I pour clothes into the washing machine, set the dials and watch the water fill the tank. I have completed my third week, of my first quarter, at Western Washington University and the large increase in workload is hitting me. Everything I used to do – before I took on full time academic life and working at the Center For Educational Pluralism at “Uncle” Paul Woodring School of Education – still needs to be done.
“The course readings are the water, and the professors are detergent.” I instruct myself as I watch the laundry churn. “The clothes represent my world – parts of me and my community.” I further propose. Then I shrug and shut the lid.
My increased work load is clearly “the agitator” but I don’t wish to think about it. Best to just keep laboring and hope I’ll get used to it soon.
I didn’t known how much the class readings would affect me, much less imagine the way my books and classes might impact my husband and housemate; actually our whole community.
“Hey, don’t wander off with that. It is my college textbook!” I informed a neighbor one day and my housemate the next.
“Really? You’re kidding. What class?’”
“Creative Nonfiction Writing.”
“I really like these short articles.”
My husband read my whole text for my Women in Literature class, “Women Scribblers – Short Stories by 19th Century American Women”, all 500 pages of it, in my first week at Western. Then he hefted that tome from the table and offered it to our friends, “Try this one, it is a fantastic read, I really enjoyed it.”
“No!” I yelped.. “Come on you guys, I have homework. Give me back my damn school books.”
“What are your professor’s like?” I got asked several times a day at first.
“Three wondrous women. All superior teachers. Really great.”
The first two weeks I wandered around Western remembering Campus School – particularly while at the Center for Educational Pluralism. I can’t stop marveling that I am now employed in what was once my fifth grade classroom. The linoleum is the same 50 year later, and the bathroom sinks, stalls and tiles.
The first two weeks I felt giddy with childhood memories of Western. I visited my long departed Dad’s old office in Old Main and spoke with the successor of his successor.
Week three was different. I got behind, not in schoolwork but in housework, banking and grocery shopping. Week three my husband and friends didn’t read my book because I copied it off the internet to save money. It was “Incidents In The Life Of A Slave Girl” written by Harriet Jacobs. I am still deeply horrified and haunted by it. It poured in hot and has rinced cold. It soaked me through – suds me up – and it bleached me but good. It is still spinning me round and round.
“Why haven’t I ever read this book? Everyone should read this book. Every American should read this book.” I lectured myself. Yet strangely it was that book that I ended up keeping to myself.
Opening the washer lid and hauling the dry/wet clothes up and out, then shoving them in the dryer, I consider my next reading assignment. I clean the lint screen, set the dials, slam the door shut and hit “START”. The drum begins to roll and blow heat.
“The hot air is the learning process.” I mutter.
Today I am alone. My husband is off helping a friend put in a new shower and my housemate has vanished too. I sit down and read “Biography Of A Dress.” by Jamaica Kincaid. In it she remembers scenes from her childhood – but her childhood was as oppressed and sorrowful as my Campus School years were enriched. The story unsettles me.
I vacuum the house. I wash dishes and clean the counters. Inside, I’m tumbling between gratitude and feeling oppressed. My thoughts, hot and dry, and my feelings, wet and soggy. The story could be another chapter from “Life of A Slave Girl” – except Jamaica Kincaid is subtle and strange and mysterious, where Harriet Jacobs is plain and simple and graphic. They are both black women and I am a low income white woman. Compared to them I am so privileged. I think about women everywhere, finding time to scribble our messages, or sew smocking and embroider, or read books; between chores.
Rolling clean, hot, dry clothes into the laundry basket and then dumping them on the couch, I sit down to fold and sort. I half expect to come across Jamaica’s porridge colored little smocked dress, or maybe one of my own childhood corduroy jumpers.I decide to buy “Incidents In The Life Of A Slave Girl” and leave it on the coffee-table. I decide to keep my eye out for other stories written by Jamaica Kincaid and to share them with my husband. I decide that my husband will need to do the shopping and banking now that I have gone back to school.
“The clean underwear is my conscience, and these blouses are my….” I try, but then I laugh, shrug, stand, walk into my bedroom, and put the laundry away; suddenly relaxed and free of personal concerns.