Washing Dishes

DishesSome days in my life are so full it feels like I’ll never get everything done if I don’t use every spare second. If the cornbread muffins are going to take 12 minutes to cook, that’s 12 minutes I can spend grading papers. And if one of those papers is taking a long time to load (as frequently happens with BlackBoard), I can use those extra moments to wash a few dishes, sweep the floor, or bring in the eggs from the henhouse.

On days like this, I push myself through each task with a vision of the quiet rest I’ll enjoy in the evening once everything has been crossed off my to-do list. The only problem is, by the time the moment for quiet rest arrives, I’m too exhausted to enjoy it. All I can do is flop on the couch and stare at the TV. The reward doesn’t seem quite sufficient.

One Friday night a few weeks ago, I had a revelation. My husband and stepdaughter went out for a little father-daughter bonding time, and I realized that, beyond the pile of dishes in the sink, I had no plans for the evening. Instead of rushing through the dishes with the aim of getting on to some hypothetically more pleasurable activity, I decided to approach the dishes without haste.

I took the time to enjoy the feel of the warm water flowing over my skin. I listened to the gurgle it made descending the drain. I looked out the window at the sun setting behind the baring branches of my neighbor’s princess tree. Most importantly, I let my mind wander instead of employing it every second in determining the fastest possible way to get the dishes clean and in the rack. How many glasses should I soap up at one time? Is it more efficient to rinse a whole stack of plates at once? But then I need to clear this little space for the soaped and scrubbed dishes to wait…. My calculations of efficiency would normally go on and on. But, instead of doing all those mental aerobatics, I put my mind on autopilot. Let it go wherever it wanted.

The result? What was normally a chore became an actual pleasure. That Friday night, while others were out dining in fancy restaurants, watching the latest blockbuster at the movie theater, or cheering on the local high-school football team, I was having a grand old time washing dishes.

Afterward, I wondered why it seemed so strange that I could enjoy dishwashing. I always enjoy taking a shower, after all. And washing dishes has many of the same elements: warm, flowing water; suds; pleasing smells; a resulting increase in cleanliness. So why do we love taking showers and hate washing dishes? We probably shouldn’t underestimate the pleasure of being nude, but I don’t think it can entirely account for the difference. I think the difference comes more from the attitude with which we approach the activity. When we approach anything as a chore to be done as quickly and efficiently as possible–when we just want to “get it over with”–we are going to enjoy it less than when we approach it as a relaxing, sensual activity to be drawn out as long as possible.

Granted, it will probably take me a little longer to do my household chores if I insist on enjoying them. Vacuuming will be more time-consuming if there’s dancing involved. Feeding the chickens will take longer if I linger to watch the hens take their dust baths. But, while I may spend slightly more time this way, I bet I’ll expend less mental energy. Which means that, later in the day, when I’m normally starting to work less efficiently because of fatigue, I’ll still be alert and capable of tackling new things. I may actually be able to accomplish more this way. But I think it would make it worth it just to reach the evening hours feeling inspired instead of exhausted.

After all, I don’t have to accept efficiency as the proper measure of my daily success. Why should the number of things one accomplishes be more important than one’s enjoyment of those things? We can’t delay gratification forever. If we try, we may come to the end of our toil and find ourselves capable of no greater pleasures than spacing out in front of the TV. And, while I enjoy some TV from time to time, I want to be capable of more demanding pleasures.

So I’d like to trade in my efficiency-crazed Protestant work ethic for a little more being-in-the-moment. A little more taking-my-time. If I can just figure out how to accomplish that on more than the occasional Friday night.

24 responses to “Washing Dishes”

  1. I’m in a terrible, terrible hurry, so I don’t have the time to give this post its due, but I want to say that last night my wife and daughter came home after I did, and there was a big, scary pile of dishes in the kitchen. It was one of those frightening, unscraped plates, Thermos bottles with 2-day old soup, granola in the sink drain, disaster areas. And I’d been thinking all day about the issue of racing through my life, so I decided to just do the dishes, without the TV going, without the radio, just to work my way through the pile in the quiet of the empty house. Some of this certainly was for the ‘good spouse’ satisfaction of helping out, but another part, the larger part, was about just enjoying the squeak of clean on the forks, the towel dry and put away, the wiped surface area at the end of the journey. So I get it – but I gotta go, go, go, go. Miles to go before I sleep here.

    • Thanks for pausing just long enough to write this comment. Maybe I’m going to sound like a broken record, but when I wrote this post, I honestly expected that it was going to be one of those quirky little essays I would put out there and no one would relate to. But it’s seeming more and more like those parts of my life I think most “quirky” are actually the ones the most people relate to. Thanks for sharing your own dishwashing experience! And best of luck getting through the rest of your schedule. 🙂

  2. I love this, Sharon. I’m also guilty of not wasting a moment and if I do, the guilt consumes me. The past few months, I’ve tried to slow down and enjoy the little moments in life. Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

    • It’s that guilt that just kills me. Where does it come from exactly? Is it because we’re living in an industrial age, surrounded by faster and faster machines, that we expect ourselves to operate in the same way they do? If we worked more with animals than machines, maybe we would have a better understanding of the need for breaks? It really does seem like we’re trying to be robots or something. And feel bad when we fail!

