Washing the dishes

“It’s too late to reverse the damage done to the Earth’s climate. It’s not too late to change course right away to prevent things from getting far worse.

That’s the scientific consensus presented this morning to world leaders by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It’s the most complete synthesis of climate science available, based on a review of thousands of research papers assessing how the combustion of coal, oil and gas has altered the Earth’s climate and with it, human destiny.” “The Morning,” The New York Times, August 9, 2021

The dishwasher broke sometime back in late June, when we were so busybusybusy with everything. Over the 4th of July we did some half-hearted appliance shopping, but all options seemed to lead us down a path that would require kitchen renovation and we weren’t ready to go there. We talked about trying some repairs, but that was half-hearted, too. After a few weeks we bought a drying rack–just a small one, it would be good for the things we handwash once the appliance is fixed or a new one is bought. Toward the end of July I suggested that we could use the empty dishwasher as a drying rack for big things. I was joking, mostly, but I know I put a serving bowl in there. It’s probably still there. I’ve gotten used to washing the dishes by hand.

I remember my family’s first dishwasher. My dad bought it for my mom as a birthday gift. You had to roll it over to the sink and connect a hose to the faucet. I remember before that, my dad once setting up a plan in which I would do the dishes and be paid for it. There was a chart. I loved the idea for about a week, and then I stopped doing the dishes. I had choices like that. I became used to having choices like that. I assumed I’d always have them. I couldn’t imagine a reason I wouldn’t.

More than a decade ago, not long into single-motherhood, I got to spend a week in residency at Soapstone, a retreat for women writers on the Oregon coast. For a week I got to live by myself in a beautiful cabin in the forest and do nothing but eat, sleep, walk, and write. And do dishes, of course. A significant part of the Soapstone mission was stewardship of the property on which the writers’ cabins were located; I remember a sign encouraging us to use the dishwasher. It said that it was better for the land than handwashing, which felt counter-intuitive. It said it was better to run a half-full load than to use the water required to wash by hand. Sometimes I washed by hand, anyway, when I wanted just one cup or a particular bowl.

The first house I owned did not have a dishwasher. I bought it with my first husband. We were trying so hard to be adults, but we really had no business being married or owning a home. He was working as a lab tech in a research hospital and studying for the MCATs. I was in my first year of teaching. We were both floundering, in different, separate ways, which is to say: we were in our mid-20s. The sink was often filled with dirty dishes.

Last week I broke 3 glasses, two bowls, and a plate. My husband had stacked the drying rack with too many things, and when I removed a plate the balance of it all shifted and I could not stop the falling. I tried, but I realized almost instantly that there was nothing I could do to stop the shattering. The floor was covered in crystalline shards. It had a kind of beauty to it, and I was a little awed at the sheer amount of damage and at how quickly it happened. I’ve never seen so much broken glass in a kitchen. The bowls and plate are from a vintage set, Franciscan earthenware; they are lovely, but fragile: We’ve now broken at least 7 pieces this summer. We recently bought plates from Target for everyday use. They are not lovely, but they will do the job and I will not feel that I’m losing a tiny piece of history each time something breaks. Our glasses are from Ikea. “I guess I’m glad we got those cheap ones from Ikea,” I remarked to my husband, reflecting on the carnage. This week I wonder if, instead of buying cheap things that we can easily lose, we should buy only precious ones. Would we be more careful if we didn’t have the idea that there’s always more we can afford?

It’s a bit amazing to me now, that my first husband and I were able to buy the home we did, 31 years ago. It’s in a neighborhood that young couples like the one we were then could never think of buying in now. We moved to Portland from Seattle just so that we could buy a house; renting felt like throwing money away, but Seattle had already become unaffordable. Or so we thought. We wanted to live close-in to the city. We wanted an older home with character. We couldn’t have those things in Seattle, but we could in Portland. We left the place that had given us each other to move to one that we thought could give us more. “We can always move back,” we told ourselves. It took us more than 9 months to remove the wallpaper in the living room and paint it. It took 27 for our marriage to end. I have wanted to move back for decades, but I am still here. We had no idea what we were doing.

