Wild city: What the body knows

A few years ago we bought one of those clothesline contraptions that looks like an umbrella turned inside out. Ours was made in Ireland, and we paid a fair amount for it, but the investment has been amply returned in the enjoyment I get from hanging clothes on the line.

The central pipe of our clothesline structure fits into a larger pipe in the ground, so the whole thing spins around in the wind. It has large arms, and the lines between the arms can hold two full loads of laundry. On a sunny, breezy day (what we call at our house “a good drying day”) clothes are done in about the time it would take to run them through the dryer.

The energy used, though, isn’t natural gas or electricity, it is sunshine and wind, plus what my mother would call “elbow grease,” or muscle power.

It is a physical act, to carry the basket outdoors and hang each individual item on the line. There is something old fashioned and whimsical about it, something meditative about handling each sock and shirt, each pair of underwear and pants, pinning it up. The fresh smell absorbed by the clothes, alone, makes it worth it.

My college friends and I used to laugh about women spending their time sewing and knitting for their families. We’d roll our eyes and say, sarcastically, “This sweater was made by loving hands at home.” So I hate to admit that it feels loving to handle my family’s garments this way.

When I was a girl, one of my many domestic chores was to hang our clothes on the line. I have six siblings, so we did many loads on washday. Our clotheslines were out behind our garage near a mock orange hedge that bordered our property.

If I had to explain it, I’d say I like to hang clothes out because I associate doing so with the sweet smell of mock orange blossoms, with the chance to perform a big girl’s job and with the opportunity to get away from my mother. That it is a household task accomplished outside is also in its favor.

When I was a kid we wore old clothes around the house and in the garden, better clothes to go into town and our best clothes to go to church. In the 1990s I had a job for a short time with a city landscaping service. I wore old stuff I was fond of: what my mother would have called “high water pants” that had shrunk in the dryer, and worn shirts of my husband’s.

The other employees, all women younger than I, wore pastel knit shorts and matching tops. They got assigned more hours as I got assigned fewer — until I got none at all. After my last shift, my employer made a sideways remark about my clothing, and only then did I realize I was being let go because I hadn’t dressed properly for the job.

It hadn’t occurred to me to give up the bodily comfort and pleasure of wearing old clothes in the garden because I had signed on with this crew.

I am interested in what my body knows, what it wants and how it communicates with me. I hang clothes on the line because the activity gives me visceral pleasure, it makes my body happy. After we’d gotten our clotheslines installed, and I’d hung out the first load, I ran into the house to get the camera, I was that delighted.

One of the ways our bodies communicate with us is with gut feelings, intuition. Two messages that I often get by way of my gut are: “You are about to run into someone you know,” and “Something challenging is about to happen.” This manner of knowing is again and again affirmed. I have no idea where these messages come from, but it feels as though they begin as physical sensations.

I recently read an interview with the writer Mary Karr. After a long struggle with alcoholism, she converted to Catholicism. In talking about how she now makes decisions, she said, “I’ll feel a leaning sensation toward what I’m supposed to do. Like a dowser’s wand. It’s a solid tug.”

I’ve wondered for some time if there is a relationship between what we call intuition, and what we call animal instinct. Animals listen and act according to their bodies’ perceptions and the situation. I have wondered: How would my life be different, how would our collective lives be different, if we listened carefully every day to what our bodies know, to what they want, to what they are trying to tell us?  

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center.