By Peter Schaller
I would not describe myself as a clean-freak.
My house is fairly orderly, but no one would ever leave my house awed by its spotlessness. I think it does give the sense that everything is basically in its place. Perhaps most notably, there are never any dirty dishes in my sink. When I think about housekeeping, I always return to a particular passage in the The Man Who Planted Trees, by the French writer, Jean Giono, as the narrator describes his visit to the home of Elzeard Bouffier:
“The place was in order, the dishes washed, the floor swept, his rifle oiled; his soup was boiling over the fire. I noticed then that he was cleanly shaved, his buttons were firmly sewed on, that his clothing had been mended with the meticulous care that makes the mending invisible.”
He never says that the place was immaculate, but there is a sense of order and care. Best of all, the dishes were washed.
Most people don’t believe that I really love washing dishes.
I, on the other hand, find it hard to believe that most people don’t enjoy washing dishes. For as far back as I can remember, dish washing has been a relaxing and pleasurable task. It is very much about mindful concentration, acute awareness and presence. But it goes beyond that.
When I was in high school, I had a couple of different jobs washing dishes at restaurants.
Without question, they were some of the most difficult and physically demanding jobs I have ever had, more so even than construction. If you have never visited the innards of a restaurant kitchen, it is not a place of grace and peace. There are always too many people and not enough space. Kitchens are stifling hot, greasy and the air is laden with curse words, often in many tongues.
What most people don’t know about restaurant kitchens is that the dishwashers are the last to go home. After the last plate has been served, customers have left and tips have been counted, there are still skyscraper stacks of pots and pans to be washed. It was those last two hours of the night that I most enjoyed. When the cooks and waitresses were gone, we were free to blast music, sneak a smoke and trudge through the wreckage.
By 2 a.m. or so, the disaster area has been controlled and there are neat stacks of plates, racks of glasses and towers of pots and pans, ready for a new day. The dishwashers, usually a fairly motley crew because no one really wants to wash dishes, lock up- exhausted and satisfied. Order has been restored.
But, that kind of front-line dish washing is a distant cousin from the homegrown variety—standing at the sink, gazing out the window, hands immersed in soapy water.
There is no doubt that washing dishes is a meditative action. There is no need to think about work or calendars or climate change when washing dishes. It falls into its own rhythm: wet, scrub, rinse, stack, wet, scrub, gaze out the window, rinse, stack… The world melts, time slips into irrelevancy and there is order to this one small part of life.
There is one catch, though—no dishwashers. I have not lived in a house with a dishwasher in decades and would never consider buying one. We need to use our hands more and worry less about convenience. Convenience saves time, but robs us of valuable opportunities for meditation, reflection, manual dexterity and presence.
So many parts of our lives are out of our control in this crazy, contemporary world.
There are political and social problems that plague our thoughts and leave us with feelings of desperation. Substance abuse and depression have been on the rise for many years now. Anxiety has become as common as bad breath, with people popping anti-depressants like Tic Tacs.
Washing dishes is not going to stop the war in Syria, pay off debt or repair a broken marriage, but it can bring a small sense of tidiness and accomplishment, in the midst of uncertainty.
I was recently on a two month trip to the U.S. Civil war was brewing in Nicaragua and my kids and I decided to get to some safe places until the violence subsided. I took advantage of our time in the states to do a whirlwind fundraising tour to raise support for the nonprofit that I run in Nicaragua. We stayed with friends and family over the course of our travels, which covered most of the Eastern Seaboard.
I am sort of an odd house guest. I always feel like staying at someone’s house is a bit of a burden to the host, so I do my best to compensate by pitching in. Since dish washing is a less than pleasurable task for most, I found myself washing dishes in at least a dozen different kitchens.
I have amazing kids and without any insistence on my part, I saw them clearing tables and scrubbing plates in joyful service.
They too are hesitant to use dishwashers, though sometimes, in some germ-conscious homes, we were forced to oblige. However, the simple act of service was gratifying to us and also very well received by our multitude of hosts. Altruistic service should be an integral part of our lives and even an act as simple as washing the dishes for someone can have great karmic implications.
Dish washing is just an example. It could also be sweeping, ironing, cutting the grass or any number of common tasks. One of the great secrets to balanced living is finding peace and pleasure in even the most ordinary moments.
Many people scoff at the idea that mundane activities, like washing dishes, can take on greater relevance in our lives. The truth is, any task can become an act of reflection, meditation, prayer or service. All of these are so critical to the quality of our lives and our well being.
It is up to each one of us to incorporate them into each day.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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