A Washtub Contemplative

A Washtub Contemplative June 9, 2016


Rich people miss out on such unique pleasures.

Mind you, I’m not knocking that; I would love to be rich and also miss out on certain unique pleasures. Still, rich people miss out.

Just over a year ago, my husband and I had to move house. We found a place a little over a block from the one we were in, one of the Ohio Valley’s myriad former crack houses that had been bought, restored into a usable but still rickety state, and was being rented for cheap. Thanks to a timely present from my husband’s Godfather, we got the deposit in just before anyone else who wanted the place, and we found ourselves with a lease.

But our troubles weren’t over; we had no furniture. The place we’d rented before was furnished, and everything but an ottoman and a futon mattress belonged to the landlord. We could afford the deposit and rent, but we didn’t have a cent left over for anything else. Miraculously, the first day of our lease was also the day of the annual Bulk Pickup, which I call Second Christmas. This is the day when the garbage men won’t refuse to pick up trash that isn’t bagged. They’ll take anything you leave on the curb free of charge– furniture, yard toys, old machinery, as long as it isn’t a rubber tire or a busted refrigerator. In the days leading up to Bulk Pickup, everyone throws their broken and unwanted items into the alley.

This town is notorious for its “striped” neighborhoods; neighborhoods with a block of respectable or even rich people right next to a block of poverty and derelict houses. My husband and I took a derelict shopping cart and a borrowed moving dolly over to the closest “rich” street, harvesting unbroken furniture. We came home with a bumper crop: mattresses, an ugly and scratchy sofa, a brand new dining room table, sturdy chairs with scratches in the finish, a bed frame that holds together perfectly with a little duct tape. We got nearly everything we needed, for free, with a bit of heavy lifting. With the art of furniture polish and strategically placed throw blankets, most of it doesn’t even look like trash. And I have no guilt if my daughter spills juice on anything, because it cost me nothing. The well-off folks didn’t know what beauties they were throwing away.

However, no one was throwing away a washer and dryer that worked. We had no way to buy one. Water is so expensive in this town that regular trips to the coin laundromat would have starved us to death. The house didn’t have a sturdy place to hang a clothes line, either. But we did have a bathtub.

We saved up our money for laundry racks, and we started hand-washing our clothes at home. Usually, my husband washed and I put away dry laundry, but I’ve done a share of washing as well.

It’s a deeply meditative thing, hand-washing laundry in a bathtub. You learn a routine and then you kneel there, doing it over and over until you either go mad or reach a state of contemplation. First you have to fill the tub with smelly soiled clothes, checking each garment for stains and spraying them with stain treatment individually. Smelly or urinated toddler clothes get washed out separately in the sink, then re-washed in the tub. Then you fill the tub with water, soap and something to cover the smell– you’ll have a smell, if you wash and dry by hand. We used vinegar and drops of peppermint oil to counter the odor, and it usually worked. Then you wait by the tub until it’s full. Then you agitate the clothes with your hands and arms, swirl them around from one end to the other. The water goes from clear to brown, little streams of brown like ocean currents, some parts of the tub darker than others. You shudder that this oily dirt was on your body, and now it’s in your tub. You can’t imagine that that water could get anything clean, so you add more detergent. Brown and white suds foam up as you agitate. You scrub particularly dirty things by hand. While you scrub and agitate, you meditate on your sins and on the Passion that bought you a good washing. Then, you pull the plug.

After the water’s drained all the way out, you heap the clothes in a pile and turn the shower on them. You go do something else for twenty minutes; you come back to the steamy, soggy bathroom and turn off the shower. By hand, carefully, vigorously, you wring out every garment, one by one by one, and toss it into a laundry basket behind you. One by one by one until it feels like your fingers are going to freeze that way. One by one by one, until your bathtub is a shocking mess but at least it’s empty, and there are two baskets full of wet, wrinkled, wrung out clothes behind your back. As you wring laundry, you can either curse or pray. Hopefully, you choose to pray. You pray that this be the last time you wring wet laundry. You meditate on the omnipresence of Divine Grace, the way it saturates every aspect of your life, and how no wringing of worldly suffering will ever get it out. You declare yourself helpless to wring your soul free of sin by your own painful effort. You give yourself over to Mercy. Of course, sometimes you curse, and then you give yourself over to Mercy even more.

Then you drag your baskets downstairs to the laundry racks. This is an excellent back and shoulder workout, but it gets water on the carpets. Nothing is heavier than soaked clothes. If there’s anything you need dry quickly, roll it up like a jelly roll in a clean towel and dance on the towel like treading a winepress, praying for humility because you look like an idiot. Then hang it closest to the electric fan. The towel goes into the dirty clothes for next wash. Less urgent garments get hung around the room, on drying racks and on the backs of chairs. Get everything dry quickly, because the next thing that will happen is that mildew and other smells will overtake your clothing, and you’ll have to wash it all over again. You meditate on the futility of worldly efforts, and our helplessness as we wait upon Divine Intervention.

Rich people never learn to do all that.

We did this routine every week for a solid year. A dear friend gave us a tiny portable spinning machine we gratefully used for small items, but we couldn’t do all our laundry in such a small vessel, so we kept coming back to the tub and the drying racks. Finally, after a year, we met someone who knew someone who was getting a washer and dryer, and didn’t know what to do with the old ones. And we called dibs. A washer and dryer, slightly old but in perfect working order. Our very own washer and dryer. They were delivered yesterday. They’re in the laundry room right now. I have named them Crockett and Tubbs. I’m hanging my Saint Therese icon above them where I can see her as I work– if something as simple as loading and unloading a washer and dryer could ever seem like work again. Rich people think it is.

No human tongue can explain the ways of Our Lord’s justice. We will have eternity to contemplate the Mystery, but we’ll never have done. Anything I can say in this temporal world, will make a mockery of Divine Justice.  Anything I say obscures just as many truths as it reveals. Still… it seems that some are given what they need to live, right away, when they need it, and I hope they praise God for it, and I hope they constantly pass on the gift to everyone who has less. Some are given endurance, and messy opportunities for contemplation. Some are given other graces, graces I don’t understand. Sometimes grace is warm and dry and smells of detergent; sometimes it’s filthy and stiffens your hands; but everything is grace. Be thankful and generous with the grace you yourself have been given, and never presume you’ve been generous or thankful enough.

My dining room is full of piles of warm, soap-scented laundry instead of piles of wet mildewed clothes. Thanks be to God, thanks be to God, eternal thanks be to God.


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