Why I Leave the Dishes


March 29, 2019

In January, Literary Hub posted a short piece by author Pat Barker, in which she responded to the question “What is the best writing advice you have ever heard?”  In this season of writing, I relished her response. I have been holding off most other commitments while I work on the second draft of what I hope will be my next book about motherhood and creative practice.

Leave the Dishes in red ink on brown paper from the Slow Dress at PRESS exhibition in 2014

While it is true that I am writing this book,

this book is making me, at work in my life in unexpected ways. I began it 9 years ago. Or maybe, I have been writing this book in my heart for 25 years, my mighty span of mothering so far? This book is writing me.

Poet and author Louise Erdrich said that what you get from writing, you get in the act of writing, from the doing of the writing every single day. The question about writing advice is a question I am asked, not because I am a well-known author, but because daily creative practice is at the center of all the work I do. People wonder how to start writing or start making art, and from what I can tell, it is in the doing that you become.  I am sure of this, only and because of the writing of my book. Pat’s response:

“Keep your bum glued to the chair. It’s extraordinary how, if a piece of writing is going badly—and sometimes even when it’s going well—other activities become steadily more attractive. Not just getting up to make endless cups of coffee either—even cleaning out the cupboard under the sink seems suddenly a fun thing to do. Resist! You’ve got to turn up, on time, at the blank page or screen, and then just stay there. That way, if the Muse does decide to pay you a visit, at least she’ll know where to find you.”

Pat’s response struck me.  I have studied a poem by Louise Erdrich, Advice to Myself, extensively and made art in response to her poem. Pictured here is a letter press paper apron I created for the Slow Dress show at PRESS in North Adams. And the Permission Slip dress and film rose from this deep inquiry.

Umbilical Cord as Apron String by Suzi Banks Baum
photo credit: Lori Landau

The first lines of the poem are: “Leave the dishes./Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator/and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor./Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster./Throw the cracked bowl out /and don’t patch the cup./Don’t patch anything. /Don’t mend. /Buy safety pins.”

This poem made my writing life possible.

When my children were 13 and 10, there were mounds of dishes and plenty of rot and scum. There were moldy lunchboxes and much weeping. I needed Louise’s assurance that leaving the dishes was okay. Erdrich is an author of many books, she has several daughters and a bookstore and a vibrant life connected to her community in Minnesota. Her poem arrived as a message to step away from the hot fray of motherhood and do what my hands and heart were calling me to do.

And, as she said, in the writing, something has been made.

I discovered that the odd combination of tools that make me me are useful to others. The pursuit and furtherance of a daily creative practice makes a difference in the lives of people in many walks of life. It has bearing and meaning in the lives of women in particular, who have for centuries been charged with the tending of dishes and crumbs, with toasters and cups, putting off their inner work until everything else is settled. Creative practice forges a bond between my interior life and how I make decisions about time and what I do with it. When Literary Hub published Pat’s words about keeping her bum glued to the chair, I shared it with my friends on Facebook. The post got a bunch of responses.

This caught my attention.

Mostly women commented, and one man, my friend Jeffrey. He wondered if doing the dishes is a useful moment to incubate. Peggy countered that incubation may happen over the dishes, but we have to mind whether we are procrastinating or incubating. My friend Kandace commented that the dust at her house gets especially interesting when she is about to sit down to write. BJ, an artist in Australia, commented that she is the Queen of Cleaning. Kathleen commented that Anne Lamott, (a Queen in my world of all things including bold honesty about mothering. See Operating Instructions for more on that) used to worry about the dishes, but now Anne can write with a cadaver in the sink.

Can We Leave the Dishes?

Here is the crux of the matter. Doing our work versus reflective distraction is one thing. Then there is doing our work versus repetitive housework that will be there later, so please use the time you have right now to keep your tush in place and write.

Doing our work, as mothers–well that is a loaded proposition.

We require time away from the responsibilities as householder, male and female, in which we do the work that pays the rent. But what about time to do the work that feeds our souls?  Sometimes these are one and the same. Sometimes we swing into a precarious balance and there is room for each. Most times, we have to make a choice.

doing the dishes means that there are bubbles

You choose

Which brings me back to Louise and to Pat, both urging us to make the choice to sit in the chair and do the work. Taking breaks is important for many reasons, mostly to reset your attention, to refuel, and breathe. Can you feel that you are giving your mental gears a bath in bubbles? Your brain enters a “flow state” around water.  Do the dishes, perhaps with the presence which Buddhist meditation teacher, Thich Nhat Han suggests, with breath, with thanks for the water, the food, the soap, the sink, for the people who grew the food and brought it to the market, for the people who prepared it, for the people who were nourished by it, and yes, even for the person who is now elbow deep in suds.

Could dishes be an act of prayer?

Which brings me, as it seems everything brings me, back to the question of my book and the act of finding the holy in the ordinary acts of motherhood which allowed me to see the making to which I was magnetized–knitting, embroidery, nubile writing which led to more writing, mixed media work, gardening–to see how all of that is connected to and necessary to the me that is also a mother.

Creative practice does not mean you have to leave your life.

Creative practice is infinitely informed by daily life.

Louise would not know the intricacies of cracked cups had she not lingered over the chipped handle of a tea cup, standing in her jammies, still, and saggy wool socks on the crusty linoleum floor of her kitchen, a tube of Gorilla Glue in her grasp, while glancing up to see the clock report she had 2 hours until school pick-up time at the bus.

How grateful I am that Louise tossed the cup and stuck her bum back in the chair to write!

Without her, where would I be?

This is still all true for me, even with the distance of a little bit of time, both kids out of the house and in college or life, respectively.  I can see that the time I have now is implanted with a deep sensory experience of everything that came before me, pregnant in the collages I made or the stories I wrote or the sweaters I knit or the cakes I baked. In real life lived and expressed. All those things I left the dishes to do are now tracks that I can follow in to the heart of my book. My early years of mothering were not a breeze. Many things happened before I could leave the dishes. (Thus, the book)

We eat up our life, we eat the colors and dine on days thinking they are infinite. These days which feel endless are most certainly not. Daily Creative Practice is the grace we hum before we eat up the day.

I would love so much to hear about you, your days as you balance checkbooks and time, the broken teacups and poems, the things that nourish and the ways we are nourishment itself.

Keep loving your people. I will do the same.


PS Here is the movie, made collectively by the women of Out of the Mouths of Babes. Enjoy!

The Permission Slip from Suzi Banks Baum on Vimeo.


Have a question about Workshops or Daily Creative Practice? You’re in the right place.