Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

The Summer of my Dishcontent

On Saturday we are getting a new dishwasher. It's only been three months since the repairman looked at the old one and shook his head over the numerous costly problems it had. At first it wasn't that bad standing over the steaming sink washing dishes for eight people by hand. The pioneers, right? Solidarity with the poor, hey? And then the glow wore off, and night after sticky night I scrubbed dishes, sweat dripping down my face and my hair plastered to my neck, and the glow of virtue degraded to a stinky flush.

We are the richest people I know, and we wash dishes by hand in an un-air-conditioned house. This isn't a boast or a complaint. It's just how it is. There was no time to go together to look at dishwashers, and the more we researched, the more we bogged down in the minutiae of noise levels and third racks and hard food grinders. Dishwashing by hand became a form of inertia, of inaction being easier than action.

Meanwhile, the rest of the house languishes too. The front bedroom, where the big girls are supposed to sleep, has been primed for a year. I primed it, in a fit of virtue. Perhaps the virtue wore off, or perhaps now I have a twenty-month-old who is not to be trusted, and big kids who are still of the age to think that I have the answer to every question that starts with, "Moooommm?" For whatever reason, the bedroom is still unpainted, and everything seems on hold until that project is completed.

The paint in the princess bedroom bathroom, the one that Darwin and I shower in because the shower in our bathroom has a leak in some yet-to-be-determined location, is peeling so badly that the plaster is exposed in several places. That too has been primed (in places) for a year. One of the pull-chain lights has gone on the fritz, so now it's badly lit too. The place would benefit from a ceiling light, if only we would buy one and schedule an electrician.

Meanwhile, in Europe, refugees are stuck in the Budapest train station (one of the loveliest I saw in my time over there) and children are washing up on the shore of Turkey. An unpainted, unlit, unimproved house is a very small worry in the grand scheme of things, and yet it's the responsibility that I've been given, right now. I cannot stop the war in Syria. I cannot feed the refugees, except indirectly through donations. I can, however, finally hire someone to rewire the lights and the electrical outlets and paint the bedroom and bathroom, and although it doesn't do anything for the children in war-torn parts of the world, it does provide work for my neighbors and allow them to provide food for their families.

I don't know. Would it be better if we lived a life of radical poverty and sent every spare dollar to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless? And yet, how are we to maintain this home for our family without spending money on it? How are we to keep our home safe from the risk of fire without spending money to replace 85-year-old wiring? How are we going to maintain the integrity of the house without doing the maintenance work that requires? Would it be better if this house sunk into even more disrepair, as long as I sent money off to a charity that assures me that of course the overhead is low and the bulk of the money helps those in need? These aren't either/or questions. Of course we have to make a return to the Lord for all he has done for us. It's not a question of should we give, but how much should we give, and how much should we spend on ourselves?

And then there is the matter of beauty. Several months ago I was driving along a road lined with strip malls, and meditating on Psalm 19: "The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament proclaims the works of his hands." That means that every element of creation proclaims God in some way. Trees, grass, rocks: all these in some way reflect God's goodness and beauty. And man, when he creates, has an obligation to use his creative powers to reflect God's goodness and beauty too. Some buildings do this better than others. Strip malls are poor reflections of God. They are ugly and utilitarian, bland and interchangeable. My own house is a good, if shabby, reflection of God's beauty. And in owning it, I have a responsibility to ensure that I keep reflecting God's beauty and goodness through the choices I make. Some of these choices are inexpensive, but some require more thought, effort, and money. Should I buy a ceiling light for the bathroom off the Home Depot clearance rack, or should I search for something more beautiful, more in keeping with the design and age of our house, and commensurately more expensive? It would be a moot point if I couldn't afford anything better than the Home Depot special, but I can. Do I have an obligation to buy ugly, cheap fixtures for my house so that others can eat? Put that way it seems a convicting contrast with an obvious answer, and yet one of the Catholic issues du jour is the status and dignity of the craftsman. How will the craftsman be able to keep crafting if no one employs him? How do smaller companies stay in business if no one buys their products?

In a sense, this is a purely intellectual quandary. I already know that I'm not going to buy a cheap light for the bathroom. I grew up in some ugly, cheap houses, and I don't want to live in one as an adult. More to the point, we have the luxury of being able to give to charity and to afford beauty, and a dishwasher too, if not air-conditioned comfort. Something has to give somewhere.

But the widow's mite still haunts me. We give out of our excess, and we're buying a pretty nice dishwasher after all the dithering. We buy beauty, and we get an earthly return in being able to live with beauty. The widow gave all she had, and looked for no return. And Jesus commended her.  I think, "How can this dishwasher, or this light fixture, or this paint job, help me to love and serve God better?" And I'm reminded of the section in The Name of the Rose in which the abbot pontificates on how the beauty of his jewels turn his mind to things divine. And then I remind myself that our house bitter cold in parts of winter and oppressive in parts of the summer, and even some of the poor live a bit more comfortably than we do, climate-wise. And then I remember that other people are at this very moment starving, dying, watching their children die, living in terror, being exploited or abused, and my comfort level seems unbearably luxurious.

Yet God has willed that I live here, in this place and at this time, with the responsibilities and obligations that he's given me right now. There's no virtue in being Mrs. Jellyby, so obsessed with the African missions that her own children lived in squalor and ignorance. Just something else to ponder as I do the dishes next week. Death, taxes, and the dishes, here with us always.


Ana Maria said...

Don't forget laundry, that too is always with us.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Methinks you have children who are old enough to wash dishes. :-) My mom started me on that chore as soon as I was tall enough to reach the sink with my younger brothers as dish dryers. (My younger sisters had a bitter theory that the only reason my mom had children was to ensure a continuing supply of dishwashers.)

Darwin said...

It's true. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact it's summer, so the kids have been eager to play outside until 9pm or so, at which point we want to put them straight to bed. And when it's hot, we are all to grateful for the chance not to move in the early evening mugginess and post dinner lethargy. So we end up tackling the dishes around 10pm after everyone's down. That, and the hideously non-functional single sink set up this kitchen has makes washing dishes tricky enough I haven't had much desire to try teaching the kids.

Though, let the record be clear, I wash the dishes a good half of the time. It's not always MrsDarwin. But one can't qualify one's description endlessly or it becomes less poetic.

Agnes said...

This comment is in a way related to your earlier post "Do Over", which I did not manage to comment on(we were on holiday with limited Internet acccess) but I felt a strong connection to that topic and shared most of it with my husband, thinking he'd appreciate the similarity with our own life (the dinner-to-bed chaos, and the lack of time to pray for example) Well, he did, but what he first commented on was "what is wrong with their dishwasher that they couldn't fix it in 3 months?" Thoughts of your dishwasher (as a metaphor for your family/situation))kept returning ever since and I'm happy to see an update from another angle.
I find it easy to relate to the difficulty of managing all the upkeep and repair issues in the home, although more on the practical level than the moral level you mention. Living in Hungary as middle class family, I have less money to distribute between our own life (comfort level and beauty) and charity. Still, I live in a country refugees come to, rather than in a country people flee from, which is important to remember instead of being sorry for myself which people in my country are wont to do.
Thank you for this reminder to the widow in the Bible - it made me think of "giving all I have" perhaps not in the monetary sense, but in making everyday decisions with the willingness to do what God wants us to do, to do what he gave me responsibility to do.

mandamum said...

I'm chewing over your post, and then coming back to chew it over again... but wanted to say: I love your title. I didn't even notice the "h" the first time I visited, but got a sudden giggle out of it on the second read :)

Julia said...

We recently moved, and one of the consolations for having 3/5 of the space we used to have is that we now have a half-size dishwasher. We hadn't had a functioning dishwasher for nine years. It makes life simpler, but I don't see that it's making anyone here more faithful (one could pray while washing dishes) or develop a better work ethic (kids need something real to grumble about or it all spins out of control). So I'm thinking the give-back in having this luxury is deciding how we're going to use the extra time it offers us.

Before we moved we had to do a lot of plastering and painting, most of which I did as breaks from doing freelance projects. I found that the physical labor, while ostensibly tedious, was a good complement to the more mentally taxing work. When I used chores to fill the interstices of the day instead of thought of them as chores per say, it was easier to pray while doing them. It may be a good thing to offer up the painting for the refugees.

I also taught my 11yo how to plaster and paint. That was useful for both of us.

Enbrethiliel said...


This reminds me of a discussion I once had with Pentimento, inspired by her homeschooling of her sons. We talked about the cognitive dissonance we feel building "Noah's arks" (my term, if I recall correctly) for our families while people seem to be drowning right outside our doors. Of course, on the other side of the world, people are literally drowning. Is there a way to meet everyone's needs while still acknowledging that, yes, the poor will always be with us?

I confess that I am one of those who think the cost of accepting every last refugee, or even a goodly number of them, is far too high. Years ago, when the first boats started arriving in Italy, I wondered why the Italian navy or coast guard weren't doing anything to stem the tide. And now that a tidal wave seems to have broken all over Europe, I simply can't imagine how the people who were already calling it home--and who might have already been contributing to foreign aid--are going to cope. I'm hoping I'm just being a terrible pessimist. Of course I want everything to work out, although right now I can't imagine anything beyond a collapse.

I must add that I've seen this sort of thing from the perspective of someone who must spell it "emigration" (because the people are going out) and have been tempted to be an illegal alien myself. There but for the grace of God went I--but I'm still more than a little turned off that so many able-bodied young men are simply abandoning their country, when they are precisely the sort who it needs the most at the moment. I have a friend in the US who has very positive feelings toward immigrants and likes to say that they "enrich" the communities they join. I once retorted, "Yeah, after they impoverish the communities they leave behind." And I mentioned a German trainee from my previous job who told me that one reason Hitler rose to power so easily was that many of the Germans who might have been able to provide a political buffer had decided to leave their country after the Great War. I haven't checked that with an historian, but I buy it because a similar movement in the Philippines after World War II contributed to the rise of our own dictator.

And yet I don't want to bind people to each other with chains that may not even exist. (Am I not the one who spent years substituting "Simbahang Katoliko" for "bansang Pilipinas" when reciting the obligatory daily patriotic pledge? And I'd do it again if I had to say the pledge tomorrow!) Sometimes your choices are just your own and don't have to carry the weight of your country's destiny. If you can make a better life for your family somewhere else, then your obligation to them is clear. But neither is it fair, I think, to make other people pay for that better life. And I think in the case of much illegal immigration and this refugee crisis, other people will be paying through the nose for something they had no hand in creating.

PS -- We've never had a dishwasher. My mother's rule is that everyone has to wash his own plate, glass, and cutlery; so we all line up to do so after dinner. She herself does the pots and pans. It's not the most efficient use of water, but she says it keeps her sane.