Once the weather gets really nice – late spring around here, or even early summer if it’s a rainy year – I love hanging our laundry out to dry. We have two (TWO!) laundry lines off our back porch, and I find pleasure in the quiet rhythm of shaking open a wet item, reaching for the clothespins, pinning the clothing up, sending the line squeakily towards the yard, and beginning the cycle again. Hours later, as I take the laundry down, I revel in the slight stiffness of some of the dried clothes and the fresh almost non-smell as I fold them.
Laundry lines, which generations past saw as either a necessity or a drudgery, are a luxury for me. Hanging laundry means slowing time and honoring place. We live in a busy downtown where not everyone has a backyard, much less a porch or space and time for laundry. In fact, our house is bounded on one side by housing units, about 10 of which look into our backyard in some way, and on the other side by a larger house that has been divided into three apartments. Our back-door neighbors have a well-used laundry line, and next to them two other houses rise above our yards and look down into our little space. Basically, a lot of people can see our laundry dry.
This potential public combined with my children’s enthusiastic ability to grind dirt into pretty much any item of clothing they wear means that every time I hang the laundry, I end up thinking about the phrase “airing your dirty laundry.” I mean, our laundry is clean-ish, but it’s out there for everyone to see. My neighbors know what my underwear look like, just how big a hole has to be before I declare a shirt unwearable, and exactly how clean is acceptable for socks in our house (hint: not very). I’m not airing our dirty laundry, exactly, but I am surely sacrificing some of our privacy when I head out with a basket full of clothes to dry.
I keep thinking about this. Once upon a time, everyone had to hang their laundry dry. People hung clothes out tenement windows in New York, and Ma hung clothes on the Prairie with Laura and Mary and little Carrie. There was a time when it was scandalous to let your underclothes peek out, but everyone around you knew about your underclothes anyway. Privacy was different then, I imagine. Your neighbors saw your laundry and they knew your business. It must have been an oddly intimate sort of knowing in a time before the tell-all era we currently inhabit.
Today, bras show frankly under t-shirts, boxer shorts parade above saggy jeans, and panties flash below short shorts. Online, I am wildly public about some things, but oddly reticent about others. For example, I cannot for the life of me to bring myself to describe my underwear to you. I’ll hang them up for everyone in the neighborhood to look at, but no way will I write about them here, even though people who read this blog for sure know more about me than some of my neighbors.
Why my hesitation? There are companies on the internet that know more about me than any one person ever will. They know what I browse and where I pause and when I buy. They know all my numbers and statistics and Heaven only knows what else. Yet I curate my social media and consciously choose how to present myself to the world as if my life is private. It’s disconcerting. I don’t particularly like either side of this modern privacy – the curated face or the grasping attempt to monetize everything behind that face. It makes me uncomfortable, like looking at your neighbor in church and knowing that under the fancy Sunday dress are worn-out knickers.
I persist in hanging my laundry. And as I clip another dingy sock to the line, I recognize one more laundry-line luxury: no internet entity, human or otherwise, knows exactly how dirty those socks have to be before I throw them back in the washer for another round. If you want that kind of intimacy, you have to live next door.