It happens every time that I hang out the laundry, I’m transported back to Europe.
Yesterday I stepped outside to hang my shirts on the clothes line, feeling the cool tiles of the lanai under my bare feet and noting the squawk of feral chickens as they ran noisily for cover in the bushes. Beneath the gaze of a looming mountain of crumpled green velvet, as I snapped the wooden pins in place, tropical breezes rustlling through the bamboo and coconut palm fronds, for a moment I was briefly back in England. A moment later I was in southern Spain.
Vented tumble dryers remain something of an anomaly in much of the world; in Europe, most people have a condensation dryer (much less effective but doesn’t require outside venting), which is sometimes simply incorporated with the washing machine all-in-one. Or having only a basic washer, they hang their clothes on a rack or line to dry.
When we first relocated to England, our townhouse in Wimbledon had the standard front load washer (tucked in a cabinet beneath the steep stairs) but no dryer. I flashed back to my time in Paris years earlier: a clothes washer in the tiny kitchen, but no dryer, just a foldable drying rack that could be placed in front of a room’s radiator. A tedious and slow process—not to mention that the rack (and often the washer) was usually commandeered by Roberta, the owner of the apartment. I couldn’t be bothered to spend my entire weekend washing two loads of clothes in a slow game of ‘hurry up and wait’, so I took my clothes, school uniform, and aprons to a nearby laundromat with commercial dryers. I was done before she had finished washing a single load at home (let alone the hours of drying time on a rack), and by the gods, I was smug.
Gazing from an upstairs window at the rear of the tall, narrow, Edwardian-style townhouse (‘terrace house’, in the UK), I saw all the neighbors’ clothes hanging on lines in their respective rear gardens. How quaint and eco-friendly, I thought.
The neglected and overgrown back garden of our rental house was a postage stamp sized green lawn. It was hemmed on three sides by a tall wooden fence, leaning in places and overrun with climbing roses, an unruly passionfruit vine, and a well-established mass of English ivy determined to pull a good section of fence down someday. Quite soon, probably. A small shed, long overgrown with thick cords of requisite ivy, stood at the rear of the garden. As a cook, I was delighted by the two sour cherry trees, a small crabapple tree, and the lone, Bartlett-type pear tree—all of which bore fruit that I happily harvested and used whilst living there. The pear had been planted nearly in the middle of the miniature lawn and leaned precariously enough that it had long ago been propped up with a sturdy crutch.
Affixed to the house near the dining room doors was a laundry line, attached at the other end of its twenty-odd foot length to a solid metal post next to the pear tree. As with so much of our early days in Europe, when even simple things like hot water heaters, appliances, or weighing and tagging my vegetables at the supermarket struck me as quite unfamiliar, the simple laundry line was novel. Having grown up comfortably in an upper-middle class home in Pasadena, California, hanging out the laundry was certainly not part of my experience. Given that I tend to embrace old-fashioned things or ways of doing things, however, I was keen on it. (Decidedly an evolution from my Parisian culinary school days, though arguably that is exactly where my slow mode, do-it-by-hand sensibilities began to awaken.)
After a trip to one of the John Lewis department stores—nearly indispensable, especially for those setting up house—I was the proud owner of a bunch of wooden clothes pins, along with a hangar-like canvas bag bag to keep them in. Sorted. When the clothes were washed, I would load them into the round, heavy duty wicker basket that had belonged to my mother, step out through the French doors in the small dining room that led to the rear terrace, and hang the laundry out to dry.
I discovered right away that there was something timeless about the process, something simple and old fashioned—a throwback to a quieter, slower time. Like washing dishes by hand, pinning clothes to the line offered a simple ritual and meditation… if you chose to engage it as such, and I did. It was a chance to connect with earth under foot, feel the mood of the garden and its inhabitants, and catch a wider view of the day than what is glimpsed through windows. I liked (and still do) the crisp feeling of the clothes and their airy freshness from being outdoors.
Mind you, even for an old-fashioned soul, drying laundry on the line wasn’t all roses. Living beneath the heavy grey skies of England, there were far too many instances when I found myself dashing out to grab the still-wet items as the clouds suddenly burst open. More than once the day was fair when I left the house on errands or a trip into the city via train or Underground, but then the rain began and I was greeted with soggy clothes upon my return—sometimes wetter than when I had initially hung them out. It was not unusual for it to be raining for days, and we found ourselves placing clothes on metal racks in front of radiators, on backs of chairs, and over the tops of doors. If they didn’t dry quickly enough, mildew set in.
