The Beauty of the Mundane

It’s hard to take so much time off. What do I come back in with? Part of me wants to write what my ex-social worker friend calls a “narrative” about our last month, to process it all. But, geezus what a daunting project. I thought instead I would break myself back into the business gently, with a delightfully over-obsessive inquiry into something beautifully mundane.

Laundry.

During our very difficult last month I, rather amazingly, kept on top of the laundry. I mostly kept at the cloth diapering, even though I had fortified myself heavily with a stock of disposables. And apart from a few rainy, exhausted days in which the dryer’s proximity to the washing machine lulled me into complacency, I kept up with my chore of hanging all our laundry. I even managed to put a few hampers of clean clothes away.

I am not telling you this in order to gloat. Because let me also fill you in with the parallel truth of my two gorgeous kidlets, sitting brain-sucked in front of Dora the Explorer for 3-4 hours of every day. Or 5, or dear god, 6. On our most rock bottom day, I am pretty sure that the 2yo watched movies during every waking hour.

And, you know how I feel about that.

Would I trade my neatly folded, sweet-smelling, crisp laundry piles for even just a few hours less of that vacuous look in their otherwise earnest, perfect eyes? Oh yes, if I could. If I could have summoned the strength. But while the job of mothering was almost incomprehensible to me, the job of laundry was so attractively clear cut. Open washer, fill with clothes, turn on. Remove wet clothes to basket, take outside into the fresh air and one at a time, pin by pin, hang on the line. A task completed.

For the first week, I was thinking that being a mama was helpful during such emotional upheaval. It helped me keep my shit (mostly) together. Helped me keep up with walks and outings every day, keep putting some form of dinner on the table, keep from crawling under the covers and crying away the day. But as our month moved along, the motherly task of emotionally and psychologically giving, giving, giving completely undid me. I began to have very unmotherly feelings like, get the fuck away from me, you little shit. I will admit to a passing fantasy about a large dog kennel. I felt stingy with my energy, with my self.

A friend pointed out that maybe allowing myself these ungracious feelings, allowing myself to plant the kids in front of the screen for hours of the day while I devolved, will keep me healthy in the long run. Mentally, and even physically. And I can see that. Makes some sense. At any rate, I tried to release all guilt about the screen time. I plugged the kids in, and went to hang up the laundry.

I love hanging laundry. It’s my favorite chore, hands down, and that is the sole reason I am so ‘good’ about keeping at it. The rest of the laundry chores are not so very. Gathering the laundry together? Meh. All that crawling around on the dirty floor, sniffing armpits, assessing stains. Putting the clothes into the machine, that’s neither here nor there. Folding clothes I could do without, and having to put those motherfuckers away, each in their own pile, in their own room, after the whole long process is almost just insulting.

But ah, the hanging on the line. The gentle breeze, the warm sun, the stiff feel of wet cloth, the snap when you shake each piece out, the wood clothespins fitting neatly into place, the satisfaction of baby shirts waving in the wind. It’s just lovely.

Do you hang laundry? Do you love it? Hate it? How did you learn to do it? I feel lucky to have had a few teachers. Although it sounds mind-numbingly simple, there are a few tricks to hanging laundry well, things mother would have passed on to daughter in days gone by. And just the fact of respecting it as a chore. I recently put our little flimsy piece-of-shit plastic table at one end of the laundry line, and I can’t believe how much of a difference it makes. How wonderful to have a place to set your basket, so you don’t have to bend over each time you pick up the next thing. When you repeat a task every single day, gains in efficiency and pleasure don’t have to be big to add up quickly.

Do you know the trick about using one clothespin to hang up two edges? Four rags can be hung with five clothespins, instead of eight, when you overlap the edges just a bit (we go through a shocking number of rags).

Do you hang jeans upside down or right-side up? How about tee-shirts? I generally hang them right side up, but have had problems with them becoming mis-shapen. Once when my MIL, also a clothes hanging fanatic, was staying with us she went outside and re-hung my entire load of laundry, upside down. I would have been annoyed except that she is probably one of those girls who learned from her mother the “right way” and couldn’t bare to see it done wrong. I considered the tee-shirt issue carefully and tried hanging them upside down for awhile. Now I have given up hanging tee-shirts on the line altogether, since they are so prone to getting stretched out, and started looping them over the stout wood dowels on my drying rack instead. No line, no stretching. In case you care. I for myself don’t, but My Man does.

Then there is the bleaching issue. The sun will bleach your clothes out, quite quickly down here. If I were a better wife, I would turn My Man’s dark clothes inside out when I hung them, and therefore keep the outside color intact. But I have only recently given in to separating colors for the wash. One can only go so far. I have learned to not leave clothes on the line much past dry to avoid any extra bleaching, which I consider progress.

I figured out some time ago that when I can fold the clothes outside, as I take them off of the line, everything runs smoother– the clothes avoid the crumpled-in-the-hamper wrinkles (I have been known to let baskets of clean clothes sit around for weeks before folding and putting away), not to mention that I am much more likely to put said basket away when they are folded and ready to go. Plus the task of folding feels like much less of a task when it is part of taking the clothes off the line, and happens outside in that lovely breeze. This is another enormous advantage to my new ‘outdoor laundry table,’ it gives me a good space for folding. If I take down the clothes in order of where they go– ie: all My Man’s shirts first, then pants, then the 2yos, etc– I save myself from having to sort it out later as well.

Here’s one last good laundry tip. Stop folding your 4yo’s clothes. If she is anything like our 4yo, getting dressed is not a static event occurring once/day, but rather a continuum of dressing and undressing. I set up this clothes bin for her some time ago, and have never regretted it. She can go through the clothes to her heart’s content and pick what she wants, she can even (theoretically) put them away (never happened yet). I don’t have to get outraged that she’s disturbing careful piles, and when it comes time for the reality of me picking up her floor, putting the assortment of outfits away is easy.

Do you have any banal laundry tips to share with us? What makes your laundry rituals more pleasant and efficient? What’s your favorite household chore to set your mind straight?

Someone Has to Wear the Apron

I used to scorn aprons, and everything they stood for. I thought women wore aprons because they didn’t want to get any real life on their fancy clothes. I thought cleaning was for fetishes. I was against immaculate houses, and when it came down to it, kind of against houses. I used to love how “putting things away” in our tipi just meant turning around. And when we moved into our first real house, I hated how much walking around I had to do to accomplish the same task. Let alone the actual cleaning required for such a space. The miles of floor to sweep and windowsills to wipe, and the whiteness of everything which revealed every little spill. Don’t get me started on vacuuming.

(I’m still annoyed by that prevalent whiteness. Who the hell came up with white for floors? Someone who didn’t clean their own home, I’d bet.)

Make no mistake, I hate cleaning. And as a mom of two, I spend a lot of time at it. I figure I spend two hours a day involved in the prospect of picking up, washing dishes and doing laundry. Note those are just the bare minimums of housekeeping– treading water. This does not a clean house make. While I am busy picking up toys so we can walk through the room, the edges continue to accumulate grime. And need I explain, it’s very discouraging to spend two hours a day cleaning and not have a g*&#*$#ed clean house.

Of course, if I could ever get on top of it, right? Then the same two hours would return the house to an actual clean state every day. I used to think that keeping tidy took less time in the end than being messy. But, being the analytical person that I am, I worked it out mathematically. If I spend five minutes a day sweeping the floor adds up to 35 minutes a week. If I wait, and just sweep it once a week, I can get the job done in 10 minutes, therefore saving myself 25 whole minutes! 25 minutes that I could be blathering on about cleaning!

Lots of things work out like that. If I wash dishes right after use then it’s one use/wash. If I let them pile up on the counter for the day, I may well find a second use for many of them. The morning’s biscuit bowl works quite serviceably for dessert’s cake mixing bowl. See the minute of washing I just saved? It might sound silly, but minutes have never meant near so much to me as they do now.

But, this is not a pro-dirty post. No, quite the opposite. I am just trying to explain my past thoughts to prepare you appropriately for the impact of the following statement: I’ve recently discovered a strange and unexplainable drive to clean.

