Hand Wash Cold Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life
By Karen Maezen Miller
New World Library Copyright © 2010 Karen Maezen Miller
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-1-57731-904-7
Full Basket A Life as Told by Laundry
By September everything was gone. Given away or sold cheap. Every stick of the living room furniture went to my sister, who hired movers to take it. Two garage sales emptied the shelves. The full set of crystal from my wedding registry, still in plastic in the original shipping box, sold for thirty-five dollars. The buyer halfheartedly bargained - "Is this set complete?" - before she laughed at her own question and handed over the bills. One Sunday night I invited the little guy from the aerobics class inside and sold him the wine rack for twenty dollars. He'd wanted dinner and a date, but he drove away with the rack standing up in the backseat of his MG convertible.
I kept what I needed and wanted. They'd become the same. The bed, desk, books, a chair, and about half my clothes. I sublet one room, the smaller one, in a two-bedroom apartment from someone who seemed desperate for the company and the cash. I did what everyone else had already done at the big house on Avalon Drive: I left. And then, after two years in a falling market, the house finally sold. The closing date drew near.
It was time to take care of the last bit of housekeeping. Just a day's worth, a day in September.
There was stuff left in drawers and closets, like the cabinets above and below the tiny wet bar between the kitchen and the living room with the blue-and-yellow-tile counter. An understated spot that had made the house seem so authentic. This would make someone a lovely home, I often thought, realizing it wasn't me. I surveyed the mismatched glassware and souvenir mugs, the army of half-empty liquor bottles my husband had brought home after doing beverage inventory at the hotel he managed. We can't use it there, he'd said. We never used it here, either. I poured every bottle down the little sink and stuck the empties, like bones, into garbage bags. Dragged outside, the bags piled up behind the little white picket sanitation fence by the garage. Up and over the top, an embarrassing tower of unmade toasts.
Upstairs, I swept through the closets of empty hangers and leftover shoes, pausing over a stash of get-well cards from my surgery five years earlier, when the doctor said, "Get pregnant now," and, looking at my blank-faced husband, I knew I didn't love him.
I pulled down the attic stairs and went up. In some ways, it was my favorite room. We'd bought the house from a surgeon, and that explained the precision of the place. No visible scars. The guy had actually done his own gardening and cleaned his own pool, installed his own sprinkler system and outdoor lights. Awash in aftershave, I imagined, with an aperitif in hand.
The attic was high-ceilinged and light. The span was clean and shadowless. The surgeon had put in a solid floor and neatly lain old doors and shutters across the rafters in case someone could use them again. On one wall was a built-in shelf where I kept my small store of Christmas decorations. There weren't enough ornaments to cover a tree, but there were centerpieces and ceramics I'd set out in the years before I could no longer lift the sentiment.
I saw an unfamiliar bag and opened it. Inside was a jumble of clothes like a forgotten load of laundry. I couldn't remember the clothes, but tipped my head in and recognized the scent. It was the smell of excitement and fearlessness, of love and optimism, all run out. It was my someday, my glorious one day, the one that had never arrived. And here I sat, snorting a sudden gust of wistfulness from a sack of dirty socks and shirts.
Life is laundry.
When I say that, I don't mean I do a lot of laundry, although I do. I just started my fifth load this week and it's only Tuesday. Still, some folks do more and some folks do less. Either way, that's not the point.
I don't mean my life is like laundry, although it is. Troubles pile up, and I ignore them as long as I can. Just about the time I sort through the heap, clean it, and stash it away, it reappears and I have to take care of it all over again. So yes, life is like laundry, but that's not what I mean, either.
I mean life is laundry, and when you do not yet see that your life is laundry, you may not see your life clearly at all. You might think, for instance, that the life you have is not at all the life you had in mind and so it doesn't constitute your real life at all. Your real life is the life you pine for, the life you're planning or the life you've already lost, the life fulfilled by the person, place, and sexy new front-loading washer of your dreams. This is the life we are most devoted to: the life we don't have.
When I was thirty-five, I looked up one day and realized that I hadn't had a life. Oh, I'd had a lot of things. I'd had a husband and a marriage of sorts. In fact, I still did. Between us, we had two late-model cars, two high-speed careers, and a two-story house on an oak-lined street where people left their blinds open so everyone else could look in and sigh. I had a great job working with talented and energetic people at my own company. I worked too hard, but I made enough money. I had a pool and even a little pool house, neither of which I ever found the time or friends to fill. I had my youth. I had my looks, and I had the self-devotion to maintain them at any cost. I had fancy jewelry and cookware for which I had no use. What I did not have was laundry.
I had no laundry. I had clothing, and plenty of it, but I also had Theresa, who week after week did lifetimes' worth of other people's laundry, including my own. For more than ten years running, Theresa came to my house each Wednesday when no one was home. Except for the rare coincidence when I might be waylaid in bed by the sniffles, I never saw her come, I never saw her leave, and I never saw what she did in between. In this way, we had the strangest kind of intimacy.
