The Opinionated Tailor:
Hello and welcome to “The Opinionated Tailor”. Today’s podcast wraps up my series on living a more disciplined life. Now that I’ve at least scratched the surface on bringing more discipline to our lives through the traditional ascesis’ of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, I thought it would be good to cover some of the challenges we face in using these skills in our day-to-day lives.
One of the biggest challenges I have faced in the last twelve years as I have juggled being a wife, mother, khouria, and tailor has been coping with the sheer amount of work in my life. When I decided to homeschool my children while continuing to work as a tailor, it was like taking on two full-time jobs. It was the rare day I didn’t feel overwhelmed and frustrated by all of the things that weren’t getting done. I was a large part of the problem, since I often set my expectations unreasonably high—my children were happy and thriving through homeschooling and most of my vestment orders were going out on time, but when the history curriculum gave elaborate, two-week-long instructions for mummifying a chicken, a project that I simply didn’t have time for, I worried that I was somehow short-changing my children’s education. When I went to church potlucks and saw the elaborate dishes sitting next to my grabbed-from-the-pantry jar of olives and loaf of bread, I felt discouragement and despair welling up within me.
All of this came to a head one afternoon. I had just completed a full morning of homeschooling, quickly prepared lunch, given my girls their afternoon homework and I stood in my workshop looking over a full schedule of orders, knowing I’d be working until late into the evening. My laundry sat un-done in the basement, I needed to run to the grocery store, and I hadn’t yet put library holds on the history books for next week. It was a typical day and typically, I would have felt very stressed and demoralized by the sheer amount of work that I needed to accomplish and the knowledge that not all of it was going to get done by the end of the day. But something different happened this day: I stood at my cutting table and I realized that I had two choices in front of me. I could go on feeling stressed and harried or I could embrace this life that I had chosen. Up until this point, I had approached work as something to hold at arm’s length, something to be fought and attacked and pummeled into submission. Work was my enemy and every day was a battle.
But on this day it suddenly occurred to me that I could give up the fight. Rather than warring with my work, I could stretch out my arms and embrace it. After all, my work brought me the most joyful and satisfying things in my life—a strong, connected family life, an opportunity to practice my craft as a tailor, and service to my church. What would my life be without these things? Empty, dreary, and without meaning. Work was my path to acquiring these blessings. It was my friend, not my enemy, and that day I decided to begin embracing it in a true spirit of companionship and thanksgiving. I realized that while the tasks were important—the grammar lesson must be learned and the cassock must be sewn—it was the work itself that was of eternal impact. This work that surrounded me and threatened to engulf me was actually my surest path to salvation. I needed work, not just as a task to complete, but as a means of spiritual growth and as way to develop more virtues like perseverance, hope, faith, and love.
My new appreciation of work and it’s salvific operation was underscored on my next visit to my local monastery. I began paying attention to how hard the sisters worked—they hosted numerous guests, cooked, cleaned, produced pastries for their pastry shop, made soap, chopped firewood, tended goats; in short, I began to notice that they were always on the move. Not in a frenetic or harried way, but with a conscious, focused purpose, moving prayerfully and cheerfully from task to task. Watching them in their extremely disciplined lifestyle encouraged and inspired me. These women were tough and determined, but with some of the sweetest countenances I had ever seen, and I caught a new vision of what a disciplined life could be. My old vision of discipline had been one of gritting my teeth and getting through the day, no matter how I might leak my stress and frustration all over the people around me. My new vision was one of cheerful attention to work with a sense of gratitude for whatever task lay to hand.
Through all of this, I learned that one of the the most crucial steps in leading a more disciplined life is to embrace work and approach it as a means of salvation. As I’ve been putting this into practice over the last few years, I have noticed a startling correlation between work and contentment, something I’ve spoken of in previous podcasts. But just recently, I’ve begun to notice the opposite with leisure. We live in a culture infatuated with every form of leisure, and it seems that the more one chases after leisure, whether it be that perfect vacation or latest video game or the time we just “hang out” on the Internet, the more elusive contentment and peace become. We crave more and more, yet no matter how much time we devote to leisure, it drains us. Quite simply, leisure is not a path to salvation. This doesn’t mean that we become workaholics, not at all, because rest is still necessary in the disciplined life. But it does mean that we keep our leisure time limited in relation to the time we spend working. I’ve seen people who work in jobs they don’t like, who seem to live from vacation to vacation—they’re either just returning from one trip or planning the next and it seems as if their lives are on hold until the next great adventure. For them, leisure becomes a means of escapism and ultimately, a denial of the power that work can be in our lives. We’ve been taught to “live for the weekend” as if the week is our enemy. Once again, this pits us in an unnecessary battle against work.
