Kathleen Norris and Creaturely Play
I am very excited. Tomorrow night one of my favorite writers comes to the humble city of Waco, Texas and I get the privilege of hearing her speak. Her influence is seen in my life in many ways: in my joy at the smell of yeast as bread rises on my kitchen counter at this precise moment, in my delight at the sound of the trees outside my window rustling in the gusty Texas wind, in the enjoyable bitter note left on my tongue after my last sip of coffee. Kathleen Norris has helped me to play in the common-place activities of a creaturely life.
Her writing came into my life when the mundane was weighing me down. When the walk from the bus to my house day-after-day with cold, wet feet from yet another Vancouver rainfall reminded me of my disdain for monotony. When working to pay bills, attempting to keep up in reading and re-memorizing the same Hebrew vocab to receive that prized “A” consumed my attention. When, much like the Vancouver landscape, my life felt gray, damp and molding despite being busy and full of things to be completed. It was in this moment when Norris came into my life in the form of a very small book where she wrote:
I have come to believe that when we despair of praise, when the wonder of creation and our place in it are lost to us, it is often because we’ve lost sight of our true role as creatures—we have tried to do too much, pretending to be in such control of things that we are indispensable. It’s a hedge against mortality and, if you’re like me, you take a kind of comfort in being busy. The danger is that we will come to feel too useful, so full of purpose and the necessity of fulfilling obligations that we lose sight of God’s play with creation, and with ourselves…
When confronting a sinkful of dirty dishes—something I do regularly, as my husband is the cook in our house and I am the dishwasher—I admit that I generally lose sight of the fact that God is inviting me to play. But I recall that as a college student I sometimes worked as a teacher’s aide in a kindergarten and was interested to note that one of the most popular play areas for both boys and girls was a sink in a corner of the room. After painting, the children washed their brushes there, but at other times, for the sheer joy of it—the tickle of water on the skin and God knows what else—a few children at a time would be allowed what the teacher termed “water play.” The children delighted in filling, emptying and refilling plastic bowls, cups and glasses, watching bubbles form as they pressed objects deeper into the sink or tried to get others to stay afloat.
It is difficult for adults to be so at play with daily tasks in the world.
It seems that I had unlearned the childhood skill of finding delight in the quotidian. I realized that much of what was in fact an invitation to play was being interpreted as another act that needed to be completed. Ultimately the commonplace acts of life had become just another thing to take up my time and distract from the important, accomplishment-driven doings of my life. My use of a dish necessitated its dirtiness—and I had to clean it. My own body, with the sweat, dirt and other mysteries of daily life necessitated its soiling—and I had to wash it. Even the very foundational need for sleep was objectified—I needed to get it. (The clear frustration and rejection of my creaturely need for sleep is seen in the saying among many of my friends in university: “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”)
I had lost the delight, I had lost the play—and Kathleen Norris helped remind me of the profundity of this loss. She has helped me rediscover the delight to be found in what can easily be seen as mundane—like the opportunity for water-play in a sink full of dirty dishes.
 Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work” (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1998), 26-27.