You know how some smells can bring back memories no matter where you are? I don’t know about you, but I have some time-tested scents.
The smell of a fire in the fireplace takes me straight back to Oklahoma winters, laying on the floor of the living room with my legs perched on the hearth, warming my feet after playing outside in the snow.
The musty, earthy smell of a grocery storage area takes me back to walking the aisles of the day-old Wonder bread store when I was a kid. The whole place kinda’ smelled like that. It was a happy time when bring home a loaf of cinnamon bread was a real treat.
And then there’s the smell of banana chips. Back at Surrey Hills Elementary school, the janitor had this industrial-strength cleaner, which is probably now banned in all 50 states due to the fact that it caused kids to grow extra limbs. Anyhow, the sole purpose of this pungent, banana-scented cleaner was to clean up after anyone got sick on the commercial-grade carpet. So now, anytime I smell banana chips…
Well. You get the picture.
After yesterday, I have a new memory smell.
This week was one that begged for a weekend. I was busier than busy. I was stuck on planes. I was feeling run-down. Saturday was going to be the cure-all. We had virtually no set plans. The freedom felt intoxicating.
I woke up on Saturday filled with expectations. This was going to be a perfect day. Gabby and I were going to start the morning by volunteering with the kids, helping tend the community garden at our local middle school. Next, I planned to come home and do a quick furniture repair project to fix up a friend’s table that was damaged in this summer’s flooding. Then, I’d make a batch of chili. When the weather cools off, I look forward to making vast quantities of soups and stews and storing them in the freezer to keep us fed through the winter.
To cap off the day, we were planning to head out to Arrington Vineyards in the evening. Take the kids out there, meet some family and friends, and lay out on the grass with a picnic while listening to our buddy’s jazz band.
Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Perfect, in fact.
But that’s not how the day would go.
Breakfast went well. We were able to mobilize the kids and get them out of the house quickly. This is no small feat. We planned on working at the garden all morning, yet another opportunity to teach the kids about service. We arrived to volunteer by 9:00.
Audrey started whining at 9:01.
She asked to go to the bathroom at 9:02.
No bathrooms nearby, so, at 9:03, Gabby held her aloft behind the car while she peed in midair to avoid a repeat of the “zoo pee debacle”. Yeah. Don’t ask.
The kids proceeded to get filthy while Gab and I worked. I spent an hour or so shoveling dirt, sifting through it to extract old Bermuda grass, and dumping the dirt loads into raised beds.
By 10:15, the Audrey was losing it. Rather than subject the rest of the volunteers to our screaming, whining kid, we left around 10:15.
I started my little furniture project at 11:00.
By 11:21, I had mis-cut four table legs trying to be creative, and ruined all my materials. A huge waste.
At 11:30, I gave up on the project, berated myself for screwing everything up, and went in to contaminate my wife’s good mood.
By noon, we had finished lunch, and I had successfully irritated Gabby. She left the kitchen while I made chili. Here’s where things started to turn the corner.
Every artist has a medium. Some use pastels. Others use water color. Oils. Sculptors work in stone.
By 2:00, I had concocted what was sure to be the world’s best batch of chili. By the smell alone, you could be transported back to some pioneer’s chuck wagon. Minus the nearby scent of manure and open latrines. I took one last taste of the brew, and hit the couch to watch a little football.
After a short nap, I woke up and realized we needed to get the kids ready for the evening entertainment. Time to mobilize again!
Before dealing with Jake and Audrey, I had to clean up the kitchen. I went to my pot of chili and loaded it into four, quart-size Tupperware containers. I labeled them all with the date and the contents, to distinguish them from the current supply of spaghetti sauce in the freezer, and tomorrow’s batch of chicken tortilla soup.
It was a good-sized load of chili, but we were in a hurry. So, I balanced the four containers and began the journey from the kitchen, through the living room, and eventually out to the garage refrigerator.
Unfortunately, the door to the laundry room passage into the garage was closed. So, I cradled the four containers under my arm like a chili newborn and opened the door. Once I had the door open, I let go of the knob and reached for the stack of Tupperware. As I brought the mountain of chili out from underneath my armpit, the Earth started to spin at twice the speed it normally does. At least that’s my excuse.
I zigged. The Tupperware zagged. And time froze.
Two of the containers were airborn. In an attempt to save the plummeting chili, I released the grip on one of the safe quarts that was still in my hand. Unfortunately, I am not a ninja, so my less-than-cat-like reflexes served only to punch the falling container toward the washing machine, while the newly dropped one fell unfettered to the hard tile floor.
If I had a video, I imagine it would have looked like that episode of The Office where Kevin’s brings his famous chili to work. Absent of a true visual, allow me to explain.
