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where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Category: housekeeping

crack the windows

i stood there trying to brush my teeth, but something caught my eye. something bright and beautiful and liquid. it was the morning slant of light, pouring through the shutter slats. the morning slant of late winter’s light. the light on the cusp of the equinox, when each day the sun, more pure it seems than the day before, inches higher in the sky.

the light in late winter is arresting. it stopped me, all right. pulled me to the shutters, where i couldn’t help but pull them back. i felt hungry, suddenly, for the light. the light so white, so rich, so dense, it filled my every pallid pore. i wanted to drink it, to bathe in it, to let it spill all over my wintry leather shell.

so i did the only sensible thing: i cracked open the window. i let in light. i let in air. the air, chilly once again, did not quite match the light. these are tricky days, when air and light do shifting tango. just the other day, in sync. now, bright but chilly.

but still, once the window opened, i bristled at the brisk cold air. a fine bristle. a healthy bristle.

and smelling real fresh air, as opposed to the stale stuff of winter, i left the window open. let the house exhale. a big long puff of winter air—the air of smoldering logs and simmering soups, the air of baking bread and barking coughs—i let it out.

i let in air of spring arriving.

i think of big-bosomed nurses, long ago. of nurses in white starched caps. with ample arms. shoving open windows in the depths of winter. long ago, clean air, clearing air, had much to do with sanitation. shooshing out the germs. as if the germs would follow rules. follow nurses’ orders.

i tried, lamely, to do the same. i have no bosom, none to speak of. my arms aren’t ample. hardly. but still i ordered out the germs.

and in the next breath, i wiggled finger, coaxing fresh air to come in. to swirl around. to fill the rooms. to fill my lungs.

how often do we think of air? usually only when it chokes us. sometimes, when it takes our breath away. or when it cleanses.

which is what it did to me, my house.

my house is breathing in and out. my house, i hope, is getting pure. what a power, so invisible. the air, i think, is just like God. take a breath. a deep one. fill your lungs.

darn it!

unsuspecting, i pulled back the doors to the linen closet the other afternoon. a closet that holds, besides pillow cases and old quilts and sheets, a stash of bandages and alongside those the means for mending holes in tattered clothes.

piled just to the north of the so-called sewing basket, an ancient relic, practically, i spied what could only be a not-so-subtle hint that perhaps i ought to resuscitate the ol’ relic.

there, waiting, suggesting thread make way through eye of needle, a turtleneck with cuff in shreds, a pair of jeans with missing knee, a pair of socks with holey toes. seems my mother, who on grammy tuesdays makes it her job to deliver undelivered laundry, eyed the clothes en route to drawers and ruled them unfit for wear.

without a stop at the sewing basket, that is.

and so, there i found them. there i got the message.

in the same way i once got lessons in how to iron, i long ago sat at mother’s knee and took in tutorials on how to do the sewing basics. darn it, i know how to darn. or at least i did. it’s not a skill i claim to exercise with any regularity.

it is the humblest of the needle works, nothing showy, not at all. to darn is to weave back and forth, and then to stuff what once was torn but now is whole down the mouth of some old shoe. or, just as hidden, just as shy, tucked out of sight, in the shadow of a folded hem. it is, by intent, done best when undetectable. it is, by design, yet another invisible art–or labor, you decide.

but is it lost, the darning needle?

stumbling on the shameful pile made me grab for sewing basket. i rummaged through. found gingham squares and corduroy, a quarter yard; indeed i found, in bits and pieces, more material for our now running series: the care and tending of our cloth, laundry art reconsidered.

installment one: the iron. door-stop versus zen.

installment two: the sewing basket. what’s the darn thing destined to these days?

it can only be considered quaint, the basket modestly equipped. it holds the essentials (and mind you, the one who stocked it is one and the same as one who long ago was known to safety pin her schoolgirl hems when threads on the loose threatened to make a scallop of a crisp clean line).

there is the see-through sleeve of needles, a progression from insanely tiny to industrial strength that reminds me of pipe organ pipes. spools of thread in basic colors, and the occasional odd shock from some weird-colored frock that simply had to be hemmed (in matching thread, for once). teeny scissors for snipping threads. and a small round tin that holds a living catalog of all the clothes i must have buttoned over the last, hmm, 30 years.

