The Feather Duster Way

Day 5 in a month-long series on Cultivating Sanctuary.


Another item, one of eight, which I intentionally brought into the Cottage the first day was a feather duster. This is not just any store-bought duster, but a French antique from the 1940s. It symbolizes a particular approach to life and time I want to practice.

My academic training provided many wonderful experiences and opportunities (not the least of which is to work in a teaching position I love more everyday), but it also chilled my love of whimsy. The Susan who didn’t-always-know-what-profound-and-polysyllabic-thing-to-say was dismissed as not enough. Yet, this dismissal was more based on my own understanding of what it meant to be a scholar, than anyone else’s demands.

I learned a lot of words and read a lot of books, but oddly, words now fled whenever I went looking to write about joy or love or simple pleasures.

In giving up whimsy, I lost the capacity to be delighted.

One of the saving graces these past years has been my dear friend Kimberlee, who loves words, and writes them beautifully. Our weekly Skype call is not complete until she says, “Oh, let me read you this amazing line…” and she grabs a book and reads aloud to me. Her delight reignited my own, and I began to include a steady diet of beautiful writing back in my life–words that invite the reader into them: to play, love, laugh, weep, cheer, or just simply stop for a moment in silent awe.


The ability to enter into this experience as a reader, learner, or scholar, requires a playful whimsy–not taking myself so seriously, not holding learning in a death-grip, not demanding a text divulge its secrets, not pretending to be profound as I teach. It is a posture of open-handed gratitude, more willing to get out of my agenda and get into the joy of the topic and the students before me.

For me, the symbol of this gentle whimsy and playful scholar is a feather duster, and the story is best told in a poem:

Years ago, I entered a new world of desks
in straight rows, bells, and tasks like
see-jane-run and
m is for mr munching mouth.
I loved mixing more
paints and colors with gooey glue
all over hands and
paper blue birds with beak and tongue
(Birds need tongues too)
Time was everywhere at once yet now
marked off by things to do
read. listen. repeat. write.
a start-stop world.
When Time-to-Clean-Up arrived
I always chose my favorite feather duster
to-ing and fro-ing far from the flurry to finish
unworried by missing mittens or colorful gluey messes made
and teacher let me be, for a moment

So many moments now seem divided by internal distraction, no longer doing one thing, but doing one thing while believing that 10 other tasks are more important; or being in one place, while believing there are 10 other places I should be. Sure, at times we need to be paying attention to multiple things, but this isn’t just external demands, it has become an internalized way of life. When feather dusting in first grade, external and internal coincided. I was in one place, doing one thing, and it was okay.

Living out the feather duster way means cultivating enough time-spaciousness to actually enter into the task, place, or relationship at hand–be it reading, baking, cleaning, talking to students, praying, welcoming guests, writing, or teaching.

It means days have margins around activities–time for feather dusting in-between–without the perpetual drive to produce or be efficient, to linger a moment longer and savor a simple joy or glimpsed heart.

While I looked for and found a duster for the Cottage, I did not expect to have my whimsical symbol confirmed in the most surprising way. Left on a shelf in my new seminary office, the only object besides phone and furniture: an old feather duster.