Shocked? You should be.

It came, like all changes, out of desperation. Round about November is when I started to lose it. I mean, I always wished our house was cleaner, but suddenly I just couldn’t stand it. I looked around and saw the piles of crap everywhere and my head wanted to explode. When I say our house was dirty, I don’t mean just cluttery. I mean piles of crap that hadn’t moved in months, hiding a thick layer of actual filth beneath.

At first I thought I was just going crazy. Why should it suddenly bother me so profoundly? But at some point in November it suddenly hit me that when the Babe had started walking a few months before, he had quadrupled his capacity for destruction, and in doing so had become a full, card-bearing member of the house-dirtying force. Where there had been three dirtyers, now there was four. An increase of 33%! No wonder I felt like I was drowning!

Somehow this little epiphany helped. At least I wasn’t going crazy. But next was figuring out how to even begin to tackle the monumental task ahead.

I do think there is too much cleaning necessary to our lives today. It comes down to the fact that we just have a massive amount of stuff. Closets full of clothes that need washing, bins full of toys to throw on the floor. So my Heroine’s Journey started out with a thorough culling. Not perhaps as ruthless as I might have liked, but enough that I was able to take a deep breath and exhale relief.

There was one closet in particular, the Giant Junk Drawer closet. You know, the repository of all things ambiguous. Also, not coincidentally, one of the 3YOs favorite places to play. Over the course of many months, she had pulled most of the boxes out and emptied their contents onto the floor in front of the closet. Since it was partially hidden by a bench, I had managed to ignore it for some long time. But that time was over. The closet was my first Obstacle.

For some reason, this sudden outburst of cleaning fury just happened to take place at the end of November, when I should have been getting ready for our almost month long trip, and when My Man was extraordinarily busy studying for finals. I meant to just clean the closet. But of course that kind of cleaning makes the house dirtier. You know what I’m talking about. At some point My Man walked into the dining room, surveyed the table strewn with piles and boxes, and the rest of the room and house suffering the neglect of a Mama-Project, and said, “So…. You’re… Cleaning?”

In other words, although the closet was clean, I could hardly stop there. The house was a wreck in the name of cleanliness. It was too late to turn back, I had to keep going.

I tore open another closet, and ravaged the kids toy shelf. Working in my rare spare moments, it took me right up until we had to leave just to complete the purge. I took the boxes to the charity shop the day before we got on the plane.

Needless to say, I left the house anything but clean.

And left a husband to himself for 10 days of finals.

Act 1: Set the scene

Act 2: Reveal the plot.

Act 3: Resolve.

When we returned on Tuesday, the house was a complete disaster. The floor particularly was epic. I left the suitcases in the car, and started right in, hair afire.

I have been cleaning every day in this blessed window of time before My Man’s classes start back up. I am still nowhere near a clean house, but I can see the progress. The laundry piles are diminishing. The corners are slowly revealed and vacuumed of their bunnies. The suitcases have been unpacked all but one. The new toys have been put into the places of the culled toys. And then taken back out and thrown on the floor.

I find myself almost eager to do the work. I have some spark of hope I will be able to maintain, not a clean house, but a decent house. I don’t even aspire to an immaculate house, I like to see the toys of the day on the floor, and projects in process. I love a little clutter– the sign of life in progress– but I cannot, no matter how I try, love a filthy house.

Part of this new found drive and prioritization is yet another step of submission. To the task at hand. I guess it took me 4 years of full-time motherhood to accept that cleaning the house is my job. Not that My Man shouldn’t help (he does), and not that the kids shouldn’t learn to help as well (the eldest is getting there). But that, in the end, cleaning the house is part of keeping a Home, and is therefore inescapably a part of my job as Homemaker. I know it comes with plenty of controversy, but yielding to the realities of my chosen path has been a revelation for me. Cleaning the house is never so unpleasant as when you are pissed to be doing it. Letting go the gritted teeth and relaxing into my work might not make it fun, but it keeps my jaw from aching.

