Tag Archives: authenticity

Dirty Laundry

Today is laundry day, and I’m sitting in the laundromat writing this week’s blog.

I’ve always liked doing laundry. Turning a bundle of dirty clothes, sheets and towels into neat, fresh-smelling folded piles gives me a warm feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment.

At present, we don’t have a usable washer at home, so part of our routine is to hit the laundromat every couple of weeks. We know it’s time when my partner runs out of socks and I run out of underwear. At that point we collect dish and bath towels, sheets and clothing and our stash of quarters and head into town.

Photo by Pop & Zebra on Unsplash

Sitting here, I watch a man open the mouth of a bulging cloth laundry bag and empty it into the machine. I see scrunched up socks, some more hole than sock; inside-out pant legs, whites, colors, sleeves and bandanas all tangled and mixed up together. He feeds in quarters, adds soap and sets the temperature to hot before heading back out, either to sit in his truck in the parking lot or otherwise kill time until the load is done.

I get a lot of pleasure out of the laundromat. Watching people deal with their laundry is every bit as entertaining as looking at someone’s bookshelves. Dirty laundry is a great social leveler. We all have it, and if we don’t deal with ours directly, someone else does. Our dirty laundry records the story of our lives. Our scent is imprinted on it. The presence of our pets decorates it. It remembers the day we spilled our coffee in the car, the morning the hot grease spattered and the nosebleed we had in bed. It gives away our cigarette habit and the acrid, sweaty smell of our secret copious alcohol consumption.

Two middle-aged women come in with stuffed pillowcases, a couple of plastic laundry baskets, a heavy green garbage bag and a couple of drawstring laundry bags and commandeer a whole row of machines. They work well together, efficient and brisk. Obviously, they’ve done this before. They sort lights from darks, taking care to untangle and unscrunch as they load the machines. They check pockets. One of them goes from machine to machine with soap and the other with quarters. They choose hot water for the whites and warm for the colors. I wonder if they are friends, family members or from an organization like a shelter or a boarding house. Perhaps they’re church ladies dealing with donated clothes for charity. The washing machines take 39 minutes, and then the women load up a bank of dryers. As the dryers finish, they work together to fold bedding, mate socks, and put shirts on hangers. I see no children’s clothing, only adult size. One of them says to the other they’ve spent over a hundred dollars, and I wonder how often they do this. It takes them three trips to load up a battered van with all the clean clothes, and off they go.

Photo by frank cordoba on Unsplash

Dirty laundry is a cultural artifact. Back in rural Colorado, Wranglers, snap button shirts and lots of bicycling, hiking and yoga gear slosh in the machines. Here in central rural Maine everyone wears Carhartts, long underwear and thick socks. This is a blue collar community, where farmers, heavy equipment operators, sawyers and mill workers wear the same lined heavy canvas and flannel working clothes all winter.

A worn-out looking young women with a little girl comes in. Mom loads up the washer while the little girl helps by handing her things. I see no men’s clothes in this load. They sit down at a round table, the little girl with a grubby board book she found in a basket of children’s toys in the waiting area. Mom, after checking her cell phone briefly, sits idly, now and then glancing at a TV screen on the wall where a movie I’ve never seen is playing with the sound muted.

When I came to Maine, my partner had a routine. Everything went in the same machine. Socks were permanently turned inside out, because he can’t tolerate the feel of the seams against his toes. It all got OxiClean, soap and hot water. He likes things machine dried so they’re soft.

I quailed. Half of my clothes were cold water wash. I always separated colors. I much preferred to line dry.

Negotiating The Right Way To Do Laundry is one of the many hidden landmines in every living-together relationship that no one ever talks about.

Photo by Jonas Tebbe on Unsplash

Being old and wise about choosing our battles, we adjusted to one another. I stopped trying to turn his socks right-side-out. I learned to keep my cold water wash separate. I decided life was possible if I didn’t separate whites from colors and he decided clothes were still wearable if washed in warm water instead of hot. I line dry my things and machine dry his. I don’t waste time folding his clothes, because he prefers to keep them stacked neatly in a laundry basket that lives on the floor next to his side of the bed. I fold and roll my clothes, just as I always have, for my sock drawer, my underwear drawer, my tee shirt drawer and the closet shelf where my jeans live. We happily share the expense and the work.