So, having we’ve made our peace with work, how do we practically become more disciplined in our daily lives? As I’ve juggled homeschooling, tailoring, and household tasks over the years, I have come up with a few strategies that have helped me stay more focused and less stressed:
I cannot say enough good about schedules and routines, which are going to vary on each individual’s or family’s situation, as well as one’s inclination to be more or less organized. Sometimes schedules get a bad rap and are seen as making one live one’s life as an automaton. But learning to live within a basic schedule can in reality be quite liberating. I have a weekly schedule, both for homeschooling and my vestment work, with certain tasks assigned to each day. This frees me up from having to think about what I’m going to do with my day—if it’s Tuesday, then I know we have English, History, Math, and Latin in the morning and in the afternoon, I have to ship orders, pay bills, send swatches, and order supplies. It’s quite easy to fall into a sort of brain fog when faced with a new day, multiple tasks to get done, and no routine. The old housewife’s plan of washing on Mondays, baking bread on Tuesdays, etc. works for a reason—no matter if you’re tired or not in the mood to work, you just get up and get going because your routine is in place. This allows you to allocate your valuable mental resources to the work at hand, instead of spending mental energy figuring out what to do and when to do it.
One important caveat born out of my own failures I would add here, though: for those of you who love schedules (and I know you’re out there!), do not think you can schedule every minute of every day. “Flex time” is absolutely necessary if a schedule is going to work long-term. I have a several-hour block each week for catch-up time, which might be running an unexpected errand, dealing with a household repair, or if I’ve had a really busy week, I might use the time to read a book or do a special activity with my daughters. Also keep in mind that schedules change over time, especially with families. What worked when my daughters were 2 and 4, doesn’t work now that they are older. I tend to review my basic schedule 2-3 times a year, making changes as necessary. Which brings me to the next point…
While you’re working out your schedules and routines, there are a wide variety of scheduling techniques that work for various people, so make sure you are creating a schedule that works for you, even if it means doing something a little unconventional. For example, I have always loved long blocks of time for my tailoring work. When my girls were fairly young, however, my working time was in 2-hour blocks, either early in the morning, while they were napping, or late at night. But one week, my husband had to be out of town and I had an important deadline to keep, so I decided to get all the work done in one really long day, keeping my girls nearby with various toys, books on tape, and the much-loved treat of an afternoon movie. We had PB&J sandwiches served picnic style for lunch and by the end of the day, I had worked for 10 hours, my daughters had found the whole concept a novelty, and I now had the rest of the week free to focus on my children. This was how what we call the “Long Day” was born in our household and it continues to be the core of our weekly schedule. It’s serves my need to have a really large block of time in which to cut and measure, things I need a lot of focus for, and as my girls have grown, it has given them a weekly opportunity to practice their own time-management skills as they have a day of assigned homework rather than one-on-one lessons. On this day, vestment work takes precedence—I don’t cook, clean, do laundry, chat with friends on the phone, do parish work, exercise, or anything else. I make a pot of soup the night before, but my girls are expected to put out the rest of our main meal. I get started as early as possible and work as late as possible, clocking upwards of 15 hours. It sounds extreme, I know, but it allows me to continue my vestment work with minimal negative impact on my family—after all, it’s just one day out of seven. One of the ways that I know this creative scheduling works for our family, is by its continued ease of use—we’ve been having Long Days every week for over six years now and it continues to feel fairly easy and normal. Another way I know it works is by its fruits: over time, by helping prepare meals and do household chores on a day when I am less available than usual, it has enabled my daughters to be contributing members to the household, something that has given them a strong sense of being needed in the family as well as prepared them for their adult lives. It has born fruit not only in my life, in my being able to work at my most efficient, it has born fruit in my family’s life as well, a sure sign that this schedule works for us.
