the zen of smoothing out wrinkles
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?
Love this meditation. Love it! Wonderful, beautiful, hilarious. We who build nests–for someone must–do have invisible work, and it is good, and necessary, precious and holy. Someone must do the laundry, or at least teach everyone to help. Someone must cook or organize the shared cooking schedule. Because we must be dressed and we must eat.I came up in just enough of a different decade, a different region, a different set of cultural norms from yours that I did not learn how to iron, nor to cook, nor to clean; I remember seeing none of this silent work, I just know I could always find clean socks and underwear, and dinner was always waiting. It was invisible work. It was not passed on. I do remember being nourished on the notion all my life from many sources that housework was drudgery, and I should be an astronaut. Now I have nothing against astronauts; but the fact remains that someone must do the laundry. So I have scrambled all of my adult life, and then again after children, to figure out how to do this invisible work which I confess in my home is usually rather noisy, accompanied by sighs and shouts and eyes raised heavenward. Let’s just say I still have a long way to go. Let’s just say when I get the iron out, which is perhaps once a year, my daughter always asks, “What’s that?”
My iron is always ready. It is really quite a funny thing, considering I wear mostly comfy washable pants and knit tops/sweaters. I use my iron mostly for quilting and ironing those fusible perler bead projects the kids make. I love to press quilt squares and watch the pieces of fabric melt into a permanent hug with the next fabric creating a whole host of shapes and patterns. At this very moment, a quilt ( a blooming nine patch to be exact) is taking shape on my dining room table. Yes, my children want to know why we eat in the sewing room on holidays! It is a fun hobby and one so well connected to our history. Cloth, fibers, hot irons and stitches lovingly pieced to keep someone warm and reminded of love long after the fabric is cooled. I hope everyone has one!I have come to appreciate a basket of well folded laundry…taught to me by Ana, a woman from El Salvador who took care of my children on Tuesday and Friday when I worked. Laundry is something Ana loves to do and does it so well. The clothes always look better when she would smooth the wrinkles with her hands and lovingly fold each section of cloth over on itself. I am a shake, fold and pile person. Usually in too big a hurry to smooth, but when I do I think of Ana and the hours she spent with my little ones and the clothes she asked to launder when they slept. When I am on retreat, I hang the clothes on the line. It is a lost art and one that can make me laugh so hard as I try to hang the clothes like Sister Francis only to get slapped by a wet shirt as the wind blows along the Jersey shore. If I ever get it right, and not get slapped I’ll let you know the secret. It never occurred to me to check with Martha Stewart, but I want to figure it out myself!
I confess that I am an ironing addict. On days when I feel lonely, sad or just plain bored, I haul out everything not nailed down and iron it just because I enjoy it so much (a few friends have suggested I have my head examined). I learned from grandmas who sprinkled and rolled the clothes up and put them in the refrigerator until ironing day. I learned from my mother who taught me the finer points of stain removal (a woman who bore 7 children within 10 years, so she knew what she was talking about). To this day, having the whitest whites and freshest laundry just makes me happy. And yes, on sunny days you’ll find the clothesline full. Now I’m teaching my two daughters the lost ‘art’ of laundry!
i don’t much iron, and use river rocks as door stops, but i do read avidly. the buddha’s “genuine gifts” serve as counterpoint to what i have thought to be the four basic necessities of life: food, clothing, shelter and beauty. let beauty be our medicine; your writing today is manifold on both counts.
When my kids were in kindergarten their teacher told me that they didn’t know what an iron was although one did say “isn’t that the thing that flattens clothes.” But when shown a picture of one, they were clueless. Now they have learned to say “Mom can you iron my shirt?” It must be something about growing up in Deerfield because I, too, have vivid memories of my mom and her ironing. My mom approached ironing as a form of relaxation. Typically, after the dinner dishes were done (we helped with that chore), she would iron while watching family favorites such as the Dick Van Dyke show with the rest of us. Not only would she iron the shirts, she also ironed the sheets and my dad’s boxer shorts! I also recall that it was not unusual to find a wad of knotted clothes parked next to the ice cream bars in the freezer. She would defrost the clothes and let the steam iron make crisp creases. I loved ironing the handkerchiefs and only the sleeves of the shirts. She laughed when I called her today to see if my memory served me right. It did and then she reminded me about the kindergarten story.
oh sweet gram helen has shared her stories of how ironing was her therapy! working full time and raising two children alone…she would wait until the kids were tucked in, then stay up late and iron to smooth and soothe her soul!!!
Oh dear I must be tired from two rounds of a virus in succession with two of my four children; since my fatigued eyes read the title of your entry Barb and thought it might have something to do with aging and wrinkles! This inspite of the photo image of your iron. Oy Vey pass the Oil of Olay! I guess my 41 years are talking!Ah yes, ironing; a distant memory now, only done when necessary a big meeting for my husband and yes I’ll iron that shirt till it can stand on its own, holiday clothes, and only when necessary!Yes, my Mother also ironed the sheets, the underwear, and dare I divulge, the dishtowels. God Bless her.For me I’ll return to my ‘wrinkles’ and hope that as many as possible are the laugh- lines and not the frown- lines of this journey we all take each day.Thanks Barb. Keep up the good work.MH
… my grandma would prop up the old board and watch her ‘stories’ (that’s soap operas to those too young to understand) while she ironed.
Oh, how I wish I had a small smidgeon of ironing rapture! I am jealous and filled with admiration for you people. Actually I guess I’d like to have even just a miniscule knowledge of how to iron without making more wrinkles. But the fact of the matter is, when you wrote this, Barbara, my old ironing board–which is ancient, pinched from someone else’s trash pile (yes, now you all know, I would do that sort of thing, sigh), will pinch the hell out of your fingers if you don’t put it up right, and came padded under its cover with newspapers from the 1940s–this old ironing board was set up in my bedroom with a half-ironed lined curtain draped over the top. How long had it been thusly arrayed? It looked like frozen performance art, perhaps a permanent installation. All this talk of ironing goaded me into finishing the job. Pressing out the rumples had, now that I took the time to ponder it, a measure of pleasure in it. Maybe I just need to add the t.v. with stories, and then all the little flipped-up hems on my daughter’s skirts would lay more nicely.
Okay all! Like Tom Sawyer making fence painting look like a blast, you got me into the basement to iron one jacket, two shirts and a bunch of napkins while listening to the radio. It didn’t feel like the fun or Zen that imagined, but the cloths really look nice.My favorite ironing board story is of a craft fair artist in Michigan who sells ironing boards the tops of which she has mosaic-ed with broken china. When open in the ironing position, the boards serve as buffet tables. When folded and stood up on the flat end, they are a bright and cheery mosaic-designed art pieces against the wall. The one thing they are NOT, is used for ironing!