As a new clothesline convert, I now find the journey up the stairs from the basement where the washer and dryer are and out the back door into my backyard is literally and figuratively like the journey out of Plato’s cave. Rise up into the light which at first dazzles, then comes to seem so natural you wonder why you haven’t always been living there. My first-year students have spent a year enthralled by the Allegory of the Cave, questioning the different “illusions” that separate them from the physical world, one another, and their truest selves.
This is today’s second load, fluttering dry as I weeded the long perennial bed to the left of it in the picture, freeing up little poppy seedlings nearly smothered by gargantuan dandelions and reacquainting myself with the smell of soil and the faces of all the perennials bursting back to life after a winter underground. My hands are black-nailed and sandpaper-rough, but I’m not rushing to the hand salve and nail brush just yet. It’s good to sit in the soft evening air and look at the evidence of the work of my hands, praising it, and letting it praise me, like it says in, what is that, the book of Proverbs? (“A virtuous woman,” by the way, is more properly translated “a woman of valor,” and if you read my last post you’ll know why I prefer the second — with its connotations of bravery, commitment, physical strength, and capable common sense, heated through by vulnerability and love — to a certain purse-lipped namby-pambiness that will always hover around the first translation for me.)
What does it mean to praise the work of our hands? Even in small ways? It means to love primary experience, first of all. I have good talks with students about how, in a world of mediated this and that, it’s getting rare to see anyone between 12 and 23 simply walking down the street looking at what’s in front of her rather than looking down, thumbing the tiny dark box in her hand. Of course, that sort of device-slavery is a version of the same obsessive managing and multitasking behavior I deplore in myself and try to check, mindfully, with a version of Pema Chodron’s question: “since death is certain and the time of death is uncertain, what is the most important thing?” or Mary Oliver’s: “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Kafka wrote that with proper artistic attention, “the world will offer itself to you, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” What patterns in our lives blind us to those offerings, numb us out in the name of (often false) convenience and connectivity? And how is it so easy to forget that despite the aches and pains it may leave, working with our hands can feel really good?
“How do you do so much?” people always ask me. “How do you have the time?” How do I have time. How does time have me. It’s a truism by now that labor-saving devices, while making lives easier, have also failed to deliver on their subtle promise of release into lives of leisure, meaning, freedom from mere drudgery. “I just don’t have time to garden/read/write,” people say to me, and yet, what are we using our time on? How have our days become stuffed full with the blank, falsely urgent air of busyness the common denominator of which is “labor-saving devices” – the dishwasher, the clothes dryer, the computer? The television? I’m not saying we should give these things up, but it’s worth considering where, even with the “help” they give, our time and our sense of doing meaningful things in that time has gone.
In his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell implied that the “comforts” we associate with a sort of bleak suburban prosperity and the technology that brings it to us can blur with subtle and frightening – and perhaps inevitable – ease into a technological surveillance that is based in an intellectual and a bodily one. Or rather a disembodying one. Winston and Julia’s world is one from which all sensual pleasure has been leached — and O’Brien tells Winston, during his tortures in the Ministry of Love, that neuroscientists under the Ministry’s direction are even then working to engineer the orgasm, that last bastion of bodily ungovernability and sensual innocence in the Blakean sense, right out of existence. There is something in technology that wants our bodies, our senses, and then, by extension, our imaginations – to hollow us out and replace it with the visions it sells to us of what we should be. With our ipads and flat screen tv’s and high-efficiency household machines, are we engineering ourselves into a version of the bleak endless time of the 1950s, when “labor-saving” devices and repressive gender ideologies combined to shuttle so many suburban women into days of anomie and anxiety and fears of meaninglessness and disembodiment, Betty Friedan’s “problem without a name?”
