I don’t know how old I was when I was first introduced to Henry David Thoreau’s admonition “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,” but it must have been fairly young because it stuck to me in the rudimentary way of childhood when you accept fully the premise of a thing, when you swallow it down wholesale and it becomes you.
As a result, I’ve spent my entire life in a state of mild anxiety, constantly aware of how poorly I am living up to the command to live deep. In fact, I waste whole days without sucking any marrow at all. I want to live a purposeful life, one that smacks of satisfaction and an assurance that God’s plan guides it, but mostly, if I’m being honest, I’m just getting by.
Recently, I tore through all seven episodes of the latest Serial Productions podcast, S-Town, a serially broadcast radio program about a depressed horologist (clock repairer) living in a small backwater town in Alabama. Among his many obsessions, the horologist collects sundials. Sundials, he explains, all have mottos that are depressing in nature. A few examples prove this: “An hour passes slowly, but the years go by quickly”; “Look at my shadow and you will see your life”; and “All hours wound, the last one kills.” My personal favorite, the one causing me pain as the sands in the hourglass of this summer furiously sink, reminds me of Thoreau: “Take the gifts of this hour.”
I don’t know what it is about summer that makes time feel more precious, but it cuts me to the bone more than any other season. Maybe it’s because the majority of my family’s birthdays are in the summer, mine included, making the marking of time more acute. Or maybe it’s because summer is falsely sold as a languorous and time-lush season and yet it never is. Or maybe it’s because I have three children with tan necks and freckled arms who slap their sprinkler-soaked clothes just inside the door before rushing off to the next delicious activity of our popsicle-dense summer life. Whatever the reason, summer’s speedy and temporary nature is painful for me and trying to suck the marrow from it or “take the gifts of this hour” only makes it go by more quickly.
I can’t stop time from moving. I’ve tried. And fretting over its passing is quite possibly the antithesis of taking the gifts of this hour. Instead I’ve made a list of the things that make my life feel full. It’s a Take the Gifts of This Hour (TGTH) list. On the whole, it’s not a particularly unique list. Most things that make me happy probably make most people happy. But it is an unusual list in that the items on it are not on my usual to-do list.
For instance, one of the items on my TGTH list is letting my 2-year-old daughter paint. I rarely let her do this because the mess she creates is awesome in the true meaning of that word. But I love watching her do it. You should see it. She uses her whole body and an irresponsible volume of paint. She cares not at all if she mixes seven colors in one pot, resulting in the muddy brown that fills most of her canvas. And by canvas I mean her belly, arms, and legs. Her hair is fair game as well. One brush is not enough so she dirties 11, plus three foam brushes. The roll of paper on our dining table disintegrates into its original pulp under the weight of all the dumped pots. The one painting skill she has mastered is painting her hand with a generous brushful of paint and then smacking the table, splattering paint all over the room and leaving a round of applause on every corner of the paper.
She loves it. She wants to paint every day, but I’m too tired from all the normal stuff on my usual to-do list to make that happen. If I really want to suck the marrow out of life, if I really want my summer to slow down and be languorous and purpose-filled, I have to change my list. I have to make wiping paint off the ceiling a part of my list because here’s the thing about Henry David Thoreau’s life on Walden Pond. All that deliberate living is not so much a celebration of a big life, but a celebration of a smaller one. Without knowing it, Thoreau was living St. Therese’s Little Way in his belief that the profound is in the ordinary, and that holiness is in the smallest acts.
I don’t know for sure if living the Little Way will make summer slow down, but it is definitely the right path for taking the gifts of this hour. With one month of summer left, I know I can’t hold it back. I can’t grip it at its edges and tear it backward like a calendar sheet. What I can do is strip my little one down to spare her clothes the disservice of paint saturation. I can roll out a table-length sheet of paper and twist off the lids of a boxful of paint pots. I can lay out a gallery of brushes and foam shapes for stamping. Then I can sit back and watch the master live deeply because my little one is an expert at the Little Way. And watching her makes me that much closer to living the deliberate life I always hoped I would live.
Image: Molly Jo Rose
Molly Jo Rose’s column, In and Of the World, focuses on finding God’s goodness in the darkest places of the world.