Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Domestic Bliss: The Zen of Ironing

This was originally posted on August 26, 2005.

Housewife. The word conjures up images of flowered skirts with elastic waistbands, crocheted cotton dishcloths, and the inevitable mop. It's not a comfortable part of the twenty-first century vocabulary. The term "domestic engineer", set forth in the often-forwarded e-mail most young mothers have read this year, sounds a little more liberated and proud, if a bit unwieldy. But deep down, we know the truth: It doesn't matter what you call us when we're scrubbing the underside of a toilet seat. (Yes, it's necessary. Don't ask.)

While shooting the breeze with my senior English classmates at age seventeen, dreaming and planning, I was assured that there were all kinds of exciting careers available to me. I could write books! I could be a concert pianist! If worse came to worse, I could always teach. At the ten-year reunion, they all wanted to know What I'd Done With My Life. As it turned out, I hadn't written a book, and I hadn't become a concert pianist. I had spent several years teaching, but I wasn't a college professor -- I was teaching small children how to play the piano. No, instead I had gotten married and had a baby, and I was well and truly a housewife.

What I didn't tell them was that I am also a part of a quiet, subversive minority within the profession. We don't make waves, we don't hold rallies, but we cling to our secret with fierce pride: We like our jobs.

At some point, I realized that I was going to have to clean the house and do the laundry anyway, and it was going to be a lot easier if I enjoyed it for its own sake instead of for the highly transitory accomplishment of having finished it. And I made a startling discovery -- maintaining a household is actually not a bad job for a logical, detail-oriented mind.

Remember the standardized tests, the ones with the multiple-choice questions and the little bubbles to fill in? There were always a few of us, usually the ones who wore our jeans rolled up at the cuffs a year after everybody else stopped, who whispered shamefacedly behind our notebooks that we actually kind of liked them. We liked the fact that even if we'd gotten the wrong answer, at least there was a right answer. There was something satisfying about seeing that nice neat column of dots, all filled in to the edges, and if you didn't get it already, we couldn't explain it to you.

This is the same sort of thing. While the rest of the world bombs itself to oblivion and has heated arguments on national television over complicated banalities, I am the queen of my tiny world. Sugar bowl's running low? I can fix that. Laundry baskets getting full? Got it. Stack of papers to file away? I'm your girl. Clean the mirror. Make a lunch. Fill in the circle with a number two pencil.

Now, before you start getting the wrong impression of me, let me reassure you that I am not one of those scarily cheerful women whose idea of a crisis involves the words "unsightly streaks". I have not dusted under my computer monitor stand for several months. I once had so much ironing "temporarily" stacked on the end of the ironing board that the whole operation tipped over, spilling six week's worth of clothes all over the office floor. You know those little bowl-shaped things under the burners on the stove to catch the occasional drips? Most people have silver ones. I have black, because I refuse point-blank to clean them unless they catch on fire. (Yes. Twice.) When they get so gross I can't stand to look at them, I throw them out and buy new ones.

But there are elements of this job that I have come to enjoy. Ironing is one of them. There is something satisfying about the warm heft of the tool in my hand, something industrious and decisive about the sound of the whooshing steam. I like seeing a crumpled piece of material submit to the inexorable pressure of the iron, emerging as a crisply pressed shirt, a beautifully swishy skirt, a neat and tidy child's dress. It always works the same way -- no surprises here, just the calming rhythm of order imposed on chaos.

If I had the proverbial million dollars, there are a few tasks I'd hire out in a heartbeat and never look back. If I never had to stretch on tiptoe to wipe spots off a mirror again, I wouldn't miss it in the least. But the ironing I think I'd keep. It's productive, and it's cheaper than therapy. Let the wealthy have their cooks and their maids and their personal shoppers. I'll be a quiet rebel, a peaceful renegade. I have ironing to do -- and I like it.


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