My Whole World Can Fit in This Washer
By Dorie ChevlenDecember 16, 2023
HERE IS SISYPHUS. Here are his arms, straining in exertion. Here is his rock, rolling in perpetual opposition. Here he is on a Greek lekythos, in a Venetian painting, in a New Yorker cartoon. Even to those who don’t know his name—or who, like me, can’t spell it sans autocorrect—his figure alone connotes struggle. His legend persists these long centuries because we can always relate to his struggle: the work that never ends, the work that feels like punishment. Even the uniform he’s given is inadequate to the task—just a loincloth, offering no warmth or protection—and how apt does that feel, I think, writing this on a laptop whose N key sticks. I’m sure that, across generations, humanity has assigned different tasks to his namesake adjective: shepherding these sheep, again; milling this flour, once more; grimly watching the falcons turning and turning in the widening gyre—all of it Sisyphean.
But for me, more than anywhere else, Sisyphus is here at the laundromat, invisible but mythically present. His endless task is also mine. Or at least it feels that way, as I bend from the knees to lift my own heavy and relentless mound, wearing my own last-resort garment, as I have again and again for years, as I shall again and again for countless more.
It’s not that my life feels like punishment: given the correct concentration of coffee and vacuous compliments, I am actually quite grateful for my particular set of circumstances. But on those days when I must heft my clothes bin from my studio apartment (which has no air-conditioning) to my 2003 Honda Accord (which has no air-conditioning) to the shabby laundromat I use in Hollywood (which technically does have air-conditioning, but too much of it) … well, it feels like an all-access pass to my own personal Tartarus.
There are other tasks in my life that are also dull and unending: dishwashing, flossing. Even my job as a writer most days. Perhaps laundry would amount to just a small irritant, like those, if I didn’t have to do it outside my home, or if I didn’t have to pay for the affront, or if I hadn’t thought my life would turn out differently. But alas, I do. Alas, it didn’t.
Growing up in small-town Ohio, I knew laundry was a regular burden—though my parents possessed not just a washer and a dryer but also an entire room devoted to the task. With the tardy insight of adulthood, of course I realize that, for many years, my mother probably considered laundry to be her Sisyphean task as well, given the sheer volume of it produced by my three siblings and me—two sets of twins born just 11 months apart. Laundering (and parenting) while so cruelly outnumbered is daunting, and probably my mother should write an essay of her own about it. But this isn’t her story, it’s mine. And what’s hard to accept is that perhaps I thought those stories would by now be more similar.
Since 100 years ago, when my Eastern European great-grandparents disembarked at Ellis Island, I am probably the very first in my genealogical line who will not do better financially than the generation prior. I’d love to blame that on the economic downturn that has defined the adult lives of me and my fellow millennials. But much of it is my fault too. I didn’t have to live in a pricey urban megalopolis. I chose that. I didn’t have to be a writer. I chose that too. (But I will not apologize for all that avocado toast, which I absolutely did have to buy.) In one of those infinite alternate universes other nerds love to rhapsodize about, there is a version of me who, at this very moment, is working as a dermatologist in Indiana and paying a housekeeper to wash her clothes in the state-of-the-art Bosch cleaning system that sits in the corner of the finished basement in the mortgage-free house where she lives. That Dorie is blonde, by the way.
But this Dorie, the one who lives in this universe, the woefully brunette one … well, I made different choices. Some of them were thoughtful and right, and others I wish I could take back, but all of them together led me here, to this hard plastic stool at the laundromat, watching my clothes spin in public. Every time I come here, I must reckon with these choices anew. Will this art be enough to sustain me? Will I ever own my own washer? They’re the musings of a brat, I recognize, first world problems in any of the infinite universes. There are always other people here with me who surely sulk and stew over better concerns. I know that’s so because some of them push their clothes here in a shopping cart. And in the entirety of their brief lives, my own ancestors would likely never have smelled lavender, let alone driven a car to Target to purchase a 146-ounce jug of Tide Zero Soft Liquid Laundry Detergent–Lavender Scent. Very often at my laundromat, an older person, sometimes one who doesn’t speak English, will tap my shoulder and ask how to operate the machine, and I am reminded that my burdens are actually small, indeed my life ahistorically easy, and I should just shut my idiot mouth and feel grateful.
But even as that condign sentiment of gratitude rises from the depths of my self-absorption, some weirdo makes a lewd comment, or someone else’s leftover bleach ruins my load. And the moment passes.
In the myth, Sisyphus earned his punishment when Zeus learned that he’d tried to cheat death, first by chaining Thanatos, and later by convincing Persephone to let him out of his own confinement in Hades, back to the land of the living. At the laundromat, I like to mull over this detail. Sisyphus loved life, and that’s why he was cursed to toil in death. And regardless of how I feel about my own life and its quotidian details, it’s the living itself that necessitates the cleaning. I sweat through leotards in ballet class and spill wine making a toast and somehow can’t cook without splattering grease. Even if I were tidy, I’d still constantly shed skin cells and oils and bacteria into the fabric of whatever I wear, and they’d need to be cleaned lest my aliveness embed too deeply and cause them—sick irony—to rot.