I don’t have children, but I teach other people’s, and I talk with them about how they seek meaning in their lives, and so I think about this a lot. Is it any coincidence that parents complain of ADD and “problem teenagers” even as our society gives young people so little actual, meaningful work to do? A Tiger Mom rota of college-prep activities is no real substitute for clean rivers to wade and swim and canoe on, sidewalked neighborhoods to bike and walk in packs, service and building opportunities to which many kids flock if given a chance to do something useful with their hands. Walking through the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in our town with my first-year college students lately, I was struck by not only their innocence about what these tools were used for — linen press? rolling mangeletre ironing stick? porridge pot? — but also their curiosity, and a longing look on their faces: they are taken with the idea of a life of dignity and meaning, of doing and making for yourself. Our college gardens and Habitat for Humanity opportunities are steps in the right direction. Our kids are asking for the chance to do physical as well as intellectual work of dignity and worth, to build themselves a meaningful world in and around the one their elders seem incapable of preserving for them, to construct themselves lives in an economy we seem bent on ruining. We can’t just hand them a cell phone or an ipod instead; let’s hand them a hammer, a clothespin, a spatula, a shovel, a packet of seeds.
Yet we can’t forget it’s also Orwell who wrote of spotting a laboring working-class woman from the window of a train: a reminder that idealizing physical labor is also a suburban luxury. This passage from The Road to Wigan Pier is a staple of my teaching now:
“The train bore me away, through the monstrous scenery of slag-heaps,
chimneys, piled scrap-iron, foul canals, paths of cindery mud criss-crossed
by the prints of clogs. This was March, but the weather had been horribly
cold and everywhere there were mounds of blackened snow. As we moved slowly
through the outskirts of the town we passed row after row of little grey
slum houses running at right angles to the-embankment. At the back of one
of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up
the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose
was blocked. I had time to see everything about her–her sacking apron,
her clumsy clogs, her arms reddened by the cold. She looked up as the train
passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye. She had a round pale
face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and
looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the
second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have
ever-seen. It struck me then that we are mistaken when we say that’ It
isn’t the same for them as it would be for us,’ and that people bred in the
slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not
the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was
happening to her–understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it
was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum
backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.”
Orwell looks, and sees, and does not romanticize the physical labor born from lack and inequality — neither here nor in his unforgettable descriptions of coal miners in the chapters that follow. Rightly, he points to the cushion of prosperity on which “we” all ride, sustained by “their” labor:
“Our civilization, pace Chesterton, is founded on coal, more completely than
one realizes until one stops to think about it. The machines that keep us
alive, and the machines that make machines, are all directly or indirectly
dependent upon coal. In the metabolism of the Western world the coal-miner
is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil. He is a sort
of caryatid upon whose shoulders nearly everything that is not grimy is
supported. For this reason the actual process by which coal is extracted is
well worth watching, if you get the chance and are willing to take the
When you go down a coal-mine it is important to try and get to the
coal face when the ‘fillers’ are at work. This is not easy, because when
the mine is working visitors are a nuisance and are not encouraged, but if
you go at any other time, it is possible to come away with a totally wrong
impression. On a Sunday, for instance, a mine seems almost peaceful. The
time to go there is when the machines are roaring and the air is black with
coal dust, and when you can actually see what the miners have to do. At
those times the place is like hell, or at any rate like my own mental
picture of hell. Most of the things one imagines in hell are if there–
heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and, above all, unbearably
cramped space. Everything except the fire, for there is no fire down there
except the feeble beams of Davy lamps and electric torches which scarcely
penetrate the clouds of coal dust.”
And in typical fashion, by asking us to look clearly at and feel in our own bodies the processes by which coal is extracted, and the toll it takes on the bodies of laborers, he asks us about value. What commodities do we spend, or waste, and to what purpose? Are we conscious? Are we aware? Or are we speeding numbly through our days on a false cloud of electronic convenience with very real costs?
I think about these things and more as I clip clothes to the line now. The first day I used my clothesline was the first of May, which was, as it was last year, gusty and cold. My old green flannel sheets, now worn nearly to t-shirt thinness, bellied like sails. I put my face into them and inhaled, feeling the softness on my face, the pleasant small ache in my arms. I’m in a cycle of doing and taking and making I have the responsibility to shape, as I can.
And I wonder, as I turn to go back inside, is this heaven, for laundry? Each fiber saturated with breath and air, so that what was spun from a plant of the earth wears and wears away and then, on the line, becomes wind?