May 08, 2014 0 Share

The Mouthwash Dance

Woman stretching arms out in bathroom.

I'm looking out the window, admiring the glories of spring. In the stillness, a convicting inner voice comes through: Honey, you haven't been paying attention. All this beauty surrounds you, and lately, you aren't pausing long enough to take it in. The voice is right. I've been moving through my days on autopilot, focused on efficiency rather than relationship. I haven't been stopping to smell the roses, literally or metaphorically. 

Willie's 27th birthday is coming up this week, and my 29th is around the corner. But wasn't Willie's 26th birthday just moments ago? Time isn't going to slow its relentless pace; I'm the one who needs to change. It's time to start living life rather than just “getting through” it. Thankfully, I've had some wonderful teachers in the art of being present. In my role as a direct-care assistant for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities at L'Arche, I learned a great deal about slowing down. While on routine, I was always tempted to check off tasks quickly. I had to set limits on that desire for efficiency, because it didn't promote independence and growth for my housemates. 

For example, my friend Theresa* moves at her own pace. She peels her hard-boiled eggs with precise, deliberate movements. On harried mornings, you can peel the egg for her and shorten your routine. But you don't want to do that unless it's necessary. Why not? Because it matters to Theresa that she peels her own egg. It takes more time, yes, but it's important to her. It doesn't matter if I can do it faster or “better” … because it isn't mine to do. At L'Arche, I learned to respect what didn't belong to me. Recalling this, I wonder: What if I offered myself the same respect I offered my friends? What if I could honor my own processes, the time it takes me to take a shower or eat a meal without rushing? 

Working with Theresa also taught me that, while I couldn't always speed up our tasks, I could make them more fun. When I started helping Theresa with her twice-daily mouthwash, the 30 seconds she was meant to spend swishing felt like an eternity. Each day, I dreaded the countdown. (Several folks at L'Arche use mouthwash twice per day, so assistants count to 30 a lot.) Then one day, when I was in a buoyant mood, I sang the numbers. Theresa started swaying her hips; she loves to dance. In a flash, I saw a way to break up the monotony of mouth washing. I thought, We'll always have to spend 30 seconds doing this, so why not make it fun? 

That day, the “mouthwash dance” was born. From then on, whenever I was on routine, I'd say, “And now, it's time for … the mouthwash dance!” I'd wave my arms and stomp my feet, and Theresa would grin. For 30 seconds, we'd both go wild. That dance break became a treasured point of connection. (And to think I used to dread those 30 seconds!) This spontaneous innovation has had staying power; years later, assistants still teach “the mouthwash dance” as part of orientation. It may not last forever, and that's perfectly fine. The idea wasn't to start a tradition; instead, the point was to bring delight into an existing requirement. Willie knows this lesson well. I smile as I remember him coming downstairs with his shoes on the wrong feet, his shirt on backwards. Willie loves to play pranks; he reminds me of the simple joys of being silly. 

In that light, I consider my current routine, wondering: What part of my day do I dread, and how could I make it fun? Washing dishes comes to mind; it only takes a minute, but I don't enjoy it. So what if I sang as I scrubbed? Today, I know what song I'd choose: Ray LaMontagne's “You Are The Best Thing.” Theresa loves that song. I picture her dancing, and a group of L'Arche assistants--myself included—joining in. We're letting loose, staying in the moment, singing words that are simple and true: ou are the best thing/That ever happened to me. 

*Fictitious name