Letter of Recommendation: Washing Dishes06/04/2019
I’ve often said that the best job I ever had was washing dishes at a small Italian restaurant just after college. I say I washed dishes. I also bussed tables and prepped food and, at the end of the night, would blow into the state-mandated breathalyzer on the owner’s car so he could drive home drunk.
It wasn’t the easiest place to work. The owner was mercurial, the atmosphere disorganized. But no matter what else happened during a given shift, I’d find myself in the back room washing dishes. We had one of those commercial units, a giant silver box whose hood raised and lowered with the whisk of a magician’s hat. Pull the lever on a pile of dirty dishes and — voilà — a pile of clean dishes would emerge from a cloud of steam.
As much as I liked the machine, I often took the time to do the job by hand. It became a welcome ritual, a ballast against the chaos of the everyday. And like any worthwhile practice — marriage, creativity, compassion — it engendered the kind of patience that lets you see how life is something to be managed, not conquered. You might finish a load, but you’ll almost always have another one coming.
A few years ago, my wife and I decided to buy a dishwasher of our own. As parents (we had a 1-year-old son and another child on the way), we’d surrendered to convenience, bending witlessly toward any purchase that could give us more time or space. But lately I’ve been wondering what that time and space is for. Implied in the quest for convenience is a distinction between the life we deem worth living and the life we have to endure in order to get there. One is a possibility, the other an obligation; one is a means, the other an end. Look at dishwasher ads from the 1950s, when the appliance became commonplace, and you see narratives of a life reclaimed, an escape from the purgatory of work into the freedom of leisure. Life hacks, multitasking, the ruthless compression of our daily routine: We still frame the ordinary as something that exists only for the thing beyond it, as a hazard to be optimized away instead of an organism to be nurtured and interacted with.
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It’s not that I begrudge people their phones or their Prime accounts or their housecleaners. If anything, I empathize: The simpler the moment in front of me, the more anxious I become. I could be doing something, I should be doing something. But a life under constant threat of novelty isn’t a life; it’s exhaustion.
Washing dishes by hand, I give myself the chance to remember that this is wrong — that most of life is ordinary; that ordinary isn’t the enemy but instead something nourishing and unavoidable, the bedrock upon which the rest of experience ebbs and flows. Embrace this — the warm water, the pruned hands, the prismatic gleam of the bubbles and the steady passage from dish to dish to dish — and feel, however briefly, the breath of actual time, a reality that lies dormant and plausible under all the clutter we pile on top of it. A bird makes its indecipherable call to another bird, a song from a passing car warps in the Doppler effect and I’m reminded, if only for a moment, that I need a lot less than I think I do and that I don’t have to leave my kitchen to get it.
I’m not advocating the twee harmony of a perfect kitchen, of things being spick-and-span or just so. Dirty dishes mean people have been eating; that people have been eating means bowels will be emptied; that bowels will be emptied means we are not and will never be the sweatless caricatures marketed to us by the wellness industry.
Instead, we will continue to be what we are: people, together, making a mess. An anxious kid, I spent a lot of parties hiding under the table; as an adult, I head to the kitchen, where I can slip the interpersonal glare of conversation while still enjoying the miracle of company I love, of empty stomachs now filled.
Look at dishes this way and washing up isn’t the shouldering of a burden but a renewal of the conditions by which all this — the talking, the eating, the communion — can happen again. (Your closest friends already know this; what more concrete expression of intimacy is there than a friend elbow deep in dirty dishwater, long after everyone else has gone home?) As a religious person without a religious affiliation, handling a dirty sink isn’t work; it’s a sweeping of the altar.
Not that I think about all this when I’m washing dishes. When I’m washing dishes, I usually think about a million other things. But if I’m lucky, for a few seconds here and there, I’m just washing dishes.
A few months ago, I went to New Orleans to visit friends — one of those periodic breaks my wife and I give each other as investments in mutual well-being. One night, after a meal at home, I stayed back to clean while my friends went out. When I worked at the restaurant after college, I was 21: I had everywhere and nowhere to be at the same time. At 36, I face the same truth: There’s always less to do than I pretend. I know this, but I forget it; it rustles around in the curtains behind my life like an apparition. I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. At some point it started to rain, spattering the window before sliding away.
Mike Powell lives in Tucson, Arizona.
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