Do you ever have something that you notice, sort of make a mental note of, and then move on with life, not exactly forgetting, but not really understanding either?
For example: I distinctly remember being in the Dominican Republic where I had been working for the summer with a mission organization called Students International. One of my friends, also working with SI, was from a village a few hours from where we were there in Jarabacoa and so one weekend we went for a visit, to stay with her family.
Their house was spotless, despite the dirt floors and lack of what, growing up in suburbia, I would have considered essential modern conveniences. Like hot water, or even a shower that worked by turning on the knob, rather than filling a bucket overhead. The family’s hospitality was warm and inviting, and it was a fantastic weekend all the way around. But randomly, one thing stuck in my head—the washing of the dishes. The family’s house was really more like part of a compound of extended family, each house surrounding a sort of outdoor common area, where the ‘kitchen’ was. That was where the washing up of the dishes happened as well.
What I noticed was, rather than fill up a large tub with soapy water and proceed to clean, the women in the family, for they were the ones washing the dishes, cleaned each dish individually, using a small amount of water and then rinsing it, using that water to wash the next dish. I noticed it because it was so different from the only way I had ever experienced hand-washing dishes—either at my paternal grandmother’s house in Mexico, or at my maternal grandparents’ summer cottage (does that sound pretentious? If you saw the ‘cottage’ which is beautiful, but built in 1900, it is a bit less so than you might imagine) in Upstate New York—which began with the filling up of, typically two big tubs, one with soapy water and one with rinse water. My cousins and I always tried to get to be the ‘rinser’ because that was clearly the easiest job, when compared with washing or drying.
A few years after that trip to the Dominican Republic I had the opportunity to be in Malawi, in Africa, as a photographer with another group of short term missionaries who were visiting various sites working with AIDS orphans as well as micro-finance and development projects.
On one of those days in Malawi we were at an ‘after school center’ which was more like a concrete slab with a roof over it—a definite improvement over the alternative of open air and dirt floor. As we were singing and playing with the kids, I watched the women (yes, again women) who were cooking the lunch—nseema, a corn porridge type meal that is common in Malawi. I also noticed that, again, as they were cleaning up, there was no large tub, but each dish was washed individually, using the water to wash the next dish.
I’m embarrassed to say that there was part of me that thought that they clearly did not know how to wash dishes. Everyone knows that you have to fill up a big soapy tub, to really get them clean…right? Thus thought the girl who grew up with a dishwasher, the machine kind, in the house…
It was not that I was pondering this issue of the dishes in my day to day life, but somehow both experiences stuck with me and sort of just sat there, somewhere lodged in my memory. Like a seed, dormant, waiting for the right set of conditions in which to germinate.
It was not until a few years later, as I was spending more and more time in my grandmother’s house in Baja, and as that summer had been a particularly dry one, with frequent water outages, that it occurred to me what was going on.
On that particular day we had been without water for a few days, and so the little that I did have, I was trying to conserve. I couldn’t wait any longer though to wash the dirty dishes in the sink, so I began with just a bit of water, in each dish, using it to then wash the next dish. Perhaps it was something in the act of that ritual that triggered it, but all of a sudden I had an epiphany, of sorts, as though finding the last piece of a puzzle that you’ve been working on for a long time. So that is why they washed the dishes the way they do…
The thing is, growing up, my limited hand-washing dish washing experiences had been in places of plenty, of abundance. No one had to carry the water we used—we just turned on the tap. No one had to light a fire to heat it—we just turned on the tap. There was no wondering if there would be enough water to last until we could get more—we just turned on the tap.
That ability to turn on the tap, of course, makes it so easy to use as much water as we please—something I’ve come to call the ‘ease of waste.’
But, even more than that, the ability to turn on the tap is what kept me blind to the reality of my friends there in the Dominican Republic, and of those women in that village in Malawi.
It’s not that running water is bad. Or that washing dishes in the two tub manner is inherently evil. What I find troubling is the way that my own privilege could have kept me from seeing—and not only that, it actually determined what I was able to see. The lens through which I viewed the world led me to assume that this other way was not simply different, but was, in fact, inferior. Ouch.
That, it seems to me, is the danger of such privilege. The underlying assumption that someone else is not just different, but is wrong, without a deeper understanding of why that difference exists. Were it not for my own experience of ‘drought’ it’s likely that I would have continued on in my blindness.
We are, as it happens, approaching the season of Lent. Lent, the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday (often spoken of as 40 days in duration), is a season of preparation—a preparation that is typically seen as involving some form of self-denial. This can take the form of giving up chocolate, or sugar, or alcohol or some other chosen ‘vice’ or ‘indulgence’ as a way of dedicating oneself to God. Many are critical of the practice—seen as an excuse to go on a diet, or a denial of that which is pleasurable simply for denial’s sake.
But I wonder, and I’m pondering, as I consider Lent this year, if there might not be another way to approach this season. Might Lent, instead of simply being a time to ‘give up’ something, be a time to enter into something more deeply? Might there be a way to allow Lent to help open our eyes, to shed light on the blindness that a life of privilege can bring?
Might Lent offer an opportunity to pause, to reflect, and to stop filling those tubs of water all the way full…?
(She ponders, as she types it out on her MacBook Pro…)