On Doing Dishes

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


I'd like to announce that after nearly three months, our dishwasher has FINALLY been repaired. We have a dishwasher again!!

Once upon a time, there were no machinated dishwashers in the world. Plates, cups, utensils all got washed by strong, workworn hands in pails or tubs or sinks of soapy water, then dunked in scalding hot, clear rinse water, then dried, in a drying rack or with a towel by those same strong hands.

Once upon a time, that was all people knew.

How did we ever survive? Technological advancement is a beautiful thing.

And yet.

Here's the thing. I'm kind of sad about the end of the hand-washing I've been doing. I think I'm going to miss it.

It sounds crazy, but I've really been thinking a lot about this. (Doing anything by hand has that amazing effect-- you find that you ave more time to think.) When my dishwasher first broke down, I was SO ANNOYED. I wanted it fixed rightnow!! I rolled my eyes as I finally gave in to the fact that for a few days, at least, I'd have to reorganize my counter tops to accommodate a stack of dirty dishes on one side and a towel full of drying dishes on the other side. Annoying.

But after only a few short days, something in me shifted. It started with the odd little sense of self-satisfaction that I remembered how to "properly" wash dishes. Old bits of advice came back to me from the things my mother taught me... things her mother taught her.

Have a soapy water sink and a scalding hot rinse-water sink.

Wash the glasses and cups first... they are the least dirty and you always want to start with the lightest soil and end with the heavy soiled items like crusty pans.

Silverware is traditionally done second.

Then the plates and bowls and such.

End with the items that are the dirtiest, so that your dishwater stays as clean as possible til the very end.

It was almost like riding a bicycle--- it seems you never forget housekeeping advice from your mother. And I kind of liked that. It felt oddly satisfying to be doing something my own mother had done for years, and that HER mother had done for years. I found myself reflecting on my grandmother, who has been gone for quite some time now, as I carefully washed each load of dishes by hand. It tied me to my past... my history. I remembered my grandmother's aprons and brisk efficiency... Her strong hands. Not just once during this season of hand dishes... but nearly every time I filled the sink with soapy water. There I was, standing in place for the task ahead, connected.

Too, there is honestly something soothing and comforting about the task of washing dishes by hand.  It is a ritual of sorts--- repetitive, calming, a purposeful act meant to bring order out of disorder. The same dishes passing through, the same physical motions... the warmth, the water... There really is something about working with water that is incredibly, viscerally healing. Yes, I am CLEANING DISHES. But... I am also finding a rare span of time to truly be in the moment. I cannot multitask while my hands are full of soap and water and the next smudged glass in line for its bath. Instead, I can become almost meditative. Contemplative.

Oddly, too, I have found that I feel a stronger sense of ownership, both to the house and to the dishes I'm holding in my hands. There's just something about putting my hands upon things I own and love, paying careful attention to their care, that felt GOOD. My sweet yellow and aqua bowls from Anthropologie, the little glass tumblers with the mustaches etched into them, a gift from a friend... The casserole dish I got as a gift from my mother-in-law... The Kitchenaid beater we used to make cookies... I think it's been good to reclaim a sense of pride in the things we've lovingly collected to have in our home. To care for them by hand... For me to get my actual hands on the actual object and feel it go from dirty to clean. 

Photobucket Photobucket

Another unexpected joy and benefit of this season of handwashing dishes: somehow, I began to notice that it drew my children near to me. Lucy, of course not being very mobile, was automatically plopped on her play quilt a few feet away from me, a couple of toys and books and (clean) utensils placed in her perimeter for her to play with. She was near to me on purpose. But Noah-- the wanderer, the kiddo unable to stay in one place for too long-- I think something in him began to realize that when the dishwashing started, I'd be stuck in that one spot for awhile, and if he wanted me to play with him, he'd need to come close and stick around. More than that, he didn't stay out of obligation and fuss at me to hurry up... He slowed down in his play, too. Often, he'd actually want to come help me, and I'd find myself side-by-side with my little man, him "helping" by dunking his action figures into the rinse water and making me help him act out the theater of a superhero world underwater.


