Some fierce women I know have decided that this summer we are all leaning out. That means something different for each of us, but as academics and wives, mothers, sisters, and humans, we seem to have all reached levels of burn out that are taking a significant toll on our health and jeopardizing any sense of balance in our lives. We aren’t just struggling to “have it all.” Some of us have plain lost all sense of perspective about what “it all” even means.
For me, after completing a rather epic year that included starting a new job, completing a four month Fulbright fellowship, co-authoring a book, moving three times, falling down some stairs and suffering other health problems, while my husband completed a master’s degree in one year? Well, leaning out means focusing on health and home this summer. By doing yoga, regularly taking my poor injured body to a chiropractor, adjusting my diet to take out wine and put in more fresh local veggies, I am nurturing my health. By spending more time together and out of doors, we are trying to settle into a gentler family rhythm. We are still unpacking from our last move two months ago, but making a concerted effort to create a pleasant, cozy, clean home. I am reading for pleasure and for spiritual cleansing.
Which brings me to dishes and Buddhism.
Imagine my surprise while reading You Are Here to be reminded of a favorite Anne of Windy Poplars passage:
Nora Nelson: “Well, let’s tackle this pile of greasy plates and look as if we liked it.”
Anne Shirley: “I do like it … I’ve always liked washing dishes. It’s fun to make dirty things clean and shining again.”
“Oh, you ought to be in a museum,” snapped Nora.
I confess I have always related more to Nora in this situation than my beloved Anne. Nora is a bit dark and twisty compared to Anne and, with her broken heart, has every reason to resent washing dishes after her sister’s wedding reception. But, seriously, who enjoys washing dishes at anytime?
I fully understand that one can feel pride in housework. I know people who clean somewhat compulsively and others for whom housework is so routinized that they seem to do it on autopilot. I have known generations of women who approach homemaking as their life’s work or as just one of many obligations. Some can afford to hire the work out. But, I know few women who enjoy washing dishes, or scrubbing bathrooms for that matter.
My own experience with housework is rather fraught, with a working class childhood where washing dishes or sweeping floors or hanging laundry on the line was, in every sense of the word, a chore. I remember feeling a sense of peace while clipping sheets to a clothes line, but scrubbing dishes that piled up after a family of six ate a day’s worth of meals was just drudgery.
I love a well-made bed, with the hospital corners I learned to make from reading my mother’s vintage girl scout books. Did you know girl scouts used to teach how to make beds and properly scald dishes to sanitize them? And how to create perfect place settings for formal dinners? I digress.
By the age of 14, I was also cleaning houses for elderly neighbors and families whose children I cared for as a full-time nanny; later in college I worked as a cleaner at a bed and breakfast. I felt some pride in this work, as I paid for my own music lessons and saved money for college. But, I didn’t particularly enjoy the work. I enjoyed the feeling of doing a days’ work for a days’ wage, but that is something quite different from enjoying the actual motions of the scrubbing.
I fondly recall working for one woman, a bank president’s wife who called me a “renaissance woman” and trusted me to do everything from care for her two daughters to help run payments for customers of her small business. She once seemed puzzled that I was also willing to wash a load of dishes or fold a load of laundry. I didn’t enjoy the housework – but I did appreciate the responsibilities and respect that I had earned by the age of 16.
As an adult, my own housekeeping has been, shall we say … haphazard. I love arranging beautiful bookshelves and still love a beautifully made bed. I much prefer hanging clothes outside to popping them into the dryer. But, I don’t enjoy washing dishes. And I loathe cleaning bathrooms, which I still associate with being paid to do for other people because poverty compelled me to seek employment at a young age. It’s not just that I don’t feel Anne’s joy in making things clean, I also dread the sense of being forced to contend with the endless messes of daily living.
So, when Thích Nhất Hạnh writes about finding joy in washing dishes, it has more personal meaning for me than if he had chosen a different way of illustrating his point that we must live in the present.
“Stopping (shamatha in Sanskrit) and deep looking (vipasyana) are the elements of Buddhist meditation. Deep looking is possible once stopping has taken place. On the cushion, we must stop. During walking meditation, we must stop. Even when we are in the kitchen washing the dishes, we must wash the dishes in such a way that stopping is possible. Every moment of dishwashing should give you joy, peace, and happiness. If it doesn’t, you are not washing dishes as a practitioner. The kitchen is a place of practice. The monks and nuns and laypeople of Plum Village always wash the dishes with mindfulness. When we wash dishes, it in not only the get the dishes clean. It is to live every minutes of the washing. So wash each bowl and each plate in such a way that joy, peace, and happiness are possible. Imagine you are giving a bath to the baby Buddha. It is a sacred act.”
Switching my mindset away from a feeling of housework intruding into my life towards a feeling that the everyday movements of picking up clutter, sweeping, folding clothes, and even washing dishes, are part of a balanced life that creates a peaceful home for my family feels significant. By trying to find joy in housework rather than see it as an imposition I hope to begin avoiding the stress that an untidy house causes us all. I also want to instill a happier relationship with housework in my small children, whom I hope will grow to be the kind of people who simply live tidily out of habit. More than that, I want to overcome the feeling of housework being so tied to memories of a childhood spent doing chores at home and feeling forced to do paid housework for others. Those associations are bittersweet, reminding me a bit of why I related so much to Anne’s own early childhood spent in poverty. I want to work on releasing those painful memories and try to find joy in the moments of cleaning, but also in the result of creating spaces of beauty and peace in which to live daily.
For two weeks now, I have tried to finish unpacking and to focus on a daily rhythm of tidying, to clean with calm and purpose, reminding myself that each wipe and fold contributes to the comfort of my home. I have not quite arrived at joy, but I am striving first for contentment and to let go of resentment. Already, some of the daily stresses of tripping over toys and struggling to find something lost in the clutter of an untidy drawer are falling away. Cleaning my home while cleansing away old negativity feels refreshing.