Practices that sustain life

Laundry in Venice. Photo by Marco Secchi via Unsplash

“After a day of too much information about almost everything, there is such a blessed relief in the weight of wet clothes, causing the wicker basket to creak as I carry it out to the clothesline.  Every time I bend down to shake loose a piece of laundry, I smell the grass. I smell the sun. Above all, I smell clean laundry. This is something concrete that I have accomplished, a rarity in my brainy life of largely abstract accomplishments…So is digging in the garden, cleaning the chicken pens, washing the potatoes, doing the dishes. I know there are people who would give anything to do these things, people whose bodies have become so numb, too busy, too old or painful to do them. These are the practices that sustain life – not only my life and the lives entwined with mine, but the lives of all human beings.”Barbara Brown Taylor

One recent morning I began by doing a load of laundry. It might seem counter-intuitive, but it was a perfect way to start the day. As I went about the task, I thought about how fortunate I was, to be able to go as slowly as I wanted to go while doing it. I enjoyed it in the same way I enjoy doing the dishes, and for the same reason.

Somewhere around 20 years ago, Jeff grew impatient with how infrequently I did the laundry (he couldn’t stand letting it pile up too much) and rather than nag me about it, he took over that particular chore by his own choice. There were times when I offered to take back the responsibility for getting the clothes washed, but he always refused, and now I believe he probably enjoyed it. So, apparently, does Taylor.

How mindful of her to point out that many people would give anything to have the time, resources, or physical ability to go about these simple but necessary tasks. In a world where humans are increasingly fragmented into special interest groups and adversarial factions, it’s refreshing to engage in an activity that unites us with others all over the world, through our common necessary chores.

Next time you are feeling blue, perhaps a movie or shopping trip or similar escape might be less fulfilling than giving yourself the gift of as much time as you want to accomplish a seemingly mundane household duty. With awareness, it can become an act of meditation, a chance to sing your heart out with only yourself to hear, or a time to ponder and pray. What humble assignments await your creative transformation today?


  1. Good morning, Julia!
    “These are the practices that sustain life.”
    Indeed they are.
    With a recent episode of excessive dampness, mildew did abound, and this past weekend I spent a good deal of time sustaining life by fighting mildew using my trusty washing machine, dryer, and plenty of vinegar.
    I also used plenty of hand lotion.
    And I noticed that using fragrance-free detergent leaves a lack of fragrance in one’s laundry. I was surprised by how much I had counted on that “laundry fragrance” as an indicator of cleanliness, although of course it isn’t an indicator, really.
    Feeling almost Zen-like, after mounds of smell-free laundry. 😌

    • Susan, we quit using scented laundry detergent more than 30 years ago, when we were looking for possible aggravating factors in toddler Matt’s hyperactivity. I followed the Feingold diet for him and that meant getting rid of all chemical colors, flavors and scents — which meant using Cheer “Free and clear” which at that time was the only scent-free, color-free detergent. Lo and behold, going chemical-free did seem to make a big difference in Matt’s ability to calm down and sleep more, but we all found out we liked fewer chemicals in our environment and foods, so I’ve never looked back. I use vinegar in place of fabric softener in my washing machine’s liquid dispenser, and always add an extra rinse cycle. I find the clothes never have any vinegar smell, only well-rinsed, fresh cleanliness. Now unscented and color-free detergent choices abound in all the grocery stores, and there are many foods available that have no artificial colors or flavors. Hooray! I have a strong aversion (almost a phobia) to getting mildew anywhere, so I run a dehumidifier inside both homes, and always squeegee my shower stall and wipe it down with a cloth after Matt or I take a shower. Much easier than trying to get mildew stains out after they have set in.

      • Susan

        Julia, I love scents and have all sorts of scented soaps, body wash, and lotions! But I too have always bought unscented detergent and fabric softener, and use the extra rinse cycle. It’s interesting how we develop such strong but different preferences in some areas. I once wrote on another forum that I was glad we didn’t have to hang laundry outside like previous generations did, and several friends chimed in about how they love hanging laundry outside and wish they had time to do it more often!

        For a year or so after they were first married, one of my sons and his wife lived in a cute apartment on Old Town that didn’t have its own washer and dryer, so every weekend they would come over and do their laundry here. It wasn’t an imposition, we looked forward to it because it ensured that they made time to come over, and we set aside the time to spend with them. Making lemons from lemonade 🙂 .

        • Susan, during years 2-4 of our marriage we had a washer but no dryer, so the clothesline was a must. After the babies were born, we moved to Ohio where I had both, which was wonderful after Year 1 of laundromats and then three years without a dryer. But I still used the clothesline when it was warm weather, because I liked the idea of fresh air drying the baby clothes. I think it would be lots of fun to have your kids come over to do the laundry. When I was engaged to Jeff, the guy who had introduced us was my very close friend, and I used to go to his apartment sometimes to do the laundry just so I could avoid the laundromat. His apartment complex had a laundry room and while the clothes were washing and drying I could go back to his apartment and hang out and visit. Jeff was totally cool with that because he knew my friend (who was his friend too, and his frat brother) was just that…a friend. Jeff’s lack of jealousy about my male friends was one reason I knew he was a keeper. But as Raynard says, I digress…the point being, yes, doing the laundry can often be a great chance to make lemons with lemonade!

          • Susan

            Oh, that’s a great picture. Thank you for sharing your memories of Jeff with us.

