I have always been fascinated by the story of the village sisters Mary and Martha – how Jesus came to their house one day, and whilst Mary settled herself at his feet to listen Martha slaved away resentfully in the kitchen unaided. I even renamed two of my rescue cats Martha and Mary – well, they were Fluffy and Tiny. Actually, Fluffy and Tiny describes them just as well, though Tiny has put on a pound or two since then and Fluffy, for reasons best known to herself, has licked away most of her back fur, so she now resembles the Last of the Mohicans, or Baldy at the Back, Fluffy at the Front.
I used to see myself as a Definite Mary – the spiritual one. Not the drab, cross one fretting about a mountain of washing up in another room. But things have happened to me recently which have made me reassess my attitude to everyday life and value two items – the company of my multitude of cats, and the endless tiny repetitions of simple tasks – the drudgery, if you like, of everyday life. Indeed these two threads are intertwined since ninety percent of the drudgery is generated by the many cats!
Twice a day I pick up twenty empty, or half-empty, cat-food bowls and scrape them into a green waste bin. (It should be nineteen, since Rufus left us for those sunny meadows in the sky on Christmas Day – but I can’t be bothered to divide tins of Whiskas into precise fractions-of-a-tin first thing in the morning. When we get back to even numbers again, I’ll do the math. Probably.)
Twice a day I put out twenty more bowls and change four bigger bowls of water.
Twice a day I wash up those twenty bowls, plus a lot of other stuff that seems to have accumulated by the sink. In between, I clean out dirt-boxes, dispense medicines, mop up piles of sick, separate those who would murder one another and unhook various hapless creatures from items of soft furniture to which they have managed to hook themselves irretrievably. Twice a day day, just when I collapse on the sofa with a cup of tea and a biscuit, under the impression that I have finished my ‘duties’ for the time being at least, more muddle materialises.
And then there is that Zen tale, of the monk who was repeatedly told, after eating his rice: Wash Your Bowl”, upon hearing which he was Enlightened. The idea is, I would guess, that you should avail yourself of any passing opportunity to be existing ‘in the moment’. After eating your rice, wash your bowl. Do not decide to wash your bowl, or wonder why you are washing your bowl, or resent having to wash your bowl. After eating, wash your bowl: it is a form of meditation.
So maybe the tale of Mary and Martha isn’t so black and white after all. Maybe Martha wasn’t the villain – or wouldn’t necessarily have been if she hadn’t got all self-righteous and started whingeing. Maybe both sisters were heroes, and the contrast between them shows that there are many different ways of focussing on what’s important; more than one way of Being in the world.