Ironing

You might be forgiven for thinking that all I will write about here is domestic drudgery viewed through a different lens, and you might be right. In a blog focused on the ordinary day to day elements of life, domestic tasks are likely to crop up fairly often. Ironing, in particular, has a poor reputation. I have heard men say that in their relationships they will do any domestic task other than the ironing. I suspect those men may find the reality of a close relationship requires a greater degree of compromise than that, but the point is that ironing is viewed, somehow, as the pinnacle of domestic servitude. My view about ironing is tempered, perhaps, by the fact that for many years now we have used a steam press rather than an iron, and I have a particularly vivid (and curiously happy) memory of sitting in the living room in front of the TV half watching an episode of Monarch of the Glen, methodically working my way through a pile of babygros, the ironing of which was revolutionised by the steam press. No more fiddly bends, just straighten the article out on the press, press, lift and fold.

That memory represents the point at which ironing transformed from an oppressive to a transcendent task (though perhaps transcendence is over-egging it a little). Ritualistic, certainly. An activity with some beauty within it. Ironing now, for me, falls into that space along with chopping vegetables or washing up: a task which occupies the hands, which roots me to a particular spot for a certain length of time, but which leaves the mind free to wander. These activities have become a pleasure. In those moments my mind is free to muse about whatever subject it occupying it. I am trapped, in a sense, but also free. In these times I am, strangely, my most creative. I solve problems which I didn’t fully appreciate were bothering me. I have great ideas about writing, about life; about how to make myself happy, how to find contentment, how to share it, how to help my children find ease in a life which demands so much from their attention. In a world which has reduced most domestic tasks to a five minute window – loading the dishwasher, loading the washing machine, a quick spray and wipe – ironing remains a job which cannot be abridged (except by convincing someone else to do it). Perhaps that is what is so dreaded about it.

Not all of us are so comfortable with our own thoughts and company to be left alone with ourselves, but it is a state of being which is worth acquiring. There is something to be said for doing and not doing. There is something comforting about being alone and finding it soul-soothing. I think it is part of the human condition to feel like we are squandering our time, that time spent doing this boring task or this routine thing could be better spent on doing something else, something exciting. Yet if we are honest, how much of our time is really spend doing exciting things? Even exciting things become dull on repetition, just consider how most people respond to miracles of engineering like taking a flight, a train, getting in a car? Excitement is fleeting and difficult to achieve, and in many respects learning to rediscover the joy in ordinary tasks brings the prospect of excitement closer. So perhaps that hour spent pressing and re-pressing, shaping and folding is an hour well spent after all; and if nothing else at the end of it you have a pile of neatly pressed clothes, not such a terrible thing.  

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Sitting by the window watching the rain

Rain has a pretty bad press, perhaps not entirely undeservedly. Living in the North West of England I am no stranger to rain and its damaging impact. Floods in Cumbria, floods in Lancaster, floods on the roads blocking access. People sweeping thick layers of mud and excrement from their carpets, crying about the things they’ve lost; forced to live with the dampness, the smell, the fear that it will happen again and there’s nothing that can be done about it. Yes, perhaps rain does deserve its bad press some of the time.

Yet rain is also beautiful. It is sustaining, we cannot live without it. Ordinary rain, not the kind that comes in endless torrents destroying lives in its swirling waters, is not so terrible. How often do we wake to a grey day and feel oppressed by it, saddened? Is cloud so terrible? Is rain not a welcome thing? We sit, by and large, in our warm, comfortable homes protected from the cold, the debilitating effects. We have warm coats and cars, we have umbrellas and raincoats and wellington boots and a whole myriad of other things to protect us from the minor inconvenience of being wet. Is it truly the rain that locks us in?

It is raining today. The sky is a vivid, pale grey. It is bright, yet muted. There are gradations to it: a darker spot here, a swath of almost white darkening heavily towards the horizon. I am sitting in my comfortable room by the window. The radiator is radiating warmth into the room as it should, as is intended. There is a breeze bending the branches of the eucalyptus tree in the corner of the garden and I am invoking it inside by infusing some eucalyptus oil. A comforting smell. Two crows rest on an upper branch of the tree, all glossy with blackness, cawing their gravelly caw. It is raining; not heavily but gently. It rains for a while and then it stops. There are spots of rain across the window, and I am reminded of being a child and sitting by my window looking out over the grey sodden streets and watching the spots of rain as they slid down the outside of the glass, breaking up into smaller and smaller spots. Which would fall first, which fastest? It is a simple game which can be played by many, and I spent many hours playing it as a child. It achieves nothing, yet how much of what we do really achieves anything

I am soothed by it. The gentle spatter of drops on the window ledge outside has a soft, organic sound to it. Something living is drumming to come in. It would be so easy to open the window and let it in. If I did, what then? A shock of cold air and then that freshness that comes only after rainfall. An earthy smell, the world damp and clean. A dazzle of cold spots on my face, the exposed skin of my arms. The gentle child’s-finger trace of water rolling down my cheek. Which drop will fall first, fastest?

But I will not open the window. I am comfortable here, safely warm and inside, watching the rain fall.

On Boredom

It is early January, and the Christmas holidays are drawing to a close. The decorations are down and the house feels empty and sparse in the way it only ever does after the glitz and tawdry glamour of Christmas. It is the time of year when thoughts turn to abstinence and minimalism, the thrill of ‘clearing out’, diets and resolutions. For me it is a time, the only time perhaps, when I experience true boredom. The strange feeling that nothing in my life, none of my activities or responsibilities, are enough to fill the groundswell of time that billows around me. Such a contrast to my usual experience: rising early, the long commute to work followed by hours of doing things I don’t want to do but need doing, followed by another long commute, dinner, a thin sliver of time with the family before sleep and then doing it all again the next day.