Washing the dishes recently, I realized I’ve come to like washing the dishes by hand. Something about the soap and warm water, the ritual of it. While the chicken finished baking in the oven, I washed all the things I’d used to prepare it. I’m learning to do this, to wash as I go, in small batches. I like the small, neat stacks on the bamboo dish rack, the cups that fit perfectly on the bottom shelf. I’ve realized we don’t need as many dishes as I once thought. We wash so frequently that we don’t run out of them in the cupboard.

My Soapstone experience was transformative, but not in the way its founders and board hoped it would be. For an entire week, I did nothing but write. I had no children to feed or bathe or stimulate or soothe, no papers to grade, no partner to answer to or tend. I had only to feed myself and write, and by the end of the week I understood in new, deep ways why I was having such a hard time getting anything written. I concluded that writing was something I was going to put on a shelf. I could always come back to it later, I told myself.

I remember being so frustrated by the stacks of dirty dishes in the sink of that first house. I tried to wash things as I used them, but my husband did not. He preferred to let them pile up and wash a big stack at once. He was reading Thich Nhat Hanh, and I remember him telling me something once about being mindful, and how washing dishes was an opportunity to practice mindfulness. I remember wishing he would practice it more. I remember my mind then feeling like a Habitrail, full of thoughts scurrying along plastic tubes and spinning a metal wheel in a mad dash to nowhere. I did not care about mindfulness. I just wanted someone to wash the damn dishes so I could go grade the stacks of essays piled up in my school bag.

I need to say this about my first husband: I was terrible to him, and he did not deserve it. I could tell you the reasons why I cheated on him, all the ways in which I was broken that I now understand and did not then, but none of that matters. I was wrong, and I did damage, and although I can understand why I did what I did and can feel for my younger self the kind of love one has for a child who hasn’t understood the impacts of their choices–I can never fully absolve myself for what I did. I was not a child. I broke something others loved and that I loved, and there was nothing beautiful in it. I would give so many things to be able to go back and choose differently. Do differently.

I remember, after my twins were born, needing to wash the breast pump paraphernalia by hand; the plastic couldn’t go in the dishwasher. I remember my second husband, my children’s father, telling me that he didn’t like me leaving them on the counter to dry. He was afraid they would make his first son, a teen-ager, feel uncomfortable, because, you know…. I remember looking at him blankly, dumbly, numb from sleep deprivation and soreness and constant physical need. I remember looking at him and saying nothing and blinking very slowly, a thing I did with him when I felt overwhelmed. It wasn’t something I did consciously or deliberately; it took me a good long while to even realize it was something I did. I remember him, later, telling me how much he hated it when I blinked slowly. Sometimes things break silently, or so quietly you don’t realize they’re breaking until it’s too late.

“Can we have an agreement to dry the dinner plates immediately, and not put them on the drying rack?” I ask, after the night of shattering. My husband concurs, and that night we wash the dishes together, placing small items on the rack and drying the larger ones immediately.

Sometime in the midst of the first year of the pandemic, I began to feel that home is my holy place. I wondered if I can find something I’m looking for if I devote myself to it. I wrote on my blog that I want to “become a grown-up in ways that I previously have not.” A full-blown book I wanted to write took shape in my mind. I remembered my first husband and his ideas about mindfulness when washing dishes. I reached out to ask him which of Thich Nhat Hahn’s books he would recommend as a starting place, and he replied kindly and gracefully. (We have found our way to a place where such a thing is possible, a miracle I never expected and probably don’t deserve.) He spoke again about dishwashing. “If you find yourself washing the dishes, and you’re thinking about anything else, then pause until you are experiencing everything in the moment. It’s like sitting under a freeway in your mind. Like cars, thoughts will pass through. But if you’re present you won’t get in and go for a ride.” I think of this months later, after the night of broken dishes, when I am cleaning up from a meal, and I want to focus on the washing–the warmth of the water running over my hands, the viscous texture of the soap, the beauty of the pattern on the worn plate–but all I can think about is how this life I’ve lived is so beautiful and fragile I sometimes feel my heart will shatter from it.


This is mostly a rough, first draft. I don’t like to share rough, first drafts, but that’s all I’ve got this week. This week was full–of heat, smoke, and dire news (climate, Covid). We went north to visit my parents, so we escaped Portland’s 100+ temps, but it was smoky and still too-warm, even there. I got to have a lovely visit with an old friend and her parents. I had good, long conversations with my parents. My brother looks well. While we were away, the glass top of our patio table shattered. My son, our house-sitter, has no idea what happened. Neither do I; could it have been the heat? Who knows. Some of my patio plants appear to be dead, but the dog is still alive. I take what I can get, grateful for it.

10 thoughts on “Washing the dishes

  1. Marian says:

    Rough draft or not, this is a beautiful post, Rita. (All your posts are. I’m sorry I haven’t been able to comment the way I used to.)

    I, too, remember when we got a dishwasher in my childhood home. My mother had to plead her case: my dad was making new cabinets for the kitchen, so it was the perfect time to add a DW, she said; after all, then they could avoid the production of having to roll a portable one up to the sink to hook it up to the tap, which was what all our neighbours were doing. But although my dad did buy one, and installed it, my mother was only allowed to use it once or twice. (It used too much electricity, my dad said.)

    My daughter was just here for a week-long visit, and after I told her that this was the year that her dad and I were surpassing her grandparents in length of marriage, we ended up having a good, long conversation about the weight of small unkindnesses when they’re added up over the course of a relationship. The older I get, the more convinced I am that it’s nearly always the small things that matter the most, the small things that either make us or break us.

    “Would we be more careful if we didn’t have the idea that there’s always more we can afford?” I think we would.

    • Rita says:

      I agree about the weight of small unkindnesses. When a seemingly small thing breaks something large, it’s always the cumulative effect of many, many small things, isn’t it? A straw here, a plastic bag there, a water bottle just this once. I am not pure in any of that; we all make compromises.

      Always glad to hear from you as you’re able.

  2. Kate says:

    I hate doing the dishes. I will always hate doing the dishes. I’m quite sure it is my least favorite chore. We had one of those rolling dishwashers for about a year when I was a kid. Otherwise my sister and I alternated – odd days for me and even days for her -because of our birthdays. I now make my kids do dishes or empty the dishwasher depending on the odd/evens of their birthdays – though I do them on the 31st as a nod to the unfairness I felt on those back to back odd days a child. Their dad is nicer – he just does the dishes.

    It’s a beautiful rough draft and I’m glad you shared it here. The story you referenced at the beginning was on NPR and one I turned off as I was heading home from dropping Abe off at camp that I referenced in my comment last week.

    • Rita says:

      I will admit that I did not click through to read the story. The conclusions were enough for me to process (and resulted in this draft).

      I never made my kids do the dishes much. I usually preferred to do it myself, so it would be done the way I wanted. I have been surprised that I am growing to like it. I supposed that’s why we haven’t done much about the dishwasher issue. It’s easier to feel that way in the summer, when we aren’t working.

  3. Ally Bean says:

    A few years ago our dishwasher stopped working. We’d had a party at the house, someone loaded the dishwasher and lost her or his earring in it while doing so. The earring got into the drain mechanism, somehow caused the motor to overheat– and ruined the whole machine. We didn’t replace the dishwasher for over a year. We both grew up in homes without dishwashers so for us it was kind of a throwback to childhood. We enjoyed the process. Until we didn’t, of course.

