Parable of the Scissors

From time to time over the next several months I plan to put short drafts up on the blog that I’m writing for the Sabbath book. I worked on the following piece this morning. Feedback is appreciated, keeping in mind that it’s a first draft.

I have a pair of red-handled scissors. They’ve been mine since seventh grade, when I took a home ec class. They’re fabric scissors, with which I cut out material for a simple elastic-waist skirt (blue plaid) and made throw pillows for my sister that spelled our her name. K-A-T-I-E. But I don’t sew anymore, so these scissors now live in our kitchen junk drawer and are used for paper, clothing tags, evil clamshell packaging, and even the occasional stray wisp of hair. They’re left-handed scissors, so they’re precious to me. They are as tight and precise as they were when I was 12.

I wrote my name in Sharpie on the inside of one of the blades when I first got them. MaryAnn McKibben. When I got married I crammed “Dana” on there too. They have been with me for some 26 years.

They’re gone now.

I think.

But this is not about the loss, or the nagging silly grief of missing something I’ve had for so long.

Friday my kids and I had a flurry of a day, getting errands done to get ready for Saturday’s Sabbath and for a visit from friends over the weekend. We grocery shopped, we shoe shopped, we took cardboard to the recycling center. Margaret and James handed me boxes (squabbling over whose turn it was) while I slashed through old packing tape to make everything flat and compact.

As I slammed the back hatch of the van, I turned to Margaret and said, “Please put these back in the junk drawer for me.”

She did not do that. And we have no idea what she did with them. I suspect that she absent-mindedly threw them in the trash can—a likely occurrence since she did the same thing that night with the spoon she used at dinner.

But this is not about the peculiarities of the five-year-old brain.

I discovered they were gone because the weather stripping is coming off the bottom of our front door and I wanted to snip off that flapping tail, just really quick, so it wouldn’t flop around every time we opened or closed the door. The realization of the missing scissors led to a brief but fruitless search and a short interrogation of Margaret, who had no idea where she’d put them.

I discovered they were gone on Saturday, our Sabbath day, the day we don’t cut loose weather stripping from the front door, except that we do. I do. And I was reminded they were gone at least twice more on that supposed day of rest. A new box of cat litter—the cat boxes could use a top-off. A stubborn plastic tag on the previous day’s clothing purchase from Target–would really like to wear that today. But no scissors. It wasn’t my Sabbath commitment that stopped me from completing those tasks, it was the lack of proper tools.

I tell myself that I let a little work creep in to the day of rest to get ready for our guests. Hospitality is a virtue too, even on the Sabbath… not that our friends care about a flap of weather stripping or an additional half-inch of cat litter. But it’s not really about that either. Because the work always nags on the Sabbath. Always.

I don’t regret this experiment. The fact that I anticipate the arrival of each Saturday with the giddy relief of a kid at Christmas suggests that there’s something right about it. But the impulse to tidy, to beautify, to make it all better, is overwhelming.

And that’s what this is about. This is about a commitment to do something simple, but not easy: To stop changing things. To stop controlling the chaos for one blasted, blessed day.

This is about my inability to stop that completely. This is about my inability… but also my ability, my incredible ability, to tame chaos. My sharp eye toward a stray sock on the floor, which gets dispensed with a quick toss down the laundry chute (aka basement stairs). The efficient way I sweep the discarded stuffed animal into my arms for a trip down the stairs where it belongs.

Maybe it doesn’t matter that I “cheat.” These are trifles. Nobody’s grading me. I get to define the parameters of this thing. But I wonder what it would be like to really and truly stop. To look at the mess and not try to fix it. To let the chaos be a gift for a single day.

If this were a blog with all the answers, and a different view of how God works, the scissors would show up, miraculously, the following day, gleaming as if with a special holy polish.

But they’re still gone.

7 thoughts on “Parable of the Scissors

  1. marciglass

    Yes. Where does “work” stop? And I share the slippery slope of “it is easier to grab the toy off the floor now than it would be to let them all pile up and deal with them tomorrow”. But that’s the point, isn’t it.

    And I’m much better about taking sabbath from my work life than I am from my home life. Baby steps.

  2. sherry

    I like this. Really, I do.

    But, I have to say that you might as well be speaking Chinese to me. The way you write about Sabbath, your practice of Sabbath….I just don’t get it…..I honestly think I would panic if I stopped controlling the chaos.

    And…if that is where the book/blog is going….I need the children’s felt board version of this story.

