Today is laundry day. I wanted it to be sleep in day, or go swimming day, or read a book now that you finally have a day off day. But I’m out of underwear. Going against my best efforts to save at least 10 pairs to celebrate making it to my midway point of service by gifting myself with brand new undies, I made it a month and a half at permanent site before depleting my stash. I wish I could tell you this is out of character, but I have a laundry problem. I always have. I’ve been guilty of wearing my fanciest delicates under my drabbest bottom of the closet pants because I was out of all other options. Or swinging by the store to buy a 3 pack to get me through until I could get to the laundromat. For stages in my life I just couldn’t be bothered with underwear at all. The difference is that I would never have bothered writing about it before. But I’m navigating new terrain, and even the most mundane things seem noteworthy now. I’m learning a brand new lifestyle, and yet I’m just as prone to procrastination as I’ve always been. In my life before I would blame my busy schedule — the laundromat is closed before I get home from rehearsal. Or I had shows all weekend, no time for laundry. Or it wouldn’t be a problem if only I had a washer and dryer in my apartment, or even 24 hour access in my building…
Now I blame the rain. It has rained every day—I couldn’t dry my clothes. This was a legitimate excuse during rainy season when my freshly cleaned clothes would turn musty and start to mold before they dried on the line. So I splurged on laundry service feeling extravagant and a little guilty for cheating. And laughing at my past self —my husband, who avoids laundry as much if not more than I do, and I used to joke that laundry service saved our relationship. Back when we lived in Pilsen, there was a laundromat around the corner that charged by the pound. When we discovered we could drop our laundry off in the morning and pick it up folded the next evening we never looked back. Laundry was the only thing we ever fought about, (well, occasionally we also argued about the dishes, but usually I cooked and he dished and we were both happy) so it seemed like a reasonable luxury to pay the extra $20 and save the extra hours and have nothing to argue about. (For some perspective, we make $10 a day now.) Those Chicago days feel like a different lifetime.
In Orani, the town I lived in during training, there was a laundry service that charged by the kilo. I brought my musty, moldy, still damp from my failed attempt to wash them clothes and handed over 35 pesos per kilo and told myself I would master hand washing when it stopped raining. That was 3 months ago. To put it mildly, I have not mastered doing my laundry. I still put it off until it becomes daunting instead of a mild chore. For about two weeks I kept up with doing my hand wash every couple of days so it never built up, but I didn’t sustain the habit. So I scrub until my fingers are raw and wring until the joints in my fingers ache, and tell myself — this is the last time! I won’t let it build up like this again! And every time I really think I won’t. This last time I tried to keep up with it, but twice—on two different occasions—when I turned the faucet to fill the bucket with water nothing came out. It just sputtered and spit and coughed and ran dry. I didn’t start early enough. I have learned the hard way (the only way I know how to learn) that the water runs out around 8 in the morning. I leave for work around 9 or 9:30 and sometimes the water is back by then. There are three other families that live in the compound with us, and they all get up earlier than I do, and there is a limited amount of water. We have learned to make sure the bucket is full so we can take tabo baths if there is no running water for a shower. By the afternoon the reserve has replenished, but by the time I get home in the evening laundry is the last thing on my mind. Or, if I do happen to remember, I tell myself it is too late in the day and there is no point in hanging it on the line at night to dry. I’ll get up early and do it before work tomorrow I tell myself, knowing better but still hoping that maybe this time I’ll magically find that responsible adulting gene and not push snooze.
And so it goes that on my day off I spent more hours than I’d like to admit (4 – it took me four hours) washing more pairs of underwear than I realized I owned. (28- I washed twenty-eight pairs of underwear. I didn’t save any brand new ones for my mid service replenishment, but I tell myself I’ll set some aside.) And here I am thinking about how some things are exactly the same even as they are entirely different. I am writing about doing my laundry in the Philippines and thinking about the experience of doing laundry back in the States. Musing about my experience, aware that laundry is done everywhere in the world and my experience is not unique, but somewhere I think there are metaphors for my life that I just haven’t sorted yet.
When I was in elementary school my mom would drop me off at dance class and go to the laundromat. After ballet I would walk the two blocks to meet her just in time to help fold the clothes. We made a sort of dance out of folding the sheets – I still think of those days when I pull sheets out of a laundromat dryer. When I was even younger — to little for folding sheets, but feeling very grown up as I matched the corners on the towels — I watched my mom and dad steal kisses as they folded. In my twenties and single I took to rolling my sheets because it was quicker than trying to fold them, but I still thought folding sheets with my partner would be terribly romantic. And it was. But laundry is never done. There is always more and weeks go by and schedules get overbooked and you learn to take advantage of conveniences. And sometimes the luxury of saving a couple of extra hours a week is more romantic than folding sheets.
And then a few years later you find yourself on the other side of the world laughing at yourself as you fill up a tub of water to wash your clothes by hand, knowing that it will take hours of active work to clean them and then hours of letting the clothes dry in the sun before you fold them. How silly it seems to you now that you didn’t have the time to wait for a machine to do your laundry for you before. And yet it is all still a matter of perspective, and perspectives change.
