The Sacrament of Putter

Puttering at sunset in Poipu Beach, by Avi Nahum.

Puttering at sunset in Poipu Beach, by Avi Nahum.

I believe puttering is the human way to work through or manage the complexities of life. It may appear on the surface that puttering is just a mindless movement from one task to the next  with little in the way of planned outcome from the effort. But ahhh, that’s just on the surface. Even my brilliant scientist friends tell me that their greatest Aha! Moments occur when they’re thinking about something else.

For me, if there’s no puttering time in a week, everything falls apart. My ability to center on what’s truly important can’t be achieved without a certain amount of seemingly mindless wandering.

Maybe last week’s example will help explain. It started with a load of laundry – those annoying fragile items that can only withstand the “hand wash” cycle on the machine. As I carefully turned shirts inside out, and clasped the hooks on the bras, I noticed a bauble that needed to be re-stitched to its fabric, and so I pulled it out of the load for extra attention. With the washing machine starting its work, I went to find one of those little needle and thread packets from nice hotels that I stow away over the years precisely so I can stitch on baubles.

And there, in the drawer with the odds and ends, I noticed that the nail polish I bought because it was just the perfect California color has leaked a bit making smudge marks that are sticky on the drawer bottom.

“Rats!” I thought. “I should scrape that out while I see it.”

So it was off to find That Knife, the one that always scrapes up just right, and when the polish was gone leaving only a bit of color behind, I grabbed the needle and thread packet, repaired the bauble and just in time, I threw the shirt back in to the last rinse cycle of the laundry.

To be safe, I added nail polish to the always-present shopping list, and as I looked at the items on the list I noticed that by just buying some butternut squash, chicken breasts, and an onion, I could make that great Caribbean Chicken Stew everyone likes. And wouldn’t it be fun to see some old friends again? And if I made the stew, I could invite some friends over and make it a dinner party.

And there you have it – creating a much-needed evening of friendly community as the result of a laundry repair task. 

The writer Anne Lamott, a wise literate soul and observer of humans, elevated the act of puttering by calling it the sacrament of putter in one of her essays.  She said she puts the coffee on in the morning and engages in the sacrament of putter while it brews. 

I think she's right. Taking care of the little things - letting the mind wander with your body as you complete small tasks, put things aright, and create order in your space - is a sacred pursuit that can free the soul for more elevated pursuits. Like finding the cure for Alzheimer's.