The Dishes


Recently my brother posted the following quote,

“If while 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 the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes , the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While of other thing, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus, we are sucked away into the future — and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.” – Thich Nhat HanhMiracle of Mindfulness, A Manual on Meditation

I have been thinking about it a lot, most likely because our new house does not have a dishwasher. The funny thing is that we have a dishwasher, sitting in our garage, but we haven’t installed it, can’t quite decide whether or not to install it, and shockingly, I’m not really missing it.

Washing the dishes by hand is now something I do two or three times a day. Olive “helps” me, by pulling her high chair over to the sink and whacking at the bubbles with a wooden spoon, or dumping sudsy water all over the floor. It’s a strange experience, because you can’t rush it. You are there to wash the dishes and they are going to get clean when you’re done cleaning them and no sooner.

That quote has been rustling around my head since I first read it, and so I practice being alive while I do the dishes. Two or three times a day, I practice.

I wear gloves, because I like to make the water as hot as it can get. I put on my gloves and I fill the sink, Olive drags her little yellow chair over and I haul her up. I stand there with Olive sitting beside me, and I wash dishes. I try to only wash dishes. I try to remember that quote and stay alive while I do it. I concentrate on each plate, bowl, and cup as I am washing it. I scrub and let the soapy water run over its contours until it is clean, I try to focus on finish one thing before doing the next.

It doesn’t take much time, really. This morning I checked and it took 7 minutes to wash the dishes from this morning’s eggs and blueberries and last night’s black bean spaghetti (what? Who wants to do dishes on a Friday night? I had a hot bath and a book calling my name.) And unloading the dishwasher used to be one of my most hated tasks, and now I am freed from it, which is really quite lovely.

But despite my best intentions sometimes I am not zen, or relaxed, or alive. And then instead of meditating on aliveness, I think about this quote,

I stand here now, still at the kitchen sink
the belly of my dress wet and stinking
this running faucet of words
running out of my mouth,
the choking generations of daughters
spitting both privilege and bitterness
from their mothers’ broken cups.
Jacqueline St. Joan

Yikes. That right there is the full range of dishwashing emotions – from zen, to bitter drudgery. But both are valid, and so whether I am meditating on being alive or meditating on the caustic words of Jacqueline St. Joan, the dishes get done.

But is it green?  I was surprised to read that washing dishes by hand is actually less energy efficient than using a dishwasher. I can’t quite figure out why – one report kept talking about a constantly running stream of water, whereas I fill my sink about halfway and then turn the tap off, surely that must make a difference? If you have any light to shed on the situation I’d appreciate it!

It has definitely made me more conscious about how many dishes I use though, I now keep a water glass beside the sink and use it all day, rather than using three or four throughout the day and putting it in the dishwasher after each drink.

Here are some tips I have found handy to make the process easier:

Stay on top of it  Ideally I wash dishes after every meal, and rarely let them go more than the occasional overnight sitting in the sink. Not only does it drive me nuts having dirty dishes sitting on the counter, but they become far more difficult to wash when food has been left to harden on the surface.

Have a system As soon as dishes became a regular part of my routine, my grandmother’s system quickly came back to me. You wash glass items first, because they need the cleanest water to come out spotless. Then mugs, then cutlery, then plates and bowls- pots and pans come last. Change the water as soon as the suds are gone or when it looks dirty – you can”t clean with dirty water.

Soak big messes immediately Our blender gets rinsed immediately after use, and as soon as a casserole dish or baking pan is empty I fill it with a few cups of water and some baking soda to make cleanup easier after the meal.

Make it enjoyable I found a nice eco-friendly dish soap that smells like oranges, and I try to enjoy the experience (when I’m not having one of my “spitting privilege and bitterness” days, that is). Olive chatters beside me, I’m up to my elbows in hot soapy water and I look out to the backyard and watch Gus plotting his next escapade. What could be nicer?


Do you have a dishwasher? Or do you wash dishes by hand? Any tips for me, the novice?


3 thoughts on “The Dishes

  1. Hi Madeleine, I just wanted to say that I have been reading your blog. I live in Edmonton Alberta too and for the last few years I’ve really been trying to cut down on my footprint. A tip that you might not have known is that you can refill your dishwashing soap from bulk at Earth’s General Store, there is a downtown location and one on Whyte Ave. Unfortunately I live downtown and the downtown location is new and it doesn’t have this yet. But it’s coming soon. I used to go to a hippy store called Carbon to refill all of my soap dispensers but Carbon unfortunately closed down this month. I’m hoping Earth’s general store will be able to take it’s place. At Earth’s general store you can also buy washing soda and borax in bulk. 🙂 Anyways that’s all I wanted to say.

  2. PS. By dishwashing I don’t mean soap you put in the dishwasher but soap you use to wash your dishes by hand. To comment more on your post, I took a mindfulness class once. I have severe ADD and I really never minded repetitive tasks because my mind wanders and I always think of something interesting to think about. So although I agree it’s ideal to be mindful to enjoy your tasks, I guess I just have my own way of doing things to make them enjoyable.

  3. I wash dishes by hand periodically, and generally just to have “moment to myself”. When I wash the dishes I contemplate each dish – this one was the great stew I made for my family on that cold winter night, or this one was the cup I used when I had a tea visit with my dad, etc. I find doing the dishes by hand helps me center my daily gratitude. It is also the one thing I do that makes me feel closest to my Grandmother – we always did the dishes together when I went to visit, and I will always remember the way her hands looked as she cleaned a glass, or wrung out the cloth.
    For me it is a time of peace, and a moment of remembered beauty.

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