Before I go, I have something to say

Dishwashing As Spiritual Quest

This summer, I had grand plans for my medical leave following what my doctor called “major surgery.” I stocked up on DVDs, magazines, and, especially, books. I bought new artwork for the bedroom walls, and readied the cherrywood lap desk my daughter gave me for Mother’s Day. For good measure, I persuaded my husband to paint the ugly bedroom ceiling a creamy color named “December Stars.” I figured I’d be spending a lot of time looking up at that ceiling while my body healed.

I did spend more time than usual in bed, or on the sofa, but most of the time, it wasn’t the surgery, but my old friend the migraine that sent me there. Eventually, I learned from my Michigan neurologist that Sudafed, which I was taking for a sinus problem, causes major rebound headaches. Who knew? Not me.

So there I was, surrounded by a library of entertainment, unable to enjoy any of it. Sure, I read four books, but I can read through a tornado, as long as you chain me to something sturdy. But I had to put them down much sooner than I wanted to; it’s kind of hard to read when you can’t open your eyes. So I sat on the sofa, doing absolutely nothing. Going home and sitting on the sofa may sound like heaven in the midst of a hectic workday. Trust me – it’s not.

So there I was, bored to tears, wishing I knew how to do some kind of creative thing with my eyes closed. I never learned to knit, crochet, or needlepoint. Using a sewing machine blindfolded is not advisable, what with that needle going up and down right next to your fingers. As it turned out, the only thing I could do that was pain-free and even soothing was – are you ready? – washing the dishes.

At our house the man does the cooking. Oh, sure, if company is coming I rally to the cause, pulling out my library of cookbooks and my semi-organized file of recipes clipped from magazines, the best of them well-spattered with various foodstuffs. But the everyday cooking, the tyranny of the daily dinner, I leave, gratefully, to my husband.

In turn, I do the dishes. We own a dishwasher, a new one added during 2009’s Great Kitchen Renovation Ordeal. I’m grateful to have it, mainly after company comes, since we not only dirty a lot more plates and forks, but also an astonishing array of bowls, beaters, zesters, and other rarely used implements in the spirit of grand entertainment.

Loading and unloading a dishwasher is not so much fun. You have to bend over, and line things up, and squeeze that last plastic container between the mixer bowl and the butter dish, hoping nothing bounces around too much as the hot water goes berserk. I always feel a tiny cringe when I open it back up. Did anything break? Is it really clean? And what happened to the cherry pitter?

My mother never had a dishwasher, though with all the cooking and baking she did, she certainly could have used one. She was an accomplished washer of dishes, and my sister and I learned to dry and put them away without too much complaint. She looked askance at those newfangled dish-washing machines. She told me that once, after dinner at my Aunt Louise’s house, she observed Louise painstakingly rinsing and scraping each dish with a wet sponge before carefully setting it into the dishwasher. “You know,” said my mom, “If you added just a little soap to that sponge, you could wash those dishes in the time it takes to get them ready for the machine.” I have no idea what my aunt’s response, if any, was. Mom was just trying to help.

So there I was, last July and August, buffeted by two kinds of pain, dragging myself out to the kitchen if there was even one meal’s assorted dishes to wash. First I rinsed them, then put them on the counter in an order that probably made sense only to me. Then I filled the left side of the sink with hot water, accompanied by lemon-scented detergent. (“Concentrated Joy”!) Armed with yellow rubber gloves, I took my washing sponge in hand, scrubbing everything in the order that made sense to me: plates, from small to large; glasses; oddball stuff like custard cups and pot lids; pots and pans; and finally the utensils – first the large cooking tools like whisks and ladles, finally the knives, forks, and spoons.

There is something very comforting about doing the dishes. You bring order to the panoply of well-used kitchenware even before it’s washed. Your hands are sunk into the warmth of the soapy water. You remove all the food and rinse it away. You stack it all up to dry, then wipe the now-empty counter with a flourish.

Catholic writer Kathleen Norris has called household chores like dishwashing and laundry “The Quotidian Mysteries.” She wisely notes that “our greatest spiritual blessings are likely to reveal themselves not in exotic settings but in everyday tasks and trials” pointing out that “The activities I find most compatible with contemplation and writing are walking, baking bread, and washing dishes. . . . And in dishwashing, I approach the moral realm; there are days when it seems a miracle to be able to make dirty things clean.”

She’s right, especially on those days when the rest of the world, or at least the body you live in, seems intent on getting in the way of anything approaching spirituality. You can still wash the dishes. You can still make the world, and yourself, a little better.

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