Everything but the kitchen sink

In Ireland at this time of year, we ask each other: ‘how did you get ‘over’ the Christmas?’ To which the standard refrain is: ‘not too bad, ’twas quiet…sure you know yourself’.

Which typically is code for ‘we ate too much, drank too much, and endured our relatives.’ Excessive consumption of food and alcohol are strategies used for coping with intimate and intense emotional settings the world over.

But I like Christmas a lot, it’s a time when we switch off our office lights and switch on our Christmas lights. This year was our first UK Christmas as a family. And we didn’t get over it, or on with it, we got into it, and made it an adventure.

I have five boys ranging from 20 to twins of 2.5 years old. So with a 4 year old and our two toddlers in tow we explored Gloucestershire. We met Santa, or ‘Father Christmas’ as he’s known around these parts in three separate places. There was the one at the Exmouth Arms on the Bath Road, compliments of the Lions Club, the one who visited the local play group, and the wonderful Jolly old Elf at the end of the Wychcombe Railway line who we travelled to see by Steam Train.

All of three were community made, not a department store in sight; they were wonderful, personable souls that made Christmas a little bit extra special this year not just for Isaac, Saul and Eli, our three younger sons but also for Colleen (my wife) and I.

Santa at the Exmouth Arms asked Isaac our 4 year old, where he is from. Isaac’s response took our breath away: ‘I belong to Ireland, but I live in England’.

It made Colleen and I gulp…. From the mouths of babes…

That encounter, in the early part of the Christmas festivities, alongside another moment I had with Isaac -in the closing days of Christmas before returning to work-bookended the festive season for me.

The other bookend moment I am referring to happened last weekend. Just after breakfast Isaac started getting up to mischief at the kitchen table and knocked over his milk. Without thinking about it too much, I called him to the kitchen sink and filled it up with sudsy water, then told him to climb up on a chair and we started washing the breakfast dishes.

Big deal, right? Actually what we did wasn’t a big deal. Its smallness was what made it significant. But for me what we didn’t do is worthy of most attention.

We didn’t, or at least I didn’t do what I did throughout Christmas after a meal or drink, I didn’t put the dishes in the dishwasher.

It suddenly struck me we had thrown everything into making this Christmas a special one, everything that is, but the kitchen sink.

There is something profoundly calming about sudsy warm water and actual work that makes a legitimate contribution to family life. And our dishwasher with all its built in efficiencies, and implicit promises to free us up for more leisure time and associational life, actually -by sleight of hand- displaces a hugely important function of the kitchen sink.

The kitchen sink is often one of the first places a child learns that they can contribute to their family’s wellbeing. Or at least it used to be.

The relationship between the kitchen sink and the dishwasher provides a useful comparator between the technocratic world we all have re-entered this week and the world we’ve left behind.

The Christmas lights have been switched off until next year, and the office lights are back on.

The secret for me in the year ahead is in Isaac’s Christmas wisdom:

If he was older and so inclined he might say: Papa there is a difference between belonging to and living in a place. He might also caution that the way to make a place a home is through the kitchen sink not the dishwasher.

But I think he’d also say there are many other ways to grow belonging and commend us for not taking him and his brothers to a Department Store Father Christmas; instead going local and staying at human scale.

In a sense the kitchen sink is emblematic of all things local, sustainable, civic and interdependent, while the dishwasher is axiomatic of all things cosmopolitan, impersonal, efficient yet imperceptibly harmful to our human relations and shared environment.

So I’m left with the question: what is displaced each time we choose efficiency over relationality? I suspect grappling with that question in the company of family, friends and neighbours could be the makings of happier more sustainable New Year. So with that in mind, Happy New Year!

Cormac Russell

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  • Maureen

    Aah, so that’s why I don’t have a dish washer! (and my main criteria in looking for a house was that the kitchen sink looks out over the garden),

    I loved Isaac’s comment, so simply and beautifully put. Thank you for sharing it.

    January 9, 2015 at 5:54 pm
  • Lawrence Hughes

    Well Isaac, thank you! How I express where I am from and where I now live has been a challenge for me for the last few years.

    We use the word “home” now-a-days to mean the house where we live, which in the past would have been home. So few of us now live where we were born and grew up. We probably all would find it difficult to refer to the building that we live in just as our house, we naturally call it home. But for me, at least, the word was never quite right. Does “I’m going home”, imply the same as “I’m going to my house”? I don’t think that it always does. There is so much more emotion implied by home.

    Whenever I return to Bristol I feel “at home”. I am however very careful not to say that too openly for fear of offending my Glouster family! So now I have a solution to the issue between language and heart – I belong to Bristol, but I live in Gloucester. I learnt this from a very wise young man.

    January 11, 2015 at 10:40 am

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