The sponge streaked over my kitchen counter removing all loose residue, but failed to budge a droplet of what looked like concrete which had adhered itself to the tiles. I flipped the sponge to its rougher side and took a few more passes over the splotch. No effect. It remained like an ancient ruin. I could tell it planned to outlast the ages, come rain or snow or sleet or me.
But I'm no quitter. So, I found a scraping tool and braced myself, taking a wide stance and flexing my triceps. The thing gave me naught but a stony glare. I scraped and scraped and scraped, but it was useless. I was attacking an ocean with a teaspoon.
This ridiculous battle should have been funny, but suddenly I found myself in tears.
I was frustrated, but what's worse, I was defeated. Not by the spot on my counter, but by a calendar, commitments and deadlines. Everywhere I turn there seems to be something which I've promised, someone I've committed to meet, a homework assignment due, a departure time for a trip. It's endless and it's all my fault.
You see, I like my life full. Living is fun and beautiful and full of emotion. I wake up every day happy to see the dawn, my husband, and a set of tasks which I'm entirely capable of doing. However, on some days, the worst days, it is daunting.
Losing my grip in my empty kitchen was not the plan last night. I should have been sitting at a long table in a library classroom at the local community college conjugating verbs and answering questions about a little boy named Marcel... all in French, of course. But I'd discovered earlier in the day that I'd racked up too many absences via travels and long work days, etc., to maintain a good grade.
Faced with the prospect of a shabby report card versus a lightening of my overall load for the rest of the year, I swallowed the horrible lump in my throat and opted to drop my French class.
Then, because my husband was thousands of feet in the air somewhere between Baltimore and Los Angeles at the time, I called my best friend, Cindy.
"Tell me I didn't just make the wrong decision," I commanded, but my pretense of authority was betrayed by the quiver in my voice and the fact that I made the call at all.
Cindy contemplated and then, in the soft, even voice she uses when she absolutely must be serious, she said, "I don't think you made the wrong decision." And after an appropriate pause for my sigh of justification, she added, "I mean... you do a crapload of crap, Aud."
Which made me laugh. Which is why I call Cindy.
Driving home from school at seven o'clock in the evening, I felt drained. The freeway gaped in front of me like a black hole, sucking me back to a house which hadn't been honest-to-God cleaned in almost a month due to a lack of time, a lack of energy.
Upstairs, laundry formed a ridge of mountain peaks. Colors. Delicates. Towels and bedding. Mont Blanc.
More laundry, clean laundry, made a shirty, socky soup in the big reclining chair in our loft. It landed there over the weekend and, when I hadn't folded it and put it away by Monday night, Disney discovered that he could burrow in and make a comfy nest for himself. Cat hair coated my previously clean pajama pants.
And the kitchen was a graveyard of dirty dishes. Glasses lined up like tombstones on the counter. Used pots squatted empty over dead burners. The sink was full. The dishwasher was empty.
Before I could be overcome by all the mess, before I could give in to the tidal wave of despair and disappointment which had been swelling behind my eyes since I exited my French classroom, I decided it was time to make a dent in the chaos. After all, no French term paper needed to be written. No French novel needed to be read. No French movie needed to be watched. My Tuesday night had become, once again (or perhaps for the first time), my Tuesday night. And I had no excuse not to clean.
I started with the laundry, sorting and folding and hanging things up. In a matter of hours, I could see my floors again. My closet was bright, full of hanging, sharply creased clothes. Shoes were reunited with their twins and placed in pairs on my shelf. Dresses congregated on one side, coats and jackets on the other. Summer tops were stacked out of the way.
It took a Diet Coke and six episodes of Friends, playing in the background on my laptop, to help me morph into this cleaning machine. Unfortunately, the truth about caffeine is that it can only keep you elevated for so long. Then you crash.
My crash came in the kitchen, after the dishwasher was mumbling its way through the rinse cycle, after the counters were finally clear and beginning to shine. I crashed when I met my match, a lump of granite or, what is more likely, aged pumpkin bread batter. I crashed into it and crumbled.
When doing the dishes, I usually have my iPhone out, playing something to keep my mind off the smell of my sponge and the vile mix of textures in the sink after scraping a large number of plates. Last night, I chose an audio book.
Me Talk Pretty One Day is a compilation of essays by David Sedaris, a dry, wry, gay Greek, a former meth addict, a guy who can find humor in everything wonderful and everything terrible. I've been aware of his work, if not familiar with it, for several years, but I had absolutely no idea that the title essay of this collection was about his attempting to learn French as an adult (prior to his move to Paris with boyfriend, Hugh).
