What lurks quietly in the corner, returns no matter how many times they are removed, and makes me absolutely nuts? Dust bunnies. I just vacuumed a few hours ago, but still the tufts of dust and fur rise up like weeds, refusing to be stamped out.
The dust bunnies are on my mind because they came up — in a repeated and somewhat embarrassing way — in my annual journal review this January.
Slogging through my list of minor desolations this year (“dust bunnies” and “too much rushing” topped that list), I kept thinking about a particular concept that influenced me in my early twenties. In the late 1990s, Dr. Christiane Norththrup’s readable reference book Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom had recently been published, and a group of women from my church (all of whom I respected) raved about it. As a young woman, I appreciated the frank discussion about female bodies and sexuality in a context that was empowering to women — and it was a gift to be able to process through the information with mature Christian women. I think now (and thought back then) that there are pieces of that book that tip farther into the “new age” spectrum than I feel quite comfortable with theologically, but there is no doubt in my mind that there are some worthwhile truths revealed in the book. And all truth is God’s truth.
The concept that has stuck with me for nearly twenty years has to do with…menstrual cycles. Or, more specifically, pre-menstrual syndrome. My own experience with PMS has always been pretty mild — a bit of bloat, a tendency to succumb to irritation more easily — and for many years, I dismissed its importance. But I’ve learned to take my hormonal fluctuations seriously, noticing all the detritus that gets swept along with them. Even if my own emotional reaction to a circumstance seems overly dramatic, that’s not a good reason to discount the reaction itself and sweep it under the carpet of “PMS." Truth can be revealed by paying attention to those things that irritate us. Northrup compares it (in her inimitable Earth-mother style) to both the turn of the seasons and the tide:
“The second half of the menstrual cycle and autumn are times when the tide is out and everything that you don’t want to see on the muddy bottom of the bay is uncovered for all to see. Women need to learn to pay attention to the information available to them at these times of the month and of the year. Think of this information as compost that you’ll be using to create new growth in your life once the light comes back.” (Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, pg 134.)
I love that image — a snapshot of all the crud on the ocean floor that, much of the time, is tidily concealed by the peace and beauty of the water. But the crud is there, nonetheless. Exposing it isn’t pretty, and it might increase our sense of vulnerability, but merely because we’re encountering a part of reality that we might prefer to avoid, coming face to face with the way our actions or circumstances might be inconsistent with our deepest desires and values.
So, when I lash out about the state of our floors, I’m poised to confront all kinds of beliefs and feelings I have about the way I spend my time and energy, the role of each family member in the care of the home, my own belief in my ability to “do it all,” my personal need for a pleasant space to relax in, the sense of entitlement our children may pick up if I am always the one vacuuming, and how this tension impacts our family dynamic generally. It would be so much easier to brush away my tears of irritation and say, “Oh, I’m just having PMS,” or “Oh, I’m just feeling extra-tired today." But I’m not just having PMS, and I’m not just extra-tired. There may be truth in those statements, but they merely indicate that I’m experiencing a heightened awareness of the challenges in my life and environment — and I’m expressing that awareness through an emotional response that happens to be more readily available due to my hormonal fluctuations, or my exhaustion, or any number of natural biological factors. My emotional wavelength is bigger, and that is partly due to the chemical shifts or physical quirks of my body, but it doesn’t follow that then the emotions aren’t real or significant.
Being conscious of one’s emotional fluctuations yields fruit throughout the whole month and the whole year, especially when combined with the ability to slow down and listen carefully for a few minutes. St. Ignatius noticed this too, encouraging followers to engage in a daily Examen of consciousness. Through the examination of one’s own experience of reality, we can more truthfully bring the fullness of ourselves before Jesus, opening ourselves to his direction and healing. He is the Good Shepherd who knows every need of his sheep, no matter how seemingly insignificant. And in my experience, noticing those needs helps me to listen for and identify his voice more clearly and accurately.
Underneath my recurring desolation around an imperfectly tidy house or about rushing around, I find a rich vein of questions centering around identity, temperament, values, hopes, and dreams. Even with just a cursory glance, something that appears ridiculous on the surface can reveal deeper truths when examined closely. Looking deeper into these minor irritations points me toward areas in my life and relationships that need attention and thought — with hope for improvement in my closest relationships, in my ability to listen for God’s call in my life, and in my own personal sense of fulfillment.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say dust bunnies are a gift — but I do think the process of noticing the depth of my annoyance with them is a gift. We can appreciate our ability to notice these provocations as a true blessing — something gifted to us through PMS, through over overtired bodies, or simply through an experience of our own limits and sensitivities. Encountering our human limitations in this way can allow us to see life more clearly, ultimately helping us to understand ourselves, take action, and speak truth into our circumstances and into the world. I would even venture to say that this is one way Jesus is ushering in the Kingdom of God. It is just the kind of thing he does — turning something unimportant into a tool for spiritual transformation. And what a gift it is to be part of a Kingdom like that.