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    colorful plates in a dish drainer

    The Dao of Dishes

    A household chore becomes a path to love.

    By Paulina Song

    September 28, 2021
    • Delores Douglas

      “Lord of all pots and pans and things…Make me a saint by getting meals and washing up the plates!” “The time of business does not differ from the time of prayer and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same calling for different things, I possess God in great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.” Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God. I loved your article, so inspiring and brought to mind the quote from Brother Lawrence.

    Laughter echoed down the driveway as we waved goodbye to our guests. Globs of sticky hot chili sauce dotted the tablecloth, a testament to the joy of gathering after a year of isolation. Even though we only had five people over, my mom had made a feast that could feed our entire cul-de-sac. We would be eating leftover dumplings for a week. But first, the worst part of any party: clean up. I glanced at the sink overflowing with dirty dishes and heaved a sigh. How long could I reasonably take a bathroom break? Before I could finish contemplating my escape, the sound of water rushing from the faucet alerted me that my fate had been decided. There stood my cousin Grace, sponge in hand, scrubbing away at the bowls. I couldn’t let her wash them alone. Still, I dragged my feet as I approached the sink.

    Washing the dishes was my job. But when Grace, an international student from China, came to live with my family during the Covid-19 lockdown, our home dynamic changed. From day one, she asked how she could help. Washing the dishes became our job. Before I realized it, I found myself relying on her help, even leaving her to do the dishes by herself on days when I was overwhelmed with schoolwork. I’m sure she was no less busy. Pretty soon, she was outdoing me around the house. She’d help my mom make dinner while I lazed around on the couch; she’d help feed the cats while I, still on the couch, reached for a bag of salt and vinegar chips.

    Having spent the last three years of college in a Christian student ministry, I had matured in my faith – or so I liked to think. I knew what was expected of me as a follower of Christ: to love and serve others with a humble heart. And, for the most part, I tried to live that out in my friendships and interactions with strangers. But for some reason coming home didn’t stir in me a burning desire to love and serve my family. Rather, it made me feel so safe, so comfortable, so relaxed that all I wanted to do was revel in the feeling of being where I belonged. And while I wasn’t looking, this feeling of belonging morphed into a feeling of entitlement – home is where I deserve to be loved, comfortable, safe. Seeing how eagerly Grace helped out, however, I suddenly felt convicted. Where did this feeling of entitlement come from? Why, when my mom asks me to do extra chores, do I grumble in my heart? She’s done so much; shouldn’t I jump at opportunities to lessen her burdens? Why am I the least loving toward the people who love me most?

    Perhaps I had the wrong expectations coming home. In his popular song “Home,” Daughtry sings:

    I’m staring out into the night, trying to hide the pain.
    I’m going to the place where love
    And feeling good don’t ever cost a thing,
    And the pain you feel’s a different kind of pain.
    Well, I’m going home, back to the place where I belong …

    I am blessed to have grown up in a happy home, but even people whose homes do not evoke the sentiments Daughtry describes have a similar understanding of what home should be. Common phrases like “make yourself at home” evoke feelings of comfort and security. Even concepts like work-life balance prime us to think that the non-work part of life should be a fun, relaxing retreat. But after Grace moved in, the at-home-me who resonated with Daughtry’s song and gravitated to the couch began to question if home really is a place where “love and feeling good don’t ever cost a thing.”

    After all, homes do not run themselves. If it cost me nothing, who was paying the price? Eve Rodsky, author of Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live), counted, quite literally, the costs of having a well-ordered and happy home. She writes in a Time article, “In an attempt to make visible all the invisible and often unacknowledged work it takes to run a family, I created a document I proudly called the ‘Sh-t I Do List’ that included every single thing I did day-to-day with a quantifiable time component. … [W]hen I was finished – with the help of women all over the country who wrote in with their own list items – I’d enumerated and categorized 100 household tasks with 20 subtasks that totaled over 1,000 items of invisible work (from laundry to pet care to meal prep to birthday presents) that kept our happy home running smoothly.”