As luck or fate would have it, just as the tears came spilling out of my exhausted eyes, David Sedaris began reading Me Talk Pretty One Day .
I find it ridiculous to assign a gender to an inanimate object incapable of disrobing and making an occasional fool of itself. Why refer to lady crack pipe or good sir dishrag when these things could never live up to all that their sex implied?
Caught off guard by such an apt dissection of the French prerogative to assign gender to nouns, I gasped and stepped back from my struggle with the fossilized batter.
I'd hoped the language might come on its own, the way it comes to babies, but people don't talk to foreigners the way they talk to babies. They don't hypnotize you with bright objects and repeat the same words over and over, handing out little treats when you finally say 'potty' or 'wawa.'
I sank to the floor, clutching a hard-edged spatula in one hand and a soggy sponge in the other.
I wanted to lie in a French crib and start from scratch, learning the language from the ground floor up. I wanted to be a baby, but instead, I was an adult who talked like one.
While I hadn't made my decision to leave the class based on the difficulty of learning the language, I was definitely familiar with this daydream. Oh, to be taught French without being encumbered by such adult follies as work or responsibility or entrenched English. Oh, to have someone nurture me like a little French flower, to have all the time in the world and the most patient, loving instructor. Oh, to be given a prize for reciting the alphabet or correctly pronouncing my Rs.
On my fifth trip to France I limited myself to the words and phrases that people actually use. From the dog owners I learned 'Lie down,' 'Shut up,' and 'Who shit on this carpet?'
I was laughing.
The couple across the road taught me to ask questions correctly, and the grocer taught me to count. Things began to come together, and I went from speaking like an evil baby to speaking like a hillbilly. 'Is thems the thoughts of cows?' I'd ask the butcher, pointing to the calves' brains displayed in the front window. 'I want me some lamb chop with handles on 'em.'
Wonderful! True! All the things writing should be! And I rocked back and forth on the linoleum, the sponge falling from my hand with a splat. My empty house echoed with my laughter and David Sedaris' high, thin voice.
I leaned against my lower cabinets, letting the muscles in my back and legs loosen. I sat there, thinking about how much French I'd learned and how much I still hoped to learn one day. The volume of that goal, fluency, threatened to unleash another wave of tears, but then David Sedaris was in his beginner French class, trying to explain the concept of America's Easter to a Muslim student unfamiliar with the concept... all in French... and with the help of his fellow Christian classmates:
It is a party for the little boy of God who call hisself Jesus.
He call hisself Jesus and then he die one day on two morsels of lumber.
He die one day and then he go above of my head to live with your father.
He weared of himself the long hair and after he die the first day he come back here for to say hello to the peoples.
He nice, the Jesus.
He make the good things and on the Easter we be sad because somebody make him dead today.
The rabbit of Easter, he bring the chocolate.
It was too much. I could not possibly grieve my decision to take a break from my French any longer. After all, that's exactly what I sounded like when speaking in class. All of us sounded like that. We sat around wedging in excess pronouns, misconjugating verbs, and forgetting tenses entirely. Trying to explain something complex with an 1800 word vocabulary is ridiculous in any language.
So, then, what makes me sure I'll continue next semester? David Sedaris had an answer for that, too.
I wondered then if, without the language barrier, my classmates and I could have done a better job making sense of Christianity, an idea that sounds pretty far fetched to begin with.
In communicating any religious belief, the operative word is faith, a concept illustrated by our very presence in that classroom. Why bother struggling through the grammar lessons of a six-year-old if each of us didn't believe that, against all reason, we might eventually improve? If I could hope to one day carry on a fluent conversation it was a relatively short leap to believing that a rabbit visited my home in the middle of the night...so why stop there? If I could believe in myself, why not give other improbabilities the benefit of the doubt? I [could accept] that an omniscient God cast me in His own image and that He watched over me and guided me...the virgin birth, the resurrection, and the countless miracles, my heart expanded to encompass all the wonders and possibilities of the universe.
As my dental hygienist had reminded me that morning from behind her scraping tool and miniature mirror, "You keep going in life because there IS a God."
Granted, she was giving herself a pep talk, not me. She knew nothing of my life's overload. I rarely allow others to see my insecurities, especially when my gums are exposed. But it was still an applicable thought, and one which followed me throughout the day.
Eventually, after David Sedaris delivered his parting line and my laughter trailed off, I stood up and returned to the maddening drop of dry batter on the counter. I discovered that, with a soaking break, it had dissolved and was easily swept into the sink. That's all it took. A break, the reminder that there absolutely IS a God, and the faith that improvement is possible, even for me.