I am not a religious man, but I have a ritual that I perform every day: I wash my breakfast bowl.
It doesn’t seem like much, especially in this age of dishwashing machines and takeout food on paper plates, but my ritual has a long and meaningful history.
There was a year in my life when I didn’t have a job. I lived with friends in North Carolina and did their cooking and cleaning. Every morning, after breakfast, I washed all the dishes.
To others, dishwashing may seem a boring chore, but to me, it was a time to regain contact with the eons. I could stand at the sink with my hands in the steamy suds and stare out the kitchen window at the leaves blown from their trees.
I stared out the window as I worked, mentally walking down the path behind the house past the tin-roof barn and the wide rolling field where old Mr. Price grew beans and tobacco. On the far side, there was a brook that meandered into a small ravine about a dozen feet deep, wet on its north, sunless side, and dry on the south.
And across the granite that forms the streambed as it cascades through this ravine was a long white stripe of quartz, an igneous dike where molten lava once inched up a joint in the surrounding rock and cooled into quartz bright and shiny against the black of the basalt streambed.
And standing at the sink with my hands glossy with detergent, I could travel upstream into myself the same way, finding, eventually, the glistening evidence of my own deepest thoughts: people I had long forgotten, places I hadn’t remembered being, songs I had sung with my grandmother, and sometimes even peace.
And so I rinsed the hot soap from a dish with scalding water and left it in the drain rack. I reached for the next dish and I thought about other times I have washed dishes.
I recalled the night my son was born. I had been at the hospital for his birth, in the delivery room as he entered the world screaming and miry. After I had taken the usual photos and Annie went back to her room for some well-deserved sleep and the kid was cleaned off and sent to the nursery, I drove home and found a kitchen full of dishes, greasy and smeared, waiting to be cleaned. Annie had been in labor almost two days and, though I had been with her through most of it, I also had gone home periodically for meals.
Those dishes and the ones left over from the dinner at which she started feeling her contractions were scattered all over the house. I filled the sink with hot water and divided up the dishes from the pots and set the plates and silverware into the sink to soak. Steam rose from the suds.
I remember that night; I was in knots, loaded with the new responsibility of a child and desperate with the empty feeling that my wife and I no longer could live together. I stuck my arm into the water and my guts began to relax.
I rinsed the first plate and my mind went blank – the blankness of meditation. My belly loosened and my teeth, which had been gnashing through the nights as I slept for months, relaxed. I rinsed the next plate, and it clicked against the first as I settled it in the drain rack. Soothing.
My problems were not solved, but I could look at the dilemmas I faced without the desperation I had been feeling. My frenzy abated.
Dishwashing became my mantra.
I recall camping with the redhead who succeeded my wife. We were staying in an abandoned farmhouse in a hidden valley of the Blue Ridge. Looking out over the balustrade, we saw the cliff across the glade, the rocky stream that poured down the valley bottom, the second growth in the old farm fields, millions of black-eyed Susans swaying in the breeze. As the sun dropped behind the cliff, I took our supper dishes down to the stream and washed them, scouring them with sand from the creek bottom and rinsing them in the icy water. Billions of fireflies made Fourth of July for us. I left the cold dishes on a large rock to dry overnight.
I recall once seeing a twisting globe of blackbirds rise from the trees and stretch out like the Milky Way across the sky. Hundreds of thousands of birds roosting took flight and spanned the evening sky. I dipped the last pan into the darkened suds and scrubbed it.
When the student asked Zen master Chao-Chou for instruction, the sage answered, ”Wash your bowl.” All philosophies else try to figure out logical ultimates, leaving us, at the end, only a useless ash.
No matter if Plato be right, or Whitehead, or Sartre, the one action that we all share is ”washing our bowl.” No matter if everything Wittgenstein ever wrote is absolutely true, we must act as if he never wrote anything. We still must wash our bowls. If everything is explained, nothing is explained, and we are back on square one. Better to wash your bowl.
So, as I wiped the final grease from the stove top and wiped down the counters and cutting board, I replaced the salt and pepper in the middle of the table and wiped off the tabletop.
All that remained was to rinse the dishrag and dump the greasy suds down the drain, setting the washbasin out to dry. That completed, I dried my hands on a fresh towel and began on one of the day’s other tasks.
Once, long ago, when I visited a friend, Judy Crawford, no longer with us, at her mountain house up near the Plott Balsam mountains of North Carolina, I cooked her a giant meal of coq au vin and I made French bread. We had several friends over and feasted, making such a pile of greasy dishes that we all agreed to let the mess sit overnight. ”I can’t look at the kitchen tonight,” Crawford said.
I woke early the next morning and dressed and went downstairs to the kitchen. It was a little after 6, and the sun was hours from rising over the first peak. I filled the sink and started the dishes. Boonie, her cat, crawled around my ankle, looking up at me, squealing for milk. A few robins and a bluebird were scratching at the ground outside the kitchen window. It was quiet – calm and silent. I finished every last dish before Crawford woke up.
”Golly. You didn’t have to do that,” she said when she saw her shining kitchen. No, I didn’t have to, but I enjoyed it. I was at peace.
Most of what we do in our lives is frivolous – watching TV, fixing the car, reading books, waiting for the bus – but the washing of dishes is important: It is necessary. And it is something humans have been doing since before the days when Abraham lived in Ur. Washing dishes is part of being human.