    I had often wondered what my mom did in her years as a fulltime homemaker. Wash some dishes, fold some clothes, vacuum maybe? It was an enigma to me because many of the things she did were to me precisely as Rodsky describes – invisible. And because I couldn’t see them, I never thanked my mom for them. When we underestimate how much work it takes to make a home, we undervalue the homemaker. I realize now that being a homemaker is not an easy job.

    colorful plates in a dish drainer

    Photograph by Tracey Hocking

    I did come home during the Covid-19 pandemic wanting to serve my family more, but it was easy to fall back into the comfortable habits I knew growing up. I had written off many things my mom did as “things mothers do.” But seeing how much Grace helped out, I realized my expectations were outdated. We needed a new social contract for our home. Dave Boehi, in his article “Who Does the Housework?,” writes about the “‘100/100’ philosophy, where each of you – as a practical demonstration of your love – is willing to serve the other” as opposed to the “‘50/50’ relationship, where each [person] strives to do his share.” Although Boehi is writing about marriage, the same principle can be applied to any relationship founded on a commitment of love. Merely doing my share should not be my goal, but rather living out my love for my family in ways that exceed their expectations.

    I saw a living example of such love when I left home for a month to live at the Fox Hill Bruderhof. There, the expectation is that everyone will serve in whatever capacity they can. Sometimes that includes things like filling in for someone whose child is sick, moving into another house to make room for new arrivals, or even moving to a community in another hemisphere on short notice. Their homes are not perfect, but there is a living spirit of love that animates the community. Love also lies at the heart of their educational philosophy: “Our schools emphasize respect, self-discipline, and a strong work ethic. But what matters most is that children develop their capacity to love by caring for and serving others.”

    Of course, I love my family, but my actions at home haven’t always demonstrated that love perfectly (or even remotely). My approach to serving my family was wrong. Sometimes I’d wash the dishes thinking about how nice it would be for my mom to come down in the morning and see an empty sink. More often, when my mind was centered on how tired I was, that spark of joy disappeared. My feelings in the moment dictated my experience of serving. But as the Bruderhof teach their kids: serving regardless of how you feel in the moment can be a way to grow in love.

    This idea that what we do can change how we feel is nothing new. Over two thousand years ago, Confucius advocated the practice of rites and rituals (禮; lǐ) as a means of cultivating virtue. For example, a filial child will mourn the passing of a parent for three years. When Confucius’s student Zai Wo questions him on the necessity of pausing all activity for such a length of time, Confucius tells him that if he feels comfortable turning from grief after one year of mourning, then he should do so. Confucius does not emphasize strict adherence to a set of rules purely for the sake of conformity and social order. Rather, his focus is on building a virtuous society of harmonious relationships. He explains: “A child is completely dependent upon the care of his parents for the first three years of his life – this is why the three-year mourning period is the common practice throughout the world. Did Zai Wo not receive three years of care from his parents?” Confucius’s rhetorical question elicits an obvious response – yes, Zai Wo is alive because his parents took care of him when he was unable to do anything by himself. The three-year mourning period is in a way an acknowledgement of the invisible things parents do. It’s an act of remembrance – we may not remember how we tormented our parents with crying fits in the dead of night, but we should remember that they loved us enough to care for us through our most vulnerable stage.

    Now, even the most filial person I know would probably not put her life on hold for three years to mourn the passing of a parent – although the sadness lingers for much longer. But rituals are not arbitrary, and practicing them without right understanding undermines the purpose. The purpose is not simply to do, but to become.

    In a sense, washing the dishes can be a ritual that teaches me to love my family more. I don’t always feel blessed when it’s 10 p.m. and the sink is full, but it’s precisely that twinge of reluctance that reminds me of how lacking I am in love – and how much room I have to grow. When I drag my feet to the sink, I should remember that it’s not only dirty plates I’m washing, but also my selfish and slothful heart. Completing the physical task can be a sanctifying experience.

    A week after I returned from my month at the Fox Hill Bruderhof, Grace left home for school. After a year of living together, this goodbye felt very sudden. There will be no more washing dishes together. While Grace was still living at our house, she had a phrase she would say whenever she saw something that needed doing: “我来吧 (wǒ lái ba).” “Let me do it.” The literal translation for 来 is “to come.” She was always ready to come to where there was need and meet it.

    Now that college has resumed, I’m rarely at home. But when I do come home, I’ll come with new expectations. I will come ready to serve before being asked, and to see my chores as a means of grace. There may be times when I relapse into old feelings of ingratitude and entitlement, but when that happens, I hope I will remember the practical love I saw at Fox Hill and in Grace’s example. I will keep her catchphrase on my lips, always ready to come and help. She came into our home and changed it, and her stay also changed the meaning of home for me. Home is still the place where I am loved, comfortable, safe. But now home is also a place where I can help others feel loved, comfortable, safe – and at home.

    Contributed By

    Paulina Song is studying international politics at Georgetown University. She was a summer 2021 intern with Plough.

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