Were Sisyphus told to stand in front of a dishwashing sink at a communal home and keep it spotless he would have been sentenced by Pluto to no less a task than his interminable rock rolling. I have lived communally thirteen years and have found few parameters more telling of the harmony in a group home than the process by which dishes are cleaned. Dishes, like molds, pop up everywhere, growing in quantity until they stick out — the scourge of the household.
However, it’s time dishwashing was elevated to its proper place as one of the great celebrations of life — the kiss of love to the chef who gave birth to the sumptuous feast just consumed. In our home an unwritten rule — if you don’t cook you clean up — has worked very well. What a thrill to stand before encrusted wastage and in a few moments wave the wand of spotlessness, preparing for another culinary delight. Yes, I’m talking about fighting your way to the sink to serve with verve. In this arena of dynamic exercise can come the flood of one’s favorite music, a pleasant conversation, or deep meditation, capped by the crown of task completion gratification. I must confess I love to wash dishes, and I encourage its promotion from the mundane to the sublime.
Often people ask me for advice on how to visit other communities without being a drain. I think the advice holds true for any wanderer of the planet. When visiting a home, wash the dishes, play with the children, and make bread — and you’ll be welcome everywhere.
Our one-course meal was just enough, and dusk is going out with the tide. We lean together in the fine warm sand, against the huge timber that’s been out to sea and back. We both think of saving the dishes for tomorrow, when the path to the creek will be easier to navigate. But that would mean hot tea postponed ten shivering minutes in the cold dawn. I’ll wash them tonight. The thought of this task that awaits me is like realizing you have to pee in the middle of a splendid dream. The sooner I get up, the sooner I’ll be back to the warm fire and your quiet company.
I gather up the aluminum pot, the forks and cups, and throw the last sandy potato to whatever night creature might be watching from the brush. With a lumbering effort, I’m over the log and onto the empty beach with my load. The fog has drifted in and filled the canyons; seagulls appear from the white mist and vanish again in silence. The trickling of the creek guides me to it. I squat down with my clanking pots at the edge of the water; the pebbles dig a little deeper into my bare feet. From somewhere in the mist, a gull complains of my intrusion. I scoop up a handful of wet gravel and begin to scrub. The cornbread crusted onto the pan while we were talking about islands and truths. Truth: dirt can actually clean with the help of water. After scraping and scratching for some time, I rinse the pot clear and watch bits of food dart downstream toward the great darkness that fills the horizon. Once I’ve put the forks and cups in the pot, I remember to hear the waves rushing. My fingers and toes are wrinkled from the wet and cold, and yet strangely, I am not in a hurry to return to our camp. In fact, I am completely happy to sit back on the cool rocks and mix the smells of sage and mint with the salty ocean mist in my lungs. Over there, an occasional spark dances up from behind the bone-white log where you wait. I will have to tell you, my love, that I almost didn’t come back.
San Francisco, California
I have one bowl (wooden), one wooden spoon, and one knife. I eat mainly raw fruits, nuts, and vegetables and haven’t had to use dish soap for more than 10 years. I think about how much water, dish soap, natural gas, coal, and nuclear power I haven’t needed. I multiple the amount by millions of us doing away with most of our dishwashing. If THE SUN had asked its readers to write about “Not Washing Dishes,” I could have said a lot more.
Santa Cruz, California
The Yiddish word, baleboosteh, is defined by Leo Rosten as a woman who is an excellent and praiseworthy homemaker — a woman whose house is so clean “you can eat off the floor.”
I was trained to be a baleboosteh by my baleboosteh mother, who convinced me, for instance, that a woman who leaves a sinkful of dirty dishes is marching surely toward some unknown but terrible doom from which she will never be redeemed. Actually, the sink doesn’t have to be full of dirty dishes. According to Ma’s theory, a woman who leaves even one dirty glass and spoon unwashed is a disgrace to herself, her family, the community, womanhood, and the Jewish people.
I’ve never even considered getting an automatic dishwasher. I didn’t ask, but I’m positive that the mere placing of dishes into a machine, letting them accumulate all day until there’s a full load, and then washing them all at once, would not get you off the hook. There would still be dirty dishes in the house, wouldn’t there, even though they’ve been tucked away, out of sight?
I remember the day my mother taught me to bake a cake. “Are you finished with the baking powder? Then, wash the container and put it away. Are you through with the spoon? with the bowl? with the spatula? with the vanilla extract? Wash them and put them away!” By the time I set the cake into the oven (the very clean oven), all the ingredients and utensils were back in their proper places, the counter was clean, and Ma was wiping up the floor.
