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“My mother’s church was a line of rope that she stretched over time to me”

WASH!

Whenever I see laundry hanging on a line, I am transformed.

What may seem common and ordinary to some, a public embarrassment to others; is so beautiful and meaningful for me that I am moved to the core.

I know I am not alone in this. Many of us feel this way. Maybe it happens for you, as well? (What do you experience when you see a washline?)

At least for a moment – if just for a split second – wherever I am and whatever the line (truly it does not matter) – all else evaporates and I am drawn into a collapsed experience of time. In less than a heartbeat, for that’s all it takes, I am connected to something universal and true.

I am one with all the women who, since the beginning of time through today, are gathering down at the riverbanks, at the lavatoi, lavabos or lavoirs, washing their clothes, hanging out the laundry, sharing their stories, looking out for each other and creating their lives together.  I am in the conversation with them. (What does this image trigger for you? What kind of conversations do you imagine?)

Too often, this talking at the washline has been trivialized, framed as “gossip,” but it is so much more than that. The daily conversations taking place at the washline are of a special nature. Life takes shape and form as women get down to the nitty-gritty to talk openly and from the heart.

There is a cold-water-in-your-face kind of realism that gets aired at the washline. We are talking about some pretty heavy-duty, come-clean, carry-on, identity-forging conversations. (Where are these conversations taking place today?)

There is a persistent sense of optimism also, a built-in belief in a new day, that is embedded in the actual act doing laundry.(What keeps you going?  What inspires you to get out of bed in the morning?)

Before we get too far along, I want to be careful to not wax nostalgic, romanticize the notion or oversimplify the message about the washline.  Many of the women I have in my mind’s eye are overburdened by the workload.   Too often, the kinds of gatherings I am talking about connect to poverty, displacement and gender-based disadvantage. (What are the implications when women or other sub-groups of populations are responsible to take on the invisible “dirty” work? – see Hans Rosling’s video for a deeper view and unique perspective on poverty and the role of the washing machine)

 

By shifting how we think about our own experience and by rethinking our collective history, we can reframe the legacy of our mothers and foremothers to bear witness to their experience and fully honor their contribution.

We can draw on the attributes and characteristics of this community, these kinds of conversations, and then take it to the next level. (What would be required of us?)

The ground is fertile for this type of mind-shift to take place. In pockets, it is happening already, how could it not?  It seems, after all, that we are drawn to it.

This washerwomen culture resonates with us because it is already deeply embedded in our psyche through daily activities, stories, art, literature, music, iconography and symbolism.

My own Italian-American background is steeped in washerwomen culture and my personal experience tracks closely with what I am describing.

As small children, we experienced the love of our mother, Yolanda, at our own washline. It was there, in this open-air spiritual sanctuary that we would play for endless hours, listening to her sing as she would hang the wash or talk across the fence-line with our neighbors. At times the conversations were lighthearted, at other times they were full of concern or worry.  Often, the heavier conversations were shared sotto voce, in mutually held glances or through subtle touch – stepping in to hang a sheet together or gather a line was another way of saying, “I am here for you, you are not in this alone.”

At times, watching from afar, we could see our mother conversing in solitude, working things out, working things through.  The kinesthetic of the repetitive movements (a choreography for certain), the exposure to the elements (sun, wind, water, outdoor smells, etc.), and the time for uncluttered thinking were transformational.

Doing laundry is therapeutic.

I have had hundreds of conversations with people about this and I read references to laundry as therapy all the time.  As one example, Patti Smith, in an interview with Deborah Solomon for the New York Times, attributed her sanity to her mother and the wash experience.

“I had a very good model. My mother had no end of tragedy in her life. She would make herself get up and take a deep breath and go out and do laundry. Hang up sheets. She told me that when she looked at the laundry, the sheets flowing in the wind, and the sun, it was like a fresh start.”

For the rest of the interview.

Like Patti, we took it all in.

And always, the air was different there: this no-nonsense, feminine, accepting, inviting, mother-earth, rising-above-it-all, expanding energy was powerful, palpable and full of grace. How can I describe this? To describe it truly is to lose it. (What experiences do you find difficult to describe? What words would you link together to convey them?)

There is something that remains when everything else is spoken for.

We were a large family so doing laundry was a daily ritual. We were always in the thick of it.  We (all five of us!) went to the washline if we were looking for our mom’s attention; scraped knees, sibling arguments, missing sneakers all got dealt with at the line.

As we got older, we went to the washline just to help or hang out. We learned so much by listening to our mom talking with our neighbors: it was here that our consciousness began to develop. (Where and how do you experience your consciousness developing?)

