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Monday, September 06, 2010

Why I like folding laundry

Last night, I called Jon Richardson to check in on his first day as Priest In Charge of his new parish in Jersey City, NJ.

For those of you who may not know, Jon was my seminarian for two years. He returned to spend last year as Interim Youth Missioner with me. One of the real joys was having him ordained to the priesthood last December at St. Paul's.

So, I called to check in on his first day in his new congregation. He preached a fine sermon which you can read here.

He said it went well - just a few "hiccups" in the liturgy - but that he had spent the afternoon clearing out the back yard of the rectory property, which had been grown over by weeds. He's gotten it to the point where he's actually planted some grass seed and some of it is starting to sprout.

He was watering it with large containers of water, but when he cleared out some more of the bramble, he saw that there was an outside water faucet. Unfortunately, he discovered that it had frozen and burst in some frigid past winter season, and he set out to fix that. After the faucet was fixed, he then found a hose in the basement which he hooked up and is now able to regularly water his newly sprouting lawn.

I laughed and said, "Well, Jon, now that you've gone through all this trouble, you've just made yourself a whole lot more work. I mean, that grass is going to have to be cut, you know."

"I know," he said with a chuckle and then told me a story about his Dad, who is a now retired Methodist pastor. Back in the day, however, when he and the family lived in the parsonage, someone from the church would always come by and offer to cut the grass on the lawn.

His Dad would always decline saying, "You know, there's so much I do in ministry that I don't get to see the results. At least, when I cut the lawn, I can look behind me and see what I've done."

I understand. Completely.

Which is why I like to fold the laundry.

There's something about taking the towels out of the dryer or off the clothes line and smelling their freshness. I love to put them all in a great pile on the bed or on the kitchen table and take a moment to stand back and look at the disorganized mess that's there.

Then, slowly, one by one, I take out the towels and fold them just the way my mother folded them - and her mother before her. It's always in thirds across the broad end of the towel and, depending on the size of the towel, in thirds again lengthwise.

My grandmother said that all work can become prayer if you remember something about God as you're doing it. Towels - like pillow cases and sheets and tablecloths - are folded in thirds, she said, so as to remind you of the mystery of the Trinity. She encouraged me to say - or sing - the Doxology as I worked.

As each towel is folded, I love to stack them up on each other to take to the linen closet where they are transferred to the shelves. I love to put them all in order and then, once again, stand back to appreciate my work before I close the door.

I sometimes actually feel my shoulders lighten as I walk away from the linen closet. I can feel my step become a little quicker as I glance back over my shoulder at my humble accomplishment.

There is something deeply soul-satisfying about manual labor like folding clothes, cleaning house, mowing the lawn. Some of us don't know this satisfaction because we hire others to do it for us - housekeepers, gardeners, etc.

Indeed, we just said farewell to our housekeeper, Linda, who was part of our family for the last 14 years. She was with us in Maplewood and Chatham, coming once a week, every week, on Friday morning.

She's from Brazil and would often challenge me by speaking in Portuguese, forcing my memory banks into overdrive to try and keep up. We sometimes worked together, side-by-side, to accomplish a major seasonal cleaning challenge.

We've known each other through her divorce, the death of her youngest brother, and I went to court with her when she and her daughter gained American citizenship.

What I know from my family roots - which were reinforced in my relationship with Linda - is that there is enormous dignity in humble acts of service.

Linda always took great pride in my clean rectory. She had an air of dignity about her as she went about all her seemingly menial tasks. She liked to say - by way of boasting and reminding herself of the purpose of her work - that it was her money which allowed for most of her family to come to this country "for a fresh start".

In case you didn't know, this - THIS - is why we celebrate Labor Day.

It's not just the "official" end of the summer season. Neither is it just the beginning of the Baseball Pennant Season which segues into the start of the NFL and College Football Seasons or NASCAR racing.

Labor Day is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. Celebrated on the first Monday of September, it constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

Most of those 'workers' came to this country for a 'fresh start' - or a new beginning. Many of the threads of the Labor movement are tied up in the whole cloth of the Immigration movement.

These workers not only form the foundation of the "strength, prosperity and well-being of our country," they are the invisible threads of dignity that remind us of the principles on which this country was founded.

I remember them not just on Labor Day but every time I fold laundry, as well.

I give thanks to my grandmother who worked as a domestic on Beacon Hill in Boston when she first immigrated to this country when she was 15 years old.

I give thanks to my mother who worked as an assembly line presser and was a card-carrying member of the ILGWU - the International Lady Garment Worker's Union - as one of the mill girls in Fall River, MA.

I give thanks to all the people who work in factories, or drive trucks, or clean houses or hotels or cut lawns, or work in fast-food restaurants, or on farms - many of whom are not the beneficiaries of the Labor Union Movement and therefore, do menial work for meager wages. I pray that their hope and dignity are never compromised by the low state of their compensation.

Finally, I give thanks for the mystery of the Trinity which gives shape and form to my life - how the third generation grand daughter of a lowly peasant woman had the opportunity for a fine education and a lovely home on Rehoboth Bay on the Delmarva Peninsula of the Eastern Shore of Delaware.

Actually, what I enjoy most is looking behind me - way behind me - and seeing everything I've been able to achieve because of the accomplishments of so many people who've gone before me.

It makes my whole physical and emotional and spiritual being feel lighter and causes my heart to sing.

And, you thought I was just folding laundry.


susan s. said...

Lovely, thought provoking post. Re 'just' folding laundry. . . I get the feeling that you never 'just' do anything!

Mary Beth said...

I just love this post and reading your writing. What a blessing. It helps that I, also, love to fold laundry. Putting it away, not so much. The Doxology may help!

Geeklet said...

Perhaps I shall have a whole new perspective on cleaning, now that i have read this. Thank you for it! :D

Mary Jo Campbell said...

My grandmother arrived from Ireland on New Years Day 1900. She, too, was a domestic. East Boston was her home and the place from which most of us were launched.
Although she has been with God these past 43 years, I can still remember the radio on each morning and the unmistakable voice of Cardinal Cushing saying the rosary. Putting my head under a pillow did not completely drown him out. Now I am glad of that.

Katie Billotte said...

Both of my grandmothers (one Greek and one Italian) also did the "folding the towels in thirds" thing. I do it to--partially out of habit--but also because I try hard to find as much purpose in simple tasks as they did.

Christian Paolino said...

Along that theme, then pairing up the socks is like reading Numbers (or sometimes the Parable of the Lost Sheep). And fitted sheets? Revelations, totally.

VTcrone said...

A lovely post.
Just a reminder that you might want to change your up-to-the-minute weather report under "Al Roker ain't got..." Do you really care what the weather is in Chatham these days?
I fed the fish again, as always.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Marcia. I tried to change it but it wouldn't do it so I removed it. When I have time I'll see if I can add a new weather badge.

The fish say, "Thanks, Aunt Marcia."