Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Zen and the Art of the Load
by Beth Strout

Hello, you have reached the Stroutsí laundry pile. The laundry pile canít come to the phone right now because it is busy multiplying. However, if you leave a message at the tone, one of the pileís minions will return your call during the next spin cycle. Thanks.

Guerilla satirist though I may fancy myself, I have yet to actually record this message on our telephone answering machine. I worry that people who call will misinterpret my sarcasm as discontent with my life as a stay-home mom and I chicken out. I am, in fact, surprised to find myself, on the whole, quite content.

But, dang, thereís a lot of laundry. Itís hard to believe that just four people, two of whom are toddlers, can generate so much laundry day after day. When my husband Ted comes home from work and we have our "how was your day?" discussion, my list of our dayís accomplishments almost always begins with how many loads of laundry Iíve done.

"Iím worried about the washing machine," I tell him. "The spin cycle sounds like a helicopter landing. If that thing breaks, this whole operation is going to grind to a halt."

"Isnít that just a balance thing?" He looks tired. "I mean, doesnít that just mean that youíve got all the heavy stuff on one side of the washer and, like, underwear on the other?"

"Maybe," I say, "but, it seems to me like somethingís loose in there, like that spinning doohickey in the middle has come loose from its moorings. Do you think it has shock absorbers?"

I wasnít the sort of person to fret over major appliances before I became a mom. In fact, one of my new yearís resolutions from my former life was to "cultivate a gypsy soul," something on the order of the one Van Morrison wants to rock in those song lyrics. The whole gypsy soul business was about traveling light, being a free spirit. If I had to bust out of my life by dark of night and, say for example, jump over a fence, how much could I carry? I had a small dog at the time and actually tried to train him to ride in my backpack in preparation for just such an eventuality. Obviously, huge metal machines were out of the question. In those days I went to a Laundromat.

When Ted and I were in graduate school, I drove all the way across our small town to use the Laundromat that had just the right vibe. Although I have always considered myself a feminist, our division of domestic labor was pretty traditional. He did the dude stuff -- yard work, car maintenance -- and I did the laundry. We tried dividing the laundry equally for a while, but he has never shared my personal dedication to sorting. Things came back from his attempts at shared laundry vaguely pink. He was profoundly confused by the concept of "delicates."

"What are my underwear, then? ĎRuggedsí"?

So I took over.

Laundry wasnít a daily ritual then. It was more like a rite of purification, really quite Zen-like in its execution. I would wait until we were down to the last few pairs of underwear before carting an entire carload of washing over to the Laundromat. Then I would stuff all of the (carefully sorted) loads into separate washing machines, whip precise configurations of quarters into the slots, and have about seven machines running nearly simultaneously.

After accomplishing this feat of speed and agility, I would sit in one of the plastic chairs and achieve a state that, in retrospect, looks something like transcendental meditation. Sometimes I would read magazines or work on some notes for a paper, but increasingly, I found myself contemplating the phenomenon of communal washing. It was probably the womb-like whooshing of a whole room full of washers and dryers running at the same time that made the written word too stingy a pursuit.

I wondered about my fellow launderers. What did I have in common with these people? There were other students from the University, Spanish-speaking women who came in groups of two or more with their small children, single men with darkly soiled clothes, and young couples. I often encountered the same elderly couple; the woman would spend their entire time scolding the man for his various ineptitudes.

Our obvious common link was that none of us apparently owned functioning washers and dryers. We were transient, itinerant, or just plain poor. We were gypsies and monastics, silently communing in our rituals of sorting, washing, shaking, drying and folding.

Folding seemed especially meditative to me. Head slightly bowed over the large tables positioned at the end of each row of washing machines, I lined up corners and made squares out of otherwise amorphous shapes. I folded like socks together into neat little bundles. I separate piles for my clothes and Tedís clothes. Then I separated the remaining items into subsets delineated by destinations: the underwear drawer, hanging items, the linen closet. When I drove home with my neatly arranged baskets of good-smelling laundry, I felt purged. For a short while, everything was clean. The laundry baskets sat empty. Order had been restored and I was on the move again.

Some years later, a couple of days after my first child was born, I was gazing at her as she slept and broke into shaking, sputtering sobs. My mother hugged me and assured me that it was hormonal. But I knew better. I cried because I was more surely bound to this little person than any large appliance could ever bind me to any place. The anchoring effect of bulky metal gizmos was nothing compared to this. Any fence jumping would have to be accomplished with my baby in tow. It was terrifying. I cried for my gypsy soul. No more traveling light.

Somehow, the baskets are never empty these days. I could wash and fold all day and somewhere in the house, my two-year-old son would have stuffed a pair of jammies into a crack between two pieces of furniture. My kids have outgrown clothes that I have put on shelves in my utility closet with the intention of ironing them. The dirty clothes keep coming. They donít take nights, weekends, or bank holidays off. But, as I mentioned earlier, I find myself surprisingly content. It helps if I avoid mental images of myself as Prometheus, chained to a Kenmore with a manic spin cycle.

So, cut to me, this afternoon, shaking and folding tiny sweatshirts and jeans and piling them into neat little stacks in the basket. The spin cycle begins its steady, thumping ascent into madness. Pounding like a jungle drum, the guts of the thing sound like they are trying to make a break for it. I try to lean against it, to subdue the shaking with as much of my weight as I can hoist onto the white enamel lid, until I am shaking, too. Then I remember what Ted said about the balance thing. I lift the lid and wait for the spinning to stop. I reach in and pull out a heavy pair of adult sized jeans and a sodden towel and move them to opposite corners. I nudge and yank and rearrange until Iíve achieved a hack-job of symmetry. I close the lid and restart the cycle. It sounds better, its whirling more rhythmic. My shoulders relax. I guess it was a balance thing.
Beth Strout is attempting to revive her freelance writing career while staying at home with two preschoolers. She finds the quest for balance challenging. Her recent essays have appeared in Brain, Child magazine and AustinMama.com. You can contact Beth Strout at bethstrout@austin.rr.com