I have dreamed of doing laundry for a long time. I dreamed of a washing machine near my kitchen, the table piled high with his and hers and theirs, the backyard with a line strung through it, billowing sheets and hand-towels and discreet underthings with the sun bleaching everything to near new.
I dreamed of what that laundry meant and how it would be proof that life had settled and moved into a rhythm, not an easy one, but a known one. The poet, Richard Wilbur, says, “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry / Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam / And clear dances done in the sight of heaven,” so I cannot help myself for romanticizing it. Since I first read this poem I knew that if Love ever called me to the things of this world, this was the thing I wanted to be called to: nothing on earth but laundry, his and hers and theirs.
I think of this today and every day now because we live in a rental house where the laundry is tucked in a narrow closet in a small back room upstairs, where the doors aren’t level and never stay opened or closed, depending on what I want them to do. And where the washer, and the dryer above it, are barely large enough for a single load of hand-towels. The dryer finishes with a buzz so loud you can hear it on our back porch and front porch too. And the floors aren’t level and so for 45 minutes while the washer cleans, it also shakes our home near to falling apart. Every day I wonder, “Will this be the day it comes crashing through to the kitchen below?” This is not the laundry I imagined doing with my life.
I cried hard today on the phone with my husband. I knew I would before he called, I knew if he mentioned a certain string of words he is prone to mentioning these days in a certain order that all the things inside of me would break and be nudged out of their crevices and I would cry.
Richard Wilbur wrote also “The soul shrinks / From all that it is about to remember, / From the punctual rape of every blessèd day,” and I used to think I knew what that meant. Before the laundry of my life—and not my dreams—became reality. I imagine rows of people lining up to say in my general direction, but not to me, “I told her so.” I falter. I fall.
This is not the laundry I imagined once: the sort billowing on clotheslines in the backyards of cabins or farmhouses or small bungalows; the sort worn by people who knew a hard day’s work, but knew how to rest too; the sort where the lights and the darks never landed in the same heap in the corner of the closet, and where they always landed in baskets and not heaps in the corners of the closet to begin with.
This laundry is loud and hard and long and mixed and never ending. It is everywhere and always and all the time. It is folded and put away and then tomorrow it is in need of wash again. It never ends. It is the “punctual rape of every blessed day” and today I break with it. The washer is pounding itself into the wall again and the dog is barking downstairs and the door won’t stay open long enough for me to hold a basket and go out of it. There is work to be done for others and work to be done for myself and I am still wearing the shorts I pulled on at 5:47 this morning. I have not brushed my teeth. I have had three cups of coffee and three wide mouth Mason jars of water and the dog won’t stop whining and my husband and I are disagreeing in a frustratingly agreeable way and now the dryer is buzzing three times at me and I crumble because this is not the laundry I imagined.
I bring the basket of clean clothes into our closet and pull the necks of shirts over the cedar hangers. I catch a scent different than detergent. The scent of my husband. His dress shirts hanging above with a new rule instated by me: wear your shirts more than once because I cannot make laundry my whole life. I gather them in my hands and pull them close and inhale. The smell of work and soap and laundry and him, my love, my thing of this world.
Love does call us to the things of this world and it looks more like “clear dances done in the sight of heaven” than I thought it would. Quiet faithfulness, echoing silence, long days, little praise, the presence of God and a puppy and not much else. This was not the laundry I imagined, but it may be the laundry I needed.
Love Calls Us to the Things of This World
BY RICHARD WILBUR
The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.
Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;
Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
The soul shrinks
From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessèd day,
“Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”
Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,
“Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
keeping their difficult balance.”