Doing The Dishes
A sermon delivered by the
Rev. Mark D. Morrison-Reed
to the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto
on Sunday, 5 November 2000
Meditation: Washing Dishes
To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when
you aren't doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with
your sleeves rolled up and your hands in the warm water, it is really
quite pleasant. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware
of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if
I hurry in order to eat dessert sooner, the time of washing dishes will
be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute,
each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and the fact that
I am here washing them are miracles!
If I am incapable of washing dishes joyfully, if I want to finish them
quickly so I can go and have dessert, I will be equally incapable of enjoying
my dessert. With the fork in my hand, I will be thinking about what to
do next, and the texture and the flavor of the dessert, together with
the pleasure of eating it, will be lost. I will always be dragged into
the future, never able to live in the present moment.
Each thought, each action in the sunlight of awareness becomes sacred.
In this light, no boundary exists between the sacred and the profane.
I must confess it takes me a bit longer to do the dishes, but I live fully
in every moment, and I am happy. Washing the dishes is at the same time
a means and an end - that is, not only do we do the dishes in order to
have clean dishes, we also do the dishes just do the dishes, to life fully
in each moment while washing them.
Thich Nhat Hanh
From Peace Is Every Step
Sermon: Doing the Dishes
Through our front window I could see that Monday was turning into a beautiful,
sunlit day. The leaves were yellow, moving toward rich brown. Pumpkins
peered at me from porch stairs, and cobwebs hung from bushes. As I headed
toward the front door I glanced into the kitchen. A growing pile of dishes
had filled and then surrounded the sink. I made my escape. Hopping on
my bike I set out on an urban adventure.
First stop? St. Clair Avenue. There I locked my bike to a tree in front
of the Goodwill Store and marched in. I was looking for dishes and discovered
them stacked up toward the back - an assortment of different sizes and
colors of china. The trick was finding more than two or three pieces that
matched. The prices ranged from $1 to .50 cents but then I saw a real
buy. This plastic plate cost me 27 cents.
This plate reminded me of graduate school. I think Donna and I had a set
just this awful color. But they were durable and cheap which was important
because our expenses exceeded our income. What kind of plate it was didn't
matter. When we ate at home we'd scarf down dinner before rushing off
to the library or a lecture. The only guests we had over were other students.
Dishes? Who cared? Isn't that the way it most often is with dishes? They
simply need to be practical and sturdy. When visiting Child Haven homes
in India and Nepal Donna and I always ate from simple, slightly dented,
abundantly scratched stainless steel plates. They had high sides, which
is handy when one is eating without utensils. At Child Haven the food
- chapati, dahl, rice and vegetables - is the big deal. Before being admitted
to Child Haven many of those children weren't receiving even one meal
a day. Under such circumstances who cares from what you are eating? The
importance of a dish is relative thing.
I pedaled eastward, then coasted down Bathurst to Honest Ed's. There I
didn't have to look far for china. It is the first thing one sees when
one comes in the Bloor street door. There were all kinds of plates: porcelain
made in Poland, glass plates from France and Corelle Ware from Corning,
New York. The high end cost around $3.99 but I kept looking until I found
some more plastic plates. The price? $1.99 a plate. I felt great. My yellow
plate was a real bargain. However, if I remember correctly our next set
of dishes was Corelle. I think we actually bought them at the factory
outlet store in Corning. By then we were novice ministers in Rochester
N.Y, had a baby a home and the occasional guest to dinner. Plastic wouldn't
do anymore, that I knew. But for the rest of it - the difference between
earthenware, stoneware, porcelain and bone china, which is made by including
calcium phosphate derived from oxbones -- I'd never paid any attention.
Maybe I never paid attention because I'm a male. Dishes seemed, within
the society to which I was mysteriously and unwittingly acculturated,
were part of some domestic feminine realm. A realm in which I was not
included nor was I eager to partake. Dishes, as far as I could tell, were
for eating and when necessary washing.
