It was my spiritual adviser who brought it up. When I simply could not move beyond an event in my life that I considered a sin, he asked if I was familiar with the concept of penance: doing something good to atone for something bad. "God forgave you before you even thought about it," he said. "Now you need to forgive yourself. Doing penance will make it easier."
I called the local soup kitchen and told Sherri, the chef-cum-manager, that I wanted to do something that really needed doing. I pictured myself ladling out stew to the poor and homeless, who would smile at me gratefully. I imagined that I would become the confidante of the people at the shelter, listening to their stories and helping them get their lives on track.
Instead, I became the shelter's one and only laundress.
I hate doing laundry. But every week I washed all the aprons worn by the volunteers who serve the food, the chef's aprons, and the washcloths and dish towels. It was the smelliest laundry I had ever washed because some of it sat in the soup kitchen for days before I picked it up. It was frequently wet and mildewed. Sometimes the stuff would cook in my hot car like compost. No one willingly rode shotgun with me and my penance.
I dreaded spaghetti night because it left nearly impossible stains. I bought heavy-duty detergent with built-in stain lifters. Sherri liked to have her aprons looking good, so I used bleach and starch for the first time since college. If I was going to be a soup-kitchen laundress, I was going to be a damned good soup-kitchen laundress.
I took out my sewing basket and reattached apron ties to waists. I scrubbed at extra-bad stains with a nailbrush and Fels Naptha. I learned that, when all else fails, vinegar can make even the foulest laundry smell sweet. I stacked the folded aprons by color, arranging Sherri's ironed ones on top, and put them into a nice, clean clothes basket.
I started to really care about the laundry. When the chef's aprons became so worn from constant use and harsh bleaching that I could put my fingers through them, I bought new ones from Williams-Sonoma, and I requested that "Sherri" be embroidered in navy blue on them. When there seemed to be a shortage of dish towels in the basket, I'd add some of my own.
After two years of fluffing and folding, I concluded that I had made amends. "I'm forgiven," I told my spiritual adviser. "I don't need to do the laundry anymore, but I like working for the soup kitchen. I'm just not sure what else to do."
He said: "Ask God."
"God?" I prayed. "I was grateful for this opportunity to serve you with sweat. But now I'd really like another job."