It all begins and ends with laundry. Dishes, cooking, cleaning, none of it seems to bracket my days with the same insistence. Maybe it’s the sheer volume of it, or the metastasizing way it colonizes every room in our house. Boulders of mud-crusted jeans and sweatshirts blocking the entryway, pairs of tee-shirts and underwear thrown by the tub before the boys’ bath last night. Damp towels crumpled by the back door, faintly smelling of wet dog and other things I don’t want to think about. Socks and pajama tops hurled across our bedroom at midnight by a heat-enraged Amazon. A furtive pair of khakis lurking on the other side of the guest bed, shed in the early hours of yesterday when I’d come off a night shift and was hiding out for an elusive few hours of sleep.
Every room not otherwise accounted for receives the grace of my daughter’s presence. At twenty-two months, she lacks the words she needs and has to resort to other means of self-expression, the most creative of which is her constant fashion show. “I need a change!” she announces by pulling resolutely at her socks until they fly up off her toes. “I’m in charge of me,” she insists, deftly wriggling herself out of a shirt. Like a tiny Theseus stalking a stuffed Minotaur, she unwinds her spool of clothing, leaving a trail from room to room, down hallways and back. Miniature socks collect in the corners with the dust bunnies, despite my near-constant picking up, bending over, picking up, bending…you get the drift. Mornings and evenings, I’m trudging through a swamp of filthy fabrics, or else wrestling through a mountain of not-yet-folded sheets and wrinkled pants in search of clean underwear. Sometimes I don’t know how anything else ever gets done.
And yet, there’s more to do. When I peer out from under the pile, the realities of this era start to stack up on my shoulders, even higher than the mound of laundry waiting by the washer: the climate is changing, the world heating up, the ozone disappearing, the oceans dying. From that perspective, my responsibilities appear larger than simply making sure the kids have clean jeans so they can go to school. Sure, school will help them prepare for the future, but only if there is a future. Probably every generation of parents fears that their children will inherit a changed and dangerous world, but my generation has more than just fear, we have scientific consensus. If I didn’t have the laundry to anchor me down into the daily neediness of the household, I would be spending way too much time staring down the precipice of despair, frozen by my secret terror of what may come as the physical planet changes. Thinking about the giant pile of clothes that need sorting and folding can make me feel exhausted and sluggish, but my children’s uncertain future, that’s more a complete paralysis.
The thing is, I have no realistic idea of how to go about assuring a world that doesn’t end up turning my children into extreme-weather survivalists, pointing their shotguns out the windows, fearful that any stranger may be coming to steal their limited supplies of water and food. Sure, I follow the “ten things you can do to save the planet” lists: I use recycled toilet paper, cloth diapers, compact fluorescent light bulbs. I don’t give in when everyone complains that they like the soft toilet paper and bright light bulbs at Grandma’s house better. I turn off the lights, turn down the thermostat, cut down on my driving, even as I despair in my knowledge that these efforts aren’t nearly enough. I’m overwhelmed by motherhood, so trite in these times; I’m anxious and trying too hard to protect my kids from the psychological damage my parenting choices will inevitably inflict. It just feels like too much to have to save the planet, too, the added weight pressing me down into a slothful inaction, a high-fructose-corn-syrup-fed denial. But at night I dream of fear and loss, and I know I have to find a way to face my own role in planetary degradation.
The nightmares tell me that I can’t NOT face it; but in the waking hours, I can’t bear to face it all head on. Climate change is a problem so much bigger than me, I cannot imagine myself to have any power over it: I am a tiny dust-mote of a mother, impotently staring at an approaching hurricane. When I feel like this, I become incapable of movement. So instead I try to do something on a scale I can handle: I do the laundry. And when it is not raining or foggy (okay, so that’s only half the year here where we have two seasons: wet & dry), I take the damp-pressed clothes out of the low-water- consumption front-loading washing machine and heft the basket onto my hip and out to the deck, where I hang them on a rigged-up system of laundry lines.
Thank goodness we don’t have a homeowner’s association in my sparsely populated neighborhood—our ragtag clothesline would surely be labeled as unsightly if my neighbors had to stare at it out their back windows. To me, though, it is beautiful, beautiful in the sense that when I catch sight of my laundry hanging out there in the sun, I am brushed by a sense of well-being and hope. Solar power in its most direct form— I even pretend to imagine my clothes soaking up some miniscule portion of the extra global warmth that’s not supposed to be there.
That’s when the sun is out. When the sun is going down and the fog is rolling in, it’s more of a panic feeling: “Gotta get those in before they get damp all over again and then I can’t put the next load up tomorrow and then the dirty laundry pile will get even huger…” and so on. In theory, my clothesline is all good: good for my gas bills, good for the planet, even good for the clothes. In reality, it’s a big pain in the ass. I get so tired of hearing “solar drying” advocates claiming that the sun and breeze give clothes a fresh- scented softness. Our clothes still smell like the residue of our unscented detergent, and they are stiff as cereal-box cardboard, not to mention the local fauna that come inside with each basket. When the rains finally started last fall and we got our first load of clothes out of the dryer, they felt almost impossibly soft. And there were no spiders in them.
Still, as another spring starts poking up its shoots, I find myself rehanging the storm- downed pulleys and wiping down the mildewed plastic-coated wire. And despite the fact that I know I will get tired of the endless cycle of hanging and taking down, tired of the complaints about the laundry taking too long and about the stiff clothes, tired of wondering if it really matters, I will bring the clothes out to dry in the sun all summer long. Last summer I got tired, too. (A middle-class, over-privileged kind of tired, I know, but tired nonetheless.) And then one day I was doing a particularly irksome load, a huge basket of almost nothing but socks, each requiring shaking out and its own clothespin, and I thought, “god, it’s just one load, I could toss these in the dryer and be done with it, and what difference would it make?” But in an attempt to stave off
my sense of despair and powerlessness, I hung up the socks, one by one. In return for this effort, the prayer-flag row of socks hanging on my line gave me a sense of hope, not a vague hope that humanity will sort itself out on a grand scale, but a specific and immediate hope that something I do, a choice I make today, may have repercussions somewhere down the line, the proverbial ripple effect.
The array of curved whites, blues, stripes, pinks, and seahorse patterns on the line gave me a sense of my own power in the face of great odds, my little David socks slinging their stones in the eye of the Goliath of global warming. The socks said to me: today you chose well. And perhaps this is what it will take, one load of laundry in the sun instead of the dryer, baby steps toward making the larger personal changes that will be required of us all. I looked at my socks, and I thought: this is it, this is the change, twenty-nine tiny things. They will add up. To a hundred tiny things. A million tiny things. And that became my mantra. A million tiny things. I will not despair, I will do a tiny thing that feels useless and unimportant, but I will have faith that there are enough of us out there doing them that they will add up to something meaningful.
A million tiny things. Sure, it smacks of the now-ridiculed Bush the First plan for social services: the “thousand points of light.” But the thousand points of life were compelling, a beautifully indelible image, despite the politics surrounding them. They evoked the majesty of the night sky on a moonless night. They promised a simple panacea for complicated, pain-filled human stories. And the truth is, though inappropriate to carry the government’s burden of social service provision, those thousand points of light still exist, multiplied exponentially—all the good people doing their good work, each following one call of conscience. My good work, my tiny thing for today will be to hang up the laundry and forgive myself for not being able to promise my children a certain kind of planet. My work today will be to see the massive anxiety paralyzing me, and to start to wiggle one toe. Just a tiny thing. And I know it’s not enough, but at least I’m starting to move.