A woman my age with a thick Maine accent and hair an improbable rich brown with no grey comes in with a load. She’s very short, and can’t reach the top of the big commercial washer to put in detergent. She goes to the counter and gets a step stool from the attendant. Her load is comparatively small and consists of a couple of violently flowered towels, jeans, shirts, socks and underwear, all looking as though they belong to her.

I love to sit and watch the contents of the washer go around through the porthole window. The gush of water, the frothy bubbles of soap and the rotating clothes give me a feeling of all’s-right-with-the-world comfort. In a crazy world, stained by so much hate, bloodshed and tragedy, here’s something within my power. I can do the laundry.

Watching the clothes whirl is like watching the inside of my head. Amongst a jumble of ideas, thoughts, feelings and memories, bits and pieces show themselves or claim my attention for seconds or minutes or hours or days, only to disappear as other colors and patterns come to the forefront of my mind. Now I catch a glimpse of my favorite pair of underwear, purple with turquoise spots. That’s like the brilliant scene, passionate and gripping, I want to write today as I work on my second book. Then a heavy brown sock shows itself, one of the pair I wore on the day I did Tai Chi in the church basement, sock-footed on the cold floor, reminding me that after this I’ll swim, and tomorrow is another Tai Chi day. White socks tumble by too quickly to tell if they’re mine (right-side-out) or my partner’s (inside-out). We need to run to the store. My partner did this chore last time. It’s my turn, but I don’t want to do it today. Tomorrow after Tai Chi? What’s on the grocery list? The sleeve of a plaid flannel shirt plasters itself momentarily against the window and is pushed away by the leg of a pair of heavy canvas Carhartts. Why are men’s Carhartt canvas pants size 32 x 30 a perfect fit, but the same size in denim is too big? The red cloth napkins we’ve been using flutter past.

The expression ‘airing your dirty laundry’ makes me smile. Oh, the shame of admitting feelings, anxieties, mistakes and less-than-perfection! Those unsightly yellow sweat stains under the arms of our shirts must be hidden from the eyes of the world at all costs, along with our humble granny panties, our favorite tattered and torn ancient tee shirt and the old towel the cat lies on. Whatever happens, we mustn’t confess the tangled smelly jumble we occasionally make out of our lives, or uncover our wounds and scars. We must never reveal neglected, malodorous piles of stained laundry in which our hope, innocence or self-esteem are buried.

Some people think admitting to dirty laundry is simply not nice. It lacks class. It’s impolite, and breaks the code of maintaining appearances at all costs. The Emperor is certainly wearing clothes, and they’re never dirty.

Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash

I challenge that. Cleansing is a sacred act of courage and wisdom. If we can’t clean out our infected wounds and cleanse our spirits, our homes and yes, our laundry, our lives won’t work well. Beating, shaking, washing and airing our laundry in the sun and fresh air is an act of healing and renewal. Allowing the world to see our dirty laundry is the beginning of cleansing and repairing, the beginning of uncreasing, unscrunching and untangling the things that disempower us. Doing laundry is a spiritual practice, a reminder that we are just like everyone else, an offering to others of our authenticity and humanity.

Dirty laundry. My daily crime.

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Voices

For several weeks the depth of snow has limited my ability to walk on our 26 acres. Last week we had a couple of inches of rain that arrived with the scent of the sea and tropical warmth, followed by a hard, fast freeze. The rain melted a great deal of snow and we had flooding. The sudden freeze created a hard crust on the remaining few inches of snow, and as we returned to subzero winter temperatures I decided to see if I could get down to the river.

Photo by Vincent Foret on Unsplash

The crust supported my weight–sometimes! Other times I broke through and floundered up to my knees, the icy rind bruising and scraping my lower legs in spite of long underwear and heavy canvas pants. I saw tracks of deer and moose, rodents and birds in the snow. The river, ice encased, had thawed slightly and flooded during the rain, so the cracked ice was piled in slabs. In some fissures I could see open water. In other places thin new ice had formed and old, yellow ice lay flat but spider webbed with cracks.

As I stood next to the river catching my breath and marveling at the power of winter, I could hear the voice of the ice. It’s an odd sound, because it comes from beneath one’s feet rather than the sky or the world around. The ice pops and groans, sings and mutters and snaps. It’s a wild, unearthly voice, a chorus of cold water, cold air and cold crystals, the medley of flowing, living water and rigid winter armor. I wondered what it sounded like to the creatures hibernating in the river bed and the beavers in their dens.

