Posts Tagged ‘washerwomen’

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


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!


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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