And the apron. Yes, that punked out lovely in the header. What I have come to realize is that aprons originally weren’t to keep the real life off your clothes. Of course. They were to keep the bulk of your clothes cleaner longer, so that you don’t have to do so much laundry. Brilliant.

Sometimes when I need a good boost of kick ass for a daunting cleaning project, I tie that little sweetie on. And think of you, dear reader. Let’s get our aprons dirty.

Laundry Drying Rack Extraordinaire!

My mother-in-law, also a big fan of hanging clothes to dry (you should hear her go on about zoning codes!) just got me an early Christmas present– Lehman’s Best Drying Rack (Lehman’s sells all kinds of groovy old and new fashioned non-electric stuff, some definitely for the sake of nostalgia, but lots of really great tools and household stuff that’s well made and works, like this rack). It’s more than 6 feet tall, and very stoutly built. No rinky-dink piece of shit that comes apart every time you look at it crooked, like the one I got from the Sally for $2. But then again, the $70 price tag on this one (plus shipping!) makes it fairly unachievable for many households. Good for a Christmas list, in case you have anyone playing well-paid Santa for you.

Don’t forget to be good! You know what they say, Santa’s always watching. You’ll much prefer this rack to a few lumps of coal, I guarantee. It easily fits a full load of laundry, no more looking around for chair backs, doors and hooks to hang the extra! The only catch is finding a place in your house to put such a monster….

Wifely Duties

No, I don’t mean that. Us progressive ladies and our progressive hubbies/partners had better not think of that as a duty.

I’m talking about a few things I recently started doing that really Hubby should do for himself, and I’ve resisted until this point in our relationship because they seem so over-the-line wifely.

But when I resolved to start sweating the small stuff, I realized that waiting wasn’t going to help. At 35 he wasn’t suddenly going to start doing these things on his own. And so, I stepped in.

I now (gulp) pack my husband’s lunch, and sort his laundry.

In Cordova, Hubby worked at home, his office was upstairs. It just didn’t seem too weird to make enough lunch for two whenever I was hungry, and then shout up to him that food was ready. But here of course, he goes off to school everyday, without breakfast (he’s never been a morning eater) and doesn’t get home until 4:30. He either starves all day, or goes and buys lunch. Which at $10 a pop, adds up.

Here is a man who can barely summon the patience to pour granola into a bowl and top with milk. He was simply never going to start thinking ahead to make himself lunch.

To make the concept of packing my husband’s lunch swallowable, I am just making an effort to always cook extra dinner. Then I put the leftovers in a tupperware. All that’s normal enough. Then I just have to remember to set said tupp by the backdoor in the morning, with a utensil on top (morning’s are not his strong point).

$10 saved.

Now, the laundry. Here’s a question that’s always bugged me. Do ‘normal’ people wash their clothes after each wear? I notice they don’t wear the same clothes day after day, like I do…. So unless they’re washing them after each and every wear, what do they do with the half dirty clothes???? I mean, really I’d like to know. Because I just don’t think that ‘normal’ people have a pile on their floor that they sift through every morning for the fresher items.

My tack is, as stated, just wear the clothes. Day in and day out until they’re dirty (which for me, means quite some time). Hubby likes to change his clothes more or less every day, but will certainly accept that they’re not necessarily in need of a wash after every wear. T-shirts and undies, yes. Jeans and sweaters, no. But although he’s stellar at making The Pile, he doesn’t sift through to find a freshy, he just gets a new item off the shelf. The shelf of clothes that I have carried to the back shed, washed, hung to dry, carried back in, and folded.

He does do some of the laundry, I ought to clarify. But anyway, this is not a bitch-about-your-husband blog. The point here is that, aside from my energy, that’s a lot of wasted water, detergent and electricity washing clothes that aren’t really even dirty!

So I decided to bite the bullet and start sifting for him. Don’t ask me why this in particular was the hurdle, and not washing his clothes in the first place, but it was. Of course it takes less of my time in the long run. I pick out the pants and sweaters, check that they don’t have big spills on them (we do, after all, have kids, and he is, after all, in law school, to which some people suits). Then I fold them back up, return them to the shelf, and wash the rest.

