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Urban Living - Left out to dry

Style Sheet: Can the clothesline get some respect?

I live with the constant paranoia that people hate my clothesline. I'd love to believe it's an irrational fear — after all, it's just a clothesline, what's to hate? But people do hate them. Neighborhood associations ban them. I am a victim of persecution for practicing the lost art of clothesline usage.

Recently, my family and I moved into a new house, and the old familiar question of where to put the clothesline came up immediately. Sometimes, the answer is obvious. If the yard is secluded and there are sufficient branches or fences to string up the line, then there's no problem. If the neighborhood is transitional, no one will care. And at some of my favorite homes, the old 1950s metal clothesline still stood, just waiting for my fresh laundry.

But at my new home, in the nicest neighborhood I've ever lived in, none of those things are true. My neighbors can see clearly into my backyard, and there is no obvious place to tie the line up.

Over the last 30 years, clotheslines have become associated with poverty, and in many swank neighborhoods they are now banned as an eyesore. My neighborhood has no such ordinance, but I still feel pressure to move my laundry duties indoors; to dry my clothes in a dryer and avoid the disapproving looks that can sometimes come from airing my (clean) laundry.

Where I lived in Brooklyn a few years ago, backyards were threaded with clothes. From my building's roof, the inside of the block resembled a circus with strings of flying colors crisscrossing the yards. It comforted me that in a city so big and sometimes so cold, there was such a tangible sign of humanity and family.

There is also a Zen to hanging clothes on the line, a truly meditative joy that I only come close to matching elsewhere in my life when gardening. Hanging up laundry is a quiet outdoor activity requiring focus. As I take each piece of clothing from the basket, I must figure out where and how to hang it so that when I am done, I have a perfect and beautiful row of clothes: socks, then underwear, then shirts, pants, linens, etc. My husband says, "Who cares? When you take them off the line they just go back in the basket! What does it matter what kind of order they're in or if all the socks face the same direction?" But it matters. It is a small piece of order in my otherwise chaotic life, and it thrills me to get it right.

The task's pure domesticity also thrills me. To individually take each thing my family wears in a week, to handle it and consider it and touch it and shake it out, exposing it to air and sun, is an act of love, and makes me feel as though I am practicing a lost ritual. I enjoy having a physical relationship with the care my family needs. Why this passion doesn't extend to scrubbing the toilet I couldn't tell you. But I'm happy to get joy wherever I find it, whether it makes sense or not.

My clothesline represents the stubborn Luddite in me, the modern girl who still takes immense joy in the simple act of laundering clothes. And so, in my new nice neighborhood, I smile over at my neighbors, enduring their strange looks, while my clothesline gives me the inner serenity to withstand whatever disapproval comes my way.


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