Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Ritual Dishwashing

What is ordinary.  Ordinary is washing the dishes, tucking children into bed with a minimum of fuss or dramatic, last minute developments, good or bad. It is turning out the kitchen light and having a chance to breathe, to replay some of the day, maybe share a moment with my spouse, get a healing dose of his perspective. 

I was thinking tonight, as I washed the dishes by hand, how hand washing dishes is a meditative activity for me, and how I persist in doing it most of the time, even though the towering structures I am sometimes forced to erect in my too-small dish drainer  endanger the very dishes I cantilever into it, even after purchasing a highly rated new dishwasher, and even in the face of research that proves it takes less water to do it by machine.

I like the hot, soapy water, and except in the deepest cold of darkest winter, when my hands have chapped, then cracked, then bled multiple times, I prefer not to wear the rubber gloves I remember my mother wearing always, a deep bright yellow still today. The pair I don’t use hangs on the side of the fridge, the faint shape of my fingers still in the latex. 

I know the proper order for washing, glassware first, then cutlery, then tableware, then cooking vessels, after which the water will be far too heavy with the precipitate from dinner to continue. 

I find it satisfying to sink the items one by one, or a few at a time, through the faint, crisp cracklings of the floating layer of suds, and into the water, then to twist the sponge into each narrow glass, around and around the mugs, applying the greenie side to the smooth walls of my own tea mug (so long and dark do I steep my first morning cuppa Cheericup Ceylon). In my life, where I continually beat back mess and clutter to little effect, the simplicity of immersing a dirty vessel into soapy water and having it emerge clean enough to eat off of is no small accomplishment, offering no small satisfaction.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes of handwashing dishes as an ideal meditative activity for practicing mindfulness.  At evening, I wash the dinner dishes after a family meal I have scheduled strenuously  to preserve, while my husband and my oldest walk the dog; the youngest disappears to her busy imaginative life.  I am left alone, with my thoughts, or a sliver of NPR, to put the kitchen back to some semblance of cleanliness and order.  I like to think of the long continuity of hand washers of dishes, almost exclusively women, linking back through time and place throughout history. 

As girls, my sister and I loved a Golden Book entitled Nurse Nancy, about a girl who wanted to grow up to be a nurse, and how all her daily activities presented occasions for imaginative play-nursing, including dishwashing: she would pretend that the pieces of cutlery were wounded soldiers, attentively washing their wounds, drying them carefully, and laying them in their beds in the silverware divider in the infirmary-drawer.  I found this unimaginably romantic and clever, even though I never aspired to be a nurse.  I admired, instead, investing one's daily life so thoroughly and observantly with one's feelings and thoughts.  (Years later, I learned as a parent that there was a very gender-unneutral companion book to Nurse NancyDoctor Dan; I am pleased to say that my oldest daughter identified totally with the child who wants to be a doctor, rather than absorbing the lesson intended for girls to become a nurse.)

Dishwashing is the final, least glamorous stage of the essential, nourishing rituals accompanying food preparation and presentation.  When the bellies are happily full, the pleasure at the presentation of the dishes has faded, and attention has turned elsewhere, it suits my temperament to make this lesser phase of commensality my domain. 

 Mary for the Poplar Grove Muse


  1. Mary, This is you at your best. The topic is deceivingly simple yet so eloquent and rich with images and much food for thought. I love the idea that simple daily chores can be an offering to the universe.

  2. I loved the visual images conjured by this piece. I was right there in the kitchen with you. You should have handed me a towel, I could have dried.

  3. Such lovely musing! Thanks for sharing a bit of your nightly routine with the world. Perhaps I will turn off The Daily Show when it is my week to wash the dishes, and replace it with some mindfulness.