  3. This reminds me of a quote: if you can’t get out of it, get into it. These chores that are traditionally viewed as unpleasing are not going away (unless we hire someone to do them for us). When we “choose” to enjoy them, it is amazing the transformation that occurs. I have done the same thing with doing tedious lawn work. I don’t think we should necessarily expect it to be an earth shattering experience. But, hey, who knows what awesome revelations will arise when you are letting your mind wander instead of fretting over your bad mood.

    In a world characterized by instant gratification, you bring up a really good point about going to the opposite extreme. No gratification. As with everything, balance is key.

    Really insightful and thought-provoking post, thank you for sharing and best wishes for an inspired day!

    • I like that quote! And I like the dichotomy you bring up: between instant gratification and no gratification at all. We do seem to split our lives into “work” and “leisure.” When we’re working, we’re supposed to run ourselves ragged, and taking a break is a sign of weakness. When we’re at leisure, we’re not supposed to even lift a finger. Why can’t we find a happy medium?

      • Perhaps this was a rhetorical question, but I will answer it anyway 🙂

        It seems that I fall into a habit of choosing between black and white. One extreme or the other. It’s probably a personal characteristic of sorts, but I don’t doubt that societal expectations play into that habit at times. I don’t feel like I enjoy my “free” time unless my mind is free of distractions from other obligations on my plate. I guess that comes from over-thinking things, which can be both a blessing and a curse.

  4. I love this post so much, Sharon. And it comes to me at a perfect time. My husband and I are doing a 10-day detox cleanse (basically vegan, gluten-free, no alcohol or caffeine). We tried one a few years ago and made it to day 3, but we’re on day 3 now, and we’re both committed to seeing it through, changing habits, getting out of ruts. And I’m trying to do just as you suggest, slow down and notice how I feel, to really try to enjoy it. (Though I’ll probably still pour myself a huge glass of wine the night of the 10th day!)

    Thanks for the lovely post.

  5. This is fabulous. It’s a great reminder to take those moments WITHIN the chores rather than at the end of the day like a reward that doesn’t actually come. I love the image of dancing while vacuuming!

    • I really think it’s when we’re busiest that we most need to slow down. We’ll never get to the end of the chores, so we might as well take our break right now! Thanks for reading. 🙂

  6. I remember feeling this in my school time. Summers in my city can get really hot and the journey back home after a hectic day was always terrible. Plus, since my seat was always by the window, I had to bear the hot wind on my face. Then one day I thought I don’t have to feel this way. So I decided to enjoy it. Surprisingly, the wind, though hot as usual, didn’t bug me like before. In fact, I smiled all the way home because there wasn’t anything disturbing about that heat. It wasn’t burning my skin, it wasn’t stinging my eyes. It was just that… hot. And there’s nothing wrong with hot.
    I’ll definitely keep this in mind while washing the dishes tonight! Thanks for sharing.

  7. I absolutely love this post! It often feels like the more technology or science advances and brings us greater conveniences, the more we seem to be running out of time by trying to do everything at once. I’m going to learn from you and slow down today, and enjoy the little things in life 🙂

    • I have the same suspicions about technology. That sometimes “time-saving” devices don’t really save us time. And that some machines can actually take the joy out of simple tasks. Like dishwashing!

  8. I find washing dishes and other chores a good time to let my brain wander and troubleshoot issues – particularly with whatever creative work I’m doing. It’s also satisfying to have a clean counter and sink when you’re done.

  9. Beautiful perspective you share, Sharon! I especially liked this: “Vacuuming will be more time-consuming if there’s dancing involved.” I am guilty of doing just that, and taking hours to vacuum because I dance & sing while at it! 😛

    Thank you for visiting my blog & sharing some words! 🙂 I like your writing style & candor, so I’ll be following you for more of your posts! 🙂

    Danielle (@whythisbox)

  10. Sharon, you’ve gotten me to stop and think about my own tendencies to fill every minute with productiveness. I have a big “To Do” list and I do exactly what you described; just now, as my email was taking too long to load, I began working on end of the year taxes. As soon as the page was up, I came back to the computer. Your washing dishes article reminds me to slow down and allow myself to enjoy the moment, enjoy the little things, to splash in the warm dish water and to dance with the vacuum.

    • I’m so glad you found this helpful! I have to admit it’s something I still struggle with regularly. We are so programmed to ACHIEVE, ACHIEVE, ACHIEVE! And we measure our self-worth by how much we’ve been able to accomplish in a day. It’s not easy to let go of those attitudes, even when we know that the most worthwhile things in life have nothing to do with quantifiable “achievement.”

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