The Hidden Wisdom of the Clothesline

What one can learn from the simple task of hanging out the wash.

Photo by Adobe Stock/Natavilman.

Clip the wooden clothespin onto the left shoulder of the blue shirt, onto the clothesline. I know this shoulder, this shirt. I’ve leaned my head against it and heard the heart of the man who wears this shirt beat its sturdy beat. I pull the shirt taut and clip the right shoulder to the line. Hanging out the wash—it’s a good thing for me to do. We do so little for ourselves now. And each year we do less as our devices and machines do more. I wonder, do we cherish less when we do less with our hands and more with machines?

Our devices promise today what machines have always promised—to deliver us from toil and effort. But what are toil and effort? Do we know anymore? Do we know they are bad things? Today our machines also want to think for us, to plan and dream for us. An acquaintance at a party says her new smart phone is her friend. Whatever we call our devices—they are machines. Can a machine be a friend, with no shoulder, no heartbeat?

I’m reading about the life of a man born in 1856 on an island off the west coast of Ireland. When Tomás O’Crohan was eight years old and ready for long pants his father made him a pair of grey breeches. If asked to name his trade, the father would likely have said fisherman, as his son would later do, not tailor. Yet, the boy’s father knew how to sew a pair of breeches. The material would likely have been wool the boy’s mother had carded and spun from the sheep they kept. In this remote enclave of subsistence culture the people still made most of what they needed by hand: their houses, their music, their food. The island had a king and a school, but it had no shop, no division of labor, no paying jobs. Yet everyone worked—men and women, king and children—and everyone was involved in the daily drama of survival. Their entertainment was their lives. What Tomás O’Crohan chronicled may have been the last chapter of a human epic that could trace itself, through proverbs, skills, and values, back to the Neolithic.

Our modern presumption is that these people would have been stupefied by their backbreaking labor that permitted no time for “cultural” activities and abstract thought. Like so many of our modern beliefs about the past, the opposite was true. These people were renowned for the subtlety and power of their music and language, and for the range of their knowledge. Scholars from Norway, Britain, and Dublin journeyed to the Great Blasket Island to learn their rich ancient tongue. One of these, the esteemed Greek scholar George Thomson, recalled that “the conversation of those ragged peasants ... electrified me. It was as though Homer had come alive. Its vitality was inexhaustible.”

The books the islanders wrote about their lives, at the prompting of the scholars, are still in print today. These people, who cooked their food over an open fire—food they wrested with their hands and wits from land and sea—could not have known that the era of the ready meal and tumble dryer was bearing down on them. That their stories and seasons, hardships and scarcities would soon be swept away by the cataclysm we now know as the Global Market Economy. Just as it bears down on us today with its tidings of singularity and the reign of robots.

7/19/2019 3:45:14 PM

This is all so real and true. We've gladly allowed ourselves to gradually become machines at the urgings of the "efficiency promoters." It's the same with medications and so much else. Societies as a whole are becoming more machine-like, more slave-like, and seem to be blinded by the efficiency of it all. I too rely on the spin dryer life style at this point in time, but I have fought it on many fronts for many years. I'm thankful to truly know the joy of a clothesline. After I retired from my "retirement job" 7 years ago my dryer "broke" and I left it that way for 2 years. I did the laundry every day and hung up everything on 2 clotheslines I put up and I thoroughly enjoyed doing it. I've done that several times over my adulthood and hope to again. I believe this article gives my new motivation. I hope I can pass on the feeling and the feeling of the freedom that comes with doing things for yourself, by hand, the natural way, the free way.

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