The Solace of Laundry

 

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I pass by a warmly lit coffee house and there they are: patrons hunched over mugs and paper cups, small circles developing as more seek company and relief. They’re at outdoor tables, staying acceptably dry under the building’s awnings. People stand, as well, chatting and sipping. They’re wearing light jackets or sweaters, even shirts. It’s Oregon, after all. It’s a heartening tableau, but I am not so much a coffee drinker these days, and headed home for tea.

The brisk rain descends, visibly angled lines of water crashing onto cars and sidewalks and against my windows. It gathers in rivulets and mini-ponds. The light is bleak, limpid, a waning grey beneath a sky overcome by dense clouds. It’s winter, at last, and though some of the country this far north experience the dangers and wonders of snow, Oregon is made of near-ceaseless rain. Woe to the visitor who comes in the flowering of roses and dry summered days and breeze-sweetened nights, who fell in love with verdant hills and mountains, rivers gleaming. It seems a ruse enticed them. But it is the rain that makes our landscape bountiful, even enchanted. And rain that drives folks to cafes, restaurants and bars more than usual.

I appreciate a homey scenario, especially when it involves good music broadcast and a book. Or a friend with whom to while away an hour. But come winter you’ll find me home more often after errands and a decent daily walk. The cold corners me even in this temperate place. I sometimes harbor wistful yearnings of the five or six months of dry hiking trails–most notably when I am on a treadmill in the cheerless recesses of my local gym. I plan more outings to museums, galleries, libraries; attend more concerts; seek more coffee and tea times with friends; watch more movies and so on.

Yet home calls me more than anything as myriad rains envelop city and countryside. I notice with surprise what needs to be fixed, organized, cleaned. It is the ordinariness that interests me, the repetitive nature of such everyday tasks that promise both industry and repose. Since the arts dominate my internal and external experience, I am either working on something or musing about it. There needs to be a pause, a break from demanding imagination. Since I prefer being physically active while seeking meditation, you might wonder how that can be accomplished.

Laundry.

Yes, the drudgery for us all, the task we deem necessary if dull, perhaps even onerous to some. I gather up piles based on color and fabric needs, make small mounds on the floor and pour liquid detergent into the rumbling tub of the washer. As it fills, I play music as always. Today it has been Yo Yo Ma, the renowned cellist playing Ennio Morricone’s great film compositions–a classical and popular mixture, just right. I drink vanilla chamomile tea as I prepare. The heat is up; my fleece vest is donned. The rain has ceased for a short period and I wonder if I should walk. But the laundry will be done, piece by piece, around and between other tasks.

What is it about washing clothing that pleases me? We have too many; it takes more time than reasonable. I place items into the frothy water that have been carried by us through days and nights, protecting and adorning and now soiled, rumpled and unappealing. I close the lid and the familiar swishswish becomes part of the accompaniment of my morning. I read articles on a writer and a human rights activist, then start kitchen clean up. The washer’s steady laboring underscores the lush strings of Morricone as I move about.

I find myself thinking of this post. How winter activities used to be dictated by snow and all that brings: ice skating at the neighborhood park, crazy fun tobogganing at City Forest, icicles like crystal daggers embellishing windows, cozy igloos carved from snowbanks created by snowplows. It was wonderful to be young in mid-Michigan. But now it is better to be here, molded and informed by December rains.

The laundry requires drying but not outside on clothes lines, flapping in damp wind. I must load it into the dryer and get it spinning. I cast about for another chore, dusting surfaces so they shine as the music swells. Time passes as I busy myself, let my mind wander. And then it  begins to still as the dryer’s thump and tumble pull from me random or nagging thoughts. This emptying leaves me quiet inside, at ease, softened by presence of rain and dryer. The cello now like a dream in the background. As I remove dry clothes and begin to fold a peace in the living room that began as superficial has now seeped into my being and deepened. It is meditation in its most ordinary form, attending to this moment, this work.

I note small blessings from my place on the sofa: the rain coming and going, its rhythm a score for winter season; the baseboard heaters crackling, rendering chill air warm; my hands doing work without thinking, every joint pliable; the clothing my husband and I use and enjoy now freshened. The laundry’s heat seeps into my lap and fingers. I hold a sage green towel close a moment so warmth transfers to face and arms and chest, then put it around my shoulders. Close my eyes. I am content. The neat, clean stacks are carried to their respective storage places.

Doing laundry can make my day better. This is not easy to admit, coming from a woman whose natural response to most domestic duties tends to be reluctance–if not downright irritation. But it is work that is regular, concrete, a project that yields tangible, timely results. It depends on me to get it properly accomplished; no one else has authority. It is a service to my spouse as well as myself, providing revived attire for the coming days. Sometimes it feels like an act of love when he has an emergency need, say, business travel within six hours. Its methodical nature is soothing.

And perhaps there is something else, a memory surfacing now.

My mother is calling me to slide dirty clothing down the laundry shoot and meet her in the basement. Her hands swiftly sort and toss into the machine as I watch, then follow suit. Her softly inflected voice inquires about my day, offers her thoughts on everything from the dinner plan to a friend she met at the store to my poems or a concert coming up that several of us kids will play in. She examines a loose hemline. She rubs a stain with a bar of Fels Naptha until it fades. When the clothes are washed and dried, I put them in a wicker basket and lug it upstairs. I can hear mom at the sewing machine repairing the hem. Outside the snow momentarily blinds me; sunlight reflects off its glittery blanket of white. The house is still, warm, filled with books, music, leftover smells of breakfast as wind shakes the treetops. The bundle of my laundry I have completed is soft and warm against my thinness as I carry it upstairs to my shared bedroom. On the way, I pass mom and she smiles at me.

Sometime this winter when the day is bone-rattling cold or you feel dim as the greyness that greets you at your door, consider the worth of  laundry. Get a load ready and toss it on the machine, make a cup of coffee or tea to accompany the solitude and your work. Have a house full of family? Seek their assistance. Talk over your plans, your lives. Consider what you have to be grateful about: enough clothing, shelter and heat. The health and independence to do your own laundry and perhaps others’. Perhaps a chance to listen to music or healing quiet as the dryer turns and delivers renewed goods, that nubby, favorite sweater, those new navy slacks, that sock that is delivered to you an orphan. With all the terrors of the world and the frailties of our own humanness to ponder and worry over, clean laundry is a boon, a tiny pleasure. A reminder of possible order and shared commonness. An offering of solace when other parts of living may seem bereft of much good sense.

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