“What I wouldn’t give for a proper, vented American dryer,” I found myself muttering on rainy days (of which there never seemed to be a shortage in England). Having been abroad awhile, I recall a trip back to the States and doing laundry at my friend’s casita in New Mexico. After putting the clothes in the dryer and discovering twenty minutes later they were tumbled, dry, and warm, I wept with joy.
I have a deep fondness for linen clothing, instilled in me by my mother long ago. More often than not, regardless of season or locale, you’ll find me wearing a linen shirt—usually long sleeve, cuffs rolled casually halfway up the forearm. Good linen really shouldn’t go in the dryer (though I’ve been known to use the air dry cycle), so there are often a series of shirts fluttering outside on the lanai like long-sleeved prayer flags of various clothing. While I do appreciate conserving resources and saving whatever we can on our electricity bill, really, I learned in England that I like hanging them out on the line—a bit of connection with the elements, a simple ritual (and always a flashback to our time in Europe).
Certainly not everything that is ‘old style’ is worth embracing in a modern life, and I’m fond of many worthwhile appliances and conveniences like washers, dryers, and dishwashers (though I remain resolutely opposed to microwave ovens for a slough of reasons). I value the Internet (which makes this weekly post possible) and email. I’m hardly a Luddite but I am likely to take the slower, longer approach to doing something, especially when the results matter, as in the kitchen: grinding spices by hand, making an emulsified sauce like mayonnaise or aïoli with a whisk rather than a blender, pounding ingredients using mortar and pestle, making pastry from scratch, etc. While some would consider it merely ‘work’ (and often it is), there is something to be found in taking the time to do a thing by hand and savoring the experience of the process. Similarly, I’ll choose something more for the way it feels on some subconscious level (say, opting for a cast iron pan over a non-stick, anodized aluminum one) rather than merely for its function.
I wrote last week about being captivated by the small pleasures in the day. “Those little human moments, ones where I’m suddenly deeply engrossed in the sensuality of the moment and how it feels—including what is in my hands—are simple celebrations of life.” Rather than simply rushing through, taking the long route offers a chance to experience a moment differently; like pinning the shirts to the line, noting the birdsong and rustling of palm fronds, the light as it descends and illuminates the jade fans of trees, as opposed to simply tossing clothes into the dryer and moving on to my next task. It’s a chance to pause, to inhale a deep breath, to savor a bit of mindful engagement with the moment and appreciate the beauty with senses open wide.
To what will we give the gift of our attention?
Most people scarcely inhabit their bones and breath, spending their precious days in the noisy confines of their head instead. Soul Artists appreciate whatever draws them deeper into a polysensory relationship with life, tracing and feeling the contours of their daily existence with outstretched hands. They know that the soul is somatic and sensual, that it revels in small delights as surely as it does in revelatory wonder and breathless awe. The simple moments can matter and imprint as deeply as the grand ones do, the touch of our lover’s hand or listening to their quiet breath as they sleep in our arms. The utterly ordinary moments of life are, in reality, quite extraordinary. Hanging a shirt on a laundry line to dance in the afternoon breeze, and feeling yourself suddenly rooted in that multifaceted moment as well as ones that came before—or that might come after, as with déjà vu. Soul Artists understand the creative value of ‘making’ versus ‘doing’, and that gifts are found in unexpected places.
Gentle reader, here’s hoping you’ll inhabit your days fully, appreciating the ordinary moments and the simple pleasures. Even in your daily litany of tasks, or caught in the hustle and bustle of the approaching holidays, may you be graced with moments where the light catches your eye unexpectedly, you see something familiar in a totally new way, and suddenly you discover yourself fully ensconced in bones, breath, and whatever surrounds. Take a deep breath. Faster and more efficient is not always better, especially where the soul is concerned… and life is richer when lived at a slower, natural pace. Perhaps you’ll take the time to do something differently than what is merely convenient, and in so doing encounter an unexpected or forgotten pleasure.
I wonder, what simple moment, action or task will reveal its hidden grace to you today.. and will you pause to savor it?