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 attending myself. 

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 at all.

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 back. 
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."