Through this subtly coded meaning system that functions as a memetic or metaphysical DNA,  and our exposure to this cumulative conversation – this uninterrupted “umbilical cord” of human civilization  – we learned how to be in this world and how to relate to each other.

It is through this perspective that, more than anything else, I see myself as a temporary custodian or momentary host (the link between my mother and my daughter, this generation and the next, all of our ancestors and all of our children) in this next-stage evolutionary conversation, we call “life.”

That may be all there is to it and frankly, if that is the case, it should be enough. To fully embody our voices in the present moment and host this conversational link in time in such a way that the cumulative conversation of the past is fully mined and honored as the incubating conversations of the future may be enriched, fully expressed and fulfilled.

The responsibility and promise of that role is precisely what I am working to articulate and sponsor with you through WASH!

Life.

Through this forum, I will be using WASH! as a platform and the concept of The Washline to examine health-engendering attributes of consciousness and community with you.  I will be asking you the same questions I have been asking myself. What does health look like?  How do we create health with each other?  What contexts support us to create emotional health? How does relational health ensure that we thrive as a species? What does it mean to be in a custodian or host of a next stage evolutionary conversation? What changes when we step into such a role? What is possible when we speak openly and fully embody our voices?

***

(Just watch this version of Canto De Lavanderas by Vasallos Del Sol to experience the spirit of what I am describing.)

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“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” 
                                                     – Albert Einstein

“It’s time to roll up our sleeves and do the wash.”  In other words, let’s start talking about and taking action on things that really matter. For me, doing the wash is synonymous with change-oriented talk, and this blog post is all about hosting a new kind of conversation that is grounded in the universal activity of doing laundry and the metaphor of wash.

Over the next few weeks I will be introducing the multi-layered conversation that is WASH!, the collective vision that is driving it and The Washline Project as a vehicle to put WASH! into action. I will be sharing the work, experience and ideas of the many people – story-tellers, scientists, social activists artists, educators, innovators, children and people like me, people like you – who contribute to the washline.

For all of you who have being following WASH! and for those of you who are brand new to its energetic pull, I thank you in advance for your attention and I welcome your participation.

***

But first, I want to confess something right out of the gate…

We’re over the recommended word count.

Oh, I know what your thinking… rule-breaker already?

Exactly.

***

Whatever WASH! is, it is not a sound bite. There is no easy way to lay a foundation for the kind of large scale, participatory conversation I am describing.  It is personal, it’s social, it’s your family, it’s your community and it’s across the globe…

So, let’s just begin with a keystone principle.

Conversation is the Cure

Pretty much everything I will be sharing going forward stems from this life-organizing mantra.

And here are six related ideas for what follows today:

  • 1 – Conversations are living systems
  • 2 – We’ve got big problems
  • 3 – Our brains are socially wired and evolving
  • 4 – We are all more or less depressed
  • 5 – As a narrative therapist, I work with stories
  • 6 – Conversation is art and art is activism

That’s the “cheat sheet” but peeling the onion for each of those ideas will require your full attention.

Conversation is the cure.

It certainly seems that way.  When we talk about things that matter, we feel better. Feeling better supports self-agency and collaboration and we make better decisions when we are calm.That seems easy enough.Well maybe in theory, but in practice it’s another story entirely.Talk is hard.There are all these variables: who says what to whom, in what way, under what circumstances, to what end, all count. And context, timing and sequence count also; conversations change by virtue of time’s directional arrow.  The conversation of a minute ago has changed even if nothing is said.So, conversations cannot be controlled or predicted entirely, they are complex, adaptive (yes, living!) systems and can only be influenced, shaped, hosted, enabled.   If we try to shut down a living conversation, we find that it re-emerges for better or worse in another context or setting, stronger as a result.  Life finds its way, and so do conversations.There you go.There is much research available to help us to explore and understand this phenomenon and we can always look to the philosophers, poets and children to step in where no research is available to illuminate for us the mysteries and to close any gaps in our own experience or thinking.So, there seems to be an evolutionary mechanism at play as language, thought and emotion ricochet into this lively, intricate, self-organized emulsion of meaning-making supported by our developing, socially structured brains. This is one way to conceptualize the whole of human civilization: as a cumulative conversation, a river of meaning or consciousness that resonates universally while also allowing for and remaining open to new information, stimuli or energy (i.e. the washline).To be clear, I am talking about very big conversations.It is only through very big conversations (and they often begin in seemingly very small ways) that we can begin to grasp and grapple with the truly daunting problems (globally and in each of our backyards) that we are facing today – problems that include famine, war, bullying, prejudice, bias, water, political oppression, domestic and gender-based violence, our response to natural disasters, the environment and more.

