Aunt Margaret got lost in the bowels of Big Lots for hours.
My late grandmother, “Mimi,” took the tiny, white-haired widow under her wing in the latter years of both of their lives, an act of service that inevitably involved frequent shopping trips to the infamous variety store that makes Walmart look like Neiman Marcus.
Aunt Margaret loved wandering the very big, very overwhelming Big Lots aisles and if Mimi turned her back for even a second, her wide-eyed shopping companion would promptly disappear. Mimi would eventually find her in her glory, picking through a clearance bin and stopping to inspect every item.
If you’ve ever been shopping with someone who’s in absolutely no rush whatsoever, you know what this is like:
I remember Mimi recounting these Big Lots outings. In her Pittsburgh accent, she’d roll her eyes skyward and twist her bony hands as she said, “I was like, ‘if I don't get the hell out of here, I’m going to die’.” She went on to tell us that the worst part was that she pictured her epitaph saying, “She died while shopping at Big Lots.” To her, there was no greater humiliation.
We’ve laughed over this story for years.
I think about Mimi and Margaret’s Big Lots outings anytime I feel antsy, which lately, has been a lot: as I’ve moved deeper into adult life, parenting, and professional responsibilities, the more I’ve seen that daily life doesn’t always thrill at every turn. It’s about repetition, consistency, and routine far more than adventure, surprise, and novelty. Raising young kids and running a small business involves far more grunt work than glamour. Staring down a growing list of administrative tasks or facing the dinner hour with hangry toddlers can feel alot like turning the corner at Big Lots only to encounter another endless row of junk to pick through…and a shopping companion with all the time in the world to do it.
None of this is bad. In fact, routine and ritual can bring great comfort, as can the day-to-day flurry of low-impact tasks that require patience and faithful consistency much more than groundswells of wild energy. But the rote tasks that steal so much of our time require us to draw from a well that we may not have been accustomed to as young people, on the cusp of our careers, staring down endless possibilities and primed to chase down all that is shiny and new.
I just submitted an article about fortitude, a virtue that I could really stand to develop (which is why I took on the assignment, frankly: I wanted to learn about it.). Historically, fortitude was about bravery, even gallantry, the virtue that primes us to die for a just and noble cause. But for those of us who will never face martyrdom, it’s more about responding graciously to many small, seemingly trivial, adversities than steeling our wills to handle a single massive trial.
Sometimes, these tiniest of challenges are the ones that zap our energy the most. They’re the ones that demand constantly showing up, regardless of our enthusiasm level. They’re the ones no one’s cheering, noticing, or applauding. Like Mimi hoping to the heavens above that sweet Margaret would skate right past the alluring clearance aisle, we can often feel stuck and mired in these little daily acts that largely go unseen.
But they matter.
For a variety of reasons, prudential, spiritual, and otherwise, I’ve committed to a bit of a dry spell: fewer digital distractions, fewer dollars spent on material pleasures, for example. I’ve been trying to focus my energy where it should be, like really, truly, listening to my oldest child when he’s bringing me leaves instead of wishing I could find some distraction to help pass the time. I’ve been slowly denying myself some of my favorite escapist pleasures, like swinging through the Starbucks drive-through any time I start to feel even the slightest bit overwhelmed: I don’t need to check out, or to indulge myself, every time life starts to feel hard. I can just sit, walk, watch, listen, drive, whatever it is, and be all there. To sit in the stillness and see what comes up. To feel myself strengthening my own will. To experience what small denials can do to my mind, heart, and soul.
The discovery has been profound. I’ve been learning that when we’re facing something that, though murderously mundane, requires our presence and attention, something incredible starts to happen: We start to think. To reflect. To notice. The first few moments, we might feel itchy, our minds’ eyes wandering to our grocery lists or our email inboxes. But if we can get past that, we might find ourselves making some new connection, coming up with a perfect solution to an issue, bringing to mind someone we need to forgive, or perhaps we’ll finally have a breakthrough on some thorny issue we’ve been turning over in our minds. We might start to think about life, and its goodness, and our gratitude. We might start to pray. We might start to hear answers.
Recently, I made my second trip to a pediatric urgent care in four days, this time with a child whose temperature soared above 105 degrees. Like most parents of young children right now, my kids (and I) have been sick almost continuously since school started in the Fall, and I’ve been weary. I leaned against the wall in a six-by-ten exam room for what felt like hours, my son’s fiery hot head burning like a lump of coal on my chest, the TV blaring one Bluey episode after another. I couldn’t help but think of how Mimi felt shuffling around Big Lots. If I don’t get the hell out of here…”
Back-to-back fevers and urgent care runs are not the greatest challenges anyone’s ever faced. They’re not even the greatest challenges I’ve ever faced: not by far. Yet if we aren’t careful, weeks upon weeks of small trials can pull tiny threads on the fabric of our sanity. If we aren’t constantly reminding ourselves of how lucky we are, bitterness can grip us. If we aren’t taking inventory of the many good things in our lives, despair can cloud us. If we aren’t recognizing small trials as strength training for our spiritual muscles, much bigger ones will incapacitate us when they inevitably strike.