Laundry is universal. As is cooking and cleaning and so many of the domestic necessities that are part of daily life regardless of your country of residence or income bracket. Well, depending on your income you could employ others to do the work for you or be the others that do the work, but still the work needs to get done. And it needs to get done regularly. And it is never really done because the act of living creates more work to be done to allow for more living. I have a habit of complaining to myself that I just did this the other day whenever I scrub the toilet, ruefully aware that I’ll have to do it again in a few more days. I struggle with the cyclical nature of work that takes time and energy and will never be done. I like the sense of completion of finishing a project. I need to stop thinking of cleaning as a project and accept it as a daily habit.
I think of how the images I associate with (myself and) laundry have changed as I’ve travelled through different stages of my life. The little girl who loved the Corduroy books and daydreamed of growing up to be an artist as she watched the colors swirl with the suds in the front loader machines at the laundromat. The high schooler who ruined an entire load of clothes because she left a lipstick in her pocket. The college kid who brought baskets of clothes home to wash over winter break — just in time, because another week and she would have had nothing left to wear. The fresh out of college traveller who marveled at the women doing laundry in the river and snapped pictures of them, focused on how different life in other places was. The privileged young professional who dropped off her dry-cleaning on her way to her downtown office. The savvy backpacker washing her one change of clothes in the hostel bathroom and putting them on slightly damp the next morning knowing they would dry better on her body than in her pack. The too proud to ask for help waitress with only enough quarters to put gas in her car to get to work stirring a bathtub full of soaking clothes with no idea where to hang them to dry. The down on her luck actress scooting down the 3 flights of stairs on her butt because she couldn’t juggle the crutches and her laundry basket. The new wife who wouldn’t do her husbands laundry for him because she didn’t ever want it to be thought of as her job. The Peace Corps Volunteer gingerly scrubbing her wash, taking 3 times as long to do half as much laundry as her host sister and feeling very inept. One thing has stayed consistent: though the act of washing clothes isn’t hard, I will put it of until it feels like an overwhelming task and can’t be put off any longer. If there is a way to make something harder than it has to be, I will find it.
As the process goes now. I fill up the tub with detergent and cold water and let the clothes soak. Then I scrub each piece by hand, adding more soap and scrubbing the fabric against itself between my hands. About halfway through my fingers begin to feel raw. After each piece has been scrubbed it is time to rinse. I was taught to rinse 3 times to get all the soap out, but it always takes me more rinses. As I’m rinsing and using the sudsy water to clean my bathroom floor and rinsing again until there are no more suds I start to wonder what is better for the environment. I feel very wasteful of water, even though I’m trying to conserve and be conscious. How much energy does it take to run a washing machine? How much water does it use? Am I having a smaller impact now?
And finally it is time to wring the water out and hang the clothes to dry. My hands are sore by the time I’m done. I look at my underwear on display for all the families living in the compound to see. My reusable cloth pads soak up the sunshine and my period panties defy shyness with their bold patterns and blazoned puns about shark week and jurassic period. I doubt anyone notices them. I remember my grandmother’s laundry on the line at the farm, all whites and beiges and billowing in the wind. I think of the women doing laundry on the riverbank as they had done for generations shocking the naive traveler who hadn’t yet learned the difference between accessibility and the romanticized notion of culture. I think of Ate Yoly teaching me how to scrub the fabric against itself to build a lather and reminding me to let the clothes soak in fabric softener for at least half an hour after washing and to make sure not to rinse because the softener is what keeps the clothes smelling fresh.
I look over at the helper who works for the family with the big house that owns the compound. She is washing clothes by hand. She spends hours doing this every morning. She smiles shyly at me as she brings over extra clothespins and doesn’t laugh at the ridiculous American trying to find creative ways to hang her laundry in the breeze without pins. I am grateful for her and I feel guilty as I think about my luck that I don’t have to be one of the ones who washes other peoples’ clothes. The more I learn of the world, the more I become aware of my privilege. The irony is not lost on me that I just wrote a long piece about how much I struggle with laundry. I am still at the beginning of a journey that will teach my much about myself and the world and how many different ways there are to be in this world. Feeling guilty won’t make me a better person. I promise myself I will learn, I won’t look away from the things that challenge me but will instead examine why I feel challenged. I have a long history of thinking I was struggling but being completely unaware of my privilege. I am becoming aware now. And I have a lot of work to do.
I breath in deeply the scent of fabric softener on the saltwater breeze. I still don’t like doing laundry, but it feels like so much more of an experience now. I do like the feeling of abundance that accompanies a basket of freshly cleaned clothes. I like the bold colors of my underwear hanging in a rainbow and I know I’ll appreciate putting on a fresh pair more now that I now how much work went into cleaning them. I like the view of the ocean and palm trees behind the laundry drying on the line and I know I am lucky to get to live here. And as I go up the stairs to fill the bucket for the next load, I like thinking about stealing kisses from my husband when he helps me fold the sheets.