Big Gifts of a Small Life: Meeting God in Sticky Floors, Carpools & the Needy People I Call My Own

"Small chaos"—that's the phrase I chose to describe my life with small children in my book No Easy Choice. They were the best words I could come up with to describe a life that was thrilling, boring, too full, not full enough, exhausting and exhilarating, all at once. A life full to the brim of the very things I had always most wanted, in which I was continually, painfully aware of all the other things that I desperately wanted and couldn't have, at least not in sufficient quantities—adult conversation, time to write, sleep, the ability to get in a car and go somewhere (anywhere!) without having first and always to accommodate the many needs of people who were not me.

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But as frustrated as I could become with the limits imposed by three small children, I'm well-suited for a small life. I'm not an adventurer; my husband's wanderlust compared with my love of home above all places has been one of the few constant tensions in our marriage. Fortunately, his work affords him regular occasions to travel in the U.S. and occasionally overseas—without me, which suits me just fine. I'm an introvert; writing allows me to connect with others and have a voice in cultural and religious concerns without leaving my kitchen table. I have a body made crooked and sore by dozens of broken bones, arthritis, scoliosis, and osteoporosis. I will likely never travel to a developing nation, because I don't want to, and because the prospect of becoming injured in a place where basic pain relief and orthopedic care could be hundreds of miles away terrifies me.

I've always understood these things about myself—that I'm a homebody and an introvert with a body that limits the kinds of adventures I will undertake, that a small life fits me (I am only 4-feet 8-inches tall, after all). But I've also grappled with guilt and shame over my satisfaction with a small life. Within progressive Christianity, in particular, there are many voices and forces calling us to a bigger life. Those voices and forces can be a corrective to an overly protected, comfortable life. They can also be insidious, whispering in my ear that I, and the life of writing and cooking and loving my children and retiring to bed by 9:00 to rest my aching joints and feed my never-ending thirst for a good book, can never be enough for God.

While my college evangelical fellowship led me to more deliberately embrace the Christian faith in which I was raised, the progressive urban coffee-house church I attended for nearly 10 years in my 20s was where I came of age as a Christian, where I really figured out what sort of theology, values, and liturgy would define my faith. That church, affiliated with the Church of the Saviour, attracted people who did radical things in the name of Jesus. Many people left behind comfortable suburban lives to raise families in D.C.'s impoverished neighborhoods, live in group houses for people living with AIDS or mental disabilities, or start new nonprofits with nothing more than a few thousand dollars, volunteers, and a clear sense of God's call. Our church emphasized the figuring out of one's call or vocation, and I was dismayed when, time and again, it became clear that I was called to have children (and to write too, but at the time, the call to parenthood was much stronger—a hurricane wind, while the call to write was more of a mild, steady breeze). Having babies seemed such a limited work compared with the great works my fellow believers were engaged in. It was embarrassing, really. Yes, I am called to wipe pureed plums off some drooly kid's chin while you all are saving the world.

Fast forward several years. Daniel and I moved to Connecticut, back to my hometown, and in 1999, I had the first of three children. My life became defined—consumed—by small chaos. Spending all day, every day with babies and toddlers required a tectonic shift of perspective, and yet the days were caught up in smallness. I honestly can't remember what exactly I did on those thousands of days when nearly every minute was dedicated to my children. I did small things: meals and cleaning up after meals; grocery shopping; laundry; walks to the drug store, the playground, to nowhere in particular; peek-a-boo and sing-songy chitchat games. It was exhausting and tedious, and yet I knew it was where I was meant to be. And it was not merely tedium; each day brought its cache of small pleasures—a baby's smile, a toddler's clever use of words, the shape of a child's tensed calf muscles as he climbed the playscape—that made clear why for many of us, parenthood is the most anticipated, most treasured work of our lives. My kids are older and far more self-sufficient now. I can write for hours even when they're home. I can get in the car and go just about anywhere I want within reason, by myself, because they can fix themselves lunch, make sure the dog gets let out, and call me if something comes up that they can't handle. But I still live a relatively "small" life—a life focused on the quotidian chores and comforts of keeping house and raising children, a life in which I travel the same handful of local roads day after day, a life in which I may write about the significant events of our world but rarely witness them firsthand. And these two works—mothering and writing—are not separate, but intertwined. I'm not sure that I would be a writer if I hadn't had kids, because being their mother has given me not only topical focus, but also a passion and a voice I didn't have before. If I hadn't had kids, I might still be writing for nonprofits as I did before, penning clearly worded, well-edited newsletters and PR materials. But I doubt I would crave my working hours, be energized and nourished by them, as I am now.

