The Mundane Beauty of the Laundry LinePC: Angie Runyan

Life is filled with ups and downs, peaks and valleys. If we are lucky enough we experience more peaks than valleys. Adventures, travel, celebrations of accomplishments and transitions are some of the highlights we all look forward to. But most of life happens in between those events.

Three of my peak experiences were giving birth to my children. But with each of those tremendous birthing experiences came more of what life is really made up of, the tasks and chores of everyday life.

Meals to be prepared, dishes to be done, meals to be prepared, dishes to be done, meals to be prepared and more dishes to be done… Our peak experiences are strung together by daily routines, days filled with work that has to be done over and over again.

We have enlisted the help of machines and devices to help us accomplish all that we have to do and to reduce the drudgery. I use machines to do what needs to be done. But I have not always gone there willingly. I wish I had the option to walk for more of my errands. For years I only owned a bike for transportation. I still prefer a phone call to an email or a text and I consider the little spring thing in a wooden clothes pin to be useful advanced technology.

Laundry is one of those ongoing tasks that demand daily attention. I rarely use the dryer. I hang my clothes to dry. I love to hang my clothes outside to dry. I like the heavy feel of a clothes basket full of wet clothes balanced on my hip as I lug it out across the yard to the line. I like the bend and stretch of grabbing clothes from the basket and reaching to put them on the line. The movement feels good.

I like the feel of the sun on my back while I work and the smell of clean laundry mixed with the smell of the grass, especially if it’s newly mowed. I like doing chores outside.

When my children were young there was nothing quite as satisfying as a row of clean bright white diapers hanging on the line. Those cloth rectangles hung orderly on the line represented at least one task completed in the fight to keep the chaos at bay. Those diapers were flags waving surrender, (or maybe victory) delivering a brief moment of peace and order. The sheer joy of a giggling toddler running face first through sun warmed sheets, eased the initial irritation about the smudges left by dirty hands.

Hanging laundry outside connects the laundress with nature and with neighbors. Doing laundry has been, for most of human history, a communal activity not the isolating chore it has become. Going to the river to do wash was something women did together, an opportunity to share work and socialize. My great grandmother hung clothes to dry on the prairies of Nebraska. Homesteading there, a full line of laundry could signal the presence of another family and peace of mind in the midst of desolation.  More recently, the laundromat offers an opportunity to meet neighbors.

When I first moved to the Chicago suburbs, I don’t think my neighbor hung her clothes outside on a line to dry. Apparently, she liked the idea. I like to think it was my influence that got her out there. When we were both outside hanging laundry we would usually take the time to chat a bit over the fence. We had an unspoken rule though, we always finished hanging the clothes before our backyard banter. A kind of friendly competition developed as well. Early on a bright sunny morning, perfect for getting some laundry done, I might push hard to get a load of clothes washed and out to the line. Even though in my mind, I started this thing, frequently I’d see my neighbor’s clothes, in the next door backyard already dancing in the breeze. As I was hanging mine, she’d poke her head out her back door, “I beat you!”

Getting clothes back in can be a challenge as well. I’ve procrastinated bringing the laundry in until the distant rumble of thunder forces the issue. Those storms are most likely to come rolling in right about dinner making time. Trying to complete another task, I wait until I hear the fat splats of the first rain drops to run to save one of the days accomplishments. There is an art to removing the clothes quickly – pluck, pluck, grab, pluck, pluck, grab, until your arms are full of sweet smelling freshly dried clothes, drop them in the basket and repeat. I may have returned to a crying child (afraid of thunder) and a pot boiling over on the stove but the laundry was safe and dry.

After dinner in a moment of calm, listening to rain drops, a glance out the window reveals that my neighbor isn’t home, her clothes line sagging under the weight of drenched and drowning clothing. She may have beat me in the morning but I won in the afternoon.

There are highlights within in the drudgery. Even a bit of fun at times. When I first wrote this description of doing laundry online for a Toastmaster’s meeting, I told my neighbor about the topic and her appearance in my speech. She laughed and had two questions; Was I going to protect her identity? and Was I going to mention that sometimes the clothes hung outside for days?