“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 to do the dishes, to live fully in each moment while washing them.”
– Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh
It was a typical night after dinner. The meal was finished and conversations about the day began to trail off. Time to clean up.
Our four children cleared their plates. Then they rinsed and stacked their dishes in the dishwasher. As they made their way up to bed, I finished rinsing the last of the dishes, pots, and pans, distractedly thinking about my plans for the following day.
When the last dish was rinsed and stacked, I put the dishwashing detergent in the little detergent compartment, snapped its lid shut, closed the door to the dishwasher and listened for click that indicates the door is locked and the dishes are ready to run.
Then I pressed the start button.
I figured that I had probably not shut the door to the washer tightly enough. So I opened the door and shut it again. Hard.
Pressed the button again. Not a sound.
Then I did what any reasonable person would do. I pressed the button repeatedly. Opened the door. Slammed it shut. And then mashed the button again as hard as I could.
Taking a deep breath, I knew what I must do. Something I hadn’t done in quite a while. I filled the sink with soapy water and began to unload the dishes from the dishwasher and back into the sink. Tomorrow, I thought as I angrily scrubbed each dish and glass, I will call someone to repair this blasted thing.
Well, it turned out that my work schedule was not so accommodating. There just wasn’t a window of opportunity to pick up the phone that day. So the day passed without a call to a repair technician and that evening I found myself back at the sink with soapy water and a sponge. Tomorrow, I promised myself, I will definitely call someone to repair this blasted thing.
The next day came and went. And the day after that. And the day after that.
And then something remarkable happened. I began to enjoy washing the dishes. I liked the sound of the water running. I enjoyed the warmth of the water, the feel of the bubbles, the smoothness of the dishes under my hands.
You see, when the dishwasher was working, I was just rinsing the dishes so I could get the dishes into the machine. So I could press the start button. So I could get on with the next activity. Every part of the process was just a stepping stone to the next. I was doing the dishes just to get the dishes over and done with.
But when the dishwasher broke, I learned to wash the dishes just to wash the dishes. I found that dish washing time is an opportunity to slow down and enjoy the moment. It’s a time to slow down my movements and enjoy sights, sounds, and sensations. I also found that it’s a good time for the family to be together. To work together. To enjoy one another’s company for a few more precious moments before the day comes to a close.
For a month I enjoyed the simple pleasure of a sink full of warm, soapy water and the deep quiet that ensued when I was engaged with it. Then one day, a circuit blew that supplied electricity to the microwave and the stove. I called an electrician who quickly and ably replaced a switch that had blown in the wall.
“Anything else?” he asked as he turned the screw driver one last time.
“Well, the dishwasher hasn’t been working for about a month,” I admitted. I took a breath, somewhere in my heart hoping that he would recommend a repair whose astronomical price would make it necessary for me to continue to wash the dishes for another year or so.
He walked over to the dishwasher and stood for a moment. Then he eyed a switch on the backsplash above it. it. “What does this switch control?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. I’d played with the switch before and had never seen a light indoors or outdoors so much as flicker when I touched it. I figured it was some artifact an old circuit that had long ago been disconnected.
The electrician flipped the switch and then pushed that same button on the dishwasher that a month before I had pushed repeatedly in panic.
The lights on the dishwasher’s front panel glowed green. HMMMMMMMMMMMM, it hummed contentedly.
The electrician shrugged. “No charge,” he said grinning. My face turned red about as quickly as those buttons glowed green.
Later that night our family excitedly loaded their dishes back into their old, trusty friend. We all joked about the switch, where the electrician — in a fit of good humor before he departed — had adhered a label that in bold capital letters announced: DISHWASHER.
But something inside me was already missing those quiet mindful moments when I did the dishes just to do the dishes.