And yet, even as my increasing freedom from child care allows me to entertain a bigger vision of my writing career—higher blog stats, print magazine articles, another book, speaking at my favorite writers' conference—my days are still caught up in smallness, dictated by the repetitive details of keeping everyone fed, getting them where they need to go, and maintaining order. I am not always grateful for the small acts around which my life revolves, but I try to be, because small, daily, repetitive acts sustain us all. When I occasionally despair at the great pain of this world and my inability to do anything big to fix it, I find solace in small acts of love. Perhaps I can't save the world, but I can do this: Fix a meal with basil from the garden, put my clean children to bed beneath clean sheets, send a box of hand-me-down clothes to my goddaughter. Amid those daily tasks, I can make connections and write about what it all means, what's important and what is not, how to ask difficult questions about parents and children and communities and try to answer them together with other writers and readers. The small work nurtures the big work, the big work gives shape and meaning to the small. The Indigo Girls' song "All That We Let In" is a meditation on the losses we live with if we choose to love other people and engage the world; it's about abiding in the face of personal and global suffering. One verse goes like this: We're in an evolution I have heard it said Everyone's so busy now but do we move ahead The planets hurling and atoms splitting And a sweater for your love you sit there knitting.

Every time I hear that, I think yes, that's me. The ice caps are melting; the bombs are going off in Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria; the kids are getting hooked on heroin and bullying each other to death. And here I am, mopping the kitchen floor, packing the lunches for tomorrow's school day, pulling weeds. The song writers do not seem to intend this observation as an accusation or even a lament. Rather, it is an acknowledgment of how necessary it is to go on with our small daily acts of care even as the world spins out of control. I am as capable of self-deception as anyone, so I must guard against allowing my satisfaction with a small life to become a poisonous complacency, a noxious stew of mixed-up priorities. God has made the audacious (not entirely rational, in my opinion) decision to put the fate of the world and the duty to care for one another in our feeble, clumsy hands. I can't be what God asks me to be if I allow the walls of my home and the limitations of life with children and a disability to become fences separating me from the exasperating, needy world. But I'm also convinced that, as important as political uprisings and well-funded nonprofits and best-selling books about grace can be in our vocation to name all as God's beloved and treat them accordingly, the work of care and salvation most often takes place as small acts. When we read about Jesus's years as a human being on this earth, we don't read about huge rallies protesting Roman rule or well-funded facilities to take in all of the town's lepers. We read about meals shared with friends and unexpected—even unsavory—strangers. We read about Jesus and his friends fishing and cooking and gathering water. We read about Jesus visiting homes where someone was sick or dying. We read about children climbing onto his lap. We read about a Samaritan stopping to help an injured man and then continuing on his journey, about a father throwing a party for his returning son, about planting seeds and offering a drink to a thirsty person and putting a nearly worthless coin in the offering basket. Small things, all—which gives me hope that God, whose kingdom Jesus compared to a tiny mustard seed, can use even the small chaos of my small life to make God's grace known.

Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Her articles, blog posts, book chapters, and books have been published by the Christian Century, GeneWatch Magazine, the New York Times‘s Motherlode blog, OnFaith,Brain, Child Magazine, the Episcopal Cafe, Christianity Today, the Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI) Foundation, Virtual Mentor (the American Medical Association’s online journal of ethics), and more. She blogs about faith, family, disability, and ethics at Patheos.