The hours spent in exam rooms these past few months have been like my own version of Big Lots purgatory. For the sake of a much greater good than my own comfort, satisfaction, and entertainment, I’m being forced to slow to a shuffle and learn from, grow through, and appreciate the gifts and challenges my life has offered me, assuring myself that I can do it, and I don’t need crutches and I don’t need to escape.
Just as hours spent in the bowels of Big Lots offer a massive act of love in exchange for a temporary trial, our lives are replete with tiny seeds that, when planted through acts of self-forgetting, committed labor, can bloom into something new. Wholehearted. Grounded.
What feels most tedious or burdensome in your life right now? How do you think you can approach these tasks or obligations with more patience, commitment, and grace?
What are some examples of small challenges that routinely try your patience? Are you inordinately relying on anything to help you cope with these trials?
Do you feel the need to distract yourself when things get boring or hard, mundane or rote?
An Invitation to You
When you feel overwhelmed by the constant drip, drip, drip of small challenges, a reframe is in order. Remind yourself that you are more than equipped to handle any challenge, big or small, that’s presented to you. And trust the way you handle small trials informs how you will handle the much greater ones.
Food to Try
Almond Flour Chocolate Chip Scones that taste more like a giant, triangular cookie than a scone (You won’t be mad about it.)
Food for Thought
My husband’s poem Unseen Efforts feels inspiring for the long haul of a creative career:
I walked one step
and no one cared,
then at one hundred
one man stared,
five hundred earned
a clap or two,
one thousand felt
like deja vu,
three thousand won
a little crowd,
five thousand made
some cheer aloud,
eight thousand brought
the local news,
ten thousand spurred
one hundred thousand
steps I strode,
before the fame
and fortune flowed,
still millions cried,
“He must be new!”
but I knew that
it wasn’t true…
This Wall Street Journal story was incredibly encouraging to those who, like me, wholeheartedly believe that complicating our lives can actually make them deeply meaningful:
Sometimes there is a fine line between having it all and it’s all falling apart. After a stretch when many of us labored to be Santa at home and year-end heroes at work, all while facing a tripledemic, we could stand to take a deep breath, shift our perspective and, when all else fails, laugh at the absurdity of it all.
Messy days, and tragic and scary moments too, are part of having a full life. Shouldering many roles, from dad to dog owner to team leader, makes us happier
Nothing seemed to be going as planned, but it still felt like a privilege to have so many things I loved, constantly colliding with each other.
This is an oldie but goodie: Tsh Oxenreider’s essay in Public Discourse about why we should take a page from St. Benedict’s book and establish a Rule of Life:
By writing down the details of what it meant to live in community, St. Benedict established both inwardly reflective and outwardly practical guidelines for daily life. His ancient text included the gamut of ideas, from why one should pray and what should be one’s motive for serving others, to when and how to serve in kitchen duty and the establishment of a shift rotation for someone to check in guests at the front door. In other words, it was both intrinsically spiritual and extrinsically pragmatic.
We may not live in a monastic community like St. Benedict, but I live among others in my own sort of domestic monastery, and I am fully invested in these members’ flourishing. My Rule of Life helps me channel my greater good to our collective cultivation
This piece in Our Sunday Visitor sets the record straight re: what Marie Kondo actually said about how her tidying habits have changed since she’s had children:
Sometimes we have a core value or goal, but the circumstances in our life change pretty drastically, and so we must change our behavior in order to stay true to that core value or goal. And yet, we’re still ourselves. This is, apparently, what happened to Kondo. She wanted to live her life in a way that made it easy to focus on what was important to her. Before children, tidiness made that possible. With three children, she has other priorities. No doubt she has changed in some ways, as everyone does when they have children, but I don’t see any evidence that she’s renouncing her identity, or that it needs renouncing. She’s just putting her old wisdom to new uses. She’s not a different person now; she’s finding out how to be Marie Kondo with kids.
I’ve had a few pieces published since I sent my last letter (hence the delay!):
Catholic Women in Business published my reflections on reframing obstacles for personal growth.
I was thrilled and humbled to be published in Public Discourse, a journal of the Witherspoon Institute, this time sharing my thoughts on why we need to stop reminding the mothers we meet of how hard it is to be a parent. I had a great chat with Drew Mariani at Relevant Radio about a spinoff issue: the growing anti-natalist sentiment that’s gripping our society and why it should trouble us.
I’ve launched a new Substack letter! This one is called Artists & Journalists: Women Sharing Words That Are Good, True, and Beautiful. Each letter will feature a different writer and will include bits of wisdom about how they make space in their busy lives to share their words, their art, and their journalism. The first edition features my friend, Catholic Women in Business Co-President Taryn DeLong!
Until next time, with love,
All so encouraging, Alex!