diligence: steady, earnest, and energetic effort
I stood in the bathroom brushing my teeth. I looked at my reflection in the mirror and noticed two scratches streaked across my right cheek. I wondered what I was working on when that happened and what unconscious movement made the marks.
My mind mused on the questions Jake’s mom, Anne, planned to ask in her radio interview with us the next day, and I was struck by a memory of a past interview:
I remember my eight grade self (probably pig-tailed) sitting anxiously in a large spinny chair that swallowed me whole at the end of a long table in a conference room. I sat in front of a panel of people whose faces I can’t picture now. They asked me questions to see if I would be a good fit for the virtual governor’s school -- a highschool program for “advanced” students in rural counties like Goochland. I am sure they asked me a handful of questions, but today I can only recall one.
“If you had one free day -- and you were capable of doing anything on that day -- what would you do?”
What a strange, vague question. What would I do on a day I could do anything? I felt overwhelmed, and I mumbled and bumbled out an answer about traveling the entire world along with some other unreasonable nonsense I thought they would want to hear.
I left the interview with a sinking feeling. I kicked myself for delivering such a stupid answer. Later on, I confided in my mom about the question and my lost confidence. She looked at me and shook her head. “With an entire free day, Alex? You should’ve told ‘em what you would really do. You’d probably go dig a hole.”
Another memory from my middle school days came to mind this past month. One afternoon, Mr. Hancock stood up at the front of the computer lab. He had everyone pause in their typing modules before announcing to the class that I had acquired the most typing hours of any student in our section. He said this as if I deserved applause and he expected the class to congratulate me. As my cheeks began to flush, my classmates shared confused glances and smirks. Did Mr. Hancock understand that this meant I was the slowest typist in our class? He looked around, furrowed his brow, and then it settled in. He had accidentally awarded the golf tournament win to the putter who took the most whacks. What was done was done. He nodded and waddled back over to his chair.
These memories have felt especially relevant over the past few weeks. They speak to a simplicity and slowness about my character that I often deny as I try to keep up with the rest of the world.
After my store shift one day I decided to go help Ben and Matt with the floors. I wanted to try the drum sander and knew this was my chance. I walked slowly back and forth across the room -- pulling the sander along each plank of pine. I engaged muscles in my arms, back and neck to slow the sander and keep it flush with the floor. I studied the floor boards as I walked and watched their scratches and scars fade with each pass. This work was quite different from the challenges of multi-tasking and navigating my way through a complicated puzzle of paperwork, emails and phone calls in the school store. With the sander, I had to pace myself and the machine to carry out one task effectively. In the store, I tried to work as quickly as I could on several different tasks at once.
I am grateful for the contrast of work. It’s teaching me about the pace I want my life to move. Without the distractions of the quick, busy life this would have been before the pandemic, lost memories flood back into my body. They let me laugh at myself and urge me to reconsider my assumed strengths, weaknesses, and values.
I find solace and steadiness in the “simple” work of digging and sanding. I enjoy studying what often goes overlooked: striations of soil, sand and clay, the pattern of floor boards laid across the room. This work calms me, grounds me, gives me rhythm.
When I feel comfortable with the rhythm, I lose myself in the song. Occasional variation in the work, keeps the music engaging. Finding a shared rhythm while working with others fosters connection and a deepened sense of belonging.
We build skills, capacity, and confidence when our minds and bodies are challenged, not inundated.
I have always worked with a sense of urgency. The sense of urgency inherent in my work ethic carries with it the worry that I am never working fast enough. Past bosses praised this quality in me, my drive to deliver, to be early and efficient. Coworkers asked me “what’s the rush?”
It’s only now that COVID put the brakes on the hustle and bustle we call life, and I find myself quarantined at a folk school in northern Minnesota, that I realize this: feeling urgent about getting things done deprives me of joy in the doing.
I am thorough to a fault, and this quality in my character can also be frustrating. My sense of urgency never made cutting corners feel okay. I take pride in a job well done, and this pride slows me down. Perhaps the pace that I perceive in myself is only “slow” compared to that of others who are moving at hyperspeed, overlooking the details.
In my seventh grade typing class I accumulated the most hours because I tried to keep my fingers in the right place even though it felt uncomfortable. I knew I could eventually be efficient, if I took my time to do it right. Taking shortcuts when learning has consequences.
The quiet time lets me shed my sense of urgency and embrace my compulsive need to be thorough, to do and learn deeply. Don’t mistake the forest for the trees, goes the adage. As spring comes to the north shore, I find myself immersed in the forest, studying the trees, and also taking time to focus on the leaves. This time is a gift.
Although we had a tight timeline to build two houses, the lead builders in Utah urged our construction crew to never feel rushed, but to always work diligently. This is the way I strive to work at any task, craft, or chore: with rhythm, care, and persistence.