Hanging a Clothesline and Other Movement Matters

It has been three weeks since I did it: I hung a clothesline.

In the end, it was easy. I took the cotton cord Geoff bought at the local hardware store, walked into the backyard, and strung the line between two obliging birch trees. Five minutes later, the deed was done.

I had been waiting to hang the line, however, for months. Despite my best intentions, I couldn’t manage to get out the door. On the one hand, I was so tired of the queasy disease that erupted in my belly every time I pushed the “on” button of our electric dryer. I know too much about how much electricity my dryer consumes (up to 12% of the household tally), in order to do the work that sun and wind can do for free, without cost to the environment, just steps beyond the wall.

On the other hand, I was hemmed in by habit, and by lingering doubts as to whether or not line drying would be as cool or as convenient as plug, press, and spin. Finally, the resistance overrode the ruts, and pushed me out the door with cord, clothespins, and hamper in hand. My kids came along, cheering me on, eager to participate. I wondered how long this festive air would last.
To hang my first shirts, I reach into a bag for wooden pins that look exactly like ones my grandparents must have used. Generations collapse. I lift the clothes to the line, and place the clip, then another. Piece by piece, I lift and stretch and smooth.

 As the line fills with clothes, niggling doubts flood my mind. I should be using a dryer. I smile at my cultural conditioning. It wasn’t so long ago that everyone hung clothes to dry. Then came the marketing campaigns of the 1950s, urging people to Live Better Electrically. The meaning of a clothesline shifted. No longer a useful implement for drying laundry, it became a waving flag alerting all who could see that those living here were poor, behind the times, and unable to keep up.

Since then, the clothesline has been a social stigma, legally banned in cities, towns, and neighborhoods throughout the United States for being aesthetically unappealing, a drain on property values, a blight to the neighborhood. It is most often a question of class.

Since 2007, Susan Taylor has been fighting her homeowner’s association for the right to hang a line. On July 26, 2008, a man died in Verona, Mississippi when his neighbor, tired of asking him not to hang his clothes, shot him.

Yet, as I make my way down the line to the second birch tree, I remind myself. Times are changing, and so is the meaning of the clothesline. Increasingly, the clothesline is a sign of freedom—the freedom to resist patterns of consumption that are fueling our ecological crisis. It is a sign of a commitment to reduce the energy we use to wear and wash, and its attendant costs. I want to stay in touch with my freedom.

Recently, Colorado joined Hawaii, Maine, Vermont, Florida, and Utah in passing a right-to-dry act; other states are following suit. In March 2010, British filmmaker Steven Lake released a documentary, Drying for Freedom, based on the Verona murder and more. Susan Taylor has received national and international media coverage for her three-year battle.

A recent survey from the Pew Foundation found that the percentage of Americans who believe that a clothes dryer is a necessity (rather than a luxury) declined by 17%, a drop in status second only to the microwave.

Once a sign of being unable to afford a dryer, a clothesline is a sign that we can no longer afford the environmental cost of operating one.
I empty the laundry basket and step back to survey the array. Shirts of assorted sizes hang shoulder to shoulder; pants jog in the breeze. Sheets flutter, socks flap, and towels hang heavy. There is pleasure in the patterns of shape and color, and in the movement that reveals the movement of the breeze I now sense blowing against my cheeks. The sun is warm. The grass soft beneath my feet.

As the day passes, I peek out the window. The clothes are still there, waving away, like so many Tibetan prayer flags, honoring the earth. They are drying, all by themselves, without the sound of an electric motor. Without chemical odor. So much work is being done for so little. I love it.

Later in the afternoon I go outside again, take a breath, and take down the clothes. They are slightly stiff. Sun-baked and wind-swept. They fold crisply into piles like so many leaves.

I like this. I am surprised at how much I do. It is the relief of not hearing the noise. It is the occasion to go outside. It is the smell of the fresh clothes. It is the money and energy and earth I am saving. But more than any of these, what makes the experience remarkable to me is the reminder it yields about movement.

Now, as I do laundry, I can move. I reach and twist, bend over, sink down, and rise again, folding and unfolding a bodily self that has spent more than enough of the day sitting at a computer. It is the movement of walking outside, of responding to the whims and whorls of nature, of being present to this place. It is the movement of aligning my efforts with the rhythms of day and night, sun and rain, heat and cold, in ways that pace my efforts and nourish my sensory self.
This clothesline and my unexpectedly enthusiastic response to it have got me thinking. So many of our labor and time saving devices work to save us labor and time by reducing our opportunities for moving our bodily selves. Yet in the name of granting us pleasure, they deprive us of a primary source of it—moving our bodily selves. In the name of protecting us from the inconveniences of the natural world, they separate us from its nourishing effects.

When we move we breathe; when we breathe we feel; when we feel we have resources for thinking and feeling in new ways. We bring our senses to life. We bring sense to life.

Of course, we want to believe that our labor and time saving devices are giving us the freedom to move however we want to, whenever we want, to get that pleasure pure and unhampered by practical concerns.

However, the reality is that once we separate our immense capacity to move our bodily selves from our requirements for living, our bodily movement no longer carries the same significance it once had. Movement is then about entertainment or recreation or physical health; we no longer perceive it or value it as essential to our mental and spiritual well being, or as a key to creating a mutually enabling relationship with the natural world. Movement drops as a priority in our lives, falling in rank below the “necessary” tasks of school and work, screen time and the effort of maintaining all of our time and labor saving devices. We find it difficult to motivate ourselves to move, and cannot figure out why.
I have been looking over my blog entries for the past two and a half years. I see a pattern. Every fall, I have made a new move, reinventing my blog to focus on a different aspect of my project. I spent the first nine months laying out the structure of What a Body Knows, before devoting a year to telling Farm Stories, and another to Making Connections between my work in What a Body Knows and cultural conversations in the news.

It is time to string a new line. The sense of needing to make a change is overriding my habitual approach. In the next few months, I will be focusing more specifically on movement—human movement, bodily movement.

I want to explore how we are moving and what we are creating when we do. I want to investigate what movements we evolved to make and why we can; what movements we have the potential to make and why we should. I want to explore how vital our practices of movement are for creating a mutually enabling relationship to the natural world. I want to write about dance.

It’s time to hang some new thoughts, air them out, and give them time to flap in the breeze.

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