Amid a global pandemic, a crazed election cycle, and violent vigilantes taking to the streets, peace of mind is in short supply. Small comforts, though, can satisfy. This short meditation on clean sheets, or new paint, reminds readers to take pleasure in everyday sensual delights.
NASHVILLE — The scent of sun-dried sheets fresh off the clothesline can completely change my state of mind. Like the sense of well-being that comes over me when a song from my youth is playing on the radio, the smell of line-dried sheets takes me home to Alabama, back to a time when all my beloved elders were still alive, still humming as they shook out a wad of damp bedsheets and pinned them to the line.
This summer I have repeatedly washed not just our sheets but also our 20-year-old matelassé coverlet, whose scalloped edges are now beginning to fray. I have washed the dust ruffle for possibly the first time in its entire existence. Once the linens are reassembled, I crawl between the sheets, breathe in, and feel the muscles across the top of my back begin to loosen. As my friend Serenity’s mother is fond of saying, “There are very few problems in this world that putting clean sheets on the bed won’t improve, even if just a little bit.”
These days it’s truly just a little bit, even when the clean sheets have been dried on a clothesline in the bright summer sun. Everyone I know is either suffering terribly or terribly worried about someone who is suffering. When will they ever find work? What if they get sick at work and can’t afford to take time off? What if they bring the virus home to the people they love? How will they work and also home-school their children? Will their parents die of the coronavirus? Will their parents die of loneliness before they can die of the coronavirus?
For months now, all my phone calls and texts and emails have begun, “How are you, really?” or “How is…?” Sometimes I’m the one who’s asking and sometimes I’m the one who’s being asked, but every exchange begins the same way.
Without even thinking about why, I engage in useless compensation. Bringing a few swallowtail caterpillars inside to save them from the red wasps. Repotting eight years’ worth of Mother’s Day orchids. Buying mask after mask, as though this color or this style or this pattern will somehow protect me and those I love. I am getting through these days primarily by way of magical thinking, and sheets billowing on a hot August wind are my talismans against fear and loss.
In June, after 25 years in this house, my husband set to work on our 70-year-old kitchen cabinets, chiseling out layers of paint, planing and sanding warped edges. When he was finished, the cabinet doors would close all the way, and stay closed, for the first time in decades. If you ask him why he went to all this trouble, he has no explanation beyond the obvious: For 25 years it needed to be done, and so he finally did it.
But I think it’s more than that. I think he was worrying about his lonesome father, quarantined in an efficiency apartment, and that’s why he fixed those cupboard doors. He was worrying about our oldest son’s pandemic wedding and our middle son’s new job as an essential worker. He was worrying about whether our youngest son’s university would make the inevitable decision to hold classes online before we had to sign a yearlong lease for an apartment our son might never set foot in. My husband can’t control any of those things, much less cure Covid-19, but he can by God make the kitchen cabinets stop flying open and knocking us in the head while we cook.
The other day, I posted a picture on Facebook of our masks drying on the clothesline. “At some point I’m going to have to stop buying masks with flowers on them,” I wrote. “I don’t know why I keep thinking a new mask with flowers on it will solve everything, but I keep thinking it anyway.”
My friends began to chime in. “In case you are wondering, ice cream doesn’t seem to solve anything either, but I’m still collecting data,” my friend Noni wrote. “I confess I have not picked up an iron in years, but I now iron our masks each week,” wrote Tina. “It’s important to get the pleats just right. For some reason.”
We know the reason. In Margaret Atwood’s 1969 debut novel, “The Edible Woman,” a character named Duncan copes with chaos by ironing: “I like flattening things out, getting rid of the wrinkles, it gives me something to do with my hands,” he says.
A few days later I was still thinking about Tina ironing those masks, so I asked, outright, what my Facebook friends are doing to manage their own anxieties. When I checked back a few hours later, there were more than 100 comments, and every one of them was a lesson, or at least a needed reminder, for me.
My friends are giving themselves difficult and absorbing assignments: reading classic novels, learning a new language or a challenging song on the guitar, working complicated puzzles. “I am doing so many puzzles because it feels good to put something back together again,” my friend Erica wrote.
They are throwing themselves into the domestic arts: preparing complex meals, learning to make paper flowers and, yes, ironing. “I’ve been ironing my pillowcases,” wrote Elizabeth. “They feel so crisp and cool on my poor menopausal cheeks.”
They are putting in a garden, in the suburban backyard or on the city balcony. They are feeding the birds and sometimes the turtles, rescuing orphaned opossums, walking in the woods. They are sitting on the porch — just sitting there, listening. At night they are going outside to look at the stars.
They are taking care of others — adopting puppies and lonely neighbors, coaching elderly aspiring writers via Zoom, breaking their own rules against pets in bed, taking the time to get to know their U.S. Mail carriers. They are meeting friends — outdoors and from a safe distance — and making a pact to talk about anything but the coronavirus. They are reveling in the slower pace of family life and falling in love with their partners all over again. My sister, who still lives in Alabama, is sending boxes of Chilton County peaches to faraway friends who have never before experienced the taste of heaven.
Tears welled up as I read their stories, and by the time I’d reached the end, I was openly weeping. It felt like nothing less than a blessing, in this hurt and hurtful time, to remember how creative human beings can be, how tender and how kind.
We may be in the middle of a story we don’t know how will end, or even whether it will end, but we are not helpless characters created and directed by an unseen novelist. We have the power, even in this Age of Anxiety, to enfold ourselves in small comforts, in the joy of tiny pleasures. We can walk out into the dark and look up at the sky. We can remind ourselves that the universe is so much bigger than this fretful, feverish world, and it is still expanding. And still filled with stars.
Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the book “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.” This article was originally written for the New York Times.