Thursday, January 31, 2008


Another of my wife's pre-retirement roles that has been transferred to me is doing the laundry. This does not suggest that I was never of help to her in the past. But it is now my responsibility. Like many other men, doing the laundry has always been an anathema to me. The reason still escapes me other than the speculation that this is "woman's" work and thus represents a demeaning of one's masculinity.
To be truthful, I never liked doing the laundry, despite its relative ease, especially in todays modern world. You plunk a load of clothes into the belly of a machine, plunk a few coins into a slot, push a button and in a half hour or so , the wash is done. It may feel a little uncomfortable to tug at sopping wet clothing and transfer dripping sheets, towels and undergarments into the belly of another machine, but this passes quickly. And at the end, the lightened touch of warmed garments adds a tad of pleasure to the task.
The Zen tradition of -"after the ecstasy, the laundry-" reminds me that spiritual maturity allows us to recognize the divine in all things, so that we can be grateful even for doing the laundry.
I make every attempt now to bring mindfulness to this effort. I remember my mother engaged in washing and drying clothes. It was quite different then. I faintly recall the washing board and my mother's soapy fingers and bulging forearms as she scrubbed devotedly to properly and hygienically care for her family. Not the mechanical dryer in the corner of a hidden room but the clothesline publicly, almost proudly, stretched through the air above our grass-less backyard, was the locus of the last stage of the laundering process.Wooden clothespins snapped on to the tips of sheets and towels , underwear and shirts, colors of every kind flapping in the sun drenched breeze.
Today technology has rescued us from the drudgery and toil of cleaning clothes. Should this not be a source of much gratefulness? Are there not still millions of mothers in third world countries beating away at garments alongside the shores of rivers and streams, pounding the dirt and sweat out of coarse fibers with the stark strength of human muscles and sheer family duty?
As the machine whirs away , I return to the comfort of my sofa, to read, to write, to think or to simply rest, as I await the passage of a half hour at which time I return to transfer these threads into a different enamel box. Again , I slip a few coins into a slot, press another button, and return to the pleasure of my previous activity. Finally the laundry is done. I bring the bundle back to the apartment to fold and return to their proper places. I am suddenly surrounded by the fragrance of cleanliness, the soft warmth of a sheet's smooth surface. Struck by the sensual delight of touch and smell, I again attentively acknowledge being grateful for these simple yet fundamental sources of human pleasure and joy.
Perhaps , if we look closely enough, if we open our hearts to the infinite gifts of doing the laundry-like tasks of life, we will discover something of the ecstasy that we so desperately yearn for.
In the spirit of our capacity to be grateful, I would reconstruct the Zen saying in the following way- "After the laundry, the ecstasy." The immediacy of the everyday duty is a gift which bestows its bounty upon us. Doing the laundry can, after all, be uplifting.

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