Now that he’s figured out how to subscribe to this newsletter, I’m writing a post about my youngest child, my nine-year-old son, the one who wears hand-me-downs, who begs for a dog even though he knows he won’t get one, who works hard to keep up with his older siblings even if he can’t, who has five other people constantly telling him what to do even if he already knows. But what I’ve come to appreciate about him during this time of quarantine, is that he’s also the one who never fails to surprise me.
Whether it’s hearing him on a Zoom call with his classmates authoritatively explaining how to manage a technical problem or negotiating with a friend over House Party about a Roblox idea they’re working on or providing us with a little-known factoid on World War II history during dinner — day in and day out, while locked at home, I’ve seen new sides to my son I didn’t know were there. But Saturday night really took the prize. I was tucking him into bed and he said, “Oh wait, I need to show you something!” which as any parent can tell you is just about the LAST thing you want to hear when you’re minutes away from saying goodnight to your kid. However, I manufactured some interest and said, “Great! show me!” At which point he opened his dresser drawer to reveal (and I swear the angels were singing) the most gorgeously folded set of 9-year-old boy clothing I have ever seen. I’m not kidding, I almost started weeping.
I looked at my kid and said, “Wow. That is so beautiful. Did you do that yourself? How did you learn to do that?” To which he glibly replied, “I don’t know. I guess I just taught myself” and then climbed into bed and closed his eyes. I was blown away. Each of my kids is officially expected to fold their clean laundry and put it away in their drawers but that’s not usually what happens in actuality. Normally they just shove the clothes into the drawer until they can barely close it. On the most fundamental level, the drawer of tidy clothing was extremely exciting, first, because it meant my son met my expectations without being nagged or reminded and second, because it meant my kid actually has a chance of finding his stuff without my help, offering a break from the dreaded “MOM, where is…?” But more than its tactical benefits, his neat drawer of clothing, while seemingly mundane, was actually quite revelatory in its impact on my thinking, spurring me to contemplate it teaches me about my son and our daily lives during this totally bizarre time.
At first, I just kept wondering why my son took it upon himself to do a beautiful job with his folding when he expected no reward, no prize, no adulation? I was trying to wrap my head around his motivation to accomplish a task that seemingly had no value to the outside world, no clear benefit to increasing his standing with his siblings, no perks while on facetime with friends and about which I might not have ever known. It eventually dawned on me that my son learned to fold his clothes and did it well because it was a challenge he wanted to overcome, an exercise in taking on a small, simple and satisfying task for its own sake. And then it hit me — a bolt of realization so powerful I felt like I should have been sitting cross-legged on a mountaintop — my kid had discovered the Tao of Quarantine. While I am running around huffing and puffing and worrying and weighing and considering and contemplating, he had found the secret to thriving in this liminal time: the beauty of a basic task done well. My son didn’t do it for praise or a good grade or a trophy, he simply folded his clothes neatly and carefully because it gave him pleasure to do so.
So as per usual in parenting, the student becomes the teacher. My nine-year-old Zen master taught me an important lesson about these slow and boring days when the world is in chaos and our lives are filled with uncertainty: we may find purpose and meaning in small acts of simplicity. Zen and the Art of Well-Folded Clothing (doesn’t have quite the same ring as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, does it?) instructs that what ordinarily brings us a sense of accomplishment may not be what helps us feel accomplished at this time. Rather, it may be the opposite. If I’m interpreting my son’s actions correctly, the Tao of Quarantine refocuses our priorities and reverses our momentum. It tells us that the minutiae of daily life, the labors through which we normally rush, are no longer the things to get past, but the things to sit with. The meditative process of going nowhere fast, doing nothing special, might actually be the mode that will bring us some respite, possibly even some joy, right now. The Tao of Quarantine, as taught to me by my delicious kid who never ceases to amaze me, can be reduced to this — take pleasure in simple tasks and never underestimate your youngest child.