Like many of you, platitudes and easy solutions put forth to further political agendas or protect self interests do not work for me and I try hard to not become jaded or cynical.

I ask myself what it would take to imagine, talk through and enact truly collaborative and caring solutions across the globe and I work hard to create the holding space within myself to support that vision and to contribute to the conversation that could help get us there.

We’ve got a few things in our favor.

Our brains are social – this means we are not stuck with what we’ve got, we are constantly evolving. Our brains respond to social interaction and stimuli in the form of energy, semiotics and language.

There is untapped potential here.

Einstein said that the consciousness that created the problem; cannot be used to solve the problem.

Well, thank goodness then that we have each other!

Lately, when I need a nudge to be more hopeful about the state of world, I listen to Symphony Of Science’s, Ode to the Brain, featuring Carl Sagan, Robert Winston, Vilayanur Ramachandran, Jill Bolte Taylor, Bill Nye, and Oliver Sacks. In this way, this group of thinkers, these scientists have become part of my internalized community… my washline.  Just listen to what they have to say (well, sing actually) about our brains…

Comparatively (mass to mass) our brains exert more energy than the sun. How do we tap into this vast potential? Certainly there are solutions within our grasp, if only we allow ourselves to be open to them.What does it take to become open?Being open involves energy and imagination and would require that we address the widespread low-grade depression that is sapping our energy worldwide. When problems are too big to take in, when they are impossible to comprehend, when they are so enormous that we feel there is nothing we can do about them, we feel depressed. And that kind of widespread low-grade depression is a much bigger problem than any of the problems that I outlined earlier.Conversation is the cure –When we talk about things, we feel better; and when we feel better, we are able to take action on what ails us.To address the type of depression I am referencing here, we will need to start talking about things that really matter … and not give up.I want to be clear though – I am not advocating for polite or superficial conversations or conversations where we don’t haggle over differences. The most difficult conversations are often the very best conversations: they create opportunities for transformational change.  I am advocating for bold, imaginative, holding accountable, caring conversations that invigorate our thinking and call forth our most creative and imaginative selves.In this way, conversation is art and art is activism.So this is why I am putting my focus on talk.

As a family therapist, I have been trained in narrative therapy.  This means that I believe that we create and experience our lives (as individuals, families, communities, countries) through our stories. The stories we tell each other about each other, the stories we tell about ourselves, etc. shape our identity. As a narrative therapist, I am versed in therapeutic conversation and experience with my clients the power of language to story and re-story our lives. As an advisor to CEOs and teams in global organizations, I know that corporations can and must develop new narratives in order to participate in creating and enacting the kind of solutions that I have described here. I see examples (too few, but a start nonetheless) that should be celebrated, studied and further enabled. As a concerned citizen of the world and above all, as a parent, I see the need to extend the boundaries of the therapeutic conversation into much larger environments.  This is what I would like to share with you.

Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing how The Washline is the hosting environment for a very large therapeutic conversation and how WASH! functions as the springboard to get that conversation started.

I hope you will join me in a social change experiment, organized around a participatory art project and a load of wash.  It is the result of over 15 years of research and writing and represents thousands of conversations and recollections with others; with many of you. We will be introducing provocative ideas, useful research, conceptual frames, helpful examples, and stories… lots and lots of stories.   In short, we’ll be pulling everyone in and putting everything out on the line – coming clean to support a vibrant conversation about what is possible.

We are all in this together, so what do you most want to contribute to get this conversation started?

An Invitation

Audiences are invited into the conversation, contributing memories, stories and images that can be archived and presented on the Wash! website. They can also be brought into the Wash! project by supporting fundraising for the production of the book through pre-sale subscriptions or by memorializing loved ones through written dedications included within its pages. Proceeds from the sale of these limited-edition volumes help to finance and safeguard the work of the Taller Leñateros collective. Finally, to support women through the Wash! Women, Work and Water Initiative, we recommend contributions to http://www.womenforwomen.org or http://www.water.org. These award-winning organizations support political freedom and economic independence for women and access to water for every citizen of the world.

Taller Leñateros

The Taller Leñateros has been operating as a papermaking, printmaking, and bookmaking cooperative studio and store for over 25 years. Producing extraordinary books of original art, fiction, and poetry, the Taller is working to keep alive the papermaking traditions of Mayan culture. Natural plant fibers are cooked and rinsed, then blended with recycled paper to produce paper pulp. The pulp is then cast in molds or pressed onto metal sheets and dried in the sun. All proceeds from the Wash! book go to support the Taller Leñateros.