The Art of Washing Up

washing up

When we moved house, six years ago now, we asked for the dishwasher to be taken out.  Some people were bemused by this (how usual is it, after all, to have a dishwasher removed from a kitchen?).  Others were quietly impressed by what they saw as our eco-credentials.  I’m not geeky enough to know whether a dishwasher actually saves water (these days, quite possibly, it does).  But anyone doing the dishes in our house (we like our morning porridge and our lasagne-with-a-crusty-top) would, by the third bowl of clean water, undoubtedly side with the dishwasher lovers.

There are countless things I’d far rather be doing than washing up.  It’s tedious and time consuming.  If I delegated it to our ten-year old, she might demand payment (although admittedly she does it sometimes out of love- or boredom).  But there’s something about the action – the wiping of the surface of each knife or dish, the rhythm that builds as I wash, rinse, stack – that liberates, but also quietens, the mind.  The same might be said of any repetitive task (ironing, cleaning, and running on a treadmill).  But washing up is my favourite necessary non-displacement activity.  While my hands are occupied with something simple, something that happens on a daily basis, my mind is free to range over more imaginative things – a knotty plot issue, for example; a snippet of dialogue that surfaces when I’m thinking about a character.  Habit, repetition, ritual: they’re crucial for any creative individual.  And routine, as Twyla Tharp tells us – in her wonderful book, The Creative Habit – is fundamentally democratic.  It’s available to everyone. 

For me, there’s a definite order to washing up.  As with a piece of writing, we might start with the easy things – the water glasses, the wine glasses – that require only a cursory wipe.   We progress to plates and, finally, to the pans and serving dishes with the burnt-on, stubborn bits of grime.  These are the parts of story you dig at with a scourer, or sometimes a fingernail or a piece of steel wool. 

But perhaps the real art of washing up is to know when to stop.  There’s always the steeping method: fill the dish with water, put it to one side.  Let it soak for a day or two, then come back to it when you have more energy, when things have loosened up.  Sometimes I wonder if elbow grease might be overrated.

Previous post:

Next post: