This is how I finally found solace in an activity I dreaded.
Elisabeth Hyde is the author of six acclaimed novels, including the family drama, Go Ask Fannie ($19, amazon.com), most recently. She lives in Boulder with her husband.
My friend Artie washes his dishes by hand. Oh, he has a dishwasher, but he uses it simply to dry the dishes he’s already washed. Artie’s a physician who works in public health; I say this just so you know that he’s a busy guy directing lots of people and could easily make use of time-saving devices like dishwashers. He and his wife Patty also raised two daughters, so it isn’t like there haven’t been lots of dishes to wash over the years.
But Artie’s also a river rat. And boy does he know how to wash dishes on the river. I’ve done a number of canoe trips with him on the Green River in Utah, where the water runs brown with silt and you feel like you’ll never get the dishes clean. But at the start of every trip, he gives a little demo of his system once again. “There are 4 buckets,” he tells us, peering out from under his Outback hat. “First one’s a cold rinse, second comes a hot soapy wash, third is a hot rinse, and finally there’s a cold sanitizer.” You air dry the dishes, and you’re good to go. The dishes are hygienically clean, even if they might dry with a dusting of silt, and you’ve used 4, maybe 5 gallons of water for a dozen campers.
Sometimes friends, puzzled by his choice at home, remind him that a modern dishwasher supposedly uses less water—13 gallons on average—than the typical hand-washer. But they don’t know Artie, who can do it with only 3. Besides, for Artie it’s not just about saving water; it’s an act of meditation. Warm sudsy water, the circular motions of a good sponge, a well-designed dish drainer, a pitcher of boiling water. Maybe there’s some good music or maybe he’s just alone with his thoughts, back on the river in his mind. For Artie, washing dishes is largely about the process, the result being the satisfaction of knowing you’ve done one thing right, and well, and with mindful attention to the beauty of each dish and the function that it has served to nourish the body and soul.
The Buddhists know this well. “I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands,” writes philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh. “The dishes themselves and that fact that I am here washing them are miracles.”
We have a 15-year-old dishwasher , and we use it all the time; while I admire Artie, I’ve always figured I have different ways to meditate. But recently, we left our house in Boulder and went off to San Francisco for a semester, renting a 1-bedroom apartment. Right after we signed the lease, the landlady called back. “I forgot to mention,” she said sheepishly. “There’s no dishwasher.”
I wasn’t wild about it, but then I thought, well, okay, we’ll just pretend we’re on the river.
And we did. The apartment had a minimum of dishes: 4 plates, 4 bowls, 2 mugs, 2 wine glasses, and a handful of water glasses. No specialty dessert plates, no extra set of dishes to tap into when everything else was dirty; you used it, you washed it. There was a full supply of cookware, but knowing we had to wash everything by hand, we made a lot of one-skillet meals.
And when the time came to clean up, my husband and I worked together, one washing, the other drying and putting away. We chatted. We appreciated the simplicity of the equipment: a few squirts of sudsy Joy, thick, softly lined rubber gloves, a squat, round scrub-brush, and lint-free linen towels. We took pleasure in rinsing the dishes in scalding water, since it yielded streak-free plates and clear spotless glasses. And within fifteen or twenty minutes, the kitchen was clean and quiet (no humming dishwasher), and everything was put away.
Of course there were times when a sink full of dirty dishes was the final insult to a bad day. Crusted food, congealed grease, dried egg yolk and avocado—sometimes I wanted nothing but to go to bed so a bunch of elves could come in and clean up while I slept. I can feel really sorry for myself sometimes, and on those nights, after reconciling myself to the task, I’d fume at the landlady for not updating this old fashioned kitchen.
One day, my writing had not gone particularly well. And my husband had to work, so I was left cleaning up. I looked at the dishes and thought, Poor me! But I didn’t have a choice, and as I found myself filling the washbasin, I began thinking of summer days on the Green River, the purples and mauves and oranges of the canyon walls, the brown silty water flowing by, the four buckets of water. I washed those dishes imagining that afterwards, I would lie down on top of my sleeping bag and feel the day’s heat rising off the sand, look at the stars spattered across the sky, and fall asleep to the soft gurgle of the river against the shoreline. When I finished, I hung up the towel and just stood there for a moment, taking pleasure in the simplicity of a job well done.