I continued east along Bloor until I reached 55 Bloor Street West. I walked
into William Ashley's, asked to see their most expensive china and was
told that it was not on display. I wasn't told why. Maybe it was because
I was wearing jeans, a T-shirt and backpack. The most expensive china
on display ran about $560 a five-piece setting. The reason I knew to go
to Ashley's was because of its weekly ads and the fact that Donna had
once bought a gift there. We were invited to a family wedding. The couple
had registered at Ashley's, which has "Canada's Largest Wedding Registry."
When Donna came home and told me she'd purchased the six soup bowls for
which they'd registered, it sounded reasonable to me. That was because
I was blissfully ignorant about dishes. Then I asked, "How much?" and
she said,"$500." It was Donna speaking so I knew she was joking. For a
moment I was so angry I considered just sending the dishes rather than
I really didn't understand the culture that surrounds dishes. When my
great Aunt Irene died in 1986 we had to distribute the family belongings
that had accumulated in that house they had bought for my great grandmother
sixty years earlier. I was shocked when my sister told me that the women
get all the china, crystal and silverware, period. It's not that I wanted
it but it seemed unfair to my unenlightened mind. I couldn't understand
why it should be that way. Tradition was the only answer I got, and it
wasn't very satisfying. Later someone to whom I whined about the situation
explained. In earlier generations the men got the land and the women got
the only thing of value that was portable, the good dishes. Now that made
sense, but I couldn't figure out why it still applied. Perhaps it simply
remained women's prerogative in the one area of life in which they had
the most influence. The domestic arts, this circumscribed power and the
requisite possessions were guarded and passed down from mother to daughter.
Certainly my mother had inherited her mother's china, silver and crystal,
and now it seemed my sister was making the same assumption. It is interesting
to note however, which traditions live and which die. Ten years earlier
when my feminist cousin decided it was time for the men to start helping
wash the dishes it happened in an instant -another male privilege gone,
never to return. In the end there was so much stuff that I was given a
set of dishes - not the best but not the everyday dishes either. And to
this day these are the dishes we use when guests come to dinner.
Looking at the plates on display at Ashley's I could see their beauty.
Beyond survival there is an aesthetic to eating - the color, arrangement
and texture enhance the taste of the food. Beyond practicality, plates
are part of this aesthetic. They are also meant to honor your guests and
perhaps to impress them. This act of hospitality also makes a statement
about one's wealth and status. In the Middle Ages people were actually
served on different plates depending upon their status - gold, silver,
bronze. Dishes say a lot about a society. Orthodox Jews must have at least
four sets of dishes, one for meat, another for dairy, and a similar set
used exclusively at Passover. If this Jewish practice says something about
living in accordance with Jewish law I wonder what eating from plates
that cost $500 a setting says?
I asked the sales clerk how much their most expensive setting - the one's
I couldn't see - cost? "$3500," she said. I asked, "how do you wash them?"
"They're all machine washable," she said but added, "If I paid that much
for china I'd wash it by hand." As I left I smiled and thought. "If you
could afford $3500 for a setting you wouldn't be washing your own dishes.".
It keeps coming back to this: Someone has to do the dishes. As a youth
doing the dishes was one of the chores that rotated among my sibling and
me. It was never a pleasure. Dishes were just something to get through,
something lonely, something that needed to be done so I could go out and
play, watch TV or read. Given a chance I'd actually use homework as an
excuse not to do the dishes.
Anne Nagy tells me she loved doing the dishes because she and her sisters
would wail like Juno award-winning singers as they washed away. Anne's
experience made sense to me. Doing the dishes communally was the first
time I'd ever enjoyed it. At boarding school I didn't mind doing the dishes
I remember one frosty evening bounding into the school kitchen and bellowing
at my roommates Jorg and Philipp to hurry up.
We were going sledding. The moon was full, the snow fresh and cold, the
road icy and there would be no traffic. Everything was set; the only problem
was that Philipp and Jorg were assigned to "Abwash." That's
the dishes. "I'll do the big pots," I said, while they renewed their efforts
loading the plates into the dishwasher. I dove into the huge cooking pots.
