We break washing machines around here. Maybe it’s the excessive laundry generated by a large household or maybe a pro-dirt poltergeist. And when the machine breaks it stays broken while we wait for a pulley, bearing, or entire motor to repair the device that only reluctantly cleans our clothes. Right now we’re in yet another pioneer wash mode. And as I’ve admitted, I’m not the best pioneer. Washing clothes by hand is time consuming. The task gives me added respect for people around the world who still wash clothes in pails, washtubs, and streams. My fellow washerwomen (yes, mostly women) must be powerful, because I’m a total failure in the wringing department. My arm muscles tremble with effort after trying to twist only a few pairs of jeans. And worse, it takes two days for these poorly wrung jeans to dry outside. These laundry musings lead me to offer this reprint about what insights can be gained from the humble art of laundering.
I don’t meditate at an ashram or study ancient tracts.
I do laundry.
I’ve found a certain peace in this mundane task. When my family cries out, “Where are you?” I answer from the laundry room, “I’m looking for the meaning of life.” (If I’m cooking, I answer, “Saving the world.”) I used to say this sarcastically.
Sure, sometimes I resent the messy parts of motherhood. I was raised to believe I could be anything I wanted to be. Right now I want to be right where I am, but when I’m gripping a pair of mud-encrusted socks my United Nations career aspirations do provide a stark contrast.
Wisdom gathers slowly. Very gradually I’ve learned that meaning can be encountered in everyday tasks. Even laundering. Gratitude comes to mind first. Conveniences do the real work. Right now my washing machine is purposefully churning away dirt and worse with my homemade laundry soap. Being clean is a luxury I take for granted. I don’t have to haul and boil water, then scrub clothes with caustic lye soap. Generations before me labored this way. What’s saved is the most precious resource, time. It’s up to me to honor that resource by the way I spend my time elsewhere.
I’ve found that doing for others without expecting notice, let alone acclaim, also deepens my perspective. The simple physical act of sorting and folding causes my thoughts to drift effortlessly to my family. As our children grow, laundry tasks change. Booties give way to socks. Diapers to undies. We tuck matching outfits together for one child, clean away evidence of bedwetting for another, soak out menstrual blood for the newest of women. Their hand-me-downs remind us cousins and friends. The fibers themselves hold the bodies we love.
We may loathe inside out shirts and socks wadded into tight fists, but turning them right side out again is a simple gesture of kindness. The cycle of reciprocity may be largely invisible when children are small but my children are old enough to be of real service around our home and farm. Yes, I unfold their shirts but they bring in the eggs, stack firewood, wash the floors, and shovel manure. It’s a good trade off.
Sometimes symbolism pops up as a teacher. My underwear works its way into a sleeve of my mate’s shirt, asking me how much closeness we have shared recently. A disregarded sock toy hides behind the laundry basket till missed and appreciated again. My oldest son, a man now, keeps T-shirts that are too small. They mark the path behind him as he forges ahead in his quiet, earnest manner. Sometimes the lint tray is resplendent with fuschia or blue fluff when a new towel graces the drier. We’ve made clay from this dryer lint which, when cured, looks like artfully molded felt. I guess meaning is whereever we see it.
Oddly, I was pleased when our drier kept giving out. The repair guy came to our house so often that the company gave up and exchanged the machine for a new one. By then I was used to hanging laundry outside. It didn’t take much extra time. I loved to see the clothes swaying in the wind, them fold them against my belly as my grandmother used to do. There is a cycle apparent in laundry just as there is in nature. As clothes wear out in that circle of wear-wash-fold, wear-wash-fold, they remind me of eternity. I try to repurpose old pillowcases and jeans to give them a better shot at that eternity. And I still hang clothes most of the year.
The last gift of insight offered by laundry? Humor, a hint that one is on the right path, is often present when I pay attention to ordinary life. I ‘lost’ something the other day. It wasn’t something I’d go around asking about. I’d been wearing rayon pants at the time. I laundered them without a thought to my missing item. I noticed nothing different when I pulled them on at the start of another busy day. But then in a crowded elevator I saw something white creeping from the inside of my pant leg and, in a moment of ill advised curiosity, pulled it out. It was my missing pantyliner, adhesive backing now mottled with lint. Apparently it had survived the rigors of laundering and nestled in my pant’s leg the whole day waiting for the right moment to give me the gift of laughter and humility. (I don’t think anyone on the elevator noticed what I was doing, but my snickering was hard to miss.)
Every task has truth to teach, something I hope my children learn from weekly chores. The other day while my youngest child was washing the kitchen floor he said, “I can see pictures in the tiles that aren’t there from farther away. It makes a difference how you look at things doesn’t it?”
Yes, yes it does.Reprinted from The Mother