The trees here have voices as well. When the wind blows they creak and groan as they sway, and their branches rub together, making a classic haunted house rusty hinges sound. In the deep winter when it’s very cold, sap freezes, expanding, and the trees explode with a sound like a gun going off. Sometimes they split right through the trunk.

So many voices in this world. Every place has its own special choir, every season its own song. The sound of a beetle chewing bark, the Barred owls calling to each other in the snow-bound January night, the agonized shriek of a vixen calling for a mate on a February midnight of crystal and moon, and the barely discernible high-pitched talk of the bats as they leave their roost at dusk are all familiar voices to me.

I’m a seeker of voice, a listener, partly because I’m a writer and partly because I know what it is to be silenced. Our world contains so much pain and suffering, such unimaginable horror and injustice that my compassion is frequently overwhelmed. I cannot staunch the wounds and wipe the tears of the world.

But I can listen. I can bear witness. I can stand and wonder and marvel at the wild ice, the mating owls, the hunting bats and also the handful of people in my life. For a few minutes, I can encircle another with my presence and attention, allowing their voice to speak freely, truly and fully. I can choose to have no agenda about the voices of others, no expectations or judgements.

I can also give that to myself. It’s only in the last three or four years that I’ve reclaimed my own voice. That, more than anything, is why I began writing this blog. Once a week I sit in front of a blank page and write in my true voice. Blogging, for me, is not about validation or statistics. It’s not about trying to please anyone, click bait or competition. It’s about contributing my voice because I am also here, not more important but as important as anyone else.

Using our voice does not require a listener.

Listening to the ice and the world around me has allowed me to realize, for the first time, how deeply I’m committed to appreciating and supporting authentic voice. My appreciation is a thing apart from agreement or disagreement with what I hear. Speaking our truth is not a matter for criticism. It’s an offering of self, and listening without judgement is an acceptance of that offering. I feel no need to annihilate those I disagree with.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

The dark side of voice is the voice that deliberately drowns everyone else out, the voice that silences, controls and distorts our world and our sense of self. The voice that deliberately destroys is an evil thing, a thing afraid and threatened by the power of others. Dark voices throw words like a handful of gravel in our faces.

An essential part of self-care is learning to recognize, minimize and/or eliminate our exposure to voices that we experience as destructive or silencing. This is boundary work. Note the difference between appropriate boundaries and dropping an atomic warhead. Healthy boundaries do not disrespect, invalidate or silence others.

I wonder what the world would be like if all criticism, jeering and contempt were replaced with “I hear you. I’m listening. I believe in the truth of your experience. You are not alone.” What would we be like if we gave that gift to ourselves?

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

And what of lost voices? I don’t mean unheard or unremarked, but those voices who spoke, faintly, for a moment, and then were silenced so brutally and completely no one but the silencer heard their last cry. Such a person lives, breathes, walks, eats and sleeps, but he or she is a shell mouthing superficial words. Attempts to draw close, to understand, to share authentically and elicit a true voice in return are all in vain. The phone is off the hook. Silence and deflection are the only response. No one is at home. Love and listening count for nothing and behind the mask is only emptiness. Connection is denied.

How many voices can we truly hear? The world is filled with a cacophony of sound made by billions of people. Even here in the heart of Maine the voice of the river is punctuated by traffic noise. We all seem intent on increasing our exposure to voices via social media, 100 TV channels, streaming, downloading and YouTube. Does all this clamor make us better at listening and honoring voices? Can we listen to our child, our mate, the TV and read Facebook all at the same time?

Some people say they can, and perhaps it’s true. What I know is that I can’t. I don’t want to. I don’t feel listened to when I’m competing with other voices. I can’t hear myself when my day is filled with racket and din. I can’t extend the gift of presence to 100 friends on Facebook. I can’t discern between an authentic voice and a dark voice in the middle of uproar.

Voice is precious. It’s sacred. No created character lives in our imagination without voice. Silencing voice is a horrific violation. I have promised myself I’ll never again abdicate my own voice.

Honoring voice, yours, mine, theirs and the world’s: My daily crime.

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Discovering Character

Character: The mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual; a person in a novel, play or movie.

Photo by Nick Grappone on Unsplash

I’m fascinated with the places between. All the places between. Threshold places. Edge-of-chaos places. Here-there-be-dragons places off the edges of maps. It’s in the gaps, fissures, cracks and edges that I mine for the characters that inhabit my writing. It’s in the between places my own character is shaped, and I gain the clearest understanding of the characters around me.