Instead of my dish time becoming a frustrating time of isolation, me slaving away at a hated chore alone, it became, often, a social time. A time to talk... to laugh... to get our hands into the water together. A time for Noah to learn the same process that my mom taught me, and that her mother taught her. 

And so. After three months of all of this... Of slowing down... of being forced to do this one chore the old-fashioned way... Of finding that I was actually beginning to look forward to the task... I am now suddenly back in the world of the automated dishwasher. After three months where the repair company dodged phone calls and never seemed able to give a satisfactory answer as to when we'd have a working dishwasher again, one unexpected Saturday, there he was on our doorstep-- the elusive repairman, unannounced, ready to work. And just like that, we had a dishwasher again. 

It's a little bittersweet. And I know I'm crazy for even thinking back and sort of longing for an excuse to do hand dishes again. Of COURSE life is more efficient and smoother with a working dishwasher. 


I kind of think I'm not 100% done with the hand-dishes. You know, my view out the kitchen window isn't that great-- I get to stare at our neighbor's fence 3 feet away, and beyond that, their patio (if I'm lucky, perhaps even an awkward glimpse of the actual neighbors, strangers to us, coming out of their side door. Quick! Avoid eye contact!) But on the actual window pane is a sketch of a vase of flowers drawn by my Joe, a bouquet "given" to me by him one day over a year ago. I can see that in my view and it's enough for now. And I like the smell of the dish soap... the indirect light that comes in... the plants on the windowsill... I think I'll be coming back once in awhile to stand there and take care of the dishes the old-fashioned way. Call me crazy---I just know it has been, and will continue to be, good for my soul. 

One last thing--- as I was in the middle of pondering all of this, serendipity cracked the universe open a bit and I came across this passage in the very book I was reading at the same time, a lovely memoir by Katrina Kennison, writing about a time in her life filled with profound change and redefining of self and home:

"A long time ago, when I first began to imagine a different kind of life in a different kind of place, I bought an old-fashioned dish-drainer at a flea market, made of heavy dark wire, with a removable trough for silverware. There was no place for this relic on my efficient suburban countertop, so I stashed it on a basement shelf, in the hope that someday somewhere, it might prove useful. To me, that dish drainer seemed to symbolize simplicity, a gentler pace, the kind of home I aspired to. I imagined a simple kitchen, a farm sink full of soapy water, a view from the window that would lift my heart, and time enough to just stand there, fingers softening into wrinkles, slowly swirling a sponge across a china plate."

-The Gift of an Ordinary Day, pgs.187-188

I still believe in a farm sink in a farmhouse of my own one day. So maybe I'm finding a piece of my authentic self in this simple, age-old act. And I am glad for the realization of that. I don't pretend that many people reading this will find a kinship in my strange love of hand dishes... But maybe we can agree, simply, that anything that reminds us to slow down and find the present moment is a powerfully wonderful thing.


  1. Our dishwasher was just repaired after almost a month. I also sort of miss the hand washing. :)

  2. I hand wash some dishes every night. Our pots and pans, our good knives, anything that is deemed too valuable for or didn't fit in the dishwasher. I have to say I enjoy it for the same reasons.

  3. We don't have a dishwasher in our rented house, and no plans to get one, either. And doing the dishes is definatly a hated chore. But I Love the new perspective in it. It is one of the things I adore about your blog. I started coming through Nov07) for your photography, but I have stayed for the reminders to slow down, to take the everyday, the simple and cherish them. These tiny moments that are fleeting, and will be gone all too soon.

  4. In my apartment, all I DO is wash dishes by hand. Same with my freshman year of college. And I'm the one that does it because I, too, find a cathartic release from doing them. Plus, we aren't that dirty of people so it really isn't that difficult, especially since we wash them almost immediately after we're finished with them. Loved this blog post, both as a sister reading about your life and as a storyteller, appreciating the simple story being told about a seemingly meaningless task. You have an amazing way with words, Em!