In theory, there is another way to avoid laundry: I could own more clothes. I could own so much clothing that I wouldn’t have to come here ever again. I could wear each garment once, then toss it aside, let it be someone else’s problem what landfill it lands in, or what turtle it chokes. Marie Antoinette’s annual dress budget, in today’s currency, would amount to about $3.6 million dollars, and there were some years she spent twice that allowance. She seldom wore the same outfit twice, and she looked amazing. Besides, who ever had a negative statement to make about Marie Antoinette? Would anyone lay my neck in the guillotine just for Amazon Priming a couple more pairs of underwear and socks?
I won’t do that though. Not just because I’m some parvenu who thinks Amazon and the vast majority of the fashion industry are both evil and wasteful (though I do, and they are). No, it’s not so much an ethical stance as a geometric one: I just don’t have the drawer space for more of anything. But I’d love to have something new; my lizard brain lights up with purchase just as yours does. And how dreary it is, to load and unload the same worn-out leggings and crew socks and shorts, week after week. How humbling it is, to measure the expectations I had of my life against the pedestrian shape it’s actually taken. I thought I’d own a washer by now, and I don’t, and that’s fine. But I really thought I’d own better clothes. Look at these little shapes mixing in their watery filth, no silk or cashmere or lace to prevent their vulgar commingling.
I hate my clothes. At least, I think so every time I’m forced to sit and watch them slosh and spin into a blur. And I’m not even good at maintaining them. My leggings are all pilling up. My socks long ago lost their mates and their new liaisons feel mismatched. And despite my incredible mind, I still can’t figure out how to remove the yellow stains from my white tees. I know it’s a chemical reaction to the aluminum in my deodorant—not a stain from the sweat—but that knowledge has done nothing to help me remove them. That knowledge has done nothing to get me to stop using aluminum deodorant.
In the days when Sisyphus’s myth still held the freshness of a new M. Night Shyamalan film, laundry would have been an even more miserable event than the one I’m carping about. Ancient Roman fullers collected urine from public waste receptacles, carried it on their shoulders to their stations, then poured the acidic liquid into a vat. Either they or their slaves would then laboriously stomp on the hot, urine-soaked garments until the dirt and oil had released, and would then rinse them with water and lay them out to dry in the sun. Me, all I have to do is drop the clothes into a machine, pour in some detergent, and press the start button. I don’t even need to count quarters anymore; the machine reads credit cards.
I am sometimes aware, before entering a fugue state brought on by the swirling cyclone of my own sartorial waste, of how very small my life is. How small even my problems are. All those clothes, those sheets, those socks—they are mine. I have more clothes in this basket than my ancestors owned their whole lives. I don’t have little spit-up–stained onesies in the mix, no king-sized sheets for a bed that I share. I don’t have to ask anyone, “Is this okay in the dryer?” Because it’s mine, all mine, so I know. And it’s a lonely, sad sort of possession. For all the years of my life, all my travels and loves, all of my underwear can fit into a tank and be cleaned in under an hour.
In the conclusion to Albert Camus’s oft-quoted treatise, he imagines Sisyphus happy—that the cursed man finds joy in his relentless task. I wonder if that joy isn’t better described just as comfort, the assurance of knowing he’d always have something to attend to. I wonder if, in the moment that he reaches the top of the merciless hill, he doesn’t feel a little sadness, that the jig is up, the job over. It would be a relief, then, to watch the boulder tumble down its worn slope, just a moment later. It’s nice to depend on something, even if it’s not a thing that you want.
When I visit the laundromat, I often bring my laptop to write. It’s where this essay was conceived and born, which I realize now I should tell my accountant, but of course I don’t have one—my taxes are done by my dad.
Invariably, the droning woosh of the machines pulls my mind away from the task at hand and into my imagination: I sometimes picture myself in the future, 5, 10, 15 years from now (somehow I look the same in each projection). In my own head, I stand on stage accepting an Emmy Award, a Nobel Prize, a Pulitzer—one of them, all of them, I have time. I live somewhere fabulous, on a hill, and inside my hill house is a wallpapered washroom where I simply drop my clothes into the washer and walk away. I don’t need to watch the laundry because I own this machine, I own this room, I own this house, and there is no worry that anyone will steal that away. In the machine, there are many other garments besides my own, garments of people I love, with French labels and care instructions I don’t bother reading, because it doesn’t matter, because if anything is destroyed, I can fix it, because nothing is destroyed in this future.
Accepting my award, I’m wearing one of those fabulous French label-free garments, and I tell the enthralled audience that I wrote my book, my essay, my screenplay here, I wrote it at the laundromat, can you believe it, and never could I have imagined being on this stage, accepting this award, all the good fortune that’s come my way, how all the hard work has finally paid off.
They clap and cheer. Some leap to their feet. The camera zooms in on the one furtive tear that rolls down my cheek, somehow not smudging my makeup. And only I know that I’ve lied. I imagined this all the time. I am imagining it at this very moment.
And yes, I imagine Sisyphus happy. Of course he is happy. Why shouldn’t he be? His whole world fits in the space between his sweat-gleaming arms.
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