Clean your dishes so your kids don't have to

Tuesday, November 5, 2019 - 6:06pm

.

Danyel Tharakan

The ringing of my alarm wakes me up. The warmth of my sheets and the ache in my limbs and back keep me bound to the bed, lethargic on a day when honking cars and whirring buses outside my window call for me to get up. I remain suspended in place while businessmen stride along the sidewalk outside my window. Their odd strides unsettle me. Yet, what is most troubling is what lies in the sun’s illuminating gaze, what lies on my mind every waking hour, what lies next to me and is often my first sight of the day. Every morning, as I lean on my elbow and reach into the distance to silence my alarm, my eyes glance at my desk, and I grimace at the horror before me. No matter how hard I try, I cannot forget what is here with me.

On my desk sit two porcelain plates, two white bowls, one plastic bowl and a metal spoon, fork and knife, all piled up in a makeshift tower. The top plate is smothered with remnants of my mother’s moong dal, caking the white surface with a hardened crust. The plate seems to hold a barren desert, the blue and green stripes and flowers in the center of the plate obscured. Bits of scattered roti line the edges of the plastic bowl, and though the spoon seems clean enough to be used again, the stains of overuse remain.

When I eventually roll out of bed and turn to my to-do list to write the many tasks to complete, doing my dishes doesn’t end up there. I can read 50 pages in an hour right before a book discussion, review concepts right before an exam and write a six-page essay all in one night, but I somehow never find a moment to wash my plates and utensils. I put my mom’s home cooked meals in the microwave on a dirty plate. Food waste continues to collect on the containers. “I’ll get to it when I have to,” I tell myself. “It’s not an issue right now.” Despite being aware of the grotesque aesthetic and potential for mold or sanitation concerns, I continue on with my day completely unworried, only doing a brief water rinse when truly necessary.

My stagnant negligence might sound familiar. The way in which I justify my disregard for my dirty dishes parallels a common narrative we hear in response to concerns about climate change. The politicians, businessmen and other public figures who are most able to take action to reduce the threat of climate change continually backpedal, essentially justifying inaction rather than reform. At its core, the problem of climate change is a problem of procrastination at a high-level — industrialists, policymakers and executives who knew that their work was a ticking time bomb passed it on to future generations. This conscious complacency comes from greed and prioritizing personal desire over collective health and security. Procrastination easily snowballs, yet more reprehensible is being aware of the implications of procrastination and doing nothing in the name of short-term gain.

In many ways, my plate crisis is one I inherited from my family, though I do not blame my parents or any one person in particular for handing it off to me. We often leave things to be done until the last possible minute — filling out paperwork the night it is due, cleaning the house minutes before guests arrive and, of course, washing the dishes only when we need clean plates or silverware. We often stack individual plates in the sink after a quick rinse rather than scrubbing them down and putting them away. Soon enough, a tower like the one on my desk forms in our kitchen. When there’s no other option, my parents eventually crack their knuckles and get to washing.

It’s a common tradition in Indian culture to hand down dishware to children after serious developments in their life, such as moving away from home or marriage, and these dishes oftentimes have a parent or grandparent’s name inscribed on them. The set that I received when I came to Michigan follows along in this custom. 

But I ask myself, “Do I want to pass down plates and silverware that have been so tainted, so desecrated that it feels unnerving to think of someone else eating from them? Am I just destined to follow the same path of prior generations — the path of attrition and decay until the dishes fall and the problem becomes real enough to be addressed?”

When the food scraps on my desk spilled over one afternoon before a class earlier this year, I knew I had to change my habits. After scrubbing the food off the plates under the stream of water with a sponge, I resolved to wash every dish, even the smallest utensil, immediately after use. When I had a late-night snack, I didn’t wait till the next morning to clean it and store it in a drawer. Though my realization was painful, it has done wonders for my room, clearing up space on my desk and letting me tackle my day with one less nagging concern on my mind.

The tragedy in comparing my dishwashing process to an extinction-level threat is the way in which the metaphor falls apart. I can always shift course to cultivate personal growth, but there is no such immediate solution that can completely halt the current process of the warming climate and its many effects. While I can face my demons, humankind cannot face its own. The war of attrition is in some ways inevitable for reform, and efforts to combat the crisis are currently trying to clear the first hurdle — getting those to whom the issue most pertains to acknowledge the issue. 

Until procrastinators and opportunists like me decide that it is in our best interest to solve an underlying issue rather than let it fester, nothing is going to get done. If we can’t even maintain our own personal plates in order, then we certainly cannot preserve our place on Earth.