So whether you’re developing or fine-tuning a schedule, consider what conditions you work best in—are you an early riser or a night owl? Do you prefer to get a task done in one fell swoop or in little bursts of activity throughout the week? And be willing to take a chance on something—you might just be surprised by what happens!
As you begin to live a more disciplined life, you are going to notice that there are far more things that you either need or want to do, than are humanly possible. Here enters a principle I call, “Saying no to say yes”, which means that you acknowledge that your time is finite and that each time you are tempted to say “yes” to a new responsibility or task, no matter how worthy, you will most likely need to say “no” to something else. One of the greatest pitfalls in leading a disciplined life is to become too over-committed and end up in despair and anxiety. This summer, I had visions of berry picking and making jam, relishing in my mind’s eye those shelves of gleaming jars at the end of summer. But, in actuality, I spent a lot of my summer on the couch, wiped out by the nausea and fatigue of morning sickness. In order to say “yes” to another child, I had to say “no” to homemade jam. This happens on a daily basis as well—sometimes the jar of olives and loaf of bread I take to a church potluck means that I said “yes” to finishing a cassock and “no” to cooking an elaborate entree. It’s a constant matter for discernment in our daily lives, but I have found that by looking at my various options in the simplest of terms, those of “yes” and “no”, it allows me to see the big picture and keep my expectations reasonable.
Here’s one of the biggest threats we face in leading more disciplined lives. In our current age, we are surrounded on all sides by myriad distractions, from entertainment, leisure, technology, and rampant consumption not to mention the ever-present spiritual distractions like despair, pride, arrogance, and discontent. Some of these distractions are fairly obvious and easy to ignore—if your family has committed to attending Liturgy every week together, then you don’t allow your teenagers to go to a social event on Sunday morning. However, others are more pernicious, and usually come with a fair dose of what feels like appropriate guilt. I typically see this in families in my parish that are trying to give their children as many (quote, unquote) “opportunities” as possible. The kids are enrolled in multiple sports activities, they have music or art lessons, and their days are a whirl of activity and commitments—the parents would feel guilty if they gave any less to their children! But this is a classic example of too many “yes’” and not enough “no’s”.
I read of a recent study in which families that ate dinner together at least five nights a week had children that were exponentially less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol. Talk about giving your child an opportunity! Family dinner with its ability to create lasting, healthy relationships and children who are free from the temptations of abuse seems a far greater “opportunity” than yet another sports practice or social event. In our society, certain activities have been cleverly labeled to be “opportunities”, things you wouldn’t dream of not giving your children. If you were to withhold these activities from your children, in favor of a quiet family evening, you would almost be looked at askance. I had a direct encounter with this a couple of weeks ago: I recently signed my girls up for the local Catholic swim team, which practices two nights a week, well after dinner time. Great, I thought, a healthy dose of exercise that doesn’t undermine our family. I picked up the schedule for all of the swim meets and immediately thought I had misread it—every single swim meet was on a Sunday!
While we weren’t in the swim team purely for competition, I had thought the swim meets would be a way for my daughters to experience competition in a friendly environment. But in this case, I had to say “yes” to Liturgy and my daughters’ spiritual formation and “no” to the opportunity of competition. Fortunately, our team director understood our situation and allowed us to stay on the team. But it brought me right up against something that many families face on a daily basis—do we give our children the “opportunity” of church or do we give them the “opportunity” of yet another activity?
Another way distractions can undermine us is through technology, and I don’t just mean the computer. Personally, I find the telephone rather a nusiance, especially when I’m in the middle of a history lesson or trying to do the math calculations for a complicated altar cloth. With much trepidation, I recently put a notice on my website about my preference to be contacted by email—after all, email doesn’t ring, I can answer it when I’m fully present, and it gives me a helpful written copy which I can refer to if needed. I was very worried that my clients would see this as off-putting, but I have been happily surprised by their response. Written communication gives me a chance to respond in a careful, thoughtful manner, something that isn’t always possible in a brief phone call when I’m distracted by the task at hand. As you strive to lead a more disciplined life, you might need to assess which technologies are helpful to you and which aren’t and plan accordingly.
