On clotheslines

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

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It doesn’t get more prosaic than the clothesline. Once a household staple, now replaced in most of the US with washer/dryer units, they’re a rare sight for many Americans. Yet go abroad and they’re still ubiquitous, used either by necessity or by desire, for a more eco-friendly life or the wonderful feeling of clothes dried in the sunshine.

I’ve always thought that clotheslines are like impromptu garlands. Though they are explicitly functional objects, as are the items that hang on them, they imbue a space with a celebratory feeling. They add color and draw the eye upwards. This is especially true in cities, where clotheslines festoon alleyways, swooping from window to window up several stories.

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On clotheslines, the clothes themselves become more than just pants or t-shirts; unified by color and drape, they are more like flags of different shapes. This is a great reminder of how grouping things together changes how we perceive them. And you can see some ideas of curation in the launderer, making choices about color adjacencies, patterns, and scale. In effect, this person, the unseen clothes-washer, is a designer of public space, changing how neighbors and tourists experience the buildings, streets, and passageways between them.

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I spotted these particular clothesline photos in the Instagram feed of my friend Sheena Matheiken; she has a wonderful, joyful eye and I had to share them with you. Clotheslines seem emblematic of the idea that joy is in your prism, in how you choose to see the world. You could see them as intrusions in the landscape, objects of toil or clutter. Or you can relish their quotidian beauty, the way the light shines through them, and the charming absurdity of seeing a stranger’s underwear fluttering in the open breeze. Anaïs Nin famously said, “We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.”

I think I see so much joy in the world because I choose to see it that way. Some people think that if you’re looking so much for joy, you’ll have high expectations that are often disappointed. But I don’t believe it works that way. Being joyful by nature, and by intention, I find it jumps out at me. I don’t actually have to look very hard; it finds me.

What are your “clotheslines?” What are your favorite examples of everyday things that become joyful when you really look at them?

Images: Sheena Matheiken

February 22nd, 2013


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    Discussion (9 Comments)

  1. Christine Adams on February 22, 2013

    I love it! I’ve been known to hang my clothes in spectral order. My spices are my everyday joy. I found some beautiful clear glass jars with glass lids with bobbles on top at the dollar store, and the spices look fantastic: from the sophisticated taupe of cardamom to the hot red of chili powder, the intense black of nigella seed and the frank, look-at-me golden turmeric. I’ve been wanting to do this for thirty years! I must take a picture.

  2. Christine Adams on February 23, 2013

    here are the spice jars!


    1. Ingrid on February 23, 2013

      Christine, I love that you hang your clothes by the spectrum! I wish I could have a clothesline – I’d do the same thing. Your spices are beautiful. They remind me of the spice market stalls in Central Asia: http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaghami/3932022980/

  3. Sherry Crowson on February 23, 2013

    Oh, what terrific pictures . . . I remember one of my chores when I was at my grandma’s was to help hand up the wash. Actually, I just handed her the clothes and the pins but I felt very important.

    One of my all time favorite poems is about laundry on a line, but it’s so much more than that. I am sending it because I think you will like it.

    Love Calls Us to the Things of this World

    The eyes open to a cry of pulleys
    and spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
    hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
    as false dawn,
    outside the open window
    the morning air is awash with angels.

    Some are in bedsheets, some are in blouses
    some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
    Now they are rising together in calm swells
    of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
    with the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

    Now they are flying in place, conveying
    the terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
    and staying like white water; and now of a sudden
    they swoon down in so rapt a quiet
    that nobody seems to be there.
    The soul shrinks
    From all it is about to remember,
    from the punctual rape of every blessed day
    and cries,
    “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry.
    Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
    and clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”

    Yet, as the sun acknowledges
    with a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,
    the soul descends once more in bitter love
    to accept the waking body; saying now
    in a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,

    “Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
    Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves,
    Let lovers go sweet and fresh to be undone,
    and the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
    of dark habits,
    keeping their difficult balance.”

    –Richard Wilbur

    My favorite line “Let there be clean linen for the backs of theives” immediately followed by “Let lovers go sweet and fresh to be undone”, it’s one of the examples of the difficult balance of all our lives! The line about the world’s hunks and colors reminds me so many of your posts celebrating color! Thanks for sharing the clotheslines, they brought back some terrific memories!


    1. Monique van Gent on February 23, 2013

      From the farmlands of Holland and an apartment in Spain to the Arizona desert, the clothes I’ve hung over many years have scented from fresh ozone to dung and olive oil-garlic, from haboob-dusted sand to chaparral’s spiciness. If scents could be colors…. I look at the fragrances, smells, scents that hang on my “clotheslines.” It is fragrances that become joyful when I “look” at them. They transport me to their joyful spaces of their Essence. And, with Dominique Browning, I think – if I remember her correctly from an article in House & Garden – that fresh laundry is one of the top ten luxuries in life.

      I am touched by the Wilbur poem, and watched him read it on YouTube. Thank you, Sherry Crowson, for sharing it, and pointing out how creatively Wilbur paints that struggle to maintain that human and divine Balance of Life.

      And thank you, Ingrid, for your colorful posts. They certainly have added joy into my life.

      1. Ingrid on February 24, 2013

        Wonderful images, Monique. So vivid. And I’m going to have to look up that Dominique Browning article!

      2. Monique van Gent on February 25, 2013

        Let me know if you find Dominique’s article… I couldn’t.

    2. Ingrid on February 24, 2013

      What a beautiful poem. Thank you, Sherry! My favorite gifts these days are poems – I try to start every day with poetry, to put something inspiring in my mind from the moment I open my eyes. This one is wonderful, I’ll be coming back to it often.

  4. owls house london. on February 26, 2013

    what a sweet post! and i agree with the sentiment that one sees joy in the simple, everyday objects, and clotheslines are such a wonderful example of this x


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