            • 🙂 ❤

  2. Julia, I love this! Though I shower daily, I am always aware of how much I enjoy and appreciate the experience. I lived without running water for a year decades ago, and know others who still do. Doing without can really impact our perspectives. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Zoe, great point! I seldom stop to think about how wonderful it is to have running water that can be adjusted to the exact temperature I want for showering or baths. When we stop to count our blessings, surely plumbing must be at the top of the list. Bill Bryson’s book At Home raised my awareness of how wonderful our water treatment systems are, compared with what people lived (and died) with hundreds of years ago. Thanks for the reminder. I will enjoy my showers and baths all the more.

  3. Bobby Harris

    Thank you for this. I usually hurry through these chores just to get them done but I should try slowing down and doing them mindfully, thankful that I can do the chore, that I have such an abundance of possessions to care for, and the time and ability to take care of them. Good thoughts to start the week.

    • Bobby, it’s so wonderful to hear from you. I think of you so often, and just the other day I made a mental note (which I promptly misplaced, hee-hee) to drop you a line and see how you and Randall are doing. Yes, our abundance of possessions sometimes seem like a mixed blessing when we have to go into maintenance mode. I’m working on learning to love those chores that I really hate to do. Any suggestions about how to love dusting? 🙂 Hope you have a great week– thanks for being here!

      • Bobby Harris

        I’m not fond of dusting either but maybe we should take the opportunity to enjoy the pieces of furniture and remember why we have it, what has occurred around it. Good memories and happy thoughts would make the chore more enjoyable.

        • Great idea, Bobby — I’ll try it soon. 🙂

  4. I thought I was a rare one to find laundry and ironing a meditation at times. I do love to iron a few pieces and let my mind slow down. I send you love my friend!💓🌻💓

    • Cherie, ironing is something that I’m still learning to love, probably because I do it so seldom 😀 — but now that you mention it, that particular choir does lend itself to going slowly and meditating on peaceful thoughts. Keeping you and Ron in my prayers!! ❤ ❤ ❤

  5. I agree wholeheartedly! Isn’t it interesting that seemingly trivial events and tasks become treasured memories. Hugs!

    • It’s like that old saying…treasure the little things, because one day you will look back and realize they were the big things. Housework itself is not a big thing in my book, but the gratitude and stewardship it builds are definitely big things. Sending cyber hugs right back to you! ❤

  6. Sheila

    Good morning Julia. I’m on the October porch and I know you’re there with me. We’ll even share those binoculars. Once when Grayson was a toddler (just had her 26th birthday) she called them “nockalocars” and to this day that’s what they are! I do so much laundry that Bill has often remarked that imaginary people must bring their laundry here in the night because two people couldn’t possibly generate that much. 🧺 Mrs. Clean. It’s only work if you’d rather be doing something else! Enjoy October, my dear friend! 🧡🍁🍂

    • Sheila, what a gorgeous water view we have this month. Just think, we can lounge out here all day and if it gets cold near sundown, we can move to those Adirondack chairs and throw a log on the fire pit. I love your quote about “only work if you’d rather be doing something else.” My problem is that my “something else” list of stuff I want to do is way, way too long!! Like sitting out on the Verandah! 😀 ❤

    • Sheila, what a gorgeous water view we have this month. Just think, we can lounge out here all day and if it gets cold near sundown, we can move to those Adirondack chairs and throw a log on the fire pit. I love your quote about “only work if you’d rather be doing something else.” My problem is that my “something else” list of stuff I want to do is way, way too long!! Like sitting out on the Verandah! 😀 ❤

  7. Harry Sims

    October 4
    “Keeping a Tenth Step journal about my day-to-day life, my relations with other people, and the stuff that still roiled around in my head helped me see patterns in my thoughts and behavior, which I could discuss with my sponsor. And once I began to sit quietly, reflect on what I’d written, and pray, I began to sleep peacefully for the first time in my life.”

    Manchester, New Hampshire, March 2001, “Peace at Last,”, AA Grapevine

    I had a phone call from a very close relative of mine in Mississippi and we touched on several intimate recollections in our reverie including the story about going together to a Braves game several years ago and being surprised by being offered by a Hawker prime tickets in the relatives section behind home plate.
    This transaction happened just a few feet from the ticket booth and the fellow certified himself as being honest by declaring “I’ve got Jesus on my neck and money in my pocket” so we bought the tickets from him for a reasonable price and enjoy it a marvelous ballgame from behind home plate seated in section with wives and other VIPs.
    My close friend had a personal interchange with Andrew Jones when he urged him to “Crush One” and he responded with the old well recognized Shhh sign.

    This fledgling exercise allows many recalls of feelings, actions and interactions that happened but is by no means totally comprehensive but it will certainly do for a start.


  8. Mickey Champagne

    Hello Julia! One of my favorite things to do is make bread by hand. It not only sustains our little family, but it connects me to the past, not only my past but the past of countless women through the ages. It gives me an incredible feeling, it anchors me, and it makes me grateful, for the ability to do this “work”, and for all the women through time who have performed this act.

    • Mickey, it’s funny you should mention this…just a couple of days ago I was musing that maybe I should try baking bread again. I used to love baking it but then when Jeff and I started having to count calories (to say nothing of our lives getting busier as the boys got older) that sort of fell by the wayside. I always loved it, though. I first baked bread when I was a teenager, using a recipe for whole wheat bread from Seventeen magazine. It was the first thing I had ever cooked all by myself from scratch, and both my parents loved it and sang my praises, so that was enough to hook me on it. I had a “thermometer finger” as one friend described it, and could always tell when the water was just hot enough for the yeast. I loved kneading the dough, and then the way it would rise, and the heavenly smell of it baking. Your comment describes the appeal of it perfectly. I remember reading the beautiful, affirming forward to the original edition of Laurel’s Kitchen and thinking of how much I loved baking bread. I never had the slightest desire for a bread machine when they were so popular, because to me that would take all of the fun out of it! Thanks for connecting me again to some very happy memories!

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