It's that time again (and again and again). Time for Cleaning Therapy. End of summer, and I'm getting the house back in order after months of Messy (but delightful) Theo, and house guests, and dog guests, and crawly creature guests, and the kind of Internet disorders that forced me to move my own messy desk onto the dining room table. The stuff of life, in other words.
I have not seen the entire surface of my dinner table in several months. Theo and I just pushed things to one end when we wanted to eat our meals. When others joined us we piled things on the floor, and put them back the next morning. I began to sort through papers--there was the sheet of song lyrics Theo had been working on, there was the bill I should have paid a while back, there was an article about me in Russian, which looked cool but was incomprehensible, there was a business card someone had tucked into my hand during a reading. But the real discovery came when the table was entirely cleared. Rings.
At first I was annoyed. We ought to have been more careful about the coasters. (And we never are. I don't like the way they stick to the bottom of cold drinks and clatter to the table when you accidentally pick them up with your glass...) Then I stared into the interlocking pattern of rings, and thought about all the cups of tea and glasses of lemonade and bowls of oatmeal we had shared. I thought about how the table bore the scars of loving, carefree, joyful occasions. I began to wish that I could date each ring, so that I could learn from them the things you read in the rings of a tree. As I gazed at the surface, I thought about how a smattering of thin, tight rings might indicate drought, stress. Fat rings--lusher and more plentiful--meant a summer of greater nourishment. Judging by this summer's vivid, varied and abundant growth on my table, we enjoyed a rich and companionable season.
I began to polish, because the table needs to be fed, too. I have hauled that table from one house to another for 26 years. I had it made in Texas the year my older son was born, from planks of pecan wood that I selected, in honor of the pecan trees that once covered the Austin area. As I polished, I thought about one of my favorite new subjects: Mono tasking versus multi-tasking. I am a terrific multi-tasker from way back. You have to be, in order to be a good secretary or personal assistant, or a good editor or manager, or a good mother and friend. Multi-tasking has long been a strength.
Mono-tasking has long been a weakness. There are times when I am doing everything--and nothing. Eating an egg while cleaning dishes in the sink. Talking to a friend while putting away clothes. Not present in any one thing. Scattered. Productive, but not really engaged. I am now working on my mono-tasking skills. Doing only one thing, with concentration. Staying with it. Seeing it through to the end. Letting it carry my mind somewhere unexpected.
I rubbed and rubbed, and as the oil swirled across the surface and the linen left its tiny patterns, I went into a place of profound gratitude for the table, for the way it gave us a place to gather, and do our work, and break bread, and share our thoughts. We laughed at that table, this summer, and we cried there too, and quibbled and snarled and roared and barked and all the other things friends and family do with one another.
As I clean, I am drawing the house back into its quiet, calm ways. Clear surfaces soothe me. My table gleams, now; its surface tranquil. But in the depths of the polish, I will always be able to find the rings of growth we added this year. And I have made room for the next season of pleasure.