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Zen, or How I Came to Love Doing the Washing-Up

November 27, 2012

I love doing the dishes. Not always, and not passionately, but overall it’s one of the constants in my life. This hasn’t always been the case. In fact, when I was younger (and not even that much younger) I absolutely loathed the chore, like so many of my peers. My parents didn’t get a dishwasher until I was well into my teens, so doing the washing up was one of those things I learned young and did… I can’t be sure how often, but many times a week while growing up. When I moved out at 18, I promptly stopped doing everything my mother taught me. Sure, I’d do the washing up maybe once every few days, when things piled too high, when I ran out of plates, or when my roommates started showing their annoyance overtly, rather than in the usual-for-roommates passive-aggressive way.

I lived at home – and loathed the washing up. I lived in my first college town – and loathed the washing up. When I was 24, I moved to The Hague – and loathed the washing up. By that time I was mature enough to do it semi-regularly so as to not completely alienate the people I lived with, but I still detested every moment of it. The worst part of doing dishes, I think we can all agree, is that it’s a never-ending chore. It’s damn near Sisyphean. The minute everything is clean, you remember that dish on the kitchen table, or you pour yourself a cup of tea – a cup which you will have to clean again. On and on and on it goes.

It wasn’t until I moved into a US college dorm that I started doing my dishes as soon as I’d cooked and eaten dinner, all the time, every time. Why? I won’t say my things would get stolen, because stealing was against the honor code, but my kitchen was a very popular hangout even for people who lived elsewhere and things (especially luxuries like plates and knives) would have a tendency to get… misplaced. Most of the time they’d turn up a few months later, but meanwhile, I’d be in a bit of a pickle. And yes, things would disappear unwashed. That is not the strangest thing that happened. One time, someone stole (I’m sorry: borrowed) half a potato from my shelves. Yeah. Anyway.

When I returned home again after my year abroad, I came home with a new routine and to a new person with whom to share my kitchen. A person who, I’m sorry to say, is okay with dishes but not the best at cleaning (if you ever read this, Natalie, I still like you!). Realizing that I would always live with someone who was inept at keeping house, whether it be another person or myself, I finally reached a turning point. No one else was going to do this for me, so I would do it myself. I wouldn’t be bothered by the seemingly endless stacks of dishes. Instead, I would use their continuity as a source of comfort: if there’s one thing you can rely on (other than death and taxes), it’s that the washing-up will need to be done! All day, every day, the stack will grow with plates, cutlery, dishes, and pans, until you take action and make it go away. Dishes, no dishes, dishes, no dishes. I would start singing “it’s the ciiiiiiiiiircle of liiiiiiiiiiiife,” but perhaps that’d be one bridge too far for my casual readers.

Actually doing the washing-up can be just as meditative as accepting that it will always be a part of your life (even if you have a dishwasher, you’ll often have to rinse things). Moving the brush or sponge over the surface of a plate in a circular motion is almost as good as “wax on, wax off” (I think I’m ready for my first karate lesson, Mr Miyagi!). Your mind has time to wander or, if that’s not your thing, the kitchen is the perfect place for loudly singing along with your favorite 90’s hits and boogieing down (do try to keep splashing to a minimum).

Stock photo providers seem to agree there is something happiness inducing about washing dishes. There are many hits for searches that involve happy women doing dishes. Not quite as many as Women Laughing Alone with Salad, but still, you know, enough. Maybe stock photo providers are patriarchal to the bone ( I mean, looking at the linked article, there seems to be quite a bit of evidence for that). But maybe, just maybe, they have been trying to show all of us the truth about the washing-up: it’s as close as many of us white western folks will get to a moment of zen. Because let’s face it, the other options don’t seem to work out for us very well. Have you ever met a new-age hippie-dippy European who stuck with yoga for more than three months? All that downward-dogging just gets to be too much. So let’s give it up for the washing-up instead!

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