A few weeks before my return to the US, I paused the post-dinner clean-up and turned to Amina as she entered the closet of a kitchen in which we prepared the family’s meals (ok, fine. She did most of the preparing. I followed orders).
“Amina?” I asked, drawing her attention up from the soup of trash and rainwater that she had squeegeed in from the living room. “I have to do this presentation when I go home. And I don’t know how to talk about everything in just 10 minutes.”
I had been distracted by the dilemma for days and, since Amina was responsible for solving the problems that entered this house, I decided to offer her this one. She straightened her back, popped her hip out and rested her right hand on the generously-padded, protruding bone. Clearly she was preparing to lend her authoritative, problem-solving expertise.
“Here’s what you need to do,” she told me … authoritatively. “You need to figure out the thing that is the same in each place that you visited, and then talk about that one thing.”
Only half-listening to the elaborations that followed, I giggled to myself at the thought that there could be a single and tellable thing, besides the basics of existence, that was the same in Greenland, South Africa, the UK and Morocco.
Silence. “OK?” she asked, meaning “Did you understand everything and now you’ll do what I told you?”
“Yes, thank you, Amina,” I smiled, and turned back to the dishes, to think (because it’s much easier to think when your hands are wrinkly and dunking in tomato-y water). And then I realized: everywhere that I went, I learned to do the dishes.
I scoffed just a little at Silver when he called me to the sink on one of my first evenings in Greenland, telling me he wanted to teach me how to do the dishes. I was offended at his assumption that I, the American girl who had come to the Arctic with no home, no friends, and no realistic plans, would not know how to wash a glass. An absurd assumption, clearly. The technique was relatively complex, involving two sinks and an intricate balancing/piling/stacking of drying plates on the far counter. As it turned out, I actually didn't know how to do the dishes ... in Greenland.
Of course, I imported the Greenland technique to the UK, where a mechanical dishwasher rendered it useless and I was forced to relearn a new method ... whose tendency to delay washing the dishes between meals (in order to fill the washer) was absurdly inappropriate in a South African house full of young, single, alternately too-busy and too-lazy-to-do-the-dishes renters. And what was considered a "clean" dish by my South African housemates was abominable to my Moroccan family ... So I learned how to do the dishes four times. And by the end, learned not to scoff, because assuming that I already knew the technique - the only technique, the best technique - was more absurd than not knowing one at all.
Now one would think that at this point, I would have internalized the developing moral of this story (which is, in case you didn't see it coming that I am not omniscient). But alas, while fumbling with my iPod and thinking that in addition to outlawing text-messaging while driving, the state of Massachusetts should probably make mobile iPod searches illegal, I laughed when
Krista Tippett informed me that I had chosen to listen to an hour-long "Speaking of Faith" podcast about a Jewish theologian from the 1950’s (http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/heschel/). Of course I assumed that a dead, Jewish theologian would not adequately distract me from the other angry, Boston drivers on the road. And of course, I was wrong. Because good theologians have something interesting and relevant to say to everyone…
Abraham Joshua Heschel lived, taught, led and thought in America in the mid-20th century, alongside good friends and fellow activists like Martin Luther King, Jr. A rabbi, a mystic, and a professor of Judaic thought, Heschel was also deply involved in ideas and actions of interreligious communication. In a 1965 speech entitled “No Religion is an Island”, Heschel theorized:
“I suggest that the most significant basis for meeting men of different religious traditions is the level of fear and trembling, of humility, of contrition, where our individual moments of faith are mere waves in the endless ocean of mankind’s reaching out for God. Where all formulations and articulations appear as understatements. Where our souls are swept away by the awareness of the urgency of answering God’s commandment, while stripped of pretention and conceit, we sense the tragic insufficiency of human faith.” (Heschel, 1965)
The point, it seems, is that none of us is right. None of us knows the right way - the only way - to do the dishes and none of us knows the right, only way to enlightenment, to God. But we are all aiming for the same end – ultimate, perfect understanding and clean dishes (though my mom may dispute that because sometimes it seems that she’s actually going for VERY clean dishes). It's an obvious, simple, humbling and terrifying realization, because it necessitates a fall from the security of surity and knowing. It means constantly admitting that you don't know and then humbly submitting to the learning. Because if no single one of us knows what is ultimately right, each of us probably understands a piece of it. And only by genuinely engaging with one another, by humbling and graciously submitting to this learning, can we collect those pieces and get a little closer to a less-imperfect understanding.
I didn’t leave the United States a year ago to learn domesticity (though my mom was, admittedly, very excited to hear that it was a side effect). I intended, with a project on religion and environmentalism, to explore ideas of faith, nature and community. And not until the end, until that evening at the sink, did I realize that the dishes were teaching me the essential quality of these ideas. Because standing at a sink, scraping at the slobbered-on morsels that your dinner-mates left behind, and occasionally sloshing the dirty dishwater onto your jeans, is a very humbling experience. And to arrive in a new place, and be told that you don’t know how to do something so simple and essential as the dishes, something which you were always sure that you knew, is doubly humbling. And (here comes the connection that took 500 words of build-up!) what is an experience of nature without that awesome realization that there is something bigger than you, something that goes completely beyond the limits of human understanding. And what is religion besides trusting and humbling yourself to your faith and/or God. And is there community without sacrificing one’s individual needs and desires for the sake of the whole?
Would you believe that in the end, it turns out that Amina was right? That there is one thing that is the same in all these places and all these ideas? Would you believe that in the end, it turns out that I was studying humility? And that I learned it at the kitchen sink ...