Holy Dishes

I have never thought so much in my life about the fundamental elements of existence: food, shelter, land. Family. All that makes up a home. And at the risk of sounding totally old-school, I don’t think our culture (rd. American) gives these essentials nearly enough consideration. I certainly have not. I have been enculturated to believe that my meals (and where they came from) and the cleanliness and climate of my home are secondary (if that) in importance to the work I am doing in the world. One can only infer, therefore, that those whose existence is “reduced” almost entirely to that which takes place in the home are secondary to those whose existence subsists almost entirely outside of it.* I have felt this way countless times, feelings only amplified by the fact that this was not the life I had planned for myself.  Plucked out of grad school in Atlanta due to a surprise pregnancy and then plopped in the country due to a surprsie job opportunity (for my husband), I most assuredly never envisioned myself with a 17-month-old in a 650 sq. ft. cabin on a 4,000 acre farm in Koshkonnong, Missouri (that’s right, there’s a real place with such a name). I can’t imagine too many people have! But even more than that, I could have never envisaged the schocking satisfaction that I would experience here.

As an aspiring academic, I have been trained to believe, primarily implicitly, that all of my most valuable activity takes place in the brain, the part of my body furthest from the ground. My hands, my feet, they do the dirty, necessary work that is utterly beneath my head to do (literally ;)). Once one is truly successful, however, one might never be subjected to the dirty work of hands and feet again. You can pay someone to do your dishes!  And I must confess, there is something quite alluring about this. Ah, to be beyond the dishes!

Maybe it is our obsession with fame and notoriety that prioritizes the work of public life over and against the quiet moments of unseen exertion. But it is rather presumptuous of us to assume that we know which parts of life ought to be elevated above the rest; in my case, to consider the business of the mind (reading, writing) superior to that of the body and the home. In doing so, one elminates the opportunity for surprise, for wonderment, and ultimately, for wholeness. Food preparation, washing dishes, and scrubbing toilets, this is not mindless drudgery to which society’s elite ought not fall prey. Rather, this work is an essential component to my wholeness. This work connects me to that which is required to make me wholly alive-my food, my cleanliness, my survival. I need to do work that grounds me, connects me to the dirt from which I came and to which I will one day return. I need to feel the hot water running down my hands as I scrub the fiftyith dish of the day. I need to know and enact the fact that I am not above such work and beyond this, that I actually require this work. I require this work for my continued transformation. For my union with humanity. And for that reason, dishes are whole, holy work.

“There is work that is isolating, harsh, destructive, specialized or trivialized into meaninglessness. And there is work that is restorative, convivial, dignified and dignifying, pleasing. Good work is not just the maintenance of connections–as one is now said to work ‘for a living’ or ‘to support a family’–but the enactment of connections. It is living, and a way of living; it is not support for a family in the sense of an exterior brace or prop, but is one of the forms and acts of love. [This] work is unifying, healing. It brings us home from pride and despair, and places us responsibly within the human estate. It defines us as we are: not too good to work with our bodies, but too good to work poorly or joylessly or selfishly or alone.” ~Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace.

“While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance this might seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality. I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions… If while we are washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as they were a nuisance, then we are not ‘washing the dishes to wash to wash the dishes.’ What’s more we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes….If we can’t wash the dishes, chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either.”~Thích Nhất Hạnh, The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation.

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