How do you show others that you love them? For that matter, how do you know you do? And, while we’re on the subject, just what the heck is this love thing, anyway?
This last week, I cleaned every piece of the kids’ wooden train set. The kids used it often when they were little, but hadn’t for a while. But when I suggested giving it away, they balked; they still wanted it. So I cleaned each piece with oil soap, and scrubbed the bin, making it usable and inviting again…it was a high-detail, time-intensive activity, and it made me happy.
There was a time, a few years ago, when I saw life very differently. Back then, it seemed that my whole life was wrapped up in maintaining my obligations to my extended family unit. I often felt, hugely taken advantage of, used, taken for granted, and left holding the bag.
My pet peeve was, and, sometimes, still is, cleaning.
When I saw so much of life as odious duty, I expected to be appreciated for “getting it done”. When someone made a mess in an area I had just cleaned, I was and furious to have my work “undone”, my limited energy “wasted”, my time “devalued”.
My hard work and constant struggle to live up to standards of cleanliness was in conflict with the realities of my life. And, when it got to be too much, I would explode at the nearest targets.
One night, when the kids were about 5 and 2, my Accomplice came home to find them both sitting on the low steps to our sunken living room, sobbing – and me in the room, screaming and screeching while I gesturing wildly and flung things around. He called me a monster, and I turned on him. I knew what it was to live with abuse; this was nowhere near as bad, and these kids were lucky to have me as their mother.
I thought that I showed my love by being a good mother, and a good wife. I measured my ‘goodness’ by how I kept the house and kids, and by being vigilantly, by instilling values into my children, by doing things that could be easily measured.
But my children were afraid of me when I yelled, and my husband thought I was a monster, and I was echoing things that had been said to me when I was a kid – things I’d sworn I would never say, if I was ever anyone’s mother.
And then I read this amazing post on service. It changed the way I saw my role in my family. Over time, it’s made a huge difference in the way I approach the matters of home and hearth – what I now call ‘hometending’, to remind myself of what my objective is in doing it.
Now, I do only the homtending I want to do each day, and, I try to do them with a spirit of service.
I don’t expect things to stay clean forever, once I clean them. Clean spaces are meant for living in, and living, at least here, tends toward a degree of untidiness that can spiral at times of intense activity or intense growth.
Learning how to remain calm when I’m overwhelmed – but I see that learning, too, as a gift of service, not only to my family, but to myself…because it doesn’t help anything to launch into a diatribe about it, and it makes the problem feel insurmountable.
These days, I’m more likely to ask someone to pitch in, when I’m overwhelmed. I accept that ‘no’ is a possible answer – and I accept that I can say no, too. I even do, sometimes, when I can’t bring a spirit of service to my hometending.
And what about the trains? They were almost immediately back in use…after which I found them a new place in my study to live, so that they won’t get grubby again…
Cleaning them was a service – a labor of love, and a way of showing, not that I’m a “good mom” who keeps kids and house clean, because other things didn’t get cleaned while I was busy with the trains – and, let’s face it, it’s rather invisible as efforts go.
I was demonstrating my love, my willingness to go “out of my way” for their benefit. I could’ve left the bin grubby, or given the trains away over protests; there was a time when I would have done one or the other, most likely as a “logical consequence” of some perceived misdeed.
Instead, I cleaned the trains, and got to see the joy they brought Annalise when she was able to use them again. I also got to see her clean them up, without anyone saying anything about it – her own act of loving service.
It’s ridiculously easy to say “I love you.” People say it all the time; they don’t always mean it. It’s not so hard to do things, and say it’s out of love – even when it’s hurting the ones we love.
When I show my love in the form of willing, happy service, magic can happen. I’m filled up by the offering, and again when it’s received. Better, by far, to have a house less tidy, and flowing over with imagination and laughter than one that’s clean and filled with screaming and crying.
I think, in order to truly show my love, I have to live it. I have to be willing to extend myself to and for those I love. I need to see my beloveds, and tend to their needs in ways that honor them – and me.
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