Simple Pleasures: “Half-Full” Essays on the Everyday, the Common, and the Famously Mundane Charles Finn
1. ON WASHING THE DISHES
There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.
—Thích Nhât Hanh
It is 10:30 at night and I have waved the last of the guests goodbye, coated and shawled them, gently ushered them out the door. I have nodded to their well-wishes and thank yous, to their three-glass promises—Next time, our place!—hugged them, friends all, waving off their compliments, promising them the recipe for my bread. Now, back inside, door closed on the headlight-poked air, I turn the corner to the kitchen and roll up my sleeves.
As my wife clears the table, I fill both sink basins with hot water, adjusting the temperature to just below scalding. Out of all the sounds a house can make, this gush from the faucet is the most reassuring. As my wife brings the serving dishes, I fetch the tea mugs from the living room, and together we pile the pots and pans on the counter and put the leftovers away. The wine glasses, fingerprinted and ruby-kissed, are collected. We will clean these last.
With the sinks full, I slip the bowls and plates into their bath, guiding them under one by one. “The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality,” says the Vietnamese monk, Thích Nhât Hanh. In my hand is a gaudily-colored sponge with a wiry green bristle on one side. In my other a thick bottle of dish soap with the picture of a bald, muscular man on its side. Florescent light flooding the scene, I tip the brawny fellow upside down and squeeze a citrus-scented blood from his head.
It feels good, this warm soapy water. This this. As I clean, my wife dries and puts away, and there is a warm feeling between us, more than just wine. Like co-conspirators we stand shoulder to shoulder, re-capping the evening, swapping Did you sees and Could you believes. With a towel draped over her shoulder, my wife fishes saucers from the rinse water, quick as a heron. When she holds a plate up for inspection it’s as if she’s looking into a mirror.
Soft music plays in the background as the pile of dishes decreases. At the sink there is music too: the tiny chatter of forks mixing together, the click of plates. There’s the lovely almost dolphin-like squeak of my thumb on their clean soapy faces—a little chirp of approval. With a thumbnail, I scratch at a stubborn piece of food and think of the episodic travels the dishes make from cupboard to table to sink and back, to the weeks, sometimes months of darkness they endure, lying in wait for their next encounter with living hands and the good weight of hot food.
With the plates clean we move on to the pots and pans. More muscle, more scratching. Elbow grease removes all other grease and the corners of the casserole dishes get special attention. I pump more soap onto the sponge.
Now we come to the final blind groping, rooting on the bottom of the sink for that elusive spoon, the sunken sponge. Reaching my forearm through the gray water, I pull the colander-like plug, then watch the water’s slow decent, mesmerized by its spin, anticipating the vulgar gurgle when it empties away. Then comes the final wiping of the sink and counter as every evidence of the struggle is erased. I look over at my wife drying the wine glasses. She passes them to me and I carry them to the cabinet to put them away. Old pros, we navigate the evening like paddling a familiar stretch of river.
And so it is that here in our home, the plates stacked so nicely and spoons doing their thing, we live our lives of quiet glory, where the weight of the ordinary is not a burden to carry, but a gift, and I have never, not once in my life, regretted doing the dishes.
2. ON DOING THE LAUNDRY
“If I don’t do laundry today, I’m gonna have to buy new clothes tomorrow.”
—Anna Paquin, actor
For two weeks the t-shirts and linens have been piling up, in the bathroom the wicker hamper yawning open like a dog foaming at the mouth. Breathing sour air, the heroics of Carhartts and Levis are mashed together with an alchemy of socks, while across the room the closet runs out of options. In my last pair of jeans and a sweatshirt I seldom wear, I hug a pile of dirty work clothes to my chest and waddle down the hall to the laundry room.
Gone are the days of squatting streamside and slapping clothes on a rock. These days laundry practically does itself. I employ a pair of squat, front-loading trolls (the Bosch brothers my wife calls them)—blunt fellows with little charm but hard workers all the same. Dropping my pile on the Cyclops-eyed washer, I begin patting down each shirt and pair of pants like a policeman frisking a robber. I turn pockets inside-out until a dozen white tongues are exposed. When the interrogation is over, I’m two pens, a highlighter, and $1.53 richer.
Because my mother taught me well, I loosely place the clothes in the washer. I select the appropriate temperature and cycles, and drizzle a ½ cup of detergent where it goes. Closing the hatch and hitting the start button, the metal beast comes to life with a shudder and begins filling with water, which is my signal to retire to the couch, drink coffee, read, and catch up on mail. Far from being onerous, doing the laundry is ancillary. It’s what you do while you’re doing something else. Just one of any number of birds you can kill with a stone and, “good work if you can get it,” I say to the cats.
Keeping a weather-eye out the window and an ear cocked for an unbalanced load, I proceed through the morning with barely a care. The washer clunks into gear, agitates, and then winds itself up into a spin. From where I sit, it’s a whirling dervish, a magical cave, a Lazarus machine. Clothes enter worn out, used up, dead. They emerge in a wet coma but almost ready to go. All they need is 20 minutes in the dryer or a couple hours of sun and they’re miraculously resurrected.
When the first load is done, I empty the tangled mass into a plastic laundry basket and take it out back. It’s such a nice day I can hardly stand it. Setting the basket down in the sun, a small set of breezes makes its way through the trees while a pair of ravens draws dark arabesques against a cloudless blue sky. Clipping the first t-shirt to the line, I wave to a neighbor walking her dog and she waves back.
