For a little over a year now, my kids have all been in school. I'm not talking about my baby starting kindergarten. My baby is in 4th grade, but until last January, he was home schooled. My two elder children -- nearly 15 and 17 -- started school a year ago last fall. For twelve months, I gave myself permission to do nothing. For sixteen years I had been a full-time parent, a child under my primary supervision 24/7. Suddenly, overnight, I was free for six hours a day. I didn't have the first notion of what to do.
I was, in equal measure, surprised and unsurprised to discover that six hours wasn't as long as it looked from the outside. The time flew...and it dragged. I was inexplicably busy with the tasks of daily living -- cooking, dish washing, cleaning, laundry. The mystery is that these were all occupations in which I'd been engaged forever, along with overseeing math and history and spelling. How in the world did they now fill all my time?
Maybe the answer was in the radical difference in the rhythm of my days. Home schooling, our days started early, and our work moved at an even, one might say leisurely, pace. By mid-afternoon we'd completed all of our lessons and everyone had moved on to his and her own pursuits, including me. Not so the school day. The mornings, especially in the beginning, were intense with activity until the door closed behind me when I walked in after having driven the youngest to school. Then, quiet, until 2:45, when the middle schooler walked through the door. The rest of the day was a further flurry of activity -- homework and school lunches and arguments over piano practice -- until we all collapsed into bed.
Things have improved. We've grown more accustomed to the new family routine.
But there are still those six hours of quiet. I expected, when I anticipated them, just before my baby left home for the third grade, that they would be sad and lonely. I simultaneously expect a wave of relief. I got some of both, and more besides -- restlessness, puzzlement, curiosity, anxiety, ennui.
What to do? I have tried scrubbing toilets, lunch with friends, writing, laundry, prayer, reading, walking, listening, talking, volunteering, yoga, therapy, cooking, shopping. None of it has relieved me of loneliness, restlessness, or boredom.
That is not to say that there aren't moments of respite. I sometimes find myself so engrossed in writing, conversation, prayer, or manual labor that I forget myself, and forgetting myself is a blessed relief.
I imagine that that's what sainthood is, utter self-forgetfulness. In a moment of perfect conversion, might it not be the case that I disappear into Christ entirely? Not that I cease to be me, but that my self-consciousness is subsumed into something that is more than I. I, a drop of water, experience myself as ocean, without ceasing to be a drop; the ocean is ocean even without tiny me, but even in its great vastness it is diminished without me. As Christ increases, I decrease; as I decrease, I become complete.
For eighteen hours a day I still sleep and manage my family relationships, but those six hours call out to me a challenge. I have sought to discern what it is I'm to do with them. I shout or whisper the question to heaven, consumed with furious urgency or blissful in patient surrender. Sainthood remains beyond my grasp.
To what degree am I called to do, to be? To introspect or act? Which is grasping and which surrender? Is the answer the same today as it was yesterday or will be tomorrow?
It's a lot to ask from six hours.