The Common Good

DIY Sacramental Tedium

Last Tuesday, after it became clear that Superstorm Sandy was going to bypass Washington, D.C., in favor of New York, I decided to stain the discolored grout in the bathroom.

It appeared that we had a few more hours to stay inside with our batteries and massive food stores—the rains were still torrential, the children were snuggled up under blankets watching a movie, my husband was practicing guitar—so I pulled out the blue painter’s tape and the bottle of Grout Refresh (No. 14: Biscuit/Bizcocho) I’d gotten at Lowe’s and kneeled down on the hard tile.

Painstakingly, and I am not one who usually takes pains—where do you think my son got his ADHD?—I cut strips of tape to edge either side of the lines of grout, a suggestion offered by a commenter on a home improvement forum. Otherwise, my gut would have been to trowel it on, freestyle, and hope for the best.

Once I managed to tape perhaps a three-foot-square section of the floor—I was too eager to invest the time for the whole space—I spread an old Snoopy toothbrush with the thick ecru paste, and dragged it slowly, evenly, down the lines, holding my breath.

I exhaled when I was done, and waited with expectation. Two hours later, after misting my handiwork with water and waiting another interval, I pulled up the strips of tape to see perfectly neat, unstained, biscuit-colored grout, like you might see in a new bathroom, in a new house somewhere.

I wondered why nobody had told me how easy this was. This is a lesson I seem to be learning a lot these days:

A couple of months ago, out of the need/desire to save some money, I decided to dye my hair myself, something I’d never done in the decade I’ve been covering the gray. After some graduate-level shelf research in the CVS, I came home with a two-step L’Oréal product that had a base color and a tool for creating highlights.

The chemicals stank, my neck ached, but a couple of hours later, my hair looked almost, if not quite totally, as good as the place down on K Street where, once I got to the cash register, they handed me a bill for $290, and my heart sank to my toes. Half a month of daycare, gone in two hours.

“But it’s the time,” I hear you saying, you who have just spent two hours reading updates on Facebook. “I just don’t have the time.”

Rather, it is the boredom we flee. And the low status that having to endure the boredom indicates.

I see this every day: The car speeding into the downtown lot, the driver casually tosses his keys to the uniformed valet, then dashes off, punching into his phone as he crosses the street. It’s almost as though he imagines himself as the protagonist in a movie—remember Neal Gabler’s 1998 book, Life the Movie?

We have far less imagination about, and sympathy for, the one who whisks the car away and then sits for long hours in his heated glass cube, watching Nigerian satellite television. And I am hardly exempt from the attitude, the pose, myself—none of us is.

How is it that we have come to adore, and expect, being the ones who are pampered, the ones who are served, the objects of the pedicurist’s/personal banker’s/cleaning service’s/artisanal baker’s/ministrations. Why don’t we do these things ourselves?

“But wait a second,” you say. “You may be right about valet parking. But what about the great renaissance we’re seeing right now of doing all kinds of things for themselves? People making their own jams, sewing again, planting backyard gardens? The big move toward the most improbable: people wanting to raise their own chickens? That involves facing boredom too, doesn’t it?”

Yes, scattered across the Internet you will find all kinds of encomia to the Zen of organic gardening, beer-making, vintage-apron-shopping, all couched in the language of small-footprint, homemade tradition for which I’m a complete sucker.

For all the supposed mindfulness these activities promote, what they ultimately offer—and what saves them for the upper-middle-class, Stuff-White-People-Like cognoscenti—is the perception that one is part of the trend, the movement. One elides over the boredom, yet again, because one has been absorbed into the spectacle.

But low-status activities offer no escape for anyone. Take it from me:

My 1998 Honda Accord has some paint scrapes across the rear bumper, and in an effort to make the damned thing look OK for another year, I decided to touch up the paint myself, because it wouldn’t be worth the money to get someone else to do it.

Via a quick tour of Amazon, I learned that one can purchase, for around eleven dollars, a spray can of paint that’s an exact match for the exterior of said ’98 Accord—Heather Mist. I got the can of Clear Coat, too.

There is nothing artisanal, nothing at all SWPL, about patching up your beater with a can of Heather Mist, shipped via Amazon’s retail partner Auto Barn of Dallas, Texas. I have the sandpaper at the ready, but the task is still one I am dreading.

But I’m holding out hope for what the deceased David Foster Wallace, of all people, was found to have written in a passage that could have come straight from the Eastern Church Fathers:

Bliss—a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.

Every act a sacrament.

Caroline Langston, a native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, is a regular contributor to Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion's Good Letters blog and has been a commentator on NPR's All Things Considered. She lives with her husband and children in Cheverly, Maryland. This post originally appeared the Good Letters blog HERE.

Photo credit: dp Photography/Shutterstock

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