This past year, I’ve been working out of my house, something like a stay-at-home dad, what with the after-school hours and school holidays and such. All day, everyday – or at least whenever I get up from my desk to go to the bathroom or get a glass of water or collect the mail – I observe the messes my kids have made, the dirty dishes in the sink (or, more likely, scattered on coffee tables, the dining table or kitchen countertops), the dried mix of toothpaste and spit all over the vanity, the explosion of Legos and Polly Pockets and precious scraps of torn fabric they collect to role-play their fashion-design dreams – hundreds upon hundreds of swatches, all frayed edges and little threads perpetually freeing themselves and covering the carpet, much as dog hair would, except we don’t have a dog because I hate dog hair all over everything, and you can’t hate your daughters’ fashion-design dreams.
What I have discovered, in all this mess, is that I am a selfish, lazy bastard. When I get really fed up, or just need to do something physical, I might vacuum a couple of rooms or clean half a bathroom or straighten up the kitchen or do some little household project like patch a hole in the drywall from when the toilet-paper holder fell out of the wall six months ago. But that Benedictine slogan, ora et labora, “pray and work,” the idea that drudgery points you to God? Forget it. I’ve seen beautiful portrayals of it, like in the film Of Gods and Men, how the monks wash dishes or hoe rows or mend fences without complaint, because taking care of one another is part of their calling. “Let the brethren serve each other so that no one be excused from the work in the kitchen,” states St. Benedict’s Rule. “We all bear an equal burden of servitude under one Lord.”
I don’t doubt that taking care of my family – not just earning money, but hands-dirty domestic sort of care – is part of my vocation. In fact, it’s probably the part of my calling that’s closest to monastic holiness, if I’m honest. It’s just that I find the other parts of my calling: the writing, the making music, the seminary studies – I find all of this a whole lot more interesting than scrubbing the toilet. That is to say, if I’m honest, I think my thoughts and my words and the combination of sounds I create are more important than keeping our home clean – at least, that’s the belief I act on, more often than not. Selfish, lazy bastard. I told you, didn’t I?
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.