Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Assembly Line

Today, I meant to complete the story of my life in the novitiate by sharing my vow-taking day. But three other stories about those eighteen months came to me this morning—full-blown. Here’s one about another obedience: washing dishes.
            A group of six novices does this task for a week at a time. Then we have two weeks off. Before our first time, the novice mistress gives us three guidelines for doing dishwashing perfectly: No talking. No noise. Treat the dishes as if they are vessels of the altar. Reverently. Gently.            
            Now this is, of itself, noisy work. Dishes clatter; metal doors clang; tray wheels squeak. Even more so when the work is done hurriedly so as to be completed before the bell rings.
            To appreciate the stressfulness of this obedience, picture this:
            At the end of a meal, the nuns use a small piece of bread to wipe off any food left on their plates. After the meal, we six dishwashers remove our scapulars and outer veils and don aprons. We each do, as quickly and noiselessly as possible, one of the six steps of dishwashing.

            That is, we . . .
1)    Gather and stack dirty dishes in refectory. Place stacks on tray. Wheel tray down hall, round corner, down second hall, into scullery.
2)    Fill deep, metal, box-shaped sink with soapy water. Plunge stacked plates, cups, saucers, and desert bowls into soaking water. Remove dishes. Swipe with rag.
3)    Place soapy dishes, one by one, in large, square, metal rack with six-inch sides and latticed bottom. Open side door of rinse “oven.” Push in rinse rack. Pull down door. Release lever to start rinse water. Immediately begin process again until all dirty dishes are washed.
4)    Wait for scalding hot water to do its work. Open “oven” door on other side. Pull out rinse rack. Be careful not to burn hands. Move rack down metal track and around corner to drying area. Wipe dishes while waiting for next rack to rinse.
5)    Wipe dishes. Stack on tray.
6)    Return dishes to refectory. Place clean dishes on tables for use at next meal.
            Making undue noise in the convent was evidence of carelessness—a culpa matter. The first time our group washes dishes, I stand ready at the end of the metal track. I carefully lift a plate from the rack. Wipe it dry. Place it reverently on the tray.
            Aware of passing time, I wipe and stack a second plate. I carelessly clatter it against the first. I kneel to make culpa. I rise. Having lost time, I now grab another dish to wipe. I turn toward the tray and try to place it soundlessly on the stack. It clatters. I kneel. Make culpa. Rise. Clatter. Kneel. Rise. Clatter. Kneel. Rise.
            Baffled by such foolishness, the five other novices mutter, “Stop it! Just wipe the dishes! We’ve got a class.” I put aside my thirst for perfection in all things and begin to clatter until all the dishes are wiped and put away.
            From then on I become a dynamo wiper. Noisy but efficient. Of course, each evening of those seven days I am in the office of the novice mistress making culpa. I’ve discovered that it’s easier to make one culpa a day then to be quiet during that day’s three dishwashing sessions.
            That woman thinks, rightly I suppose, that I’m incorrigible. And yet, she wants me to stay. Go figure.
            And for a laugh about an assembly line, please double-click the following site. It’s Lucille Ball’s comedy routine I thought of each time I wiped dishes. I could hardly keep from laughing whenever I remembered her and Ethel. The only thing that could have made the routine funnier is Lucy making culpa!


  1. I watched the link and remembered when I first saw it. It was funnier then, now I smiled more at the idea of your dishwashing routine. You were definitely a dynamo wiper, as they say in the trade. :-)

  2. I could just picture that hysterical routine with culpas added!

    Very clever saving up your culpas to make just one in the evening. However, I'm pretty sure this is not exactly what the convent had in mind for the novices.

  3. Forgive me, but this whole dishwashing routine in the convent was really rather silly. Don't you think so in retrospect? How can you do dishes without clattering? And to have ti feel guilty and ask forgiveness for it is even more unreal.

  4. I had a spiritual teacher once advise me to wash dishes, do all things as though they mattered, do it mindfully and with a sense of the sacred. Now I know what he meant, but I had a devil of a time applying it to washing dishes. I've come to rather like it, especially when it's all done. :)

    I love the way you describe your washing and culpa process; rise, clatter, kneel, culpa, rise, clatter, kneel, culpa.

    I still laugh out loud at Lucy and Ethel in this routine. And what a team those two made. Finding humor in it takes it to another realm of understanding it.

  5. What pressure! Time constraints, mandatory silence and guilt as well! Oh, my goodness, Dee!

  6. I'm with Friko, how silly to make you clean dishes without noise, I can see the no talking thing, but the noise is just against logic. The again, it's a convent we're talking about...

  7. I would view the no noise thing as a run for perfection. It actually has its own sort of excitement within the routine and the zen like motions might give one a sense of simplicity and order in the tasks of our days.

