Since you were eight

Last month, I took part in a team triathlon in Mont-Tremblant, Québec. My sister Katie was the runner, I was the cyclist, and Katie’s friend, Ann Marie, was the swimmer. It was early in the morning and Ann Marie started our race. While she was in the choppy water, Katie and I waited in the transition area for her to emerge. I was up next. Katie warned me that Ann Marie wouldn’t be long.

“She’s a fish,” Katie said. “She’s been swimming competitively since she was eight.”

To be doing something since the age of eight, and still be doing it as an adult, is a marvellous concept. I asked myself what I loved doing as a child that I still enjoy today. The answer came easily: I have always loved to learn. Katie’s answer was just as straight-forward; she’s always enjoyed cleaning.   

Growing up, Katie and I shared a bedroom. This led to some difficulties (i.e., intense disputes). Katie liked it tidy, but wasn’t a priority for me. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate a clean space and make efforts to KonMari my apartment whenever possible. It’s the process of cleaning itself that I find frustrating and I’m often not motivated to do it.

As children, Katie and I tried to resolve our differences peacefully by emulating a tactic that we watched on an old Full House episode. DJ and Stephanie were having a similar sister squabble. Their solution was to place a line of masking tape on the floor down the centre of the room. We tried this with the premise that each of our belongings could not cross the centre line. It wasn’t too long until my mess crept over to Katie’s side of the room. Even to this day, when I visit Katie, I make an extra effort to be tidy while she tries not to be bothered by the disorderly state that my surroundings can sometimes become.     

So, it came as a surprise to my family when, while studying Environmental Sciences in graduate school in Montreal, I started an environmentally-friendly cleaning business. My idea was to provide housekeeping services while using only non-toxic cleaning products that were healthy for the planet.

My first client was a man who lived in Montreal’s West End. I set out on my bicycle, armed with a broom and a mop that I carried in my large traveller’s backpack, as well as natural cleaning solutions that I’d concocted the night before, as a result of my online research. When I arrived at his apartment, his entire counter was completely full of dishes. It looked as if they had been piling up for over a month. There was no free counter space and the food was caked on thick. I washed and dried dishes for two hours straight while he played video games. He was so happy when I finished and I felt like I’d really helped him.

My second client hired me to help her move. She’d lived in Montreal for eight years and she told me that the moving trucks would be arriving at 8 am the next day to pick up her boxes and take them to California. When I got there, I realized that she hadn’t even started packing. I helped her fill boxes upon boxes and she pleaded with me to stay longer than I’d planned. Our initial two-hour session turned into me leaving her house at three in the morning. She said she give leave me an amazing review, which I didn’t pursue, due to my limited online presence.

My third and final client was a professional couple. They were professors at McGill University and lived in an upscale condo in the Mile End. They told me they had hardwood floors, so I did some research on environmentally-friendly cleaning products for wood surfaces. One website suggested that lemon could be helpful. I brought vinegar, baking soda, recycled rags, and two lemons in my bag along with my other cleaning essentials. I cut each lemon in half and scrubbed the wood floors thoroughly with them. Looking back, I think the idea was that I was supposed to make a solution using the lemon rather than direct application, but I didn’t know this at the time.

The next morning, I received an uncomfortable email. My stomach dropped when I read it. My client proceeded to list all of the things I did wrong while cleaning the condo, leaving their home in worse shape than before. The wood floors were sticky with lemon juice and pulp. I didn’t empty the garbage cans, nor did I dust. (Who dusts?) In his concluding paragraph, he said, “I know you worked the whole time you were here, but you didn’t do a good job. I think you’re a great person, just not a great cleaner. You should stop your cleaning business and just focus on your studies.”

I couldn’t believe I got fired. I felt awful about it and called Katie in tears. She, on the other hand, started laughing. Eventually, I laughed too.

I don’t want to dismiss the importance of what I was trying to do. I had created an ethical, environmentally-friendly business (albeit a temporary one). I still believe cleaning with natural products is healthy for ourselves and our environment. I’d like to learn how to do this properly someday. But when people who know me well learn that I used to have a cleaning business, they are usually quite surprised.

While it stung getting fired, this man was being honest with me. His advice, in fact, led me to give up my pursuits in the cleaning industry, instead focussing on my education. I wrote my Master’s thesis, and then pursued medicine, becoming a doctor. This is not to say that you should stop doing something just because someone else tells you that you can’t. But the truth was that his honesty gave me the permission to stop doing something that I didn’t particularly enjoy. Sometimes what you don’t want to hear is what you need to hear most. It is important to recognize the things that we’re not good at, so we can either improve upon them, or else make room for other strengths.

I see my nieces and nephew gravitate toward certain things, despite being under the age of five. Norah loves to swim. Rita loves to help with cooking and calls herself “Chef Rita.” Alex is a dancer and Molly always has her nose in a book. Colin and Eva can’t stop running and Maggie’s favourite thing to do is to sit down with a pack of crayons and some paper. 

Back at the triathlon, Ann Marie was one of the first swimmers to reach the transition zone, giving me a head start on the bike leg. Not only did Katie do well on the run, but she had our hotel room cleaned and organized by the time I woke up the next morning. To this day, I have never dusted. But if I were to go a day without learning, I’d feel as though I’d be missing something.

What did you love to do when you were eight? And are you still doing it?

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