I lift another t-shirt and give it a sharp snap. There’s an extra measure of satisfaction that comes with it, and a brush with the past. Deep into the last century, housewives hung underwear inside pillowcases to keep their “unmentionables” from view, but I’m not that particular and don’t care who sees my boxers. With a pair of clothes pins in my mouth like jutting buck teeth, I hang each pair next to its brethren. Likewise, pants and shirts are lined up in orderly fashion, and next to them go the socks. The tradecraft of hanging laundry goes back generations and I chance to look down the street around the block and all the way back to Beacon, New York circa 1939.
The entirety of the good long day stretches out before me. I see my mother as a little girl helping her mother hanging the wash. We’re all in this together, she waves across the years. A history of shared chores runs in our veins.
And so it goes, another load in the washer, another load off my back, another chapter to read. I even take a stab at a nap. I like the thump-thump of the clothes getting dizzy, the high pitched whine as the washer works itself into frenzy. I stare out the window and watch the breeze play tag with the sheets and then impregnate the shirts. “The true life,” Don DeLillo writes in Point Omega, “takes place when we’re alone, thinking, feeling, lost in memory, daydreaming self-aware, the submicroscopic moments.”
From one true life to another I go. One microscopic moment to the next. By early afternoon the sheets are baked dry and the jeans unperceptively faded. Back inside, I fold, sort, and put away. I’m pleased with the neat cotton piles and reunion of socks. “All this for such a small price,” I think to myself, “and so little effort.” My underwear drawer full again. Every option of shirt and pants hangs in the closet. I hold a towel up to my nose. I smell sunshine, pine, mowed grass, and a new sense of promise. Somewhere I know my mother is smiling but she doesn’t know why.
3. ON VACUUMING
“I tried the experiment of sucking with my mouth against the back of a plush seat in a restaurant.”
—Hubert Cecil Booth, 1901, inventor of “Puffing Billy,” the world’s first vacuum cleaner
It is Wednesday afternoon and one by one I stack the dining room chairs on the table. In the living room, I place footstools and plant stands on the couch. Lamps are picked up by their skinny necks and likewise moved to higher ground, while in the bedroom spare slippers, old New Yorkers, and the hamper find their way onto the bed. Everything I can lift I lift, leaving only the heaviest at ground level, the behemoths of sofas and wooden chests of drawers too heavy move. I go from room to room to room, stacking and balancing, clearing the way.
I’ve read the first vacuum was gasoline powered and so large it needed to be pulled by a horse. The inventor, Hubert Cecil Booth, tested his idea by placing a cloth over his mouth and sucking on the back of a chair—Eureka! Dirt clung to the underside of the cloth. Thankfully, we’ve come a long way from making out with the furniture—and for the next half hour my date is a slim, lightweight, 12-amp wonder I can wield with a finger.
In sweatpants and slippers, I make my way to the closet and wheel the vacuum into the living room. At first sight of the intruder, the cats shoot glances at me and then at the door. More dangerous than any rocking chair, their nemesis is a howling, tail sucking, omnivorous dog. They have a right to be scared. Unspooling the cord, I warn them once, twice, and turn the machine on. With a toe I press the release lever on the power head and step out into my best Fred Astaire. The cats scatter.
I am in charge of a hammer-head shark patrolling the carpet. The power head is a blunt rectangle at the end of a three foot handle and I send it out over the ocean of cream and oatmeal-colored rug. Back and forth, back and forth I sweep it, stalking in a grid-like fashion the plankton of dirt sunk in the fibers. The rotors spin, the vacuum vacuums, and foot-wide stripes of clean pile are left in its wake. With the first few passes I’m just warming up, but it doesn’t take long until the real dancing begins. With my right hand I let my partner glide away, pull her back in, push her away, pull her back again. We twist, turn, bow, and spin—we never let go. It’s a waltz, a cruel flirtation. I bend low and dip the handle to the floor and slide the head under the table and lip of the couch. I bounce it gently off their legs. In the next room, I curtsy to the curtains, careful not to suck them up, then vacuum around the baseboards like an Indy car circling the track.
As I make my way through the house, I can see dirt being collected and a week’s worth of cat hair sucked up. How on earth, I wonder, is there any left on the cats? Periodically I’ll stoop to pick up a dime or penny, and if I don’t pay attention a paperclip rattles up the pneumatic tube. With the power cord in one hand, I flip it this way and that like a tail, keeping it always behind me, making sure not to run it over. In the hallway, I dust my wife and I at the rim of the Grand Canyon. On the ski trip we took in Vermont. I have a great respect for spiders, but in this mood their webs don’t stand a chance. I vacuum the ceiling and corners, anywhere I see their fine threads.
For the last half hour I’ve been deep in thought, lost in concentration. In the parlance of my family, I am committing a neatness. I like the clean stripes of carpet I leave behind, and the sense of accomplishment that trails after me room to room. I change the setting for the hardwood floors, and get down on hands and knees to suction dusty bunnies from under the beds. I hip check doors open and closed, making sure to vacuum behind them. Finally, I do one last do-si-do with my partner, and pull the plug.
With my dancing days over, I wind the cord in loose loops and drape it over the handle. I empty the dirt, dust, and cat hair into the garbage in the garage and escort my partner to her home in the closet. Meanwhile, silence reenters to check out the rooms, and like a thief covering his tracks, I go about setting everything back on the floor. With order restored and gravity back on, I fall onto the couch and tip my head back. “All-y all-y in come free,” I call to the cats, but I know it’s for naught.
Originally published in Moss: Volume One.