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Meditations on Laundry

Watercolor by my friend Mary Quagliata

Wind, flag, mind move— from Case 29, The Gateless Barrier

Crisscrossing the deck in our backyard, blouses, socks and nightgowns shimmy in the wind. I stand here pinning the laundry on the line, and my thoughts, like disobedient sheets, swell and billow. Sixteen clothespins or they’ll sail away. Three pins for Caitlin’s soccer shorts, two for her lacy bra. (Our soccer girl betwixt and between, leaving us for college!) Four pins for my mother’s dress. (Visiting from New York City for her birthday, she at eighty-seven with Marlene Dietrich legs). Two pins for my husband Patrick’s boxers. Peekaboo. I see you. Now I don’t. Now I do. Caught in the ballooning and collapsing, there’s nothing to do but yield to the swirl of wet sheets. Hanging laundry gets me silly. For many years our laundry had spun in a tangled wad, hidden in the dark, churning in artificial heat. In trips to the drier, we hurried in and out of our dank cellar. Drying laundry fueled bad moods. Now, in the open space of our Berkeley garden, that sassy line of clothes, visible to all, flounces its colors. Blue, white, red, green, yellow. As the breeze winnows through, purifying the laundry, my occluded thoughts loosen and clear. Bending, stretching, breathing in the sweet scent, a face blind with sunlight, spirits brighten. Recently I’ve been editing a book by the Dalai Lama, that mischievous monk who can bring humor to the most unlikely places—opening up the perspective—even to the suffering of racism or war. So it wasn’t just hanging the laundry that restored playfulness to our family life. What a relief to be reminded, “It can be tremendously beneficial when dealing with difficulties to be lighthearted in one’s engagement with life so that one will not take oneself too seriously.” Easier said than done: whether taking instruction from HH the DL or from a dancing choir of mismatched socks.

A Daughter-Mother Tale

During my mother’s visit, she and I got stuck in a daughter-mother knot. It was one of those difficult moments that daughters and mothers have. I stalked down to the laundry room, grabbed the wadded mess of wet clothes from the washer, shook out shirts, pants, dresses, and with ferocity pinned them to the line. As each piece unfurled, unaccountably, hidden feelings and memories unfolded too—old hurts, bitterness, guilt. All were newly felt—then released into the wind. A sadness opened up, so raw, so clean, and it too was felt, wept through, released, until I started to laugh, and all that was left was love for my mother, growing old and soon to be flying away from me across the continent. I just can’t take my “self” too seriously with all those blouses and pants flapping in the wind. As the breeze picks up, there it is, a loose-limbed dance, not exactly a dance of skeletons, but of bodiless clothes, a chorus line of jeans kicking up a no-self cancan.

A Mother-Daughter Tale

When Caitlin was little, at family photo shoots I would leap up behind Patrick as he was taking pictures, wriggle, jump and jive, and make silly faces and sounds. Hey, let’s relax and have fun! Let loose of all those worries about whether to smile and which direction to look! Last week, Caitlin and I got in a tangle over her plans for her trip to the Reggae Rising festival. (This time, I was in the mother role.) I was tight in there with her, worried and insistent; she was tight in there with me, angry and resistant. Stuck to each other and our own insistence and resistance, we were miserable. To her surprise (and mine) I suddenly found myself following the instructions of the Dalai Lama and the dancing laundry. I leapt up and started to clown, to jump, to hoot and caricature our angry faces. Hey, let’s stop doing this. See how silly this fight is!

I’ve found myself increasingly entranced by these laundry-line images and the stories they’ve bought to mind. Recently, another angle came to me. It’s not just that the laundry is playful and free in the wind; it’s held to the line by clothespins. Indeed, the clothespins are the laundry’s salvation, holding it fast so it can flutter in the sun and wind and not be blown away or tromped on. When the Dalai Lama was asked, “How do you avoid being blown around by the wind?” he said that one should stand firm according to one’s own principles, and truly know one’s mind and one’s values. I see the clothespins as the discipline, keeping us still enough to get to know our minds and to hold to our principles. Take my mother-daughter and daughter-mother tales. The essential principle I want to hold to, and the one I’ve found the most challenging, is nonviolence. That means nonviolence all the way around: with my daughter and mother as well as with the rest of us silly, suffering, dancing clowns with our petty feuds and our wars. In the first tale, the clothespins did their job; as I put up the laundry, I kept steady until all the blames and resentments had blown away and something joyful and loving remained. In the second, the clothespins held me still enough to notice that I was taking myself very seriously in this mother-daughter fight, secure enough to reassess and release into the breeze.

So throughout the summer and now as fall begins, we and our neighborhood family have been enjoying the colorful laundry spanning our deck. One evening, having dinner on the deck amidst the laundry, our friend Amy hinted, “If there was a little more atmosfera, I’d think I was in Italy.” So I leapt up from my soup and interlaced Patrick’s boxers with some black lingerie. The next morning, these flapped in the breeze by the table where my mother was having a rare reunion with her college friend Jane. Delighted by the fluttering decor, Jane mused, “This takes me back to Venice. . . .” And it brought my mother back to a summer in the Michigan woods where she and my dad washed my diapers in a lake, boiled them on the stove, and hung them out to dry on a line between two trees. Laundry billowing, swirling, swaying—I could see it then—connecting our family with the generations of families around the world whose shirts, sheets and diapers span alleyways and rooftops, loop through windows, beneath balconies, over canals, between trees, across moors and mountain passes. Laundry circling the Earth like ancient prayer flags. Prayer flags in blue, white, red, green, yellow. When the wind —expressing the quality and nature of the mind—blows, the sacred flags flutter. For centuries, Tibetan Buddhists have planted or strung these flags imprinted with sacred mantras, prayers for the wellbeing of others, for the wind to catch and carry across the countryside. The Tibetan word for prayer flag is Dar Cho: Dar meaning “to increase life—fortune, health and wealth”—and Cho meaning “all sentient beings.” The wind horse, Lung-ta, the most prevalent symbol imprinted on the flags, represents the uplifting of life-force energies that make life go well. If the flags are strung with benevolent intention—may all beings everywhere receive happiness and peace—the virtue generated increases the power of the prayers. Billowing laundry sends such blessings too, and the wind, like the mind, carries them across the world. I think of the mothers (it is mostly mothers) around the world who have washed their families’ clothes and sheets. It’s not as if we hang out our dirty laundry; this laundry has been baptized, scrubbed, loved, preserved by all those mothers sustaining their families, their villages and their land. How they’ve scoured the detritus of cooking and celebrations, the rich stains of living and dying—sauces, wine, semen, blood and shit. I picture the women carrying their baskets along creek beds, over hillocks, on rooftops and down into courtyards, shaking out their sheets and diapers, bedclothes, bandages and death rags and hanging them to be bleached by the sun and dried by the breeze. And I imagine the breeze, carrying some spirit residue from the lives of those who wore the clothes, from the intentions of the mothers who washed them, sending renewed humor and hope trembling invisibly through the lives of strangers.

Thanks to Jenny for the inspiration to hang laundry in the wind and Loie for passing on the Koan.

Originally published in Inquiring Mind, Volume 24, No. 1 (Fall 2007).

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