The closest I’ve come to a regular date with a laundromat is my relationship with the dusty room under the apartment building on Lafayette Drive that was my last home in Atlanta. There was some trick to fooling its dryer into restarting, which was important, as one cycle was never enough. You would reach into its cavities, tickle a certain spot – and whoosh! The ancient beast would lumber back to life for another round of tumbling, tangling, and scorching. Dust would fly, the ancient lint would with mingle with the new, and out would emerge all the clothing I needed for another week’s Catholic school teaching.
My first year at the school, I never wore any underwear. I had reached some kind of underground agreement with my animal self: You show up and keep growling and biting to a minimum, and I will leave your hindquarters unbound. Deal? Deal. In my defense, at the time I didn't know how to find underpants that weren’t actively oppressive to wear. I was also still close enough to my hard-core monastic minimalism that I squirmed at the idea of buying useless garments. Money was for art supplies. Money was for food, rent, travel, and shows. Underpants, especially the ridiculous thong-things that everybody’s equally ridiculous low-rise jeans were always flashing? I don’t think so. Less to put in my weekly wash in the basement; less to organize in my dresser. So I checked the girls’ uniforms for modesty when I was asked to do so, but always with a certain degree of cognitive dissonance. At or below the knee, but secretly: no knickers necessary. The girls wore skorts. Who would have known?
We bought a house. We bought a house, and when we did, I could hardly believe our luck: two massive, chiming machines, gleaming white, side-by-side. The washer shakes the whole house with its spin cycle, as though we are about to take off in a convoy over the mountains. We have two laundry baskets now, and maybe more, because Timothy works in finer gradations than merely clean/not-clean. (He’s a nondual laundricist, which I think is related to being a philosopher.) In short, after many years of suboptimal laundry lives, we are all sorted out. I appreciate this, and yet I’m aware that this is exactly the sort of comfort that keeps people from making revolution in the streets. You become more or less able to pay your bills whenever they arrive, you learn to shop for comfortable underwear (it exists! It’ll cost you, but it’s there), and the hungry wolf gleam in your eyes gets muted by drawers full of clean, well-folded clothes.
That's the thing. When I was still a nun, laundry was an ordeal. First, since you only owned two sets of clothes, and they were white, and you lived in the middle of a mudfield, you had to clean them all the time. Second, “laundry,” meant buckets left soaking in chilly, uncomfortable places. Third, when it was cold, sometimes there was no choice but to set everything to line-dry outdoors, from thence to pluck it, stiff as a board, at whatever point you decided it was “dry.” Sometimes, there was a sort of suspended indoors rack, and that was much better – your clothes actually did dry, and there was something magical about wandering in the warm, close fug of hanging brown and white monastic whatnots, under half-light.
At no point in any of that process could a person forget want, dirt, and cyclical work. Monastic laundry was an exercise in scarcity, precarity, and inconvenience – it kept the wolf-gleam in your eyes. It kept you aware of the labor inherent in being alive, and some of the inconveniences of poverty. It also meant, I think, that we didn’t fear poverty: there we were, in the midst of some version of it, and yet basically OK. Still drinking cups of tea, and wandering winter fields with our souls alive and yearning. Not comfortable, no, but look: so many socks belonging to so many feet. So many muck-buckets of robes going through the self-same cycles as mine.
It's not always easy, when the system is working like magic for you, to remember that it's not working like magic for everyone. In fact, what looks like magic for you most likely looks like malediction for someone else. Remember a few weeks ago, when American Airlines canceled all their flights into Delhi, due to poor air quality? Well – it turns out that India is the American fossil fuels industry’s laundromat. Crunch tar sands into fuel (already a very bad idea), and you’re left with residues so horrible that they’re not even allowed to exist in this country. What to do? Sell it to India of course, so they can burn it while making all the stuff we buy over here. It’s truly ingenious! We have crap we want off our hands. They will pay to launder it for us, and return attractive goods. Hoorah! Magic. Except: the residues in question – called petcoke (which makes them sound like a cross between a virtual animal and something you snort off a mirror) – contain seventeen times the levels of sulfur allowed in coal in this country.
India-as-laundromat-and-magic-goose isn't working out so great for India. Do we ever ask what happens to the dirty air and water, downstream of our new, clean stuff? Once, I was driving through rural Georgia when a horrible sight stopped me. There, off the side of the road, was an open, gushing pool, full of black water. Truly, unnaturally black. Black-black. I pulled into the compound, got out of my car, and asked what this was. Oh, blue jeans, you know? There’s a Wrangler plant just up the road, and this is where we process their dye-baths. I had never thought about this. How do you get clothes dark, and what happens next? The liquid I was looking at would have melted flesh from bone, I felt sure. Everywhere, every pair of jeans requires this. Not magic: pools of poison, kept very far indeed from retail shelves and advertising campaigns.
My friend’s friend wanted to know about meat, and so they slaughtered her duck together. The body of this animal, in their hands. Plucking, gutting, cleaning, cracking bones, cooking, eating. In this way, we know. The other way – I’ll have the duck, please – we don’t. When we launder our experience of grit and consequences, we are left uprooted and anxious. A young man comes to see me, wanting to learn about the roots of his anxiety. Here’s an answer: Your blue jeans. Here are some more: The stuff you buy, that’s made in India. The Bear’s Ears, desecrated and mined. Generations of children with damaged lungs. Endless war.
The young man’s mother wants to know if his anxiety is her fault, and I ask if she knows about the epidemic that’s been sending people to the ER all over the place. Has she been tapping everyone from here to Oakland who shows up to the hospital in the middle of the night, convinced they’re dying? Busy lady. She laughs. Together, we can do the laundry, but it’s going to require getting messy, and we’re going to have to stop outsourcing our dirty work to those who can least afford to do it.
Julie Püttgen is an artist and meditation teacher.
108 Names of now