How to Wash Dishes

by Abigail Sussman on August 2, 2011

How to Wash DishesThe closest liquid water to the lookout is one-and-a-half miles down the steep switchbacks at Copper Lake. Instead, gather snow from the north side of the rocky knob to melt for drinking, cooking and washing. Pull an aluminum pot and two plastic buckets from the cabinets under the eastern windows and walk the few hundred yards out to the snowfield. First, scrape away the top layer of accumulated dust, pollen and small insects. By the time summer has begun and you have resumed your duties at the lookout, the snow has metamorphosed many times over. The grains of snow are large and coarse, gently abrasive against your fingers and knees. Under the first few centimeters, beneath the detritus, the snow is compressed into ice.

Squatting on the snowfield, sunlight’s glaring reflection bouncing into your face, work methodically — scraping, digging for dirt-free snow, scooping it into plastic buckets. The pot against the snow is a metallic reverberation, the loudest sound you have heard all morning. Every so often, you look up and the world comes back into focus — a curious raven circling overhead on a backdrop of bluebird sky, the sweet footprints left by a marmot just inches from your own, the wind sweeping over the snow, cooling the back of your neck.

With the bottom of the pot, pack the snow down and, when both buckets are full, carry one in each hand back to the lookout, shoulders stretching from the weight, arms laden with a welcome obligation. The chores necessary to live here are subtle joys that transform your life from the ordinary to something like a sanctified existence.

Later, you have made your dinner, eaten your fill, and are ready to wash dishes. First, lick your plate. Run your index finger along the curves of your bowl, scrape the burned noodles from the spoon with your teeth. Then, using the mug that reminds you of your elementary school lunchroom, scoop some of the half-melted snow from the big pot into the smaller saucepan. Heat the pan until all of the snow is melted and the water is warm. Squeeze one drop of soap onto the dishrag.

As you run the soapy towel over the contours of your plate, look out the eastern windows to watch the Picket Range turn pink with alpenglow. The light on the ridges spreads along a gradient from amber to rose, and it seems impossible that you are here, at this moment, as shadows creep up hillsides and another day in these mountains comes to an end.

You cannot imagine ever forgetting the cool evening air on your face, the faint sound of the river that courses through the valley 4,000 feet below you, the amusing totter of the ptarmigan as she parades her chicks around the outside of the lookout. But you know this to be true, just as you know that someday everyone you love will die, just as you know that the volcano to the south will erupt and mudflows and ash will overrun the path you walked to get here. At some point, despite the fact that you try to remember, you will forget.

This realization brings you back to the porcelain plate in one hand, the wet dishrag in the other, the soap slick on your skin. To rinse, you must return your attention to the chore and carefully hold the plate over the wastewater bucket so as to not drip anything onto the floor. Once it is clean, balance the plate on its edge, held between the burner and the back of the range so it can dry without being disturbed by mice.

Washing dishes, collecting snow in buckets, sweeping the lookout floor of dirt tracked in on the soles of your boots — these are mundane tasks elevated to sacred acts by the 34-million-year-old rock underfoot, the fragile and tenacious heather gardens that cloak the surrounding slopes with their pink flowers, the glaciers that occupy spaces made imperceptible by their venerable ice. There are no false pretenses; you understand that what makes your actions unique has nothing to do with you — you could very well be someone else.

You are not always aware of your condition; one cannot be constantly in awe. And so, there are evenings, when the sun is casting its last rays on Mount Baker’s ice, and Mount Shuksan’s shark-finned summit is wrapped in wispy clouds flush with twilight, that you look up from a paperback and become embarrassed for your inattention, for succumbing to the simple need to remove yourself from the world, to maintain some separation. Your heart, like a bucket for gathering snow, cannot take all of it at once.

Months later, when winter has come and you have returned to your other home, the one where water flows from multiple taps and there is even an automatic dishwasher, you find yourself rinsing a plate. There are still mountains outside the windows of your kitchen, but they are less immediate and, to see them, you must look past chimneys curling smoke into the cold air and through a grid of electrical wires. You pause, take a sip from the cool memory of your mountains and then return to the task at hand, the sacred work of living.

Abigail Sussman patrols the northwestern portion of North Cascades National Park in the summer and migrates south to Gunnison, Colorado, in the winter. Her last story in MG was “Hitchhiking With Skis,” which appeared in #161.


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Kathy Lynn Harris September 8, 2011 at 3:56 pm

Loved this piece!

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