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My laundry line hangs under our crabapple tree in downtown Fredericton.

My backyard line hangs beneath a crabapple tree.

I have a confession to make. I love clotheslines. I hang mine with pride and look for them everywhere. The Ottawa Citizen recently ran an essay I wrote about the art of hanging laundry. I am not sure how long the piece will stay on their site, so I am posting it here.

The family line

A clothesline was once about drying clothes. Everyone’s mother knows that sunshine and a stiff breeze are all anyone needs to get all the sheets and Dad’s shirts dry.

But in this age of hipster-cool fixed-gear bikes, slow-cooked organic food and urban car co-operatives, pinning your fair-trade cotton undies across the yard is almost a political statement.

New suburbanites, forced to retreat to more affordable neighbourhoods where they can raise their toddlers on pesticide-free lawns, are fighting subdivision covenants that forbid the display of damp sheets. It’s about the planet, they argue.

Here in the Maritimes, that sort of self-righteousness makes us smirk. We’ve always known the value of a good laundry line. It’s less about the planet and more about being sensible. And there’s the satisfaction of building something beautiful and revealing from the daily fragments of your life.

I often wonder what people think as they walk past my backyard line, pinned daily with a flashy mix of little-girl skirts and nightgowns, towels, pants, mismatched socks and the occasional black, metal band T-shirt owned by my teenage stepson.

When my father built our childhood home in Dartmouth, N.S., in 1976, my mother asked for two things — a canary yellow double sink for the kitchen and a clothesline. My mother, a Montrealer, was ahead of her time in many ways, teaching my brother and me to step lightly on the planet and to avoid chemical foods and hydrogenated fats. She is also a domestic esthete, and appreciated the je ne sais quoi that a laundry line added to our new street.

Mom got the yellow sink and the laundry line. I spent a lot of time in service to both and learned valuable lessons about beauty in the everyday. Laundry, like art, is all about choice and expressing your own idea of what’s acceptable and beautiful.

There are no real rules about what goes on a clothesline, only a generally accepted set of principles, some practical and some not, usually handed down within families. Some people hang their underwear, some don’t . Some hang only sheets, tablecloths and towels; I hang everything.

My mother taught me that large or heavy items go first, because they take longest to dry and can be left out while the line is refilled. Items of similar shape should go together. Underwear and socks go last.

Similar colours should go together. Red things go next to pink things, and if you want to hang an orange thing next, find something with pink and orange in it to separate the two.

Colour order is less important than hanging a taut and tidy line using just the right number of spring-loaded wooden pins. Towels must be hung level with the line, sheets folded over and pegged three times. Speaking of pins, they must do double-duty, connecting each item so nothing bunches in the middle.

My mother is a wise woman who taught me many things and encouraged my independent spirit. I have absorbed her lesson and incorporated my own, admittedly more random clothesline esthetic.

Years ago, an artist friend introduced me to the idea of wabi-sabi, a Japanese concept that finds beauty in asymmetry, impermanence and natural transience.

Wabi-sabi celebrates imperfections, simplicity, modesty, intimacy and fleeting beauty. No concept more fully expresses my own approach to hanging laundry.

To wit, the sum total of this morning’s effort is as follows; a large, lettuce-green bath towel, two tablecloths (one green, one yellow), a women’s knit top hung upside down, two pairs of women’s shorts (forest green, beige), a set of green-patterned, kids’ one-piece pyjamas, three green napkins, three pairs of panties (one large and two very small with Curious George on the front), a pair of white ankle socks, and a bright blue bra.

The items are arranged more or less by their membership in the greenish-blue colour family, except for the large, yellow tablecloth in the middle. I am not sure why I put it there, except that it seemed right to put the two tablecloths together and because it looks pretty there, with the breeze lifting it up

But everyone has different ways of doing things, and family traditions are displayed in backyards and front porches all over the world.

Big families, or people with a lot of laundry, tend to try to fit as much as they can on the line using as few pins as possible. Couples, including the pair of scientists who live next door, hang their small loads in the centre of the line, sometimes with large gaps between items, with two pins per item — an unheard of luxury in most families.

In countries where personal space is limited, people get creative. There again, it’s less about the planet and the perception of cool and more about simple necessity.

At dusk on one January night in Shanghai, I watched a small girl in pigtails stand on a wheelbarrow and lift hangers filled with clothing from the branches of a tree on a busy commercial street. She gathered the dry items into her arms before walking alone into the crowd.

My own daughter is just five and cannot yet reach our laundry line. She often stands with me on the lobster box we use as a step, handing up pins and helping to fold smaller things as they come off. She helps mostly to fill the time while she waits for me to finish, so I can watch her practice bike riding.

I am not sure what she’ll remember from these long summer days , but I hope she’ll embrace the impermanent beauty of all this. The time we share stringing memories across the backyard and the beautiful, moving sculpture we build together, waving gently in the breeze.

And OK, I don’t really mind that it saves on my power bill.

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

July 2018
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