The sink as a refuge of sanctuary & solidarity

Photo by Scott Umstattd on Unsplash

GUEST ESSAY | By Michael Tierney | For WestVirginiaVille.com | december2021

Cleaning up from the Thanksgiving meal is always a several-days affair at our home on Big Ugly Creek in Lincoln County in southern West Virginia. It includes boiling bones for turkey soup and then, after that, boiling bones again for broth to keep the dogs and cats happy on cold winter nights. There is a succession of dishes from each task.

When we were able to have our big community, pre-Thanksgiving bash at the Big Ugly Community Center one mile down the road, we might have as much as six coffee cans of gristle and skin and well-strained broth (no bones for the pups). The past two years, we have shifted to home delivery of the Community Center feast due to COVID-19. But even this year’s one set of dishes and leftovers brings forth the spirit of holidays past.

Dish washing is a chore I rarely mind as it evokes lots of memories. Not from my childhood where my Mom did not let us take on much in her kitchen. But I learned to cook at age 18 at the Catholic Worker on East First Street on the lower East Side of New York, making soup for (and cleaning up after) 400 people a day.

The sink was a sanctuary, from being overwhelmed by my first immersion into extreme poverty and trying to figure out what that meant for the rest of my life. I did a Monday shift for much of my twenties at the Boston Worker — Haley House (first with too-soon-gone-from-us John Leary and a later dear friend Jack Reynolds). And my family has hosted hundreds of volunteers on Big Ugly through the years.


The sink was a sanctuary, from being overwhelmed by my first immersion into extreme poverty and trying to figure out what that meant for the rest of my life.


When traveling, volunteering to do dishes is an easy way to contribute and give thanks for a couch, floor or bed. The offer is rarely rejected. Once, however, when I explained to a reticent host that my doctor ordered daily water therapy, he replied, in his thickest Scottish accent: “Maybe he meant a bath.”

When I made my own home with my wife, Marcelle, on Big Ugly Creek, 34 years ago this Fall, and in particular as I took dish-duty from family meals with our toddlers, I would call up my Mom in my childhood home in Park Forest, Illinois.

We would catch up while washing dishes ten hours’ drive apart. I’d trade the latest tidbits from the kids in exchange for updates on soap characters I had not seen in years, as well as word of her study group (the Vestil Virgins), and news of the extended clan.

For the past eight years, I’ve gone on week-long meditation retreats and when we have a day of mindful chores, I always volunteer for kitchen prep or cleanup. In addition to my own memories, I am at one with a long line of the faithful, monks of Ireland, or Tibet, or France, silently preparing or cleaning up from the day’s meals, mindfully caring for community, or in readiness to offer hospitality.

As the founder of the Catholic Worker, Dorothy Day, once wrote: “Heaven in a banquet. Life is a banquet too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.”


I am at one with a long line of the faithful, monks of Ireland, or Tibet, or France, silently preparing or cleaning up from the day’s meals, mindfully caring for community, or in readiness to offer hospitality.


All these witnesses accompany me . Chores, like troubles and joy, are always easier when shared. I pause to focus on the feel of the water, the gleam of the clean dish, and the loved ones that have and will again use each utensil.

I wash my pots with my fellow soup kitchen and community center volunteers, hosts from six decades, my children — son Luke splashing the kitchen while ‘helping’ at age 3, daughter Mary doing a damn good job of cleaning while letting off steam from homework, and, most especially my Mom.

Each dish is an act of communion.

I am not alone.

Michael Tierney has lived half (or with a little luck just 1/3 so far) of his life on Big Ugly Creek in Lincoln County WV, where he founded Step by Step in 1988, and the Big Ugly Community Center in 1995, and has hosted hundreds of volunteers. He also writes songs and promotes his passion for children’s literature through his alter ego, BookDad.



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