there’s the laura ashley calico-covered button from my first, best-loved maternity dress. there are button placards with names like villager, and talbots, liz claiborne and j. jill. the other j.– j. peterman, remember him? from not so long ago, ann taylor. the litany of my dressing-up years, the years now pretty much behind me. there’s the little golden coin of a button from my faux chanel. but there is not a button from my audrey hepburn wedding gown, nor a single one from prom, oh, 100 years ago. there is, though, a snap from baby gap, and a little teddy bear from when i found collecting for my unborn teddy rather irresistible.

they are relics i might riffle through, if i ever did what the basket’s begging: sew holes in socks, return a blouse’s missing closure, how ‘bout a patch on that sweater’s elbow?

where went the art of darning? why in this age of disposability have we done away with means of mending? at what exit on the high-speed highway of these modern times did thread and needle pull off, park themselves in some rest station?

i remember sitting at my mother’s side, and my grandmother’s too, watching thread be spun by fingers, looping through, ending, bravo, in a knot.

i remember piercing eye of needle with the serpent head of thread. (back when i could see close-up, and not be stabbing, literally, in the dark of blurry, might-as-well-be-blindness…)

i remember sewing hems, cinching holes in toes of socks.

i remember what it was to repair, to fix, to mend, to darn, gosh darn it.

once upon a time an educated girl embarked upon a course of sewing. once upon a time it was a woman’s plight to sew, to tend the cloth, to keep the apron, the stockings, the overalls in working order. the patch was not some affectation but pragmatic in its very nature.

as wagons rolled across this country, thread and needle were chief among the armaments of pioneers who barred cold winds or blazing sun by keeping holes in check. and farm women, north and south, could give you chapter and verse on how to make a tablecloth, or a sensible set of napkins, from emptied sacks of flour.

now, though, it is nearly revolutionary to pluck hole-pocked sock from dryer, pierce toe with thread, put reconnected cloth back in play. now, though, is it waste of time, or time of waste?

not so many years ago, i discovered a charming set of books, the mary frances series, written by jane eayre fryer, first published in 1913 as “instructional/story books,” so the frontispiece tells us. from cooking, to housekeeping, to gardening, to sewing, the post-victorian-era books were designed to teach “useful things in an entertaining way.”

one of the books, “the mary frances sewing book: adventures among the thimble people,” was reprinted by berkeley, california-based lacis publications (a fine textile arts publishing house) in 1997, “with the hope of capturing the imagination of every little girl who discovers the pleasures and rewards of working with fabric and thread.”

it stars a sewing bird, mr. silver thimble, tomato pin cushion, and a fairy lady, among the storied cast. all intent on teaching mary frances how to make her way through the sewing room.

and so, the heirloom pages, all 280 plus 10 fold-out patterns, brought back instructions, lessons and exercises of another age, beginning with how to “outfit a work basket,” moving on to “making a knot,” merrily dashing through basting, running stitch, french seam, whipped ruffle, and finally, the spider’s web, that ornamental lace stitch (or so the sewing bird says). there are two separate darning lessons: darning stockings, and darning woolen goods.

so quaint, i grabbed a copy. that was back before i knew i would be the mother only of boys. not that i don’t think a boy should thread a needle. just that the boys i’ve got barely know how to make their way to the laundry chute. (yes yes, it was the first thing i loved about this old house; it has a sheet-metal drop straight from upstairs to basement floor, complete with little elfin door, just like the one my grandma had, just like the one we used to use–still do–for dropping the occasional something besides the clothes.)

all this makes me wonder just how it is that we’ve decided we don’t need to tend our clothes. got a hole in your sock? toss it. at best, make it into a cleaning rag.

need a hem in your pants? take ‘em to the cleaner.

why the lost art of self-sufficiency? of making something last? i don’t have answers. only questions.

and the questions prick me. just like the pins in the porcupine cushion up above. one given to me, ages ago, by my grandma lucille, a woman who knew her way around a thread and needle. a woman who would shake her head at the sorry basket on my shelf, the one that rarely sees the light of day, barely ever gets an honest stab at exercise…

your thoughts?

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?