  8. Thanks for the link to the video, Dee! I always loved that crazy Lucy!

    As you wrote about your dishwashing escapades, I also thought it was pretty ridiculous to expect silence in the kitchen . . . no speaking, I guess would be reasonable in a convent, but silent dishwashing?? Impossible.

    I'm one of those really strange people who actually likes washing dishes by hand, probably because many of my favorite memories are of doing so with my grandmothers, or aunts, or my sisters, and later, my daughters. Lots of stories shared, talking and laughter. These days, it might even be my husband!

  9. Oh, the image of "wipe, dry, culpa, wipe, dry, culpa...." is too rich. You had me laughing. I love the "Lucy" reference. That is one of my favorite episodes.

  10. I think it was a good thing that you didn't have me by your side. I would have been dropping dishes and clanging dishes and slipping trying to kneel a culpa, while giggling the whole time. You had me snickering at your daily culpa, Dee, but, the Lucy skit had me laughing aloud, again. It's my favorite.

  11. I've never been a fan of L. Ball but your description of drying dishes was hilarious. It was great imagery . Years ago when I was in nurses training, we had to also take our turn in the kitchen, doing trays, dishes and menial work. I never could understand what that had to do with nursing. Just looked like cheap labor to me. :)

  12. A very entertaining post...I am so glad I wasn't there to witness it. I would have had a serious case of giggles. i clearly would not have lasted an hour in the convent.

  13. When I was a waitress and worked the graveyard shift at a small truck stop the cook and I were the only ones there all night. So I had to bus tables and we had be the dishwashers, too. I was giggling as I read this remembering how Phyllis and I scrambled to get all the dishes cleaned and put away (plus all our own side work done) during the lull from about 2-4am. We had one of those big sprayers to rinse off the dishes (I never failed to spray my glasses so I couldn't see) and the dishwashing machine made so much noise...I couldn't imagine hearing a dish clatter lightly over the sound of the machine!! ROFL! Oh my! Doing culpa for every noise made in a dishwashing room...impossible! What about the trays of silverware! You'd have to take them out one by one. You would have been in there forever--LOL!

    Oh, you had your heart in the right place and were trying so hard to be perfect. Just want to give you a big hug!!

    And Lucy! I hadn't seen that clip for a long time.
    The original I Love Lucy show was the only one I really liked. Still pretty funny. I agree with Djan, though, that it made us roll on the floor when we first saw it and now I don't find it hysterically funny...but still funny. It's kind of the same for me with Laurel and Hardy.

    Anyways, I hope you've been having a really wonderful weekend, lady! Looking forward to more of the novitiate stories. :):)

  14. This is so fun! I loved reading this and love you even more for it. Oh this sounds like something I would do :)

  15. lol I could never be a nun. All I do is make noise. Oh my! AND you add a I love Lucy skit? Again why am I not surprised! haha Love ya lady

  16. Noiseless dishwashing? How absurd.

    Though I did get yelled at for clanking silver wear as I put it away one time, while working as a cocktail waitress in a piano bar.

  17. I've just caught up with the last couple weeks' worth of posts. So much fun to read this story that's both funny and heartbreaking at the same time. I can't imagine ever getting tired of reading your amazing life, Dee. There's a book here. You know that, right? :-)

  18. How utterly ridiculous yet so hilarious!!!
    I knew this one was going to be funny.
    From the way that you HAD to do a culpa for something like noisy dishes.
    (does God not like noise? What about thunder?) down to the Lucy skit.
    You are a real gem!

  19. I love this! I can remember when my daughters were babies and I would work as quietly as I could to empty the dishwasher in the morning so as not to wake them and disturb any quiet moments I had to myself before I started the day. I cringed with every plate that clattered against another.

    And, there are much worse things to be than incorrigible. In fact, you might just wear that as a badge of honor.

    Thanks for the link you posted on my site - I read the article and passed it along on Facebook. In the future, you can email me at odriscoll(at)msn(dot)com if that is easier than leaving additional comments. I love it!

  20. I remember that Lucy episode so well. It still makes me laugh.

    Did you have to culpa if you made noise laughing? Now that would have been a sin.

  21. Another incredibly funny tale, Dee! I'm pretty sure the rule to treat everything with reverence was another way of saying, "Don't you girls dare break any of these dishes, because it's costly to have to be replacing them all the time!"

    I loved the sped-up version of you kneeling, making culpa, rising... Kneel. Make culpa. Rise. Clatter. Kneel. Rise. Clatter. Kneel. Rise. I could clearly picture it all! You truly are a gifted story-teller.

    How are you getting on with having this published, BTW???

  22. Oh, heaps & heaps of guilt on order for every task, huh? I know the whole disciplined, self-denial thing~my dad worked in a Catholic church/school for 30 years, but damn, I'd never want to see a dish again for the flashbacks.