Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Prayer of Soap and Rags

The first of the year, and after actually staying up to mark midnight in the last time zone in the U.S., Craig and I woke early, in a spring-cleaning state of mind.  It wasn’t conscious.  Just doing it.  Not stress, no discussion; it was what the new year asked of us.  Still in my pajamas, I started a load of laundry, then wandered out to the picnic spot, under the monkey pod trees, to collect cups and glasses, bottles and plates from last night's chili party while Craig sat down at his desk to write a letter to his daughter.  Then smoothies, then I followed Craig with a garden hose while he mopped the lanai, rubbing away the gecko poop, spraying leaves and grass off the edge.  Then laundry hung on the line, flapping in the growing trade wind.  Then hunger, one goose egg scrambled with some fresh dill from the garden, last night’s cornbread toasted and smeared with mac nut butter, drizzled with maple syrup.  And then, back to cleaning.  Craig hosed the salt off the windows of the house, then decided to build wind-break cages for his baby bananas next. 

When he asks me to help, I say no. Now I need some quiet time to write.

But before I do, one more task: clean the corner of the floor where I keep my altar and meditation cushion, where I sit to do my morning prayers and set my intentions.  I fill a yogurt container with warm water and oil soap, grab a rag from under the sink, and kneel down.  I clear away the incense boxes, the books and candles, and swab the wood floor of its layers of fine ash, gecko shit, clay dust and garden dirt.  On my hands and bare knees, I crawl along, swiping a wider and wider swath, and I wonder who it was that taught me to pray.  I think back to Catholic school, to CCD (Tuesday night church school), to my mother tucking us into bed with prayers in Latvian.  I think of Oma, my father’s mother, who prayed all day, an ancient book of crumbling pages, covers wrapped in layers of waxed paper, open on her broad lap.  She rocked and beat her breast with her fist when reciting the rosary, fingering the carved wooden beads, plain and unvarnished, a peasant rosary. But no, she wasn’t the one who taught me to pray; her spiritual realm was private, monastic, and to me as a child, one of the mysteries. 

I crawl along the floor, now wiping underneath the couch.  Washing a floor by hand with an old cloth napkin, I realize, is today’s prayerful act, and the one who taught me who to pray that way was my mother.  After her husband died, my mother’s mother (we called her Omama, to distinguish her from Oma) declined, had small strokes, then larger ones.  One of the last times I went to her little cottage-house with my mother and sister, we found it a shock, floors and cupboards grimy, bathroom dirty, houseplants unwatered.  One night, after Omama had gone to sleep, my mother, sister and I stayed up and cleaned.  “My mother could never imagine living in a dirty house,” my mother said, with bafflement in her voice.  I didn't understand then, but now I know what she meant.  Her mother, the version she’d known all her life, the capable, artistic, green thumb, whose small house was invariably cozy and clean, whose windows were filled with lush plants, cacti and mysterious African violets constantly blooming, the woman who raised her – she no longer lived in that house.  Instead there lived a fragile new version, a quiet woman in a pale blue sweater, prone to long silences, her brown eyes staring past us.  On hands and knees we three scrubbed the kitchen linoleum, the bathtub of its soap ring, the seam between toilet and floor.  We were young girls, yet we felt purposeful, needed, and uncertain.  Our mother so clearly grieved, our grandmother – where? And when would she return?  Could our cleaning restore her?  But for some things, there is no restoration, only change.  Our mother had suddenly entered the chapter where a daughter must push out of herself, out of her old role, like a shoot pushing up the half-frozen earth, the dead leaves, to become a mature plant, and not perennial. 

That night, we trimmed the dead leaves off the African violets.  We stayed up way past bedtime, way past midnight, learning from our mother how to take our rightful places, learning what would one day be asked of us.  She was capable, our mother, and knew just what to do, filling buckets at the sink, finding the rag bag and the oil soap.  Her sadness was palpable, and though we couldn't fathom it, we shared in it.  Though we knew our mother had entered a new foreign country, we followed her to its border, and when she reached back across to hand us a rag and can of Pledge, we took them from her, and went to work in our grandmother's living room. 

Today, I swab and rinse and remember, and the water in the plastic tub darkens.  I remember how my mother’s finger-skin used to crack from her labors, how once a slit opened at the knuckle and expelled a glass splinter.  That is also a form of prayer.  The wound buried, and we too young to understand, nevertheless, bearing witness.  And one day, unexpectedly, on the first day of a new year, recalling.  Only now, at the end of my forties, do I understand what she taught me of prayer.

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