She saw my underwear. She soaked my stains. She smelled my sweat. She did the same for my husband, all of which I refused to do. She swept and polished, emptied the trash and the hampers, and filled the house with a heady haze of lemony pine. Upstairs, on opposite sides of our bed, she laid our warm, clean laundry folded in his and her stacks. Everything was in its place. Only it wasn't my place, because it wasn't my life. My life was going to begin on some other day, when I had myself situated in some better place.
All those years she laundered my hidden self, I never knew much about Theresa. Because I lived in southeast Texas at the time, it wasn't so unusual that she was Creole, her people from Louisiana. She had a lilt in her voice, a kind of saucy French accent thrice removed, and her stories were spicy and colorful. She had truckloads of men and kids, problems everywhere, things to fix for five hundred miles in all directions. We'd learn about these in notes she left behind, or in calls to reschedule in calamity's wake. She had a real life, it seemed, and I didn't.
Just as I never touched a stitch of dirty laundry, I stood at an antiseptic distance from everything in my life. And who wouldn't? To my critical eye, everything around me needed so much improvement. My relationship with my husband needed fixing, but that was largely up to him. He had a lot of changing to do. My work was a problem, what with the long hours and troublesome employees. Good people were hard to find. My friendships were scant because I didn't have the time or an interest in people who weren't like me. I had so little in common with ordinary women.
As you might expect of someone with such unrelenting standards, much of what was simple about life was beneath me. Not quite beneath, but certainly too trivial to mess with. I bought into the view that life was a transaction, and that time was money. Since I had proven I could make a respectable living using my time in one way, I outsourced just about every other thing there was to do. I had a cleaning lady and a pool man. I had a yardman and an old guy who came around every spring and cleaned my rain gutters. We ate out. Our cars were hand washed and polished by someone else. My secretary addressed my Christmas cards. I had a manicurist and a hair stylist and, even more, a hair colorist, none of whom I could live more than one month without. My closest relationships were with the retainers and surrogates who tended my self-image.
There is nothing inherently wrong with any of this; these are choices many people make, and I still make some of them. What was wrong was that I was numbingly unfulfilled. I was deeply angry and silently, sleeplessly anxious. I thought I was working harder than anyone, and yet I was missing what everyone else seemed so easily to grasp. A life.
And I was missing it, because I thought life was something other than my life. I thought life was something envisioned and achieved. I thought it was manufactured from ideals and earned through elbow grease. I thought it was yet to arrive, and so I missed everything that had already come. I was blind to my marriage and my absence from it. I saw my job almost exclusively as a necessity and rarely as the exhilarating invention that it was. My home was a headache, a pile of rust and dust. I was certain that I never wanted a family: not one more person to clean up after. And I had never examined my mind, my heart, or my hand in any of this.
When I finally did lift a finger, it was just to nudge this lifeless, loveless world asunder.
"Why don't you leave?" I asked my husband one day after work. It was not an unusual day. Nothing had been said. Nothing had happened. It was a day like any other that I'd hauled across the wide river of my discontent.
It wasn't quite the end, but it was the beginning of the end of something that was already over. After a few squalls about money and other things that stand for money - rights, obligations, fairness, and furniture - the divorce was done. But the undoing wasn't.
A few months after my husband left, I started to worry that the problem might not have been my husband.
I took a lover and fell quickly overboard. After that lover left, and the lover after that, I started to worry that the problem might not have been the lover.
I sold my business. After the business sold, I started to worry that the problem might not have been the business.
I left the house, and after I left, I started to worry that the problem might not have been the house.
In the attic that last day, kneeling over a bag of stale and wrinkled recollections, I had a hint of what I had been missing. Laundry. And not just laundry, but what laundry gives us: an honest encounter with ourselves before we're freshened and fluffed and sanitized. Before we have ourselves put together again.
Do your own laundry, and the tag inside will tell you exactly how to care for what you hold in your hands. Every bit of life comes with instructions when we are attentive enough to notice, and on the high bluff of my prime I hadn't yet opened my eyes.
I gave that sack of old clothes away, but soon, and every day after, I took back a bit more of the load I had long foisted on someone else. I took back responsibility for myself, my relationships, my work, my days, my nights, my joy, my love, my pain, my happiness. I took on the washing, drying, and folding that constitute an authentic life.
I began to excavate what all the ancients, and my own spiritual forebears, tell us we can find at the very bottom of the basket, beneath our rumpled, stained, and worn-out lives. I went looking for a change of clothes, and I found the path to clear wisdom, compassion, and enlightenment. Bit by bit, I reassembled the remnants of my discarded life and made myself happy and whole. I can tell you how. It begins with the laundry, and it leads everywhere you never thought you'd go.
Excerpted from Hand Wash Cold by Karen Maezen Miller Copyright © 2010 by Karen Maezen Miller. Excerpted by permission.
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