All this rigorous training has brought me to my present craziness. I’m a neatness nut, who longs to be a wild and free spirit. I want to be the kind of cook who has wonderfully sticky pots and pans and overflowing casseroles bubbling onto the stove. I long to stir and mix and create amongst the lushness of unbounded disorder — chocolate dripping down the walls, an exotic amaretto sauce splashing happily onto the floor, bowls, spoons, strainers, knives, pans, all flung about with abandon.
And when I write, I want the muse to sit on my shoulder while, in a creative furor, at a desk that is rampant with artistic chaos — stacks of manuscripts, books, pencil stubs, dirty coffee cups, half-eaten, stale sandwiches, cookie crumbs — I wildly pound on the typewriter, the muse applauding my reckless genius.
But such is not the scene. Right now, I’m sitting at my orderly desk, in my spotless house. The laundry is done, supper is cooking peacefully on the shining stove, and there isn’t a dirty dish anywhere. May the muse forgive me. I can’t help myself.
Park Forest, Illinois
According to Ma’s theory, a woman who leaves even one dirty glass and spoon unwashed is a disgrace to herself, her family, the community, womanhood, and the Jewish people.
The house my parents live in now is not the house I grew up in so it holds few associations for me. It’s a brick house in a rural subdivision and has ten rooms, including two full kitchens, one upstairs and one down. The upstairs one has a built-in dishwasher.
From the time I was four until I left home to get married at eighteen, we lived in a five-room frame house where all the dishes were washed by hand. My mother washed and I dried. She didn’t like me to wash; she didn’t trust me to get the dishes clean. After dinner my father sat in the living room and read the evening paper. The time during which the dishes were washed, dried and put away was the only time my mother and I talked. Occasionally my father would yell from the living room SHUT UP. It meant he couldn’t concentrate on his newspaper with our voices in the background. Sometimes we whispered but more often we kept quiet. My mother said it was no use making him mad.
While drying the dishes one evening when I was ten, I asked my mother how babies were made. My friends had been discussing it at school. The current theory was that the mother and father went to the doctor and the doctor prayed for a baby and then the mother and father went home and rubbed each other “down there.” When I asked my mother, she was holding a pot lid under the faucet and the steam was rising up from the rinse water in little angry puffs. Haven’t you got anything better to think about than that, she said. Get your mind out of the gutter. That was the last word she spoke to me on the subject of sex until the night before my wedding when she called me into the kitchen to explain the use of condoms. Then it was my turn to be angry.
The day after the wedding my husband and I left for California. For the next couple of years, I washed the dishes each evening while he turned out one elaborate art project after another in his pursuit of a degree in advertising. Later we were divorced.
My second husband and I have a dishwasher. Most of the time I do the dishes. I never get over the pleasure of slamming the door on the sticky plates, the sugar in the bottom of the iced tea glasses, the goo between the fork tines, and letting scalding water and the detergent too strong for human hands do their work. Sometimes my husband loads the dishwasher. We have two daughters, twelve and six, who know how it works but haven’t actually run it yet.
I explained where babies come from to my older daughter when she was four. I’ve put books into both daughter’s hands that cover every aspect of growing up from Period to The Wonderful Story Of How You Were Born to The Facts Of Love. They don’t connect sex with the gutter; the reference would have to be explained to them like some archaic phrase from The Canterbury Tales. They don’t know how it is to grow up in a household where the mother stands at the sink washing dishes while the father sits in his easy chair reading the newspaper and occasionally yelling SHUT UP. They would also have a hard time understanding how modesty could make a woman stand washing dishes night after night and sometimes weeping from the pain of her bleeding hemorrhoids because she was ashamed for a doctor to examine that part of her anatomy.
Sometimes I take my daughters to visit their grandparents in the ten-room brick house. We seldom spend more than one night. My mother still insists on doing the dishes by hand rather than wasting the hot water and detergent it would take to put them through the dishwasher. My daughters have been cautioned not to mention anything of a sexual nature in front of their grandmother.
After dinner my father feels the need of a cigarette. He goes out on the terrace to sit in a lawn chair and have a leisurely smoke. My mother and I wash the dishes in silence out of habit, the old resentments stir just under the polite surface we take pains to preserve. When everything is neat we go into the living room and sit down to visit. Sometimes it’s hard to think of things to say.
I washed for 500 people my freshman year. I washed them for my apartment mates. I washed them for my neighbors. I’m going to wash them for my wife-to-be. And I’d wash them for you if you give me something to eat when I’m with you.
