At the boarding school I was sent to from the fourth to the eighth grade, no one got into the dining room without first showing his or her hands. A monitor standing at the dining room entry would, if necessary, say, "hands!" and the hungry child would extend both arms, showing first palms, then backs. Clean hands were required before this privileged throng would sit down at eight-person tables and be served by a teacher sitting at the head. North Country School in Lake Placid, N.Y.
The food was always good and healthy and the children had no way of knowing their life of privilege -- fed and housed and ... well, kids know what is and are ignorant of what might be. Years later I came to know a man who had taught at the school and he told me that after summer vacations, when the kids returned to the school, it took a couple of months to revise the attitudes and neuroses visited on the kids who had spent vacations with their sometimes well-heeled and self-invested parents. My mother asked me in the sixth grade if I would like to come home and live with her instead of going to boarding school. In a burst of sanity whose source I cannot guess, I said, simply, "no."
Clean hands come to mind this morning.
Clean hands and the fact that the dining room always bore on its aromatic wings, not just roasted meat or baking potatoes or some warm dessert, but also and always the smell of horse shit.
Every child at the school had a chore to perform once or twice a day. Some set tables or swept hallways, but many had "barn chores" -- taking care of horses or pigs or chickens. It was a twice-a-day chore, once early in the morning and once in the evening -- piling into the back of a Ford pickup and being driven to the barn. It had to be done, no matter how cold the day and sometimes the temperatures were well below zero. Those assigned to a horse had to muck out the stall, provide hay and oats, and then curry and brush the animals whose coats were sometimes matted with horse shit the animal had lain in overnight. The close quarters of the stall meant that children took on the odor of their charges and that smell would travel with them back to the school buildings and into the warmth and nourishment of the dining room.
Looking back, I wonder what the parents who often lived among white linens and crystal wine glasses might have thought of the company and smell their offspring kept. Horse shit in the realms of foie gras.
But I came to associate horse shit with the warmest of warmths. One whiff and in a great rush of non-verbal communication, horse shit still spells h-o-m-e. It spells without spelling ... l-o-v-e. Perhaps it is the same for men and women who fish for a living ... a scent that tells a tale wider and deeper and more touching than 3-D movies. In a nanosecond, a vast and convincing tale is told... and told as quietly as a mother might touch a child's cowlick.
"Hands!" the monitor would say. Everyone had to wash their hands. It was not acceptable to come grubby to the table. It was not hygienic. But there was nothing that could be done about the smell, which tiptoed in under the exacting radar and was integral to a benevolent universe.
I don't know why it is but I think it is true -- kids hate washing their hands. They seem to hate it in part because, what the hell, their hands work perfectly well whether dirty or clean. Or maybe it's just written on their DNA -- any day you can get away without washing your hands is a good day. But over time, the habit sinks in until you can't quite remember the time when you hated washing your hands.
And maybe spiritual endeavor is a little like that monitor standing in the doorway to a roomful of nourishment saying, "hands!" DNA says that these hands, this life, seems to work perfectly well without making any effort, so why bother with the effort? And yet the nourishment is barred without the effort, so, a little at a time, the effort is made ... until one day you can't quite remember why spiritual effort was called "effort" at all. And passing through the doorway into a roomful of chatter and clatter and delicious and disastrous adventures, you know it was worth it, even if you can't remember what "it" was:
The horse shit greets you, wordless and warm, like a long-lost friend, and you are h-o-m-e.