Today is laundry day, and I’m sitting in the laundromat writing this week’s post.
I’ve always liked doing laundry. Turning a bundle of dirty clothes, sheets and towels into neat, fresh-smelling folded piles gives me a warm feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment.
At present, we don’t have a usable washer at home, so part of our routine is to hit the laundromat every couple of weeks. We know it’s time when my partner runs out of socks and I run out of underwear. At that point we collect dish and bath towels, sheets and clothing, and our stash of quarters and head into town.
Sitting here, I watch a man open the mouth of a bulging cloth laundry bag and empty it into the machine. I see scrunched up socks, some more hole than sock; inside-out pant legs, whites, colors, sleeves and bandanas all tangled and mixed up together. He feeds in quarters, adds soap and sets the temperature to hot before heading back out, either to sit in his truck in the parking lot or otherwise kill time until the load is done.
I get a lot of pleasure out of the laundromat. Watching people deal with their laundry is every bit as entertaining as looking at someone’s bookshelves. Dirty laundry is a great social leveler. We all have it, and if we don’t deal with ours directly, someone else does. Our dirty laundry records the story of our lives. Our scent is imprinted on it. The presence of our pets decorates it. It remembers the day we spilled our coffee in the car, the morning the hot grease spattered and the nosebleed we had in bed. It gives away our cigarette habit and the acrid, sweaty smell of our secret copious alcohol consumption.
Two middle-aged women come in with stuffed pillowcases, a couple of plastic laundry baskets, a heavy green garbage bag and a couple of drawstring laundry bags, and commandeer a whole row of machines. They work well together, efficient and brisk. Obviously, they’ve done this before. They sort lights from darks, taking care to untangle and unscrunch as they load the machines. They check pockets. One of them goes from machine to machine with soap and the other with quarters. They choose hot water for the whites and warm for the colors. I wonder if they are friends, family members or from an organization like a shelter or a boarding house. Perhaps they’re church ladies dealing with donated clothes for charity. The washing machines take 39 minutes, and then the women load up a bank of dryers. As the dryers finish, they work together to fold bedding, mate socks, and put shirts on hangers. I see no children’s clothing, only adult size. One of them says to the other they’ve spent over a hundred dollars, and I wonder how often they do this. It takes them three trips to load up a battered van with all the clean clothes, and off they go.
Dirty laundry is a cultural artifact. Back in rural Colorado, Wranglers, snap button shirts and lots of bicycling, hiking and yoga gear slosh in the machines. Here in central rural Maine everyone wears Carhartts, long underwear and thick socks. This is a blue collar community, where farmers, heavy equipment operators, sawyers and mill workers wear the same lined heavy canvas and flannel working clothes all winter.
A worn-out looking young women with a little girl comes in. Mom loads up the washer while the little girl helps by handing her things. I see no men’s clothes in this load. They sit down at a round table, the little girl with a grubby board book she found in a basket of children’s toys in the waiting area. Mom, after checking her cell phone briefly, sits idly, now and then glancing at a TV screen on the wall where a movie I’ve never seen is playing with the sound muted.
When I came to Maine, my partner had a routine. Everything went in the same machine. Socks were permanently turned inside out, because he can’t tolerate the feel of the seams against his toes. It all got OxiClean, soap and hot water. He likes things machine dried so they’re soft.
I quailed. Half of my clothes were cold water wash. I always separated colors. I much preferred to line dry.
Negotiating The Right Way To Do Laundry is one of the many hidden landmines in every living-together relationship that no one ever talks about.
Being old and wise about choosing our battles, we adjusted to one another. I stopped trying to turn his socks right-side-out. I learned to keep my cold water wash separate. I decided life was possible if I didn’t separate whites from colors and he decided clothes were still wearable if washed in warm water instead of hot. I line dry my things and machine dry his. I don’t waste time folding his clothes, because he prefers to keep them stacked neatly in a laundry basket that lives on the floor next to his side of the bed. I fold and roll my clothes, just as I always have, for my sock drawer, my underwear drawer, my tee shirt drawer and the closet shelf where my jeans live. We happily share the expense and the work.
A woman my age with a thick Maine accent and hair an improbable rich brown with no grey comes in with a load. She’s very short, and can’t reach the top of the big commercial washer to put in detergent. She goes to the counter and gets a step stool from the attendant. Her load is comparatively small and consists of a couple of violently flowered towels, jeans, shirts, socks and underwear, all looking as though they belong to her.
I love to sit and watch the contents of the washer go around through the porthole window. The gush of water, the frothy bubbles of soap and the rotating clothes give me a feeling of all’s-right-with-the-world comfort. In a crazy world, stained by so much hate, bloodshed and tragedy, here’s something within my power. I can do the laundry.
Watching the clothes whirl is like watching the inside of my head. Amongst a jumble of ideas, thoughts, feelings and memories, bits and pieces show themselves or claim my attention for seconds or minutes or hours or days, only to disappear as other colors and patterns come to the forefront of my mind. Now I catch a glimpse of my favorite pair of underwear, purple with turquoise spots. That’s like the brilliant scene, passionate and gripping, I want to write today as I work on my second book. Then a heavy brown sock shows itself, one of the pair I wore on the day I did Tai Chi in the church basement, sock-footed on the cold floor, reminding me that after this I’ll swim, and tomorrow is another Tai Chi day. White socks tumble by too quickly to tell if they’re mine (right-side-out) or my partner’s (inside-out). We need to run to the store. My partner did this chore last time. It’s my turn, but I don’t want to do it today. Tomorrow after Tai Chi? What’s on the grocery list? The sleeve of a plaid flannel shirt plasters itself momentarily against the window and is pushed away by the leg of a pair of heavy canvas Carhartts. Why are men’s Carhartt canvas pants size 32 x 30 a perfect fit, but the same size in denim is too big? The red cloth napkins we’ve been using flutter past.
The expression ‘airing your dirty laundry’ makes me smile. Oh, the shame of admitting feelings, anxieties, mistakes and less-than-perfection! Those unsightly yellow sweat stains under the arms of our shirts must be hidden from the eyes of the world at all costs, along with our humble granny panties, our favorite tattered and torn ancient tee shirt and the old towel the cat lies on. Whatever happens, we mustn’t confess the tangled smelly jumble we occasionally make out of our lives, or uncover our wounds and scars. We must never reveal neglected, malodorous piles of stained laundry in which our hope, innocence or self-esteem are buried.
Some people think admitting to dirty laundry is simply not nice. It lacks class. It’s impolite, and breaks the code of maintaining appearances at all costs. The Emperor is certainly wearing clothes, and they’re never dirty.
I challenge that. Cleansing is a sacred act of courage and wisdom. If we can’t clean out our infected wounds and cleanse our spirits, our homes and yes, our laundry, our lives won’t work well. Beating, shaking, washing and airing our laundry in the sun and fresh air is an act of healing and renewal. Allowing the world to see our dirty laundry is the beginning of cleansing and repairing, the beginning of uncreasing, unscrunching and untangling the things that disempower us. Doing laundry is a spiritual practice, a reminder that we are just like everyone else, an offering to others of our authenticity and humanity.
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