laughing in the middle of crying. Mending snags in the shower curtain, I remembered how Bo could make a toy out of anything and laughed as I pictured her with boxes and bags and yarn. I reached for the tool kit my father gave to everyone in the family one Christmas (as if he assumed that life would invariably need repairs), and opening the box, I smiled as I imagined how he would smile whenever I’d tell him about using something he’d given me.

I couldn’t deny the hole where my father’s physical life with us used to be. I couldn’t deny the hole where a little black cat used to be—always underfoot. Yet, even as those holes pointed to absence, I also found them pointing to more presence than I’d expected. After all, love doesn’t just disappear. In memories and thoughts, in the joy I still took at picturing Bo’s playfulness, in the care I still experienced from the things and smiles and thousand other reassurances my father had given me over the years, I found both of them still felt very much with me, albeit in different ways than before.

I said I’d never worked in kintsugi gold, but I do think that the image of gold filling our holes—all those painful openings introduced by wear and tear and time—has given me a lovely way to handle those holes. The gold has reminded me to see in the shower curtain punctures how the sweet little pet who’d made me smile every day now offers her playful blessing to my mother. The gold has reminded me to notice, in that gap where calls and visits with my father used to be, how I continue to find his care with me, even now. I suspect my increasing sense of repair work as a form of care has emerged from my practice with noticing the tender, gentle gold that appears in the middle of my hurting holes.

The pandemic has given me nothing if not practice. When I’d done what I could do with repairing Bo’s shower curtain, I brought out my father’s tool kit to see what other kinds of care I could give that space. I’d never been one to decorate bathrooms, but I remembered the colorful artwork and shelves of linens that my grandmother used to have around her bathroom, and I tried my own hand at introducing some new color around that old pastel curtain. I found a painting in my closet to hang on one of the bathroom walls. I assembled shelving where I lined up my collection of colorful towels, including the one with pastel stripes and a ragged hem line which belonged to my grandmother.

“Granny would have liked this,” I thought, looking happily around when I finished. “Bo would definitely have found even more to play with.”

I’ve also called my mother a lot during the pandemic, asking how she and Bo are doing. In the middle of a sentence sometimes, my mother will cut herself off and say, “Bo, stop that.” She uses her most gentle, coaxing, grandmother-like voice.

“What’s she doing now?” I’ll ask.

One day, Bo was apparently laying on the floor scratching at the upholstery of my mother’s recliner.

“I’m so sorry, Mom!” I said, feeling somewhat responsible for any cat-related damage.

“Oh, it’s not really a problem,” my mother said. “I’ve wrapped clear duct tape around the bottom of the recliner. She can’t put any more holes in it, and besides, she’s so cute when she tries to get my attention like that.”

I laughed, liking her way of handling holes.

This essay original appeared on the A Kintsugi Life blog on May 26, 2021.

Beneath the Loss

Does the vividness of memory ever surprise you? It does me. 

I remember a day as a student when I joined some classmates in waving scarves of every color as we danced barefoot down the grey, marble-floored hallways of our seminary. A drummer walked with us, and a group of people followed.

I think it was a holiday. I think we led people to a special service. I don’t remember those details exactly, but I do remember the joy: on dancers’ faces as we turned and leapt, in the drum beat and clapping hands, in my own body as I danced in public for the first time. I found myself with others in the middle of something larger than any one of us, something whose gladness went deep. 

So much time has passed since then. Even if it hadn’t, the pandemic would stand as a sharp dividing line between now and what came before. At the seminary—the same seminary, where I now serve on staff—we began working remotely just before our city’s lockdown. Hallways emptied. Classes went online. So much changed.

I knew that I got to keep what many others did not: work, income, food, and healthcare. Still, it felt like daily bread taken away to lose the physical presence of so many people and places I’d built my days around. I had a hard time shaking the lethargy of that early pandemic time, missing the nourishment of physical presence. When I’d swing by the seminary building, as I sometimes still needed to do, I’d go quickly in and out. Some of that speed had to do with an eerily empty building, not wanting to spend too much time thinking about the people missing from those hallways. 

One misty afternoon, though, I paused. Just inside the building, floor-to-ceiling windows showed me the chapel across the courtyard. The emptiness prompted recollection. I imagined lights turned on inside, making its windows glow with warmth. I’d often seen them do that on misty days. The place felt dense with memory. I don’t know how else to say it. I glanced across the courtyard, through windows in the opposite wing, and that was when I saw them: the dancers. Colorful scarves, young women in leotards leading a drummer and a crowd, mouths smiling and hands clapping—I saw us dancing as we danced years ago, our joy in one another and in what we were doing still vivid, still clear as day.

Tears filled my eyes. I missed those friends and professors. I missed so many people I’d come to know in those hallways over the years. A sense of loss welled up inside me. I missed my father, too, who died right before the pandemic began. He’d come to campus not long after that dancing day for my graduation. Though he had trouble walking by then, he and my mother persevered, and I remember how they stood beaming as we met by the auditorium for commencement. 

Memories can return with such inexplicable power and presence. I’ve started letting myself welcome them a little bit more lately. Far from adding to my sense of lethargy or loss, as I’d expected, I’ve actually found the memories waking me up and making me smile. I thought at first that they helped me look away from a difficult present. While that’s true, I’ve also started to notice memories doing so much more than that. 

Walking the empty halls, I’ll hear a mentor’s voice echoing back to me from over the years, and I feel as comforted as when she first spoke her encouraging words. I’ll see a colleague’s playful grin as we prepare a practical joke on our supervisor, and I laugh. I’ll feel the glow from my father’s expression on that graduation day as he told me he was proud of me, and it lingers like an undiminished blessing, still. Honestly, some days it really does seem as if the dancers still dance down the marble-floored halls, and my father still smiles for me, and what I grieve isn’t really gone. 

Beneath the loss, if we dwell with it and look at it long enough, I think we can often see that love remains. “Love never ends,” writes Paul. “Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:8a & 13:13 NRSV). Love given and received, love holding us together, love shaping who we are and showing us how we want to live – by the grace of God, remains. Dancers still dance their colorful dances through the hallways of our lives, loved ones still smile for us from beyond the grave, and what we grieve we find is never really gone. 

This essay originally appeared in the May 6, 2021 issue of Bearings Online.