That is the Law of Return. Don’t ever rob somebody’s labor. Be considerate. If you receive from someone give to them in some way. Sir Albert Howard, the “father” of organic gardening, deduced this law in nature and it operates in human social relations as well. Don’t be a good American and rip somebody off; be a good human being and give in return for what you’re given. Good tradesmen know this rule. Not living by it leads to talking behind somebody’s back, hard feelings, and that emptiness that accompanies all shallow living. Give and it shall be given unto you. Make some food or wash some dishes. You won’t lose your reward.
Glen Ellyn, Illinois
During my days of pre-adolescent indiscriminate t.v. watching, I chanced upon a movie of the play, “Mary-Mary.” Mary’s husband had left her partly because Mary could never receive a compliment without a retort. She was also a very stubborn woman. I found her character appealing, a heartening break from the bland blondes and dark-haired vamps of the 1950’s. Another trend of the Fifties was viewing love as eternal, or at least masochistic, so, true to bad form, Mary’s husband returns. Once more with a love-sick waver to his voice he praises her. “Mary, your skin is like porcelain.” Mary replies, “You mean like the kitchen sink?” He’s upset, heartbroken, furious. Women were supposed to swoon or silently smile when men noticed them favorably, my twelve-year-old mind guessed. What Mary’s husband didn’t understand and that I did was that this time Mary was actually embellishing his compliment. Before olive drab and stainless steel took over in the Sixties, kitchen sinks were beautiful.
The gleam of clean white porcelain and enamel excites me. When the last of the steamed broccoli bits, rice kernels, miscellaneous mush and unidentifiable colored liquids have swirled and settled into the sink’s metal catch, I sigh with pleasure. The dishes themselves are evidently inconsequential in this process. When the utensils are examined before being placed in their drawer, there are occasional rejects that have butter and eggs or something similarly crusty and yellowish white still clinging to them, hiding their potential gleam. My dishes are only dishes. Chipped Salvation Army finds and Amway products do not mix to become mirrors. My friends do not ohh and ahh when they pick up their plates for Thanksgiving dinner. No special effect stars glisten from the rims of my china and glass. I don’t care. It only matters that the sink is empty, stain-free and white.
The occasional flecks on my dishware are leftovers from childhood hostilities as well as my meals. The chores that were fun, from my tomboy perspective, were delegated to my brother. I loved yanking and yanking on the lawnmower’s pull-cord as it sputtered, shook, and finally roared. The smell of a pile of juicy grass clippings made me want to roll and purr. Early in childhood, though, I suspected that something stank on the female end of the chores. With anticipatory dread, I saw my fate ready to dump on me in the form of chores my older sister so willingly performed. I was furious. Once again, in reverse anthropomorphism, I viewed myself as an ox waiting for its yoke. My sister I pictured as a slobbering idiot. Even though she never drooled, I imagined her mincing her steps and kow-towing to the unwritten law of female servitude with spittle hanging from the sides of her taut smile. The thought of my skinny little girl arms in water filled with bread crumbs, oil, floating lettuce shreads, and gristle disgusted me. Though they were small, I knew my arms were meant to throw balls, climb trees, saw wood, or even take out the garbage. Anything, as long as it was outside and active, was better than cleaning the dirty dishes of a family that often seemed alien to me, despite all the normal signs that said they were mine. I was also indignant. Perhaps it was the influence of t.v. that encouraged me to view relationships in black and white but I reasoned that if my brother didn’t have to stay inside after dinner to scrape and wash then I shouldn’t either.
I weaseled my way out of washing the dishes as long as possible. Finally, when I was in the eighth grade, my sister — happily sneering, “It’s about time” — passed her task to me. I was right about my arms though. China plates and delicate glasses slipped out of my watery hands. Every evening, one or two plates broke as they hit the sink’s white porcelain. I was silently exultant, sure that I was constitutionally incapable of this onerous task. My mother, however, was more persistent than I was. Although she would have blinked vacantly upon hearing the term “passive-aggressive,” she recognized my behavior as such when she saw it. Within a week we owned a brand new set of dishes, yellow unbreakable Melmac. Their flowers and leaves hid under the remains of the meals that I continued to scrape into the black plastic hole of the garbage disposal. And, like Mary-Mary, I soon believed that a kitchen sink, no dirty dishes in sight, was indeed an object to be admired.
Most of us eat very little of the daily bread that is alotted to our lives. The uneaten or unlived portion is left on the dish and our dirty dishes are usually left to pile up in the sink of the unconscious.
Washing dishes is always a calming activity for me. In fact, cleaning anything is a way for me to unwind — yet nothing compares to those dishes. Whether they be mine alone or a course for six, I enjoy cleaning them. I find the activity calming after the stormy effort of meals: It frees my mind to wander and provides my hands a warm occupation while the food digests.
