Thursday, December 12, 2013

Laundry is Patient, Laundry is Kind


As if through an eye patch, I gaze out the partially boarded window to view the mundane alleyway below. Long after I finish my tasks, I stand motionless, lulled by the humid August air and rhythmic hum of the dryer. A table for folding rests before me, two dryers stand to my right, and shelves of tattered clothing tower to my left. A layer of freshly shattered glass crunches beneath my shoes. The brick that landed on the laundry room floor did not just smash through the window but exposed every appliance, every piece of soiled clothing, and even myself to the elements. Now filled with fear, disgust, and confusion I cannot help by sardonically wonder, how did my most abhorred chore become my full-time job?
Community dinner
If eyes are the windows to the soul, the eye patch of a broken window I stare through now divulges the life of this laundry and why my hands fold it. This distaste for laundry arose in fourth grade as I gained responsibility for washing my own clothing. Tossed to the end of our first floor hallway, the dirty clothing sat until the owned fed each article through the washer and dryer. Once finished, the freshly cleaned laundry languished on the floor outside the dryer, removed piecemeal as needed. This seemed untamed and chaotic when juxtaposed with the order and rule of the laundry system I faced at boarding school. Two hundred teenage girls forced to share nine washers resulted in surgically divided weeks and time allotments assigning each dorm and age group their right to use the machines. Breathing heavily, I traipsed up and down the four flights of stairs that separated me from the elusive dream of a clean uniform. After struggling to find an open day, open time slot, and an open machine, I flung the clean tights, kilts, and blue oxford blouses in the drawers of my wardrobe, folding only the top layer, in quiet rebellion of the laundry expectations during weekly room inspections.
Emily finding Senegalese food in Chicago

I thought my frustrations with laundry could reach no higher peak until I moved to Senegal, West Africa after graduation. As the identity of being female is entwined with household tasks, the women of my new desert, village home were baffled by this hand-washing newbie. Deemed incompetent after failing to produce the signature squishing noise of violently rubbing soapy cloth against itself, my neighbor and kindred spirit, Khoudia, was assigned to aid all my laundry endeavors. Frustration faded to gratitude as I gleaned the blessings in each task. I gained patience as I waited day after day, in typical Senegalese fashion, from my initial complaint of dirty clothing to the inception of our washing. I came to value the teamwork and, in turn, selfless resignation as Khoudia and I worked and compromised on the expected whiteness of socks. I learned to truly appreciate the warmth and protection provided by each piece of sewn together material, but most importantly I came to value the process itself. The process that allowed me to spend time with Khoudia; time to slow down; time simply spent alive.
At the Chicago tree lighting, photo credit Chicago Tribune
I stand next to the same dryers on the second floor of the Marquard Center. The same shelves of tattered clothing tower to my left. The air is still humid and the hum does not cease, but the room has changed. The plywood eye patch has been removed, and I can see again. At times, the violence and mental illness of the homeless population I serve evokes bouts of nostalgia for the ease of my laundry growing up, the rationality of my laundry at school, or the time I spent with Khoudia in Senegal, yet as Matt or Raul inhale the freshness of their socks that I cleaned, I am filled with the warmth of every load of laundry ever dried. They, too, are alive.

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