Over the holidays I read Barbara Brown Taylor’s book An Alter in the World. Tumbling down another road into another year, her words reverberate, reminding me to stay present and to overflow with gratitude. This excerpt comes from the chapter “The Practice of Wearing Skin”:
“Sometimes, when people ask me about my prayer life, I describe hanging laundry on the line. After a day of too much information about almost everything, there is such blessed relief in the weight of wet clothes, causing the wicker basket to creak as I carry it 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.
Most of the laundry belongs to my husband, Ed, who can go through more clothes in a week than most toddlers. Hanging laundry on the line becomes a labor of love. I hang each T-shirt like a prayer flag, shaking it first to get the wrinkles out and then pinning it to the line with two wooden clothespins. Even the clothespins give me pleasure. I add a prayer for the trees from which the clothespins came, along with the Penley Corporation of West Paris, Maine, which is still willing to make them from wood instead of colored plastic.
Since I am a compulsive person, I go to some trouble to impose order on the lines of laundry: handkerchiefs first, then jockey shorts, then T-shirts, then jeans. If I sang these clothes, the musical notes they made would lead me in a staccato, downward scale. The socks all go in a row at the end like exclamation points. All day long, as I watch the breeze toss these clothes in the wind, I imagine my prayers spinning away over the tops of the trees. This is good work, this prayer. This is good prayer, this work.
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 too numb, too busy, to 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 living beings. When I haul water, I am in instant communion with all other haulers of water around the world. We may have little else in common, but we all know the deep pleasure of being water-bearers. To deliver water for drinking, for cooking, for washing, for bathing: this is what muscles are for. To watch a thirsty creature dip his head to the bucket and drink: I am happy to sweat for this.
Above all, I am happy for practices that bring me back to my body, where the operative categories are not ‘bad’ and ‘good’ but ‘dead’ and ‘alive.’ As hard as I have tried to be good all my life–as hard as I try to be good even now–my heart leans more and more toward that which gives life, whether it is conventionally good or not. There are times when dancing on tables grants more life than kneeling in prayer. More to the point, there are times when dancing on tables is the most authentic prayer in reach, even if it pocks the table and clears the room.”
I hope it is with reverence, sight and peace you enter this new year. I am always striving for them all.