In addition to figuring out which technologies help you and which do not, I highly recommend the occasional technology-free evening, in which your family might sit together and read or enjoy a fire on a winter evening. You might have a weekly Game Night, in which the TV stays off (a friend of mine provides additional incentive for Game Night by making it the one night in the week that everyone can sit around and eat candy—needless to say, Game Night is highly popular in her house!). You might work on a home improvement or craft project together—either way, it is important to experience some periods of time in which you just have to “be” with your family.
Simplification is one of the practical tools we use to avoid distractions. The basic concept is that the less you have, the less you are distracted by it. It’s a way of protecting ourselves against the arrows of distractions. It might be cleaning out a closet, organizing your garage, or just purchasing less. We need to develop thoughtfulness and discernment about things and their impact on our lives. I firmly believe there is something spiritually negative about clutter and that reducing the amount of clutter in your life can give you a tremendous sense of freedom. If you find this overwhelming, and, take heart, most people do!, then tackle it in small bursts. I once read a book on organizational skills that recommended breaking any difficult task into 15 minute increments. I thought it was a bit of a crazy idea, but at the time, I had a 3-year-old and 1-year-old and I needed to paint my hallway and so I decided to give it a try—one day I put up the painter’s tape, another I did the cut-in work on one wall, etc. It took me about 4 weeks of 15-minutes a day, but eventually, the hallway was painted. It did mean that I had to keep my paintbrush at the ready next to the bathroom sink, but it took an otherwise major project and turned into a simple little daily task. If you need to de-clutter your whole house, start with the kitchen counters. Once you’ve done them, you’ve now created a clutter-free oasis in your home and you can continue, little bit by little bit. You will notice how much more calm and peaceful you feel as you simplify. In my workshop, I have to do this about every 3 months or the avalanche of fabric will obliterate me. But, the day after I’ve cleaned out is such a joy—I can’t wait to get to work!
Lastly, there are a few miscellaneous tips I would like to share:
As you are setting up your schedule, try and include one or two “retreats” per year. I don’t mean retreats where there is a speaker and a sit-down lunch, but rather a true “retreat” in which you leave your regular life for a day or two. It’s helpful if you have your retreats at the same time each year, so you know when to expect them. If you have a local monastery, this is ideal, as you can go spend a night or two and recharge your batteries. Plus, as you get familiar with your local monastery, you can offer to work on small projects for them while you’re there such as chopping wood, helping prepare food, or some other task. It’s an amazing experience to go work for your retreat—I always find the deepest sense of refreshment when I’ve done something useful at my local monastery and this sense of restoration follows me into my daily life once I return home. I was blessed this last week to spend seven days at my local monastery, my longest visit to date, to help the sisters sew some of their winter clothes. It was one of the more fascinating weeks of my life as I was able to see the routine of the sister’s entire week, from the busy bustle of the weekdays to the quiet relaxation time of Sunday. Towards the end of the week, I was speaking with one of the sisters and asking her about routine and the monastic life and she answered quite simply in the words of her elder: “Where there is order, there is peace, and where there is peace, there is God”.
OK, this one sounds a little funny, but I have realized over time that for those of us that live in the world, sitting down can unnecessarily slow us down and put us into a more leisurely frame of mind. Whatever your situation, be it a mom of six or an insurance salesman, try and stand more. I don’t mean to move in a frenetic or hurried fashion, but rather, don’t sit down, unless you are ready to take a conscious break. If you work at a job that requires you to sit at a desk, then try and walk around every hour or two. This is a relatively new discovery for me after I recently read about stand desks and decided to cobble one together in my workshop to try it out (it required four cans of diced tomatoes and an old school desk to get the right height). It’s a very small adjustment in my work-style, but it has given me a greater amount of efficiency—if I need to see if I have a galloon in stock, I just walk over and check; if I need to make a note for a client’s file, I’m already standing and ready to head to the file cabinet. By standing, I’m poised for work—it’s a subtle mental shift, but one that can bear good fruit. It also puts work and leisure into greater contrast—for me, when I’m standing, I’m working, and when I’m sitting, I’m resting.
In conclusion, these are just a few practical ideas for bringing more discipline to your life. As you continue your journey of discipline, you will find many little graces and blessings along the way that will assist you to move farther and farther along. Remember to be peaceful about the changes you are making and frequently request the intercession of your patron saint and guardian angel. But, most of all, keep your trust in our loving Lord, who will give us all the strength we need.