I’ve written about labels before. Discovering characters is not about labels. Labels aren’t people. We’ve had a lot of reminders recently that talent, success, money and power fail to fully define character. Ours is a culture of texts and tweets, acronyms and jargon like “neoliberal” and “postmodernism.” We’ve become skilled at reducing ourselves and others to one-dimensional paper dolls with the application of a label. It’s an all-or-nothing kind of culture. We’ve no time or interest to invest in understanding complexity.

But what lies between the enormously talented actor and his serial sexually abusive behavior? What is the untold story of the “perfect” mother who drives into a lake with her kids in an act of murder and self-destruction? How do we think about the extraordinarily gifted writer who is also homophobic, or a child abuser? Who are we in the gap between what we believe ourselves to be, what we define ourselves to be, what we want ourselves to be, what we’re afraid we are, and how we actually show up in the world in the experience of others?

In that space between lies real character. That’s where I’m at work, listening, taking notes, asking questions and observing. As a writer, I must know my characters. What are they afraid of? What’s their worst memory? What’s their ideal vacation? What motivates them? What does their sock drawer look like? What’s in their car? What’s on their desk? How do they treat a service person? How many unopened emails squat in their inbox? Where do they want to be in five years? In ten years?

Defining ourselves or others by a single characteristic, choice or ideology doesn’t build connection, understanding or empathy. We can spend hours online, commenting, facebooking, blogging and interacting with others about every issue from sexual politics to diet, but none of it defines our character as honestly as how we treat a real live co-worker who identifies as transgender, or what kind of food we actually have in our refrigerator.

Those tantalizing, fertile, often concealed places between! Interestingly, words obscure the places between. Words are capable of seductive lies, but action, especially action taken in the stress of an unexpected moment, points unfailingly to true character.

Another problem with labels is their inflexibility. We each perform hundreds and hundreds of actions a day, and some are notable for how well they don’t work out. Labels imply that we don’t change, we don’t grow, we don’t adapt and adjust and learn, when in fact the opposite is true.

The Johari Window is a concept created by a couple of psychologists in the 1950s to help people understand their relationships with themselves and others. The window suggests that we cannot see ourselves or others entirely, and there is always a space of possibility to discover. Fully defining character becomes a community project. Even so, the unknown or hidden parts of character can and do appear suddenly and overwhelmingly, often resulting in some kind of heinous act and leaving us struggling with what we missed, what we didn’t know or what we didn’t want to admit.

It’s so fatally easy to misunderstand and underestimate others, especially when we can’t observe, talk and interact face-to-face with someone and compare their actions with their words over the long term. Complexity takes time. Making judgements based on labels does not.

As a writer, I’ve learned to look at myself and others with a more interested and less judgemental eye. I’ve learned to set up camp in the places between, look and listen carefully, observe keenly and ask a lot of questions. I’ve concluded that people who toss labels around are often in too much of a hurry to achieve power over others and silence challenge or dissent to engage in thoughtful dialog or discussion. Label users reveal far more about themselves than whoever they’re labeling. It’s a diversionary tactic.

Who is that character hiding behind all the labels they’re slinging left, right and center? What’s really going on with them? What kind of fear, uncertainty, insecurity, pain or lust for power motivates them? Who taught them to use labels so carelessly and unhelpfully? What needs are they trying to meet?

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

An engaging character is one who defies labels, one who challenges preconceptions, one we empathize with and even care about in spite of the abhorrent choices they make. A well-written character is complex and dynamic.

This week is one of those between places. We’re swinging between Christmas and the New Year, between 2017 and 2018. The holiday season has stirred up our memories, our family situations, our nostalgia, grief, gratitude, financial fears and resentments. We’ve traveled, abandoned our usual diet and routines, gotten worn out and indulged in sugar and alcohol. The flu is abroad. The package was stolen off the porch. The dog bit Santa when he came down the chimney.

Here, my friends, is the between place of authentic character. Not who we wish to be. Not who we say we are. Not who we present ourselves as on Facebook or pretend to be for our families and coworkers or resolve to become in the New Year, but who we are today, with our blind spots, our secrets, our fears, our greasy oven, our favorite coffee cup, indigestion, bills to pay, snow to shovel, our comfy sagging chair and what we choose to do with this in-between time.

Powerful characters. May we create them. May we discover, foster and celebrate them in others. May we honor our own.

Our daily crime.

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted