Wednesday 22 October 2014


This morning I looked at the stacks of dishes, glasses, cutlery, fine china and pots in dismay. I spent Monday and Tuesday getting on top of the housework I neglected last week, and on Tuesday I made myself scrape the bacon fat from the three pans covered in bacon fat. Sadly, I was out of hot water before could get them completely clean. Our access to hot water, at the top of this very old house, is not something we can take for granted.

We are more-or-less guaranteed hot water and 9 AM and at 5 PM, and we can "order" more hot water from the boiler by pushing a button an hour before we'll need it. (Whether we get it or not is a frequent household argument. Getting the "extra" hot water means running water into the sink for ten minutes or more, waiting for the hot water to come.) Naturally I usually forget to push the button, and anyway I loathe standing in front of the sink for ten minutes waiting for the water to go warm, so I prefer to wash the dishes shortly after 5 PM. Sometimes there is enough hot water at 10 AM, however, when is when I begin housework. Fortunately, today was one of those days, for last night we had a dinner party. We had only two guests, but as usual we had three courses and plenty of vegetables roasted in olive oil.

Olive oil. Butter. Cheese.  Meat. Cream. All have fat which means all create grease. When I wiped all the dishes under the tap last night, the water was cold. And of course this necessitated the deluxe washing job this morning.

My first thought was, "Do I have to?"

My answer was, "YES."

So I battled the grease and thought about the human condition. Rumour Godden wrote about this very poignantly in An Rumour  Episode (thank you, Sinead) of Sparrows. To be a human means fighting dirt, grime and grease. Whatever else happens, we have to keep clean. Cleaning never ends. It gets boring, and we don't want to do it, but we have to, or we descend into undignified and even disgusting chaos.

And this means battling not only the grease, but that part of ourselves that says "I don't wanna." Sometimes the only way to win the daily battle over grease is to win the daily battle over oneself.

Naturally you all think this is a metaphor for sin, and I suppose it could be, but really my biggest battle is to make myself do stuff I simply don't want to do. Take piano practice, for example. (Warning: my example takes over the entire post.)

When I was a child, my home was full of sunlight and music. The music was primarily provided by my brother Nulli who began to play the piano at the age of  six. We started lessons simultaneously, with the same teacher, but Nulli got the lion's share of her attention because--well, I am not sure; after all I was only seven--but I think it was because he was so quick and so enthusiastic and probably a teacher's dream. Nulli was so good that by comparison I seemed pretty terrible, especially to myself, and being reminded of that during my half an hour a day practise was agony. "Why can't you be more like your brother?" demanded my next teacher, and I didn't know. I just thought God liked him better.

Now that I am a decade older than my mother (though still younger than that awful teacher) was when all this was going on, I understand why I couldn't be more like my brother. First, my brother had constant positive reinforcement from adults from the moment my father discovered him playing.  (Dad thought a friend had dropped by.) Nulli's natural ability won him praise from family and stranger alike. He was the apple of his teachers' eyes. Second, my brother played the piano for hours a day.  Before I had woken up on Saturday mornings, he'd be downstairs in the sunny, pine-lined music/TV room, playing away. The old lady next door had been a singer, a radio star, and she asked her housekeeper to open the window so she could hear him.

I was a year older, so it hurt. Well, no. My playing hurt. I loved that my brother was such a talented musician, and that adults thought he was so great. And I really loved waking up on a sunny Saturday or Sunday morning to the sound of Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin. But I thought being great at music was just something he had, not something he had developed and worked on every day. I sincerely thought God had given my brother a gift (which He had, to a certain extent) while making me "bad at music."

Because I am older than my parents were, and because I alone know what I was thinking when I was 7 to 14 and then 16-18 when, voluntarily, I tried again (yes, 9 years of private lessons), I know exactly what an adult should have said to me. And it is this:

When your little brother played "Fur Elise" from memory, never having touched a piano before, it was not a miracle from God, but an indication that your brother has a very good ear for music and a very good memory. He sat beside your father at the piano and watched and listened while you were off doing something else. (Indeed, you weren't even home.) It's as simple as that. 

Everyone thought he was marvellous, and indeed he is, but he works very hard to be that good. He doesn't play for hours because he is so good; he is so good because he plays for hours. And the better he gets, the more he loves it, and the more people praise him. He loves the challenge of a new piece; he loves figuring things out, the way your mother likes doing puzzles. It's not magic. it's mental effort.

Unfortunately, you are indeed in his shadow, which I know seems against nature, since you are older than he is, so I can only suggest that you stop comparing your playing to his playing and ask your mother for a teacher who does not even know you have a brother. And when you get a new teacher, I suggest you practice the piano for one whole hour a day--half an hour of the things the teacher wants you to do, and half an hour on a piece you really like and that your parents forbid your brother to play.  

That will be YOUR piece, and I want you to love it and find out as much about it as possible. Go read books about the composer, and see if you can find out when he or she composed it and why, and why other people really like it too. Write me a story about the composer. And if you practise for an hour a day, feeling happy and interested, instead of miserable and a failure, when you graduate from high school, most people who don't play piano will think you play as well as your brother. And maybe, on a very special day, you really will. 

When I finished washing the dishes, I discovered it had only taken me an hour. But Wednesday's task is to clean the bathroom, and I really didn't feel like cleaning the bathroom.

"Do I hafta?"


 I cleaned the bathroom.

And now I will write a letter in Polish.


  1. But why can't I be GREAT at everything I'm more or less good at RIGHT NOW!??? This is something I've been dealing with for a long time, but I'm just realizing that by "dealing with," I actually mean "ignoring by simply not doing things that I am not great at." And procrastinating at things that I don't want to do (like cleaning....) until they do actually become difficult, simply because there's just so much of it that's built up.

    I admire your fervent attempt to become fluent in Polish. Maybe I really do need to get good at calligraphy, not because I'm already good at it (definitely not), but because it's something that takes PRACTICE and TIME to become good at. Sigh. Thank you for writing this today. Apparently I needed to read it.


  2. Your post brought back memories for me. I was always an A student at school and my nephew, who we thought genuinely wasn't interested in school got an A but didn't tell us. I think it was his teacher who told my sister. I remember there was a big hoop-la in the house and we were all praising him. My dad asked him why he didn't tell us. It was because I always got an A, he didn't think it was important because he only got it the once. He seemed embarrassed and kind of ashamed. Broke my heart, I'm tearing up now even thinking of it. He was only a kid at the time, I didn't even think he was aware as we went to different schools. I wish they lived away from us when he was little, so that they were not with us every day. It makes me desperately sad to think of him feeling the difference when we were young.

    I think that book was Episode of Sparrows. Why not boil a big kettle to solve the dishes problem?


  3. I use an analogy like your piano playing to illustrate growth in virtue to my high school students: when you begin to practice it, it is awkward and difficult; but the more you work at it, the easier it becomes, until mastery of it brings ease and joy.

  4. Sinead, I do employ the kettle method when desperate. But you must have a very big kettle!


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