The resulting impact was a steaming-hot, rust-colored explosion of liquid gastro-intestinal distress splattering in all directions like some edible Fourth of July fireworks display. Sauce sloshed onto my pants. Beans peppered the wall like cover fire from an automatic weapon. Chili oozed out in every visible direction.
I may have said a bad word.
Gabby heard me and came rushing in, “Are you OK?”
Then she saw what had happened. I was fuming. Again, mad at myself. Then the kids came running over.
“Daddy, why did you do that?!”
Gabby wisely told them, “Kids, let’s leave daddy alone right now. He’s busy.”
She went off to grab some spare towels while I surveyed the damage and speed-dialed BP’s emergency response team.
Chili was oozing underneath the washing machine. Sauce was splattered everywhere. Kidney beans and ground beef were caught in the air conditioning vent covering the floor. The whole room smelled like a Frito Pie. If I had my wits about me, I probably could have seen the outline of Jesus’ face in the resulting spill.
Or Jim Caviezel.
But I wasn’t paying attention to that sort of thing. I was more concerned about the mess I had made. I spent the next 30 minutes scooping beef and beans into a bucket, cleaning out the vent, and sopping up the orange-y sauce with towels. I moved the washer and dryer to see what was happening underneath.
Imagine, if you will, 18-months worth of laundry room dust-bunnies swimming in a pool of chili.
I put the finishing touch on the room with a bleach-soaked mop and cleaned myself off. Powerful scent, the chili and bleach combo. Needless to say, we were a bit late getting to the Vineyard.
The Vineyard was a nice distraction. It took my mind off of the day’s disasters. After a short, yet wonderful evening listening to jazz while eating a picnic in the cool fall air, we arrived back home.
Eager to wash the smell of failure and stupidity off my body, I took a shower while Gabby unpacked our cooler.
Clean and dry, I put on some comfy clothes and walked toward the living room. Gabby and I planned to watch a bit of TV before bed.
On my walk to the couch, my foot slipped on a wet spot and I nearly fell on my keester. The floor was soaked. I wondered, “Why would Gabby have mopped the hallway? With water? It’s a wood floor?”
“And why does it smell like chili again?”
“And laundry detergent?”
Then I turned on the light.
The hallway was covered in a half-inch of water. It was rushing in from under the doorway into the laundry room. Gabby came over again. “What’s happening?!”
We looked in the laundry room, where Gabby had started a load of towels just 15 minutes before. The chili-soaked towels from earlier in the day.
The wall behind the washing machine was soaked. Apparently, when I had moved the washing machine to clean up the chili mess from before, I had forgotten to connect the drain back to the pipe in the wall. So, for several minutes, our washing machine had been spewing light orange, chili flavored waste water onto the back wall of our laundry room and out into our hallway and closets.
And the rinse cycle was just beginning.
I quickly shut off the machine, and we got to work on the damage. Forty-five minutes and seven towels later, we finally had it under control. We had to pull up the carpet in the closet, and bring out a fan to dry off the area. We just hope the floors don’t buckle.
So, let’s get a scorecard for the day, shall we?
Volunteering cut two hours short.
Furniture repair materials ruined.
One mostly wasted pot of food.
One chili explosion.
One minor flood.
And the smell of chili still lingering in the air. The scent of expectations unfulfilled.
Sounds about right for a Saturday.
What had started as a beautiful day filled with promise turned into a reality that was quite different. It happens sometimes. In fact, it happens most times. We get these grand ideas about how our day might turn out. How our career might pan out. How our kids might choose to live out their lives.
But expectations aren’t reality. Expectations are a man-made measuring stick by which we judge our own success or failure.
Sometimes expectations are useful. They propel us forward to achieve goals we might never be able to reach otherwise.
Other times, expectations are poisonous. When they cause us to question our own worth, or our own capabilities.
I remember very well our missionary experience in Guatemala. I went into the situation hoping – no, expecting – to change the world in a year. I would touch hearts. Make my mark on the world. Maybe even save a life.
In reality, I spent a lot of time with Guatemalans, sharing God, and learning just a little bit about what it is like to live in poverty. The experience wasn’t nearly as productive as my expectations. But was that bad?
No, it was just different.
Whether I’m examining my service or my Saturday, I have to recognize that what is most important is the heart with which I approach them both. Whatever the situation, if I bring the best of who I am and contribute the best I know how, then the results are those that God intended, whether they meet my expectations or not.
And, that experience will teach us something. So long as we look for God’s hand in whatever it was, rather than focusing on the mess we’ve made.
And so, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go enjoy a bowl of chili. The only one left. The smell reminds me of a Saturday. A Saturday that turned out just like it was supposed to.