I remember reading in a collection of Haiku that one of the old Masters of the form once said, “All poets should sweep in the morning” and as silly as it might seem that advice has stuck with me. I’m not much of a sweeper so I’ve re-adapted this quote to mean washing the dishes, especially since most affordable apartments in cities don’t come with dish washers.
I’ve made it a point to wash whatever dishes there are in the sink when I wake up in the morning. It’s become a meditative practice for me: the sensation of hot water stinging the feeling into my hands, slow clock-work rotations of a sponge on plates, and the satisfaction of an empty sink that gives the illusion of a greater amount of space in my small apartment. When I was growing up I never really washed the dishes, my chores were of the yard work variety, but once I started living on my own I realized how quickly a sink piles up, especially living in places with four or five other people.
The fact remains though that every dish I clean makes something else dirty. The gunk that I wash off a plate goes down the drain and into a sewer and once a part of the sewage it’s going to a processing plant where someone else will transform it again. So even when I make my personal world clean I make someone’s more filthy. This was an important realization for me to make as a poet and writer. Whenever I write about someone I know, my friends or family, I’m writing to gain a greater understanding of our relationship, but my understanding can come at the cost of complications for and/or with that person.
I spent most of my youth giving my mother a lot of grief for how much cleaning she would always do, but she spent over forty years working in nursing and a good amount of those years were spent in hospitals. The first school I worked in was attached to a hospital because of the needs of the student body and after spending just 6 months working in a medical environment, I have a much better understanding of her motivations. Once I grew accustomed to a hospital’s standard, it was hard to readjust. And it’s not just a desire to sterilize things, it’s a general state of mind, a desire to order and organize things in an efficient manner. Hospitals reinforce a relationship between efficiency and health. Which makes sense: our bodies are a kind of machine made more efficient through health.
Chores are a grounding practice. In poetry so much of what I do is heady, symbolic, and based in theory, but chores are something that exist very much in the real world and contain real world consequences if left undone. For example, in city apartments letting dishes pile up invite not only fruit flies and other bugs, but mice and rats attracted by the scraps of food. Once again, the relationship between efficiency and health is apparent. I have to work or else suffer the risks of laziness. This rationality clears my head and allows me to be mindless for the few sudsy minutes spent cleaning a pile of dishes. That bit of clarity isn’t only nice at the start of the day, it also puts me in a good head space before I begin writing.
An important component of Haiku is the ability to find something poetic in the everyday. This sensibility isn’t just something I want in my work, it’s something I want in my life. I think of Kung-fu movies like Drunken Master or Karate Kid and the training sequences that were disguised as chores to both test the patience of the pupil and unknowingly practice the technique’s form. This kind of training is what I aspire to during my mornings in front of the sink. Poetry isn’t a part of some other world that I can step into and out of, poetry is a part of this world. The world of chores, full-time jobs, complex relationships, and daily grinds. I want to train myself to write in every moment of this world, even the soapy ones.