Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

Zen and the Art of Kitchen Maintenance

As I've told some of you in person, I actually sort of like doing the dishes. The part I look forward to is not the loading and unloading of the dishwasher, which troubles me both physiologically -- it's a pain in the back -- and existentially -- it feels to me like cheating. No, I prefer to do the dishes by hand. I find solace in the mind-emptying focus that comes with scrubbing surfaces and scrutinizing them to see whether they are clean yet. I've come to think of the activity as a kind of "practice" in the Zen sense, perhaps not as valuable as sitting, but with the added benefit of having a practical side. And, while I recognize the danger in transplanting ideas rooted in one context into others -- a danger Americans are especially prone to, given their relative freedom from the weight of tradition -- I still can't shake the idea that, while Zen ideals may be inimical to tasks like the selling of real estate, there's something about doing the dishes that really does suit their realization.

A little while ago, as I was tackling another round of holiday bowls and plates, my thoughts drifted back to this topic and I had a sudden flash of insight. I was trying to think of other activities I engage in that keep me as anchored in the now, without concern for past or future, and came up only with making art. Even during sex I have difficulty not thinking about something other than what I'm supposed to be not-thinking about. But when I'm truly engaged in the process of wordless creation -- language invariably pushes my mind out of the present -- as I am when drawing or painting, I get lost in the moment of doing as I do when washing dishes. I'm sure the manual aspect of these activities is an important factor. Somehow the coordination of mind and hand overrides my mind's tendency to wander outside the body. As I thought this analogy through just now, though, I understood that doing the dishes surpasses even making art as a Zen activity. If you think about it, doing the dishes is a kind of painting, though with water and soap. I know that the type of brush I use, its shape and heft, matters a lot to me. Indeed, I try only to use tampico vegetable brushes, which have softer, organic fibers, and preferably those that do not have a hooked handle. What makes this kind of "painting" especially Zen, though, is that the end result is nothing. It is a process of wordless destruction. Instead of a work of art, I end up with what I started with, all signs of the work I did having swirled down the drain. In a sense, then, I disappear down the drain too. My self returns soon enough. But for those moments when I'm standing at the sink in rapt contemplation of the rim of a plate, I am pure doing and therefore not "I" at all.
Tags: art, autobiography, everyday, religion, theory

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