The Sunday Edition·Personal Essay

From whitewater to dishwater: a summer job leads to a profound education

University student Isaac Finkelstein was excited about landing a summer job as a whitewater rafting guide. But he soon discovered a more profound education was in store when he found himself working as a dishwasher. His essay is called “A Flickering Path.”
"There's something meditative about dishwashing," says Isaac Finkelstein. "You take something dirty and give it time and effort and make it clean." (Jaison Empson/CBC)
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I stood on the hard plastic mat. My old running shoes were soaked and my feet were wet, tired and sore. My right ankle was puffy.

Isaac Finkelstein (Submitted by Isaac Finkelstein)

It looked like the athlete's foot was back. I had just finished the last of my antibiotics and apparently the medicine hadn't done the trick.

My hands were squeezed tight in yellow rubber gloves that were too small. I plunged them deep in hot frothy water. A cut in the glove allowed a trickle of water to come into contact with my prune-wrinkled and cracked fingers. It hurt. I pulled my hand out and let the gloves drain.

"Ughhhh!"

Another day of dishwashing in the kitchen of the Wild Water Adventures restaurant. 

I had been hired as a raft guide and was thrilled when I got the job. I had eagerly anticipated an exciting summer shooting some of the biggest whitewater in Canada. I would be in the centre of the action, I thought, shouting commands as we blasted through walls of water. I thought I'd been hired to execute precision hero-moves, cranking the boat at the last second to narrowly escape danger. And here I was, replacing a broken dishwashing machine. Not the whitewater I was expecting.

"Everyone needs an off-river job," they said.

I was two hours into a four-hour shift. The hot water was slimy with chicken grease. My brow was damp with sweat, my face flushed.

Earlier that day, I had taken two families out rafting, seven people. They had all been first-timers, excited and terrified. They shrieked with both delight and fear as we hurtled towards waves that foamed with fury. I had to constantly reassure them that they were in good hands and I would keep them safe. When it was over, the dad pressed a tip into my hand and told me that I had given his family one of the best experiences they had had all summer. 

I looked down at the foamy sink. No fury here. No triumph either. Just a bunch of dishes.

Chicken and coleslaw floated in the sink. My hands were filthy.

A friend and coworker came over to put away some of my clean dishes. "Big night out there, huh?" he asked.

"Yeah man, the pile keeps growing. I feel like I haven't done anything." I forced a smile.

"Just keep picking away at it. You're doing a great job." He walked away to finish another task.

That night the compliment from my friend helped. I needed some encouragement. It's easy to wax poetic about rafting. The overwhelming force of mother nature is humbling. Raft guides learn to respect nature and work with it rather than against it. We learn the value of eddies that give us time to collect ourselves and act as a refuge from the excitement of the river. As the water ebbs and flows, we react and adapt, each day improving our skills and our relationship with the river.

As I scrubbed another dish, I realized that the dishes were teaching me too. There is something meditative about dishwashing. You take something dirty, give it time and effort and make it clean — just so it can get dirty again. That has its own value. Learning patience is one of them.

You take something dirty, give it time and effort and make it clean — just so it can get dirty again- Isaac Finkelstein

The pile grows. You make a dent in it. And then it grows again. I decided to allow myself to become absorbed in the repetitive and pure process. The hours went by. The pile remained. That was okay. I didn't want to get anything. I simply washed each dish to make it clean. Again and again.

At the rafting company, all glory goes to the raft guides. Dishwashers work silently and thanklessly. So many young people have gone through the same experience in different settings — as retail workers, restaurant servers, tree planters and landscapers. I felt connected to all the dishwashers of the world, past, present and future. Rarely does someone want to do it; but it has to get done.

I decided to stick out this dishwashing thing.

That summer night, after a day of rafting and dishwashing, I finished my shift and rode my bicycle back to my tent where I slept every night. I rode on a quiet dirt path with no lights. Thousands of fireflies twinkled like the night sky and lit my path home.

I enjoyed every turn of the pedals, thanked the fireflies for their service and thanked my fellow dishwashers for theirs.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full essay.

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