  5. I love the bubble pictures!

  6. Thank you for this entry. I actually had a conversation about washing dishes by hand with other sisters in the Relief Society (we were washing dishes after our RS birthday dinner)- I was beginning to feel like the hugest oddball because I have always enjoyed doing dishes by hand- even as a kid, when we never seemed to have a working dishwasher, I never minded it when it was my chore of the week to wash dishes. And that has carried through.

    Even now, though I don't have a window in front of our kitchen sink (just a tile wall), I still prefer to do the dishes by hand (our dishwasher does a rather mediocre job).

    Thanks to this post and many of the comments, I now know I'm not the only one who finds this task to be relaxing, meditative, even enjoyable.

    (And I LOVE Noah's bubble beard! :)

  7. We have a working dishwasher, yet I choose to wash many of the items by hand. I have a drying rack set to one side, and at first I wasn't sure I liked it right there (So visible. The horror!) Yet it has become a huge convenience - it's so easy to grab the cereal bowls that are too weak for the hot water of the dishwasher and the plastic divided plates for lunch). And just like Noah, my little sidekick loves to help me clean. He's actually quite good at it! :)

  8. Washing dishes by hand is a good excuse to not have to answer the phone, the door, the child/husband/pet asking for you to do something for them.
    "I'm up to my elbows in soapy water."

    Your post has made me realize...I don't think I've ever fully taught my girls how to properly wash dishes by hand. I must remedy this. When they complain, I tell them they have you to thank. ;)

  9. Oh, you are speaking to my heart here, Miss Em. So simple and true. Such a gift to find the beauty in the everyday. Thanks.

  10. I get to look out on my own dining room when I do dishes. And most often the hand dishes I do are toys that one day or another in the week made it into a kid's mouth so I have to give them a "bath". I add bleach to the water because of the whole "mouth" factor (and sharing toys across kids/families) and call me crazy but I kind of like the smell of bleach, as long as it isn't too strong. I don't even mind that my hands smell like bleach for the rest of the day.

    Another thing I feel that sense of connection to times and people past that you describe with is making homemade bread (well, homemade anything, but especially bread). I think I need to make some this weekend :)

    Thanks for sharing.

  11. I grew up hating the washing of the evening dishes. I think I have had dishpan hands since I was about 8 years old! (How horrible!) But I recently found THE BEST dish washing soap, and suddenly, I don't mind dishes so much. I recently bought Dawn's 5 minute overnight soak, and I will NEVER use anything else... It gets off stickers very easily, stove top mess, scrambled egg mess, and the like. I LOVE IT!!

    Just thought I would share this tool, as many of us have to resort to not using a dishwasher from time to time.

  12. I too have a working dishwasher yet choose to hand wash many items. Though I do enjoy washing the dishes, doing laundry is really where I find my peace, solitude and wandering thoughts....the warm clothes, the quiet room, the smell of the soap....

  13. What a lovely post. When we lived in our tiny NYC apt. we didn't have a dishwasher. In fact, we didn't have many dishes. 4 salad sized plates, 4 bowls, 4 cups. Something about that simplicity enchanted me. While I hated my tiny sink and literally no counter for the dish drying rack, I found I enjoyed the dish washing itself. Since we moved, and now have a dishwasher, I still pretty much wash everything by hand and just run it through the dishwasher to "sanitize" it. ;) Dishwashing was always my job as a child and I find it supremely relaxing and fulfilling. You're making me want to fill the sink with suds this minute!

  14. My back starts to hurt when I do dishes. I think I need a taller sink. So, until then, I don't really enjoy doing dishes. Sigh.

  15. Wow. I just love reading your posts! You are so talented...not only in your photography but in your writing. Your posts truly read like a book that I can't but help turn the page to read more. LOVE your memories of washing dishes with your mom and grandmother. I never knew there were rules about washing so I plan to implement these in my house since my husband dirties up the water with the most dirty, crusty dishes first. Not anymore! Beautiful pics, as always. Just love this, Emily! Thanks for sharing!

  16. p.s. the comment about seeing the neighbors and hurry, don't make eye contact! THAT...made me LAUGH! SOOO TRUE!


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