the zen of smoothing out wrinkles

by bam

ah, yes, so here’s where we throw up the clothes line. on one side, those who consider the iron a fine weight for holding open the door. on the other, those who like nothing so much as driving that hot steaming vessel over their oceans of wrinkles, the whitecaps that emerge from the dryer, beg for a sssssssizzle from the maw of the old iron hunk.

i, the laundry room wimp, straddle the line. on the one hand, i tend toward rumply myself, not overtly, not hit-you-over-head. i am a wisp of a rumple. have been known to pretend i just got that hole in my elbow, my heel, the knee of my jeans. and i definitely married a chap who tends toward the rumpled professor.

on the other hand, in the romantic, theoretic part of my head, i do see the virtue in putting the iron to use as more than a doorstop. i envision the zen.

as a matter of fact, the iron and i go way back. go essentially back. it was, at the foot of my mama’s ironing altar, that, as she sprinkled her water-filled pepsi bottle on the mounds of my father’s handkerchiefs, wrinkled, waiting, my mama in whispered tones told me all about the mysteries, the wonders, of “the most beautiful love that there is.” all while i made rubber of every muscle in my face, and tried to muffle the occasional, “ewwwww.”

it was, after that ironing interlude that we then tiptoed upstairs so my four brothers wouldn’t notice, and with grand ceremony she swung open her closet doors, and unearthed from the shelf a big blue box, from the makers of kotex, who had thoughtfully packed up–just for me?–all the essentials for a girl on the verge of becoming a woman.

so, yes, the iron and its high flat plateau, the ironing board, do figure quite firmly in the fibers of my womanly sense. and i do feel a deep earthly pull to the generations before me who had no choice but to labor for a good chunk of the week at the river’s edge, rock in hand, in the hot sweaty basement wringing the clothes through the old wringer washer, hanging them up to dry, stiffly, in a big metal box heated by coal, or how in the summer, at least where my grandma lived it was only in summer, she hauled out her basket with clothesline and pins and let her undies and sheets flap in the wind, in the wind.

and, if, as the lotus sutra, the fundamental text of teachings from buddha himself, tells us, the four genuine gifts one human can give another are bedding, clothing, food and medicine, then certainly there is reason to consider just what we are doing when we yank the perma-press ball from the mouth of the dryer, fold, tuck and plunk in the basket, so that, sisyphus again, we might carry it up to the drawers where naked people will find what they need.

so it was, the other afternoon, with an orchestra concert awaiting, and a rule for a white button-down shirt impending, that i found myself tiptoeing into the land of the zen ironing maiden. as i steered the hot tip of the iron, the one that dates back to college, beneath the canopy of the teeny white button that holds down the collar, as i sprawled out the sleeve and did away with wave after wave of jumbled-up cotton, it all came flooding back to me.

how my mother, in those early lessons meant to make me feel like i was growing up, becoming someone, taught me the virtues of sprinkling, a washwoman’s benediction before bowing down to do in the wrinkles. how she laid out the little squares of thin cotton, showed me how to get right up to the edge, without singeing my fingers, how somewhere deep in my brain there is a lesson rattling around, telling me that a stiff cuff and collar is a very good thing.

it is, i understand, quite possible to sink into the zen of getting out wrinkles. to drift off into a meditative eyes-open dream, all the while smoothing cloth into calm.

i eased a few books off my shelves, read chapters of thought on the legacy of laundry, the tactile connection of fingers to fiber, each of the tomes penned by smart modern women who had stopped, who had paused, to mine the wisdom buried deep in the laundry basket. by the way, i picked up martha stewart on the subject and tossed her. she is all about rules for folding, for crying out loud. and instructions for how to turn the dining table into an ironing board, in case i soon decide to smooth out some stadium-sized cloth for my bed, for my table, who knows.

no no, that’s not what i wanted. i wanted to read of domestic diaries, passed from mother to daughter for generation after generation. compendiums, really, of struggle and deep satisfaction; invisible work, the kind that can still make us angry, so angry, sometimes. until we realize that, if we so choose, we can find joy, find soul food, in the simple act of preparing the cloth that covers our skin, and the skin of those who we love.

i wanted to read how, not so long ago, the clothesline, whole stretches of backyard and rope after rope, from one end of the block to the other, was where the women gathered, commiserated, sought each other’s good company, eyed the way each hung her clothes, sized up her prowess in this domestic domain by how white were her bedsheets, now pinned and flapping for all to see.
i am, i admit, deeply compelled by this rubbing up point, where the hard work of history butts up against the disdain of feminism, and where, if we press long enough, we might find that smooth unnoticed realm in which we reclaim what it means to make home. how it is not about being a slave to those with whom we live, whom we serve, but about drinking mightily of the soul-quenching nectar that abounds if we sometimes slow down, sometimes make a meditation of the metaphor just under the surface all over the house.

a meditation at the ironing board of smoothing out wrinkles–easing bent threads, unruly rumples, folds that will not be tamed–easing them, soothing them, urging them into tranquility.

or just simply loving nothing so much as sliding into a cloth sprinkled with lavender water, soft and smooth against your bare thirsty skin.

for those who might delight in that note of lavender added to the laundry pile, i offer this, from the book, “the clothesline,” by irene rawlings and andrea vansteenhouse (gibbs smith, $21.95):

a recipe for lavender ironing water
3 ounces 90-proof vodka (and you thought the laundress was boring…)
12 drops lavender essential oil
12 ounces purified water
sterilize a 16-ounce bottle by boiling for 10 minutes or running through the pot-scrubber cycle in your dishwasher. pour the vodka into sterilized bottle, add lavender essential oil. swirl vigorously to mix and let stand for at least 24 hours. add the purified water. pour into a spray bottle and spritz to your heart’s content while you iron. store in the fridge. keeps for 6 weeks. caution: do not use this in a steam iron.

your thoughts, men and women?