It’s late Saturday night—and I’m doing my laundry.
Several years back, I encountered the Zen Buddhist epigram that I use to end all my email correspondence: After enlightenment, the laundry. There are many ways to interpret this pithy line, but what I took it to mean then is: the mundane business of life always goes on.
Over the last few months, I’ve found myself growing surprisingly resentful of this omnipresence of the mundane—especially when I have to literally do the laundry. Then, in the tiny, bulb-lit room that houses the washing machine, I’d stare balefully at the clothes as they spun in the washer, hating the fact that after the washing, I’d have to do the spin-drying, then the hanging, then the folding, then the putting away…and that two weeks later, I’d have to do the whole thing again (and two weeks after that, ad nauseum). It seemed to me in those moments that my whole life was being frittered away in the mere maintenance of things as opposed to their construction or improvement. What legacy was I leaving the world, I would ask myself crossly, in this meticulous sorting out of the whites and coloreds and delicates and not-so-delicates?
Then about two weeks ago, while washing my clothes yet again, it occurred to me that the vast majority of human endeavor is doing the laundry in one form or another (I call this episode “During the laundry, enlightenment.”). Much of our daily expenditure of effort goes into the “mere” perpetuation of things: our bodies, our appearances, our possessions, our cars, our houses, our businesses, our relationships, our ideas, our identities… There isn’t much that goes on by way of actual creation: death, decay, destruction, impermanence and transience define our existence so much that conservation alone constitutes a real victory.
In which case, there aren’t that many things I can do which would constitute a fundamentally better use of time than doing the laundry.