Almost every morning when I empty the dishwasher, I think of Gene Kelly. Allow me to explain.
Like many of us, to get through graduate school I took on all manner of jobs; retail, physical labor, tutoring. For a stretch due to the shortage of teachers in my home state of California I was a substitute teacher. This ‘desperation as the mother of invention’ policy gave me the chance to sub across the K-12 spectrum, experiencing everything from early elementary eagerness to disengaged, dispirited high school seniors. It was a great look into the heart of young people, and into the heroic efforts made by teachers and staff throughout the education system.
There are of course a wealth of stories; breaking up kids pummeling other kids at recess, working with the low-achiever math class with kids who had already decided they were ‘dumb’, and reading the kind letter from home from the mother asking me to not run her daughter that day in gym because their family was keeping Ramadan and the daughter could not drink water at school. Whoops; I’d had her run the day before.
These are all good story fodder but the enduring memory of my time subbing remains Gene Kelly. I had a long-term assignment filling in for an elementary music teacher who was out sick, and in this role I showed the classic Kelly vehicle ‘An American in Paris’ over and over. I introduced students to the 1951 Academy Award winner for Best Picture over twenty times. By the nature of class length I watched the opening 45 minutes again and again and again. The introduction begins with several clips of famous Paris sights, and then Kelly’s voiceover invites us into his small apartment.
What follows is captivating; we move from voiceover to an absence of speech. From the narration of the entire city, we are now drawn into this tiny space. We see Kelly begin his day with a beautifully choreographed dance around his very cramped space; opening his eyes, pulling up his bed, yawning, grabbing his towel and kicking away his chair, pulling out his table, setting the table, eating his breakfast. There is not a wasted motion.
It took me a while before I realized what was happening, but being forced to watch it over and over again was a gift. The scene became more beautiful, not less, with each viewing and I finally caught on that Kelly was not waking up, he was dancing. And in this dancing he was bringing amazing dignity to the everyday movements required of each of us, bringing beauty and imagination and creativity to his world and work. The small acts of awakening suddenly took on elegance.
I was showing this movie on a break from a seminary that emphasized (emphasizes still) the dignity of work and all of our life under God. All we do is an extension of God’s gifts to us, and the opportunity we have to work is a gift from our being created in God’s image. God works. We work. And even in what can sometimes be boring we have a chance to live into the joy of living as God’s gifted children, sent to work for his good pleasure.
While home subbing I was meditating often on the implications of this grand Biblical theology, and just what it looks like for me when tasks seem tedious or boring. I was also contemplating the time-tested description of the Trinity’s movements together as perichoretic, as dancing in unison, choreographing the great works of creation, redemption, and sanctification. The clip of Kelly became a visual reminder, a balletic Brother Lawrence reminding me that even the smallest movement can take on grace and give God glory as we dance as he does.
Now, years later, one of my regular tasks is to empty our dishwasher each morning. I take this on as an act of love for my bride, and when I’m really on top of things I get it done the night before. But more often than not it happens in the morning and the pattern is the same; pull out the lower rack, empty the silverware tray, empty bowls and plates from the lower rack, pull out top rack, empty glasses and cups, drying any that are wet.
Frankly, it can be monotonous and boring work. But our sink and dishwasher area is a bit cramped, not unlike Kelly’s apartment, and when I’m finished there might be four or five cabinets open, a drawer needing shut, and the dishwasher in need of closing . . . and at that moment I’m always reminded of Kelly’s crisp movements and of how even my putting up our dishes can be done for the glory of God. So I try to shut everything with as little wasted motion as I can, finish with a light kick of the dishwasher door, flick on the kettle of hot water for tea, and head into the day in the hopes of continuing to live with as much God-inspired choreography as possible.
Rev. Dean Miller is Director of Spiritual Formation and Discipleship at The Falls Church Anglican in Falls Church, Virginia.