Micah won a box of books at an event in Laramie a couple of years ago. In it was "The Egg and I," by Betty MacDonald. I was surprised to discover the 1947 movie was based on MacDonald's real life story as a chicken farmer on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. I knew the movie well. I'd watched it in my grandparents basement in North Omaha. My grandpa had a collection of VHS tapes copied from Nebraska Public Television. I, like apparently most Americans in the 1940's, fell in love with Ma and Pa Kettle, a couple of eccentric country bumpkin neighbors. This, I'll admit, was an eccentricity of my own.
The atmosphere in which we watched these old movies contributed to my affection for them. I loved the smell of my grandpa's pipe puffing tiny plumes of pipe tobacco into the air as he sat on his upholstered rocking chair, the color of an evergreen tree. And I knew that the Keebler Elf cookies hiding in my grandparents bedroom closet (for some curious reason my grandma thought this a good place to store sweet treats) would eventually make an appearance. This is the same grandma who used to squeeze the bags of sandwich bread in the grocery store aisle, leaving behind permanent indentations (a trait I have inherited and Micah curses).
Across from the TV, a panel in a basement wall could be removed, revealing a space where my grandma stored the collections of miniature army green plastic soldiers and Lincoln Logs. Everything about the space, my grandma and grandpa, old movies watched while drinking 7 Up in glass bottles, and a home where even the walls contained vintage toy collections, transported me to a bygone era. I liked believing for those two hours in front of the TV, surrounded in a sweet haze of pipe tobacco and sugar highs, that life was simpler in a world of black and white.
I just finished reading "The Egg and I," and not surprisingly MacDonald's real life experience wasn't as simple or as romantic as the movie. The author is disturbingly, unapologetically racist toward Native Americans, encounters sexism in an era where wives could be publicly beaten by their husbands without recourse, and tells of the sometimes disturbing treatment of land and animals. As a farmer's wife MacDonald was expected to rise at 4 a.m. each morning to cook, clean, iron, and toil her life away until finally collapsing into bed at nine o'clock. She was shamed by the locals for reading books, since this was considered a leisurely luxury in which only the weak would indulge. Her worth was measured by not only the cleanliness of her home but also the cleanliness of the chicken house. A saying from a children's book given to MacDonald by her grandmother sums it up nicely, "We live in deeds not years." Oh, what a most tragic existence indeed.
But old habits (and generations of belief) die hard. I know from personal experience, and from observation, that many of us continue to measure our lives by our deeds and find satisfaction in our toiling. Several friends have confessed to me that they employ a cleaning woman, as though it were a dirty secret rather than a gift to themselves. I myself have not been able to shake off the legacy of my South Dakota farmer grandma whose cleaning routine led her to scrub her kitchen sink and hands raw. And I know all too well the seductive, dangerous feeling that busyness is somehow virtuous and that, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again!" There is a delicate balance, I'm learning, between hard work and toiling, persistence and slaving away. One gives us energy for a new day, the other sucks the joy out of everything. The answer lies somewhere in the not so tidy grey area of going after what we want and letting go.
I was reminded of this recently while trying to complete a work project. There were times my toiling produced results but more often than not it felt like a long, unproductive slog. Then, two weeks ago, in the aftermath of my beloved cat's death, I decided to stop. "What would happen if I just gave it a rest?" I wondered. So I did. And the most glorious thing happened. I received an e-mail from my editor offering me the very resources I had been trying to find. The offer was unsolicited and arrived in my Inbox as pure gift. Problem solved. It's the easiest work I've ever not done.
I write this as part testimony, to spread the gospel of rest, and also part reminder. Because I know in a month's time I will have already forgotten how easy it can actually be. Not every road to success has to be a long, arduous slog. "Commit to a time of meditation, to silence and solitude, and see what happens," says the author Jan Phillips. "All the heavens will break lose and come to your aid." If at first you don't succeed, give yourself the gift of rest, and then try again.