That’s it! Easy! Money saved, energy saved, evil circumvented!

Finally, A Laundry Line!

the laundry line

And just in time for the rain too!

No, actually, it’s been raining all along. It rains all the time here, at least in the months since we arrived. Probably one out of every two days. Short rains, but hard. The kind that soak you to the bone in 5 seconds flat. It’s an infuriating place to hang laundry because, on the one hand, it’s so damn hot it seems completely absurd to use the dryer. But on the other hand, even if you’re home and paying attention, by the time you hear the rain, jump out of your chair, race for the back door (have I explained how our house is 6 miles long?) grabbing the laundry basket on your way, and get the clothes off the line, they’ll be 12 times more soaked than when you hung them up in the first place. Not to mention the clothes on your own back.

Nevertheless, I have been intending to hang a laundry line since we got here. Bought the damn line ages ago, but then wasn’t sure where to hang it. We share our yard with our neighbor, a very nice, tolerant middle aged single man who keeps his side of the yard extremely neat. We of course immediately filled our side with chairs, table, giant plastic kiddie pool, shovels, buckets, bath toys, and actually the chain link fence worked pretty well to hang clothes on… ghetto style. I didn’t want the laundry line, which would probably have clothes on it 90% of the time, to be in our way, let alone in his way.

But yesterday I finally got down to business– figured a spot, got some eye screws and hung the clothes line. Yippie!

If you are new to all this sustainable living hoopla, I recommend starting with a laundry line. It’s probably the single best bang for your buck as far as energy and money output to good for the world outcome. No research, books, mail order equipment or special tools necessary. Just get some rope or heavy string and find a place to hang it. Bear in mind that it will stretch– hang it extra high, and tie it up with a knot you can undo, so you can take the slack out later.

Clothes dryers are huge power hogs, and America is just about the only country in the world where they are considered almost a right of citizenship. Somehow most of the rest of the world gets by with hanging their clothes to dry. Even many households in Britain which do have a dryer consider it for occasional use, and still hang most of their clothes.

You can hang your clothes dry anywhere. I lived with a family in Talkeetna, Alaska one winter who demonstrated the truth in this. At 40 below zero, we were hanging clothes outside on the line. In two days, most of the moisture had been sucked out of them (freeze-dried), we stacked the stiff boards of clothes up and brought them inside for the final dry by the woodstove.

If you live in a wet place, you may have to use indoor racks. That’s what the Brits do. They have these ingenious racks on a rope and pulley system, that they lower down to fill with clothes, then pulley up towards the ceiling to dry, where it’s warmer and out of the way. In America, you’ll be lucky to find a decent folding floor rack. My mother-in-law has a truly superb one, 6 feet tall, and gorgeously sturdy. I don’t think it’s the same one, but there’s a pretty darn big one on Lehman’s (a great supplier of non-electric and simpler living tools) and here’s a link to the Urban Clothesline for all kinds of drying apparatus, indoor and outdoor.

But like I said, you don’t need anything fancy. Start with the basics, and build from there. If it’s too wet to hang outside, and you’re not ready to fork over $80 + shipping for a rack, string up a line in your basement, bathroom, or living room! If all else fails, drape them around on your furniture and impress your friends with your commitment to green ethics!

On the note of laundry, washing your clothes doesn’t have to break the meter either. And no, I don’t mean you have to peel up your knickers and find a river rock. The energy use comparative listed above shows washers as being slightly worse than dryers. This really surprised me, until I looked into it just a little and found that that was washing with hot water. Cold, or even just warm, is a huge improvement. Nothing really needs to be washed on hot. At home in Cordova I used warm, because the cold from our faucet there was really and truly cold! But here in New Orleans I’ve been using cold for everything, because cold isn’t very cold. I even wash the new babe’s diapers on cold. Seems to be working fine. Then I line dry them in the sun. (I wasn’t that hard core with diapers before. In Cordova, it took 4 days at least to dry diapers, and at that point I was worried something might start growing in them!)

Now’s the time to start pissing off your neighbors and impressing your friends with your very own ratty-tat laundry line. Join the Revolution!