Some years back a friend and I were navigating remarkably similar choppy waters on the sea of life. We lived hundreds of miles apart but kept regular tabs on each others well-being via the most advanced communication devices of the day: landline telephones.
Calls would typically start with something like this: How are you? What are you up to?
The response, from either side, was typically this: OK. Just doing the dishes.
We meant “doing the dishes” partly in the literal sense, there being no one else in our households to tend to the task. But it was also figurative, a metaphor of sorts – shorthand – for taking care of all the unexciting, mundane chores that help reinstill order and sanity to lives that had been seriously lacking in both.
Whatever else might or might not have been going on with us, the dishes had to be done. Even now, with a full-time partner on the premises to share household duties as well as an appliance whose sole function it is to render dishes clean, I often prefer taking the task on by hand.
For one thing, there are few activities that provide such immediate and appreciable evidence of the progress made. Start with an unruly stack of dirty stuff and then, at the end of the process, behold a neat stack of spotless stuff.
I’m big on quantifiable results.
Mowing the lawn is a close second in terms of clear before-and-after payback. But I don’t mow anymore. A lawn SWAT team appears every so often and (noisily) renders the job done in no time flat. Worth every penny.
As for dishes, over the years I’ve developed a standard approach, which rarely varies: Start with cups and glasses; then bowls or other vessels; then the plates and saucers; then whisks, spatulas and any other of our bizarrely vast collection of utensils; and then the flatware. Pots and pans, usually the most challenging, come last.
Have I mentioned before that I might be just a tad obsessive/compulsive?
That tendency aside, the washing protocol helps turn the whole process into a sort of meditation. It has structure. It has meaning. It has purpose beyond the obvious and immediate goal of dishware maintenance: conscious awareness and living in the present moment, leaving past and future to their own devices.
It’s also a reminder of one of my favorite, too-often-neglected, mantras: Be. Here. Now.
It strikes me that what’s called for in this pandemic time is the same as what was called for in those choppy-water times of years ago.
By which I mean coping. Getting by. Doing what needs doing, not doing what doesn’t. And focusing on the task in front of me, however humdrum that task might be.
True, it’s hard not to let my mind wander off into the past, and think wistfully of times when getting together with friends actually took place in the same room and didn’t require clearance from the Health Department.
When the only danger associated with going out to shoot pool was the embarrassment of absorbing another trouncing. When watching a baseball game could take place from the stands.
It’s also hard not to drift into the mental future, and wonder whether if it will ever feel safe to sit in an airplane again and fly off to a real British pub. Or to eat in a crowded restaurant. Get back into a pew.
But life, as always, is taking place in the now. And, as the cliché so inarguably notes, It is what it is. So, I’m doing the dishes. Trying to Be. Here. Now. Wearing a mask.
And worrying about the crazies who think this is all a hoax.
I’ll be taking a little break from writing while I tackle a couple of other projects that have been nagging at me. I hope to see you again soon.
Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at email@example.com.