The action of cleaning and the end result is a completion that is predictable. In life, when so many completions are unpredictable, I find peace in that.
In many spiritual systems the act of eating has been used as a metaphor for the assimilation of experience. The Christian Eucharist is a notable example. The Eucharist is also an example of finger food — very few dirty dishes to clean up following the ceremony. Spiritual dining in a more general sense certainly has its share of dirty dishes and leftovers. Most of us eat very little of the daily bread that is alloted to our lives. The uneaten or unlived portion is left on the dish and our dirty dishes are usually left to pile up in the sink of the unconscious. I once rented a house that had previously been occupied by two bachelors. They had apparently subsisted on a diet of t.v. dinners. I could tell this because there was a six-foot-deep pile of discarded t.v. dinner containers beside the back door of the house. Sometimes I cannot help but wonder how large the pile of dirty dishes is beside the back door of my conscious mind.
Doing the dishes in a spiritual sense requires the forgiving or discarding of the uneaten or unlived portions and the cleansing with water of the workspace or dish. In this way baptism may be said to be a metaphor for doing the dishes. This purification must be more than the once in a lifetime ritual encountered in traditional religion. Ideally one should be able to step from each moment of time reborn and innocent. But in order to accomplish this an ongoing process of doing the dishes is necessary. Actually it is more of an undoing than a doing. The major block to digesting all that life offers us is guilt. By judging ourselves to be unworthy or incapable, a stifling of the spirit results. The adding of guilt and recrimination gradually over time wraps the self into a mummy-like shell. Guilt is only possible if an illusion of self is held to be more valuable than the reality of self. Forgiveness is the peeling away of the illusions, the undoing of guilt. The guiltless are able to consume all of life. They lick the platter clean.
People think dishwashing machines know how to wash dishes by themselves. This isn’t true. There is a man who goes from house to house, teaching them. His name is Alex.
It is not easy to teach machines to wash dishes. Machines don’t understand the idea of dishes, since they don’t eat. Machines would rather wax floors, which makes a lot of sense to them. Machines spend most of their time on the floor.
Alex teaches them to wash dishes, though they plead with him to teach them to wax floors. “Imagine a dish is a small round piece of the floor,” he tells them, but they are still not very enthusiastic.
They are machines, so they must do what he tells them. And he tells them to wash dishes.
Once they start doing it, though, they like it. In that way, machines are very like people. Once they start doing something they like it.
New York, New York
Washing dishes, hanging clothes to dry, sweeping the floor, making the bed — daily tasks of simplicity and service, acts which connect us to humanity, acts imbued with power because they’ve been performed so many times by ourselves and countless others.
Once, while I was hanging clothes out on the line, time unfolded for an instant. I stood still with my arms raised to the clothesline and saw the millions of women stretching behind me in the same posture, the same act of hanging freshly washed clothing in the sun to dry. I saw my connection with them — the women with brown skin and yellow skin, wearing desert robes and pioneer aprons, slaves and freewomen — all of us united in the same act with the same intention. I felt that what I was doing was somehow holy, because it was human, because it was necessary, because it was always done, always will be done: put clothes in water, put clothes in sun, put clothes on body, put clothes in water — a circle with well-worn grooves. “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, amen.” This moment was a gift of grace to me.
We often find daily tasks tedious because they are never truly completed. The dish I wash today will have to be washed again tomorrow, and the bed I make this morning I will undo again tonight. But there is also a secret in the repetitiveness and the endless lack of completion. There is a Zen story of the village simpleton who attained enlightenment by following Buddha’s instructions to repeat “broom sweeps, broom sweeps” while sweeping the town streets. Washing dishes is like this. Crouching at stream’s edge, bending over a wooden tub, standing at a stainless steel sink — washing dishes, just this.
When I think of washing dishes I think of two things; one is that when I first got married I was faced with serious dish washing for the first time. I decided I would only wash dishes when I felt like it. I have never changed that decision because it works out wonderfully. I feel like washing dishes quite often actually, and so the dishes get clean and I never have to deal with the resentment of doing a job because I am “supposed to.” This attitude has crept into many facets of life and I have discovered from this a rather important lesson. I have a little sign on my bulletin board that says “Delete SHOULD.”
The other thing I think of is Alan Watts. Alan Watts, I am told, used to wash dishes very very slowly. One at a time. He would hold them up and admire them in every stage of the process. “Look how clean it is, look how it shines!” he would exclaim with delight. It seems he saw a life lesson in this little task also.
Renais Jeanne Hill