A single load of laundry, one person’s weekly wares. What will emerge next from this wet lump? A cotton periwinkle skirt and a breeze.
In Tide commercials, ladies dressed in linen pin clothes to expansive lines hanging over grassy fields, smiling on a sunny afternoons. But, in the U.S., laundry detergent is bought to be dumped into electric washers, to produce piles of wet clothes that are dumped into electric dryers—clean squares of steel that live in a windowless basements. Who has time to hang laundry, to wait for it to dry? Kelly Ripa bakes pies, finds Mark Consuelo’s car keys, and plots a season of morning talk news while she does her laundry.
There is to be no multi-tasking while hanging clothes on a clothesline. What is beautiful for me is a curse for most of the world’s women: days spent stringing a family’s laundry on a line. Here, with only Portuguese class pressing on my time, I love this routine, its methodical pace. It smells sparkly. It depends on the weather. Sun breaking through clouds and a breeze. It’s quiet, and, unlike so many other things, it is piece by piece by piece. A wad of wet fabric spreads into human forms. It is panties revealed, socks unpaired, skirts billowing up to expose presumed legs.
I am un-learning how to multi-task. I feel comfortable in Recife now, comfortable enough to rush, to be irritable or distracted. Yet there is something that is still slightly off-kilter—just different enough, foreign still—to throw me off balance, to disrupt what seem to be mindless tasks. I make coffee—boil water, stir in grounds, pour through filter—while cutting a banana into a bowl of yogurt, and something is dropped, spilled, burned. I unlock the door to leave while toeing for my Havianas, and the door doesn’t open or the flip-flops are on the wrong feet. I let my mind wander forward or backward, even just a step, while someone is talking to me, and I lose control of the conversation.
And, then, I speak, and this, too, teaches me to slow down, to focus on one thing at a time. What happened? has three quick syllables. O que aconteceu? has seven. Seven syllables, and if any are multi-tasked, smashed together, or forgotten in the rush to finish the word, the word itself is lost. This is the hardest part: moving forward, word by word by word. When I want to say all sorts of thoughts, all at the same time, but first have to fit them into my mouth, fit my mouth around them, conjugate and articulate. What will emerge from this wet lump. Piece by piece by piece.