Zen and the Art of Folding Laundry


Shelby Murphyby Shelby Murphy

Somewhere along the way it happened. A subtle shift from pain to pleasure rumbled through my world and cracked open my definition of self. I never meant to like it…but I suppose there are worse guilty pleasures. Perhaps I should join a support group or something where I can stand before a roomful of other confused souls and confess my shortcomings. My name is Shelby and I enjoy doing laundry.

It wasn't always this way. Just after my son was born, I became obsessed with the fact that I had just committed myself to doing laundry for four people, which seemed incomprehensibly more than three, for the next 18 years. It was overwhelming. I didn't know how I'd ever keep up.

And I wasn't sure I wanted to. Did I really want to spend a couple hours every week washing, folding, and putting away the same items that visited me last week and would most certainly come calling again next week?

But laundry, like most other seemingly mundane chores in life, isn't something you can blow off indefinitely. The growing heap in the closet can only hold so much until the angle of repose gives way and an avalanche of underwear buries small children alive.

My husband said he would gladly take over the job if, in trade, I agreed to change the oil in the cars and mow the lawn. However, the image of me sweating under our car with no idea which little bolt to unscrew while he turned every white T-shirt some hazy shade of pink wasn't appealing. I decided I better make nice with Downy and Tide.

Three loads on a good week, five on a bad one, the passage of time was measured by how long until I had to start the process over again. Laundry seemed to exemplify everything I struggled with as an efficient, results-minded woman turned stay-at-home mom. No variation, no finished product, no sense of completion, no thank yous.

Somewhere in the years of Cold Wash with Like Colors Only and Tumble Dry Low I changed. My monkey mind calmed to meet the slower pace of my life with small children. I stopped behaving like a hyperactive adolescent, always trying to numb the pain of self-induced boredom with stimulation, and started finding joy in the ordinary. I quit looking for ways around my daily obligations and began looking forward to them.

There is something simple, something elegant about taking a basketful of chaos and bringing it to order. The smell of clean cotton, the symmetry of a well-folded towel, the taught crease in a T-shirt, each load is a sensual experience with the artifacts of our everyday.

These are the items that shield those I love most from the cold or from the sun. They express the personality and lifestyle of those who wear them. The size 2T dinosaur tank top, the well-worn "Princess Buttercup" summer dress with a cherry stain on the front, the faded plaid shorts that he pulls on after work… all tangible evidence of the richness of my life.

When you're present, paying full attention to every aspect of the task at hand, life is simultaneously reduced and elevated to a level divine clarity. Nothing exists but the here and now. It is a realm where everything is easy. Today's task is completed without stress. The cycle is concluded so that the next might begin.

Laundry, and every other routine chore, is only boring when your mind would rather be somewhere else. Full engagement in the ordinary makes it sacred, a communion with life and a thank you to God, if you let it be.

But one can only find transcendence among socks and sheets when life slows from a technological pace to a more human stride. When one finds a way, even if only briefly, to master time rather than be mastered by it.

Schedules and deadlines, activities and obligations have a way of exaggerating life's little tasks, making them seem far more intrusive and insurmountable than they really are. After all, who has time to appreciate a crisp pillowcase, folded in thirds, when there are more pressing things to do.

But I wonder if there really is anything more important to do than to care for your family, to work in silence and feel the presence of Grace, to be overwhelmed by appreciation of all that surrounds you.

To others it may be only a pile of crusty socks and sweaty shirts, but to me it's another opportunity to be slow, to be still, to be humble, to be human.
Excuse me now, the dryer buzzer is calling.

“Don’t you think that the best things are already in view?” –Julia Ward Howe

Shelby Murphy is a freelance writer, columnist, and mother of two. Her work has been published nationally and circulates the globe online. In 2001, she started RadiantWomen, an online and syndicated print column for women who live life on purpose. For a free subscription or more information, contact Shelby at shelby@radiantwomen.com or www.radiantwomen.com.