The Work of Love
This article originally appeared on The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture's blog.
For twenty-eight years I have written in journals, capturing the minutiae and momentous, the usual and unusual from every week since 1984. To date I have forty-three of these books lined up on two shelves in my office, along with the one I’m currently writing in that sits on my desk.
I was inspired to keep these written accounts of daily life after inheriting some of my grandmother’s diaries when she died. At the time I started writing we were a family with young children and I was drawn to the idea of chronicling the parts of our day-to-day life that would otherwise be lost and forgotten with time. Reading my grandmother’s words helped me see there was quiet beauty in the ordinary and routine, and that it was worth capturing the days on paper if you wanted to see what your life was made of. When the details were written down and not allowed to disappear with each day’s sunset, they were given a place of importance. You could see the necessity of all the bits and pieces in the creation of a whole, and how fidelity in the small things enabled life to continue on and even to flourish.
My grandmother was a teacher, but when she married my widowed grandfather in her forties and took on the care of his two children, she became a seamstress who worked from home. Many of her diary pages contain only the fragment of a sentence — “sewed and listened to baseball game.” Other pages report cleaning the house, having friends over for dinner, taking kids to the doctor, canning peaches, meeting with clients, watering the yard, cooking, ironing, keeping grandchildren, paying bills, running errands, going to meetings, and visiting neighbors. By keeping track of her daily life, she gave a cheerful dignity to all the particulars.
As I reflected on her diaries from the perspective of adulthood, I could see that all these ordinary activities were the magic that made being with her the safest and best part of my childhood. The small things added up to become provision for her family, church, and community.
When I began keeping my own records, I held onto the sacred place of the quotidian as my grandmother had. I wrote down everything — all that it took for my musician husband and I to make a living and a life, and to grow into our callings as God revealed them with the years.
As my journals filled with the details of my life — raising children to adulthood, becoming a writer, years of hosting people and events, the development of Art House America, pursuing a seminary degree, and becoming a grandmother — the words on the page gave me eyes to see the significance of the smaller things that are always present.
Sure, there are high points, nameable moments of climax — but most of my daily life still takes place in the in-between. I live in grocery stores and farmer’s markets, at the stove and the kitchen sink. I pull weeds in the garden, sort the recycling, fold laundry, write e-mails, get the oil changed in the car, meet younger folks for coffee and long conversations, and sit for hours at my computer laboring over words and sentences.
Along with the aid of my journals, perhaps it’s been easier for me to see how much the smaller things matter in the creation of a whole because so much of our life happens on one piece of property. We live and work in a century-old, renovated country church where my husband’s recording studio, our offices, and our home are all connected. People come to our place for many reasons, including daily work, and there is an ever-present need to do a great variety of tasks in order to create a welcoming home, business, and life. In the work of our days, everyone’s contribution is important — from paying musicians’ invoices in a timely manner to serving a meal to the creation of songs and music that travel out into the world.
We all have our version of the details. This past February I sat proudly in the audience as my husband participated with The Civil Wars in receiving one of their two Grammy Awards for Barton Hollow, a recording he produced. For at least a week afterwards, the tweets and Facebook posts of congratulations were flying. And then we came home to Nashville from Los Angeles, and he settled back into the studio, taking up his work on another project — sitting at the computer editing recordings for hours on end, e-mailing musicians, juggling schedules, dealing with cancellations, running out to rent a violin. For every finished recording there are a thousand small tasks behind it.
Our assistant, James, is a gem. He creates string arrangements for recording sessions, takes care of our bookkeeping, picks up lunch, does his share of the editing, and rolls the garbage cans to the street before he leaves on Wednesdays. He cares for hundreds of details, large and small, all with a kind demeanor and a smile on his face.
I must confess that unlike James, I don’t always have a great attitude. I can get weary of the things that endlessly repeat. Life on a busy property means there are always messes to clean up and oftentimes meals to think about. But there are also days when I’m glad to get up from the writing desk to tend the routines of cooking dinner or doing the laundry. I find relief in turning from the stress of a deadline to a different kind of labor, one that involves moving my body, and where the results are seen or felt immediately, even if they’re only temporary. The need to provide food, clothing, and shelter is a perpetual part of the work of being human. And it’s often only when these things are neglected, absent, or when we’re sick and can’t tend them that we’re able to see how important they are.
In one way or another, the care of human life is at the heart of all vocation. Love of God and love of neighbor is the fuel. I find perspective for the less glorious and more behind-the-scenes aspects of what this can mean when I’m centered in the reality of Colossians 3:23–24: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men. . . . It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” As Os Guinness says in his book The Call, “Living before the Audience of One transforms all our endeavors.”
Last week we had two of our grandchildren in residence. They came to work every day with their father who works with his father in the creation of music and videos. I love that the summer schedule made it possible for them to be with us, and I wanted to be present as much as possible. In order to immerse with the kids while staying true to other commitments, I got up early each morning to work on an essay before they arrived and stayed up late responding to e-mails after they went home. Most everything else was done with the kids’ involvement.
We didn’t do anything grand or incredibly exciting, but with kids, routine days, imagination, and the fellowship of doing things together almost always result in a good time. We made one trip to the farm stand for fresh vegetables and fruits, swam twice at the YMCA, and gave one whole day to cooking a meal for dear friends who just had a baby. To help out, my 6-year-old grandson stood on a chair and peeled the peaches for a peach-blackberry crisp. On other days we played UNO and made pancakes. They did art projects, played in a kids’ pool in our yard, spent time in the studio with their dad and grandpa, and played with their aunt who took a day off to come be with them.
As I look back on a week like that, it’s impossible to know at what point something small and fleeting becomes something large and more permanent, or to ascribe a hierarchy of meaning to the week’s activities. How can we say what was most important? Was it the work of making music that will bless the world and pay the bills? Was it writing an essay that will play a small, but perhaps fruitful part in other people’s lives? Was it cooking a meal and delivering it to friends in need, or seizing the moment to spend time with grandchildren and make memories from the stuff of ordinary life?
When I finally sit down to write about last week in my journal, all of these things will get equal billing. Diarists and poets put the ordinary under a microscope and call attention to its beauty. In the work of love there is no part too small to matter and no part so great that it trumps everything else. In the words of my friend Jena Nardella, “All the parts of our lives are working toward one mission, telling one story.” These are the things God has called us to do and in all these vocational spheres — as grandparents, friends, music-makers, writers, and more — we are working out what it means to love our neighbor as we love ourselves in our little corner of the world.
Andi Ashworth is the author of Real Love for Real Life: The Art and Work of Caring. Just lately she's been cooking for recording sessions, washing lots of dishes, and celebrating the release of her husband Charlie Peacock's fantastic new record, No Man's Land.