For many of us, the pandemic has revealed and deepened what was already true. For me, one of those revelations has been that the laundry room really is my favorite room in our house. That might sound strange, but it’s true. It’s the first room I enter when coming in our back door from the garage. And, although it is also the dumping ground for all kinds of things—backpacks, shoes, items that need to be taken to recycling, even blown-in-leaves—it always greets me with the smell I love best: the smell of clean. I recognize now that this has been true for a while. But it’s really only been during these months of the pandemic that this room has been confirmed as a tiny bright spot of respite and joy. Many a day I’ve determined that no matter how few dirty clothes are in the basket, I will do a load of laundry when the day is finished. (And on the odd occasion when there hasn’t been enough to justify a full load, I’ve even found joy in handwashing our family’s masks in the kitchen sink.)
When I put a new load of clothes in to wash, I find myself just standing near the washer for as long as I’m able. I relish the gentle sounds of its whirring, the cascade of clean water mixing with detergent, the knowledge that things are getting clean and will come out better than when they went in. I realize all this might sound bizarre. For months it has felt bizarre for me too. But not long ago I recognized that this slight obsession with laundry and the smell of clean is deeply connected to the desires of my own spirit in this time—and maybe yours too.
A few months ago I found myself in my laundry room, listening to the swish of clothes in soapy water, smelling the scent of clean, and generally enjoying a short moment of happiness. As I watched this machine do magic with my family’s dirty clothes, the old, old words of St. Julian of Norwich leapt into my head: All will be well, all will be well. And all manner of things shall be made well. And then suddenly, to my own surprise, a lump came up in my throat, and I found myself in tears. It had been a long time since I had spent time with those words of Julian’s, first written more than seven hundred years ago. But I recalled that Julian, too, lived through the pandemic we now call the Black Death. She, too, watched as her streets filled with protests and violence during the Peasants’ Revolt of England. And in a time of great personal distress and near-death illness, she also was overwhelmed by all that was wrong in the world. Yet these words—this promise given to her by Jesus in that most painful time—offered a ray of hope in her own time. And through the centuries, they shine on into my own.
In that moment, crying in my laundry room, I realized what this all was about. In the midst of a global pandemic, an economic recession, racial injustice, social unrest, political upheaval, and uncertainty within my own home, my heart, mind, soul, and body were crying out for all manner of things to be made well! And, while there are so many, many things outside of my control, the dirty clothes in my house are something I can do something about. So the practice of making dirty clothes clean has become, for me, much more than just doing laundry. Without even fully knowing it, it has become an act of prayer, of hope, of faith, and even an act of resisting despair.
Since that moment, I’ve been more intentional and aware of my practice of doing laundry. I still stand in front of the washer when I have time, taking in the sounds and fragrance of it doing its good work. Sometimes I imagine a divine washing machine covering all the cosmos—large enough for everything and everyone to fit. I imagine Jesus “reconciling all things to himself,” like the gentle, agitating motion that twists up disjointed and isolated people together in a healing, cleansing embrace. I pray with the words of David in Psalm 51 as he likened his sin to a stained piece of clothing: “Wash me with hyssop, and I will be clean.” And when I move wet clothes into the dryer, I hear the words of the One on the throne who proclaims: “Behold, I am making all things new!”
Later, as I slowly pull warm, fragrant clothes from the dryer, I think of the words of that great theologian Anne Shirley, who said, “Tomorrow is a new day, with no mistakes in it yet.” I know these clothes won’t stay clean forever, but I enjoy the moment when they are, and the process that made them so. I am filled with momentary gratitude, and my soul lightens just a bit. And sometimes I dream even further. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just bundle up all the divisiveness, political tension, violence, injustice, death, sickness, and isolation of 2020 into one giant ball of dirty laundry, and chuck it into a cosmic washing machine so 2021 would miraculously come out better?
The healing we long for almost always comes in the small, ordinary work done in love.
But of course we can’t do this. Nor do I think this is how things will be made well in the end. Because there’s something else that’s always been true that this season of pandemic has revealed to me: the healing we long for almost always comes in the small, ordinary work done in love. It’s in the masks we wear to protect our neighbor; the note of encouragement we write to an exhausted nurse; the meal brought to a sick friend; the groceries offered to the person who lost a job; and yes, even the laundry done week after week.
As we begin this new year, I find myself experiencing renewed hope in the power of small acts of love. These are practices of hope, practices of resisting despair, practices that enable us to participate in the healing we long for. So the next time you begin the process of washing dirty clothes, I invite you to hear and receive the hope of this promise: All will be well, all will be well. And all manner of things shall be made well.