The play touched a chord with me, for I have come to enjoy a bit of physical labor in my life. Of course, like many people in Washington, I clear the snow from my doorsteps a few times each winter. I have also at times felt energetic enough to polish my shoes or change some bulbs. But these would not have pleased Shaffer’s heroine so infrequent they are.
My chosen assignment is cleaning clothes. I grew up in India and had seen washerwomen thrash clothes, covered with soapsuds, against large stones almost like a ritual of personal purification. But US houses come equipped with large washers and dryers, and the chore left to me is to iron them. Calendering is my favorite way to relax.
There are different ways of ironing a shirt and I have seen people follow a different order. I have tried some of them and settled on a hierarchy. The sleeves, short or long, are really appendages to the main structure and I like to address them first. The collar, unquestionably the centerpiece of the shirt, is most important and should be taken up the last. There remains the body of the shirt, which I believe can be ironed from left to right or right to left, depending on your choice. When doing the collar, people seem to agree that it is better to iron the reverse side first, before offering the coup de grace and emerging with the shining, streamlined ironed shirt.
There are few things so fully satisfying as to begin with a limp, crushed shirt and end with an elegant well-calendared shirt. With the first shirt, I am just beginning; with the second or third, I feel like I am settling down to my noble task; by the fifth, sixth, at most seventh, my heart is singing. I feel one has to be extremely hard-hearted to miss the joy of ironing.
Last year I spent several weeks in Colombia and Bonita came every weekend to do housekeeping chores in the apartment. After clearing the large washload, she was surprised to find that señor preferred to iron his shirts himself. I could have saved some time, but I thought it was an excellent use of my time to wield the iron myself.
In India, my hosts, the Roys, have a streamlined system: a domestic, Urmila, washes and dries the clothes at home, before Ajay, the chauffeur, takes them to the corner laundryman who irons them and sends them back neatly arranged and bundled. It was all done with great care, and my shirts came back in with a shiny new look. But I had noticed an iron and an ironing board at the far corner of their library – a favorite haunt of mine – and I saw no reason not to take an occasional shirt to the library late at night, after the Roys were safely in bed, and iron it to my heart’s content.
Why iron, ask my friends. Why not, I say in reply, for it is one of the simple activities of life where you have the satisfaction to see worthy completion very quickly. You see, in just a few minutes, how well you have done. If you have not done well for some reason, you have the chance to improve on it. The work pleases you. You have the joy of completion. Try it.
I was studying a dismal report on American football players who have had serious brain concussion: their personalities changed, they became irritable, angry, unstable, even violent. I was stunned that some of these people get calm by laundering their clothes. Their wives say they are peaceful when they iron, sometimes repeatedly, their clothes. Their affluent wives let them do that.
I remember as a child, traveling early morning in a train in India, and watching from the moving window the washerwomen hard at work, cleaning clothes, thumping them against stones, rinsing them in a pond, putting them up to dry on posts. Dark, gaunt, vigorous, almost heroic figures, rapt in their labor. Perhaps they were sending me a message it took me many years to learn. We better join the league of human beings when we do a spot of physical labor and see the fruit of our labor.