As I stood on my back patio and surveyed the back yard, my stomach sank. That old, familiar feeling of overwhelmed panic gripped my chest and sapped all of my strength, making me want to do nothing but crawl back into bed and pull the covers over my head and forget anything ever happened.
It was shortly after daybreak on May 13, 2010. My husband and I had already been awake for hours, roused in the middle of the night by the sound of a freight train bearing down on our house mingled with the faint wail of storm sirens. The power was out, and everything was pitch black. The radio told us not to worry. It was merely high, straight-line winds, they said. As long as we stayed indoors, we should be safe. Later, those high winds were revealed to be about half a dozen small tornadoes that tore through Tulsa, Oklahoma and the surrounding area, one of which ripped a path right through my neighborhood.
Thankfully, nobody got hurt that night. But as the power was gradually restored throughout the city and the light of dawn emerged, it became clear that the tornadoes had left behind their fair share of destruction. Our friendly neighborhood tornado had destroyed roofs and demolished fences, to say nothing of what it did to the trees, still weak and recovering from a major ice storm that coated northeastern Oklahoma at the end of 2007. We were among the lucky few who sustained no major property damage. Even so, as the light of day showed us a yard covered in fallen limbs, many of them big and heavy, all I could think about was what a giant chore clean-up would be.
Part of my consternation stemmed from the fact that my husband is disabled. Although I knew he’d do what he could to help, I also knew that, unless I asked for outside help, the bulk of the chore would fall to me -- and anyone I could think to ask would already be busy cleaning up their own property. We live on my freelance income and my husband’s SSDI, which meant hiring some help wasn’t in the budget. As I envisioned having to take several days off to deal with the debris, my stress began to mount. As a freelancer, I don’t get paid vacation or personal days. Time spent on yard work is time that could be spent earning precious income.
For days, I did nothing. Watching my neighbors work diligently on cleaning up their own yards, I felt irrational guilt for ignoring my own mess, and the chore grew bigger and more impossible in my mind. Nearly a week passed before I reached a point where I knew I couldn’t put it off any longer. Without letting myself think, I dove in, cutting up the biggest branch into manageable chunks. All I had was a hand saw, and my arm grew tired pretty quickly. I prayed and asked the Lord to grant me the strength to get this job done by myself. That’s when I recalled a line of scripture from Isaiah 28:10:
“Order on order, line on line, a little here, a little there.”
As this word came to me, I realized that the only one turning this chore into such a Herculean task was me. Nobody said it had to be done all at once, or that it had a deadline. It was only my own foolish anxiety that had insisted otherwise. The entire project, like the branch I was cutting, could be broken down into manageable pieces. As this simple concept dawned on me, all I could do was shake my head at myself and laugh.
The context of this verse is to illustrate rebellious Israel’s impatience with the Lord’s treating them like children by explaining things that should be obvious. Unfortunately, the lesson of “little by little” is one that is often not obvious to me, and I have to learn it again and again, even though it presents itself to me every day. As a writer, I build stories one word at a time, and as a web designer, I build web sites in stages. Even life itself isn’t meant to be lived all at once. We take it one year, one month, one day, one minute at a time.
Once I remembered that, as with everything else in life worth doing, cleaning my yard was a process, my anxiety fled, and I was able to look past it at how fortunate and blessed we were to only have tree limbs to clean up when others around us had roofs to replace and fences to repair. I even began to enjoy the work as I started approaching it with an attitude of thanksgiving. Working at it a little each day, cleaning up our entire lot took only two weeks to accomplish. Each day, as I worked to break down large branches and haul bundles of wood to the curb, I meditated on this lesson, on how small steps add together to form a greater whole. The storm that surprised and frightened us that dark morning in May ended up serving as the ultimate illustration I needed to drive this lesson home. This time, the lesson took hold, and it has yet to let go.