Merry with what the evening offered, I didn't care that it wasn't my night
to do the dishes. I wrestled with each pot - scraping, scrubbing, slamming
it around in the metal sink, then rinsing it as fast as I could. Between
my furious pace and my soapy hands, one of the big pots slipped and went
crashing to the floor.
Utta Holcott, was in charge. An older, taller, beefy girl, she yelled,
"What are you doing?"
I looked at the floor. It was obvious. I shrugged and said, "Sorry."
"Get out," she said.
"No!" I said.
"Leave, now!" she screamed.
"Can't make me. I'm a volunteer."
Smack! My head jerked as she slapped my face. Whack! Before I knew what
I had done I hit her back. She put her hand to her cheek and ran to the
front end of the kitchen crying, "Herr Wiesman!"
Herr Wiesman was the cook. He had forearms as big as hams, and was dressed
in a white apron with the main course smeared all over the front. He came
charging across the kitchen. I began to think about leaving, but before
I could move he was upon me. I pushed him away. I hardly did more than
stick out my arms but remnants of the peas, carrots and mashed potatoes
we'd had for dinner had mixed with the soapy water upon the floor and
become a slippery mess. It was just a little push, but he lost his footing
and his feet flew from beneath him. I'd never seen anything like it except
in a Charlie Chaplin movie. He didn't just fall down, rather for a moment
his whole body seemed suspended in mid-air before he landed flat on his
I decided to leave. One step and I was at the back door; it was locked.
I leaped over Herr Wiesman to get to the other door only to find that
it was latched, too. As I fumbled with the latch, he crawled to his feet.
By the time I had unlatched the door he was roaring around the stove.
The door popped open but before I could bolt, he kicked me dead in the
buttocks. I slid down the hallway upon my stomach, then I crawled, then
ran toward the front door. I raced along the side of the building then
skidded to a halt. Coming toward me was the director of the school. I
took a deep breath, said, "Ciao," and kept going. I was in big trouble.
The sledding was great that evening. Philipp and Jorg told me so when
they got back.
A dish says lots about our culture and its hierarchy, its values and rules
but at the end of the day someone still has to wash the dishes. And how
we do the dishes says a lot about each of us and how each of us approaches
life. How much time do we spend doing the dishes in a lifetime? Days?
Weeks? Months? And when you do the dishes are you doing them or always
doing something else? Is it a race to get them done or a moment to savour?
Do you do it joyfully or grudgingly? Do you embrace that moment or wish
it would pass? Too often we squander such moments and our lives.
When I returned home from Ashley's the dishes still filled the sink. Another
day and Donna would be home. It seemed this would be as good a time as
any to do the dishes. So I filled the sink with soapy water, but I didn't
turn on the radio. I just slowly and mindfully washed the dishes. I paid
attention to the smell of the soap, the warmth on my hands, the effort
it took to scrub the crusty spots, my breathing. I cleared my mind of
all the thoughts that had filled it as I sped around Toronto and simply
did the dishes.
Our lives are filled with many things that we do just to get through.
At this time of year I think many of you must feel that filling out the
Annual Pledge for our congregational budget is like doing the dishes.
A very few get it over with; the vast majority keep putting it off until
a letter comes, then comes the first phone call and then another and eventually
a budget crisis. If you haven't filled out your pledge yet, do it today.
Be mindful of all this congregation means to you, how it helps others
and strive to make this a better world. Then quiet yourself and be aware
that you are making a gift, watch the flow of the writing as you sign,
notice how you feel.
In this morning's meditation the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh explored how
to live in the moment. He took the most ordinary event and made of it
a spiritual discipline. Each time we do them is another opportunity to
live fully. This morning's chalice lighting words from Kathleen McTigue
echo with the same sentiment. Each time we "rest for a moment on the forming
edge of our lives [and] resist the headlong tumble into the next moment;"
each time "we claim for ourselves awareness and gratitude, taking the
time to look into one another's faces and see there communion: the reflection
of our own eyes;" each time we stop our minds from being mired in the
past or leaping into the future; each time we breathe and do honour to
this moment then we know that "each minute, each second of life is a miracle."