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The Zen of Doing Dishes

September 17, 2010

You heard me. Most of the time, I procrastinate doing dishes. Especially this summer, when I worked like a dog and was too tired to even cook when I got home (I would have gained weight from all the pizza if it weren’t for the stress). However, the new job gives me time to get stuff done. Like dishes.

Like I said, I usually procrastinate dishes, but y’know what? Like most procrastination, it’s counter-productive. And doing dishes really isn’t all that bad.

There’s something meditative in hot soapy water and scrubbing dishes clean. Maybe it’s my Bon Ami Tangerine Thyme dish soap, which smells fantastic, by the way. Maybe it washing a hot load of dishes on a chilly day. Maybe it’s rinsing with clear, cold water. I don’t know. Something about it demands a kind of half-conscious focus of the hands, leaving the mind free to wander.

Even though the mind is free to wander, that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to focus on anything in particular. I think about work and school and other random things that just happen to pop into my head. And really, it’s relaxing. There is something so satisfying in doing the quiet and slow and worthy work of washing dishes. Things get clean! And although my back sometimes hurts from leaning over the sink, it’s nice to have a clean kitchen and dishes dripping dry until they are ready to be packed neatly away in the cupboard.

Last year a man by the name of Matthew Crawford published a book called “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work.” It was pretty popular paean to working with your hands. It laments the loss of the ability to fix things – both as individuals and as a society. I’ll admit I haven’t read it, but from the reviews it seems pretty focused on engine-based maintenance and repair. But it has an interesting point – the loss of American interest in getting our hands dirty.

But that’s changing, I think. You’ve got urban and suburban and rural farm revivalists. You’ve got the canning and food preservation revival. You’ve got people line drying and baking from scratch and raising their own chickens for eggs. Crafters are doing everything from spinning their own organic, naturally dyed woolen yarn to repurposing garbage into useful items. Why not a domestic revival?

I know people who have hired part-time maids or used temporary cleaning services. But to me, that’s a cop-out. Yeah, it’s nice to have spotless baseboards and waxed hardwood floors and dusted ceiling fans, but having someone else do your dirty work doesn’t sit well with me. Maybe it’s that Scandinavian Protestant work ethic upbringing, but it wouldn’t feel right. Although it’s often a pain to do it yourself, there’s something very satisfying about doing your own dirty work – scrubbing floors and bathtubs, washing dishes and laundry, folding and stacking and putting things away neatly.

Y’know, it’s funny, I’m really not a neat-freak. My bedroom always has a mixture of clean and dirty clothes lying around. Dishes are often stacked in the kitchen sink. I let laundry pile up. The floors in the kitchen get dirt and sand tracked in and I don’t sweep it up everyday. But every so often I’ll go into a flurry of activity – sweeping and scrubbing floors, powering through that pile of dishes, folding and putting away laundry, even scrubbing the toilet and bathroom sink. And y’know what? I feel awesome afterward, even if I have to really push myself to do it in the first place.

As a historian, I think about how easy we have it today in terms of housework. But then I also think about how 19th and early 20th century women often had nothing to do all day but keep house, especially if kids were away at school. Sure, it was ridiculously hard work, but it was their work. Even the days of the week were ordered to work efficiently. And although it must have been backbreaking at times, there had to be a kind of quiet satisfaction in baking bread and feeding and clothing your family and tending a productive garden.

I think Americans have that kind of satisfaction of a job well done in their blood. We’re a nation of primarily immigrants, many of whom came here with nothing. We buy into the American Dream, that if you work hard enough you can “make it” in the world. We believe in self-made men who pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Alas, I don’t think that’s ever been really true for all Americans, just some. But that doesn’t stop us from believing in it.

But now? “Hard work” seems to translate to “How can I make the most money?” We don’t value manual labor anymore and craftsmanship is for the wealthy. And I think we’ve betrayed ourselves a little that way. I just hope we can move a little closer in that direction that takes us back to appreciating simpler things.

Speaking of, I’m going to stop rambling and go work on making dinner and maybe do another load of dishes. I really did procrastinate this time, but I’m going to be quite satisfied when they are all done. 🙂

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