To Errand is Human

“I’m getting groceries.”  

My euphoria fled.

– Patricia Cornwell, From Potter’s Field

My son is home sick today. Too much Terry Fox run and too much badminton kicked off someone’s asthma. But I was not sure if he was really ill so I told him that instead of watching television and playing cars, he’d be accompanying me on errands. The fact he agreed to this means he’s really sick.

Nobody likes errands.

Errands, are, of course, a fact of life that are almost impossible to avoid entirely. I know people who are basically billionaires and even they find themselves at the doctor or getting a passport photo taken from time to time. And for the rest of us, they are a regular thing. As the Zen proverb reads, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” Yup.

The daily grind of dishes, groceries, packing school snacks, vacuuming up the clouds of dog hair, and laundry (always laundry) is almost enough to make me want to run off and live solo in a yurt. I fully understand Laurence J. Peter’s quip, “It’s better to have loved and lost than to have to do forty pounds of laundry a week.”

In the introduction to his brilliantly titled book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, Jack Kornfield writes about trying to preserve our spirits in the midst of all the errands:

“Most spiritual accounts end with illumination or enlightenment. But what if we ask what happens after that? What happens when the Zen master returns home to spouse and children? What happens when the Christian mystic goes shopping?” 

How is one to retain the peace attained on the mountaintop when one returns home to a sick family, the meltdown of the financial markets, or a dog with a GI “situation”?

One approach is to make everyday tasks as blissful as possible. By listening to audiobooks in the car, I’ve doubled my reading time and reduced in-car stress. I’ve set up a command station to get us out the door in (relative) peace every morning (a blue and white bowl with sunglasses, a DIY snack station, cubbies for all the shoes.) I light a candle while I’m paying bills (current favs are Assouline’s Books candle and Diptyque’s 34 boulevard saint germain.)

At one point, I made the decision to no longer shop for food at the local version of the Mega Lo Mart, where the lighting is jarring, the lines are long, the people are cranky, and everything smells vaguely of tires. Instead, I shop at the local Whole Foods or Longo’s where the staff are friendly, the pace relaxed, and the lighting soothing. For us, the extra cost is worth it since it transforms a source of dread into something more palatable.

And maybe errands offer the potential for even more. Henry James, who was generally a pretty smart cookie, wrote:

True happiness, we are told, consists in getting out of one’s self, but the point is not only to get out – you must stay out; and to stay out you must have some absorbing errand.                                          

When I get into a cycle of worry (always!), I like to find some absorbing errands like organizing the junk drawer or paying the bills or restocking the supply of birthday cards. The act of puttering tends to get my mind focused on something other than my troubles and has the added benefit of allowing me to check something off my To Do list.

The chores cannot be eliminated, but there is no reason why we cannot bring as much joy to our daily tasks as possible. To errand is human. To make bliss, divine.

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