In this slow, post-Christmas period I have an abundance of time and little to fill it with. I am used to having only that bare morsel of time to fill, more than enough to be easily devoured, and now find myself faced with a feast I cannot manage. The hours pass achingly slowly. I sit in a quiet room listening to the sound of my children chatting upstairs, the whirr of the washing machine as it carries out a task that if done by hand would swallow down many hours, the burble of the TV in the living room lulling my husband through another long, weary day. I sit and I do nothing. There is nothing to do.

Or is there? Of course there are many things I could do. I could read, as I have been doing, I could write, I could organise my sad finances though little could be achieved there no matter how many hours I spent upon it, I could dust, I could go for a walk in the cold and the rain, I could go shopping (if truly desperate), I could learn some Japanese, I could go for a coffee with my husband or a friend, I could go for a drive, I could do some exercise or watch TV or surf the internet or do one of the million of other myriad things that we do to make time disappear. But here’s the thing: I don’t want to. I am bored, being bored, finding life tedious and banal. It is all grey and repetitive and dull.

And it is marvellous. These are stolen hours; hours for wasting, for losing down the back of the sofa as I stare at the scuffs in the paintwork I could be painting right now. These are hours that cannot be filled with repetitive tasks, with enthusiasms or interests. These are hours to be tossed flagrantly away in decadent inactivity, to be crawled through torturously, to be experienced second by second by second. Boredom is a privilege. It is a sign that life, however busy, can also be replete. I need nothing, desire nothing. I can sit in my quiet room and think of nothing pressing enough to draw me from my contemplation of the carpet. The rain crackles like static on the window, creating the perfect excuse to go nowhere and do nothing whatsoever at all. Lovely, considerate rain.

My mind lulls on a sea of blank nothingness. How rare these moments of pure, unadulterated emptiness. How rich I have become in time, so unexpectedly. I know that when I’m back in work it will be different, that I will so quickly return to the habit of gorging down time until there is no tomorrow, that too soon it will have run out and I will look back and think ‘what did I do with it?’ and the answer will be ‘nothing’, which is always true no matter what you do. But on this day nothing is exactly what I choose. I glory in my boredom, enjoying every near-endless moment of it. Because tomorrow, despite everything, will come all too soon and my profligacy of time will then be over.

Darning

I own three pairs of woollen tights, perfect for wearing with dresses in autumn, winter or on generally chilly days. Over time they have, as tights will, developed holes in the toes. Tights are cheap. They are the sort of articles of clothing which are easily replaced, picked up as a regular shopping item – not daily like milk or bread, or even weekly like cheese or tea or cereal, but monthly, perhaps, along with those other less essential but necessary items like washing powder or cleaning products. Something that makes it to the list. Unless you’re a man, of course, then perhaps socks would be a more relevant purchase.

It’s not a huge expense – dependent, of course, on your budget – but it seems sad to throw away my woollen tights just because of some small holes in the toe area. After all, most of the time I will be wearing shoes and no one will see the toe anyway. A hole in the toe is practically invisible. Yet it is also uncomfortable. The exposed toe grows cold, it pushes harshly into the stretched opening of the hole. It is not a nice experience. Yet something about the minor nature of the holes makes it hard to simply throw them away. Are the tights really useless, discardable, because of such a minor imperfection?

I don’t think so. The same can be said of a holed sock. So I gathered my damaged tights together, dusted off my sewing kit and resolved to get darning. Darning is a mystical thing. You only need to read a Victorian novel, one which features a (rare) woman, to hear about it. There they were, by the acrid light of a tallow candle, darning socks. It was a daily occurrence, relentless in fact. Children did it, grown women did it, servants did it, somewhere, everywhere, once upon a time there would be a person sitting in a dark kitchen or drawing room of an evening darning socks or stockings or, in my case, woollen tights. How does one darn? It is a word used only as a pejorative these days, ‘that darn cat’ and all of that (okay, maybe in the 50’s), not something that is wanted or needed or done voluntarily.

I wasn’t entirely sure how to darn, whether it is a distinct activity or simply an old fashioned word for ‘sewing’, but I didn’t let this deter me. I threaded my needle, found the holes and sewed. It wasn’t a pretty job, not neat or delicate or invisible, but gradually the holes were all gone and in their place a jagged cluster of thread and a juddered lump in the fabric. I doubt I would have passed the Victorian test of basic darning skills. Yet I pulled my tights on and felt good about it. Perhaps the repair will not last, perhaps some new holes will appear and eventually my poor little darning skills will be inadequate to the task of restoring them to usefulness, but for now I have three pairs of lovely warm woollen tights for the winter. Inadequately repaired, perhaps, but still useable.

I felt good about repairing my tights. It is an ordinary activity, a day to day thing which could easily be avoided by judicious use of the bin and a credit card. But whilst my tights may have been old and in a state of minor disrepair, their damage did not make them worthless. How true this is of so many things. I am old, I am damaged, but I am not worthless (well, I don’t think so anyway). My Mum is even older, she is in an ever greater state of disrepair, but she is certainly not worthless. Too often we throw away things that are no longer perfect. Yet their imperfection makes them unique, in some cases it makes them beautiful. My Mum, for example, is the beautiful sum of everything she has got wrong and right. Her body is damaged because it has been so thoroughly used. In this world of discardable everything the idea of things becoming better through use is almost forgotten. We take something, we use it, we throw it away, we buy something new. So little becomes loved and valued through its age and familiarity.

I am not very good at sewing, but I can get better at it. All it needs is practice. And perhaps next time my darning will be better, my repair a little bit neater. Maybe next time I will sit with my darning needle in my darkened room of an evening and love every last stitch of it.