    1. MaryAnn

      What *precisely* about it is foreign?
      How far down does the not-getting-it go?

      Are you saying that this practice, this stopping, is somehow no longer relevant for our lives? Or relevant for some, but not for you? Or a good idea but impossible for you? Or something you yearn for but cannot see yourself doing?

      Is it wistfulness? Hostility? Something else?

      That sounds like a barrage but isn’t meant to be. It’s important for me to know what people hear when I talk about this stuff.

  3. sherry

    I am saying that the practice of stopping has never, ever been a part of my life. As a child, I read the book Cheaper By the Dozen…the father is some sort of efficiency engineer and encourages all activity to have more than one purpose. That philosophy was the mantra of our house. “Never do one thing at a time when you could be doing two.” “Make yourself useful as well as ornamental.” And I am not a child of the computer age (I actually used a slide rule at one point in my life.) That is why I made the felt board comment….learning about this would take putting myself in a child like learning position for the concept to filter into my heart and soul.

    The feelings I have toward what I think you are describing are not wistful or hostile….and I am not saying this is no longer relevant in our lives….I am saying that I have never known this to even be a possibility. Picking up a sock is not done during Sabbath? Really? hmm. not wow, not I wish I had that, not weird…just hmmm.

    Does a Sabbath commitment really mean that tags don’t get cut off a shirt? Because if that is what this sort of Practice is about…then

    This absolutely beautiful story about the scissors is hitting me like I walked into a calculus class for the very first time and the rest of the class has been there for 3 months…..I know I *can* understand it….but my heart doesn’t get it.

    I hope that helps. Remember, that I may not be your target reader….but I am very willing to try to be.

    1. MaryAnn

      Thank you. This IS helpful and I will probably send some other questions your way.

      I think this “hmm” business goes both ways. This experience of ceasing work once a week has taught me that I can’t live in a constant state of motion. Though the piece attests that I find productivity leaking in—and for me, there’s some sense of justifying my own existence there—90% of the day really is spent in quiet, restful recreation and unproductiveness. The constant laboring and optimizing that I do the rest of the week is just not sustainable. I used to do that seven days a week, I think, but I don’t know how I pulled it off. Because now when I miss a week, I am a really unpleasant person to live with.

      So I look at or hear about people who are always going, and while you can’t really compare one person’s experience with another’s, I feel a sense of “I just can’t cut it in that world. They have something [stamina, drive, need for less sleep] that I don’t.”

      I think on some level I always knew I couldn’t do it in that world. What has shifted since we began Sabbath more intentionally is, I feel like I wouldn’t even want to if I could.

      But, it takes all kinds of people to make up a world!

      The book will not have appeal for everyone. But I do hope to make it at least understandable and relatable, in the way that I can “get” this book I’m reading about a guy who spent a year in the Patagonian wilderness by himself, while knowing I could never do that myself.

      So this conversation is helpful and will continue.

  4. janewilk

    I love your blog, and your writing really resonates with me. I think this piece will hit home with a lot of people – maybe women in particular – for whom the work never stops.
    It seems that there may be a tiny undercurrent of grief running through this piece – for the loss of (or want of, or inability for) being able to just be, to let things go – kind of a yearning for a more Zen approach to the chaos (to introduce another religion into the mix!). Then there’s also a little sadness and regret for the loss of the scissors – which obviously meant something to you, and have a history. And being a mom of a daughter myself, I’m just wondering how your girl might feel when she gets a little older and reads this. Just my $0.02 – but you might consider softening the language a little so that exactly who was responsible for screwing up and losing the scissors is more nebulous. I know my kid would feel that error pretty keenly, especially if I had published her (certainly absentminded, but consequential) mistake in a book for other people to read.
    Anyway, I am a frequent reader of your blog, and I think you are a very insightful writer. Thank you!

  5. Rachel Heslin

    I’ve been thinking a lot about how to respond to this, because your almost unconscious awareness of all the little things that go into maintenance of a home is something I aspire to.

    Is it, indeed, “work” if it’s just something you do, rather than something you force yourself to do because you think you should?

    If preventing yourself from doing these things brings more stress because (1) NOT doing it is “unnatural” to how you flow through your life, and (2) you know it’ll become a worse mess if you don’t, then wouldn’t the extra effort required to NOT pick up that sock be considered doing MORE work than just flowing with what you normally do?

    I guess the answer comes back to what your Sabbath is attempting to accomplish. Yes, it is a break from Doing, a space to contemplate and Be. But at what point does getting bogged down in Not Doing take away from Being?


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