The dishes await each time I cook and eat. They become taller and disheveled as they fill the pit. I struggle with the dishes, but I’ve been getting better with the dishes.
I didn’t know how much I struggled with dishes until I became a dishwasher at a restaurant in 2015. I was terrible at washing them. The sous chef told me, “You think about them too much. Just wash them. It’s not a thinking man’s game.”
He said, “Look, use the washing machine as a timer while you do other things. You gotta find your rhythm.” I tried and failed, so he told me, “ You fall behind, because you’re trying to do too much at once. Just do one thing at a time.”
I questioned why I was stuck in the dish pit. I had worked jobs that demanded my utmost responsibility and been paid decently for them. I wondered, “If I’m so smart, then why am I here washing these dishes with a bachelor’s degree?” My worldview was all screwed up.
Doing the dishes is maintenance; it’s not a project. Yet, when I fall behind on maintenance, mundane tasks become greasy and stinky projects. The window of easy choring closes, and the tasks stick together like a stubborn latch. A lot of the maintenance of my life had turned into problems that required project-grade work. I didn’t have this wisdom at the time, and I didn’t acquire it until recently.
What do I do when life’s little things turn into life’s big things? I start with the one on top, and I work my way down. Just like washing dishes.
A funny thing happens whenever I catch up with the dishes: I see the bottom of the sink. I give it a spray and a wipe, and as often as I remember, I give it a substantially deeper clean. I stand in stainless reflection and steel resolve. I am accomplished.
But my satisfaction disappears as soon as I cook something else. The clarity found in the clean sink is always obscured by more dishes.
I accept that the sink will never be empty. I accept that the results of a job well done are fleeting. There is always more work to do, because my existence necessitates work.
In an online recovery meeting, where I’ve been addressing my samsara of excessive drinking, I was asked, “Why are you here?” I looked above my tablet and toward the kitchen. I stared at the dishes in the sink, and I said, “To see the bottom of the sink.”
There were times in my life that I could not get to the bottom of the sink, and now I see it — even momentarily. The work it takes to get the bottom of the sink becomes easier while the build up of dishes never ceases.
Thich Nhat Hanh writes in How to Eat:
“You can stand there and enjoy washing dishes. But maybe you are lazy. You see a big pile of dishes and you don’t want to go over and wash them. But as soon as you roll up your sleeves and stand in front of the basin, it is not difficult anymore.”Thich Nhat Hanh. How to Eat. Parallax Press. 2014. Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism, Inc. Berkeley, California.
I started to see dishes differently as I washed them more. I used to do dishes like a job as if they were an awful task that begged to be completed. However, observing the impermanence of an empty sink reminded me of the reasons I wash dishes at all, and this is an important perspective. I love the people who I am washing them for. I find joy in the food I prepare with them. As vessels and tools, they bring me happiness. When I wash the utensils that my girlfriend takes to work, I take special care of them, because she uses them, and I want her to have dishes that were washed carefully… mindfully.
Thich Nhat Hanh writes that washing the dishes is holy and sacred if done mindfully. I understand now what he means. What I am doing is more than the dishes. There is a bigger picture that I can’t see but that I can observe through practice. So whenever I see the bottom of the sink, I cross a threshold, breathe, and return. It is a joy.