Last night, I washed my tiny wardrobe for the first time since arriving in Mexico at the beginning of the month.
The two women I’m staying with have a stone sink on an outdoor patio specifically for this purpose. I watched closely as they pantomimed how I could run the water, sprinkle the soap, and vehemently rub each article of clothing back and forth on the ribbed basin. They gave the imaginary clothes a silent rinse, pretended to wring them out with great effort, and waved their hands in the direction of the thin rope strung back and forth across the far corner of the patio.
In Mexico, the word patio can mean many things. Sometimes, patio is a picturesque courtyard at the center of a colonial-style hacienda, complete with hanging paper lanterns and a waterfall of bougainvilleas. A patio can also be a packed-dirt square at the center of a U-shaped building, littered with defunct automobiles, chickens, and half-naked children.
In this case, our patio is a small, square section of tiles enclosed on four sides and separated from the main living space by a thin, French-style wooden door. The patio is open to the air, three stories up, in a building that houses a different family on each floor.
Above our clothesline dangles our neighbor’s underwear, and above that hangs yet another layer of drying laundry: usually small towels and a few men’s shirts. The lines above ours are hung on pulleys, so that residents can lean out the window and collect their thoroughly sun-baked effects.
My roommates left me alone on the patio with my armful of well-worn clothes. I stripped off what I was wearing, plugged the drain, ran a little water, sprinkled a little soap, and did my best to imitate the agitation of my washer at home in Colorado. I swished this way and that, violently up and down, and then side to side again.
Even though the sun was going down and the heat was fading from the South Mexican afternoon, I broke a sweat, wrapped in a towel as I pretended to be a washing machine. I tucked the towel tighter around me and hopped up and down as I washed, wiggling my hips as I wiggled my clothes around. This is hardly “hand” washing, I thought. This is full-body washing! Eventually, the water appeared dirty enough that I thought the clothes must be clean.
I imitated my hostesses’ casual rinse, emphatic twist, and spirited wring, then clipped up my entire wardrobe to dry: five pairs of underwear, two pairs of socks, two undershirts, one long-sleeved collared shirt, one short-sleeved collared shirt, one sleeveless collared shirt (which I’d worn almost every day), and two pairs of light cotton pants, plus my nightie. I showered and went to sleep without a stitch, as my mom would say, dreaming of a morning full of clean, dry clothes.
In the middle of the night, there was small earthquake. I leapt out of bed and grabbed my towel as I ran to the front door. My hosts were not disturbed, neither by the tremor nor by my half-naked dash through the house.
In the morning, still wrapped in said towel, I tiptoed out to the patio to see if my clothes were dry. They were—but as I unclipped a pair of pants and let them drop into the laundry basket at my feet, I heard a faint crunch. Four more small crunchy sounds hit my ears as my socks fell into the basket.
Concerned, I examined my favorite sleeveless blouse in the early light. It looked dusty and smelled like synthetic perfume—it was stiff with soap. Grumbling, I filled a nearby bucket with water and dumped all my clothes back in, then stomped back to the bedroom to start work in my towel.
An hour later, there was a splashing sound from the patio. I peaked out and my hostess was beating my bucket of clothes with an oversized wooden spatula. “Demasiado jabón,” (too much soap) she said severely as she whipped my clothes into a frothy mess. She picked up the bucket and dumped it in the sink. “Again,” she said. “Water again.”
She clucked and rolled her eyes at me as I filled the bucket with water and began to stir with the spatula. I was relieved when no more soap bubbles formed. My hostess flipped her fingers casually at the clothesline and went back inside. I wrung out and hung up my now nearly scentless laundry and retreated to the kitchen to eat a tamale and sip a small bowl of watery coffee, as the women of the house fussed fondly at each other in clipped Spanish.
By noon, my clothes were dry, soft, and smelling totally fresh. With great appreciation, I folded each item and stacked them on the unfinished shelves in my room. I poured my clean body into an equally clean pair of pants and felt like a queen. I buttoned my favorite shirt up to my clean neck and felt like at any moment now, a priestess would anoint me with heavenly oils, and I would be carried by winged horses to a different kind of patio, flush with flowers and fruit trees.
I noticed my freckles, my sun tan, the scar on my chest, and the hair on my arms—and I felt pure bliss. There was no room for criticism or doubt because there was no room for judgement. There was just my clean, perfect body wrapped in clean, perfect clothing.
The truth is that it had never felt this good to be clean. How many thousands of times have I put on clean clothes after a shower and immediately proceeded to criticize and doubt myself? At home, it takes much more than fresh laundry to elevate me to such a state of delirious wonder and joy.
Yes, the grass is always greener. Yes, I have dry cuticles and red knuckles from being a slightly less-than-functional human washing machine. Yes, this would take for-freakin’-ever if I tried to wash my whole American wardrobe by hand. (Motivation for slimming down my permanent closet? I think so.) But this trip to Mexico has taught me to look through a different lens: one that highlights every opportunity for bliss, love, and connection.
I have made friends with people I would hard-core judge if I saw them at a bar in Denver. I have stood at a dusty bus stop in Oaxaca Valley eating an orange that was so delicious it made my eyes water. And despite the earthquake and the angry cuticles, when I got dressed this morning, I felt like the goddess of not just self-love, but world-love, as well.
Relephant watch: 5 Mindful Things to Do Each Morning.
Author: Lily Calfee
Image: Author’s own
Editor: Nicole Cameron
Copy Editor: Travis May