    • Rita says:

      Ah, and I’m sure the person who lost the earring was trying to do you a favor! Isn’t it something how a small thing can ruin one so much bigger? There’s a metaphor in there.

  4. Kari Wagner Hoban says:

    I wish we could sit side by side and talk through each paragraph you’ve written. This just speaks to me, Rita, and I’ve never felt more connected to you than I do now. We’ve been through very similar experiences.

    Right now I’m wishing for a Soapstone. I’m longing for a connection like that right now.

    It also surprised me they suggested using the dishwasher, but it makes sense. In our efforts to conserve water, we are using more water.

    • Rita says:

      I wish you could find a Soapstone, too. I just did a quick Google search for “writing residencies illinois” and some interesting possibilities came up. I know how hard it would be for you to manage time away when you’re homeschooling, but maybe? There’s one called Taleamor that looked like it might be a good fit.

      My experience was a great gift. I quickly got into a whole different rhythm of living. I tended to sleep from 2:00-3:00 AMish for about 5-6 hours, then again for a few hours in the late afternoon. The rest of the time I was writing or walking or cooking/eating. I was able to go deep and focus in a way I’d never done before. It sort of ruined me, really. It wasn’t that I thought I had to be able to live that way to write, but it helped me see that I did need some extended time to be able to go deep. I was so deep in parenting, working, and running a house all by myself that I only had time for writing in really small chunks. I knew I could sustain some focus while doing other things (mindless household tasks), but I didn’t want to be absent while parenting or wishing myself to some other place. The conflict had been wearing me out, and it was a relief to step away from it. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to write what I might have. I’m not the same in many ways as I was in my early 40s. But it’s OK. I would not go back and make a different choice about this.

  5. TD says:

    I’m not a fan of dishwashing (with or without a dishwasher). My grandmother who lived far away in another state called the dishwasher “the sterilizer”.

    It was my role in both marriages that I cooked and washed the dishes. As a very young child that I had to stand on a chair to wash the dishes. Being the only girl with three brothers it was my role growing up. The boys role was to mow the grass. Mom was the cook and homemaker. Dad went to a job to provide and manage the financial aspects of life. There were no choices. This was our family.

    I’m sorry that there’s been so much glass shattering in such a short period of time with your new husband. That’s the pits!

    It is interesting that each husband’s relationship in regards to washing dishes were completely different including the family you grew up in and how you managed the chore with your children.

    I know for a fact that my heart has shattered more than I could and can bare.

    Yes, there’s a lot of compromise in marriage. When your husband goes back to work after summer break, it will once more change dynamics of life. My mother would often suggest that I find routines to help me with all the unknowns to settle my unease. My routines change as life changes although for the most part the new routines seem to just become without thought or effort. I realize that Yorkie and I have already drifted into routines. She tells me when I’m out of step with our new routine.

    Wishing you a life that flows into easy routines.

  6. TD says:

    Rita. I just did a stupid; not thinking clearly! Ii am sitting down now just shaking my head. I was cooking a pork tenderloin in the oven. Usually I use a broiling pan, but for some unknown reason to me I chose to use a Pyrex baking dish. That was my first stupid. About ten minutes into cooking, I noticed that the meat was not making juice in the glass Pyrex dish. So I pulled a bottle water out of the fridge and began pouring water into the dish with it still in the oven. Boom! SHATTERING GLASS! My second stupid. Then I thought of you and your post.

    I pulled two of my fire extinguishers placing them close by if needed. I put on appropriate shoes for walking on glass. And I turned off the breaker to the range. The door to the oven is left open as glass particles are wedged. I will wait until tonight when I know that everything is cool enough to touch to clean up the mess.

    I don’t see the beauty in it at all. Yet, I know that this stupid could have resulted worse.

    Yorkie was in the sofa in the other room. I found her shaking from the noise. I sitting with her relaxing my nerves.

    So, it’s canned chicken sandwich day!!!

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