Sometimes, there is a streak of imperiousness in me. It can come to the surface, for example, when I spot such transgressions as bicycles blocking the sidewalks, dogs off leash, beer cans thrown from cars, and much more. It’s been a longstanding habit of mine to complain loudly, as if that alone is all that is needed to fix things. My friends have politely endured my umbrage. But not so long ago they began to realize that something had happened. I was changing. Here’s how.
For the past five years, I’ve lived in affordable housing for seniors in one of three hundred apartments in a twenty-six-story building. There is so much to love about it, with one big exception: the community laundry room is a mess.
Every week, I’d head down to the laundry room, in the dead of night. I didn’t want to run into any of the culprits that were responsible for the mess. I’d raise my eyebrows and notice how disheveled and dirty it could be. Often, of the ten washing machines, there would be piles of laundry left in broken machines, sometimes for days. Many of the machines would be sporting rivulets of spilled detergent running down their front. Often, there would be somebody who thought they could crush two loads into one, bringing the cycle to a halt. Dryers mysteriously sent out cold air. And through it all, I did nothing but complain, mostly to myself.
But, wait, there’s more: clothes left and forgotten, taking up space in the few carts; dryers choked with lint, in spite of a sign that asks all to clean it after use; floors flooded because of a faulty machine.
One day, an actual crime was committed. Someone dealt with a broken washing machine by ripping off its door, presumably by sheer strength, and throwing it across the room. I pictured a discus thrower. I opined confidently that it was probably someone’s visiting grandchild, perhaps a college student on spring break. None of us had that kind of muscle.
All of this, I’m ashamed to say, just produced more fodder for complaining. And, still, I did nothing.
Then, one night, out of the blue, I finally took one little step. I was fed up with the way the detergent dispensers were often clogged and overflowing. Angrily, I found a way to disengage the detergent dispenser on my washing machine. Unlike that imaginary college student, all I needed was plenty of patience. After trial and error, I found the right pressure and the exact spot to free it. I was proud of myself, as if I’d just cracked a safe.
Now I could take each of the dispensers to the sink and wash all the excess away. For weeks, I happily disengaged a dispenser and washed it in the sink. Over time, I found that I’d pulled out all of them from the ten washing machines. And that’s when I realized, without my intending to do so, and in one revelatory moment, that I’d tricked myself into doing service for all my neighbors. The very ones I loved to complain about.
I started cleaning all ten of the dispensers each week. But I didn’t stop there. I found so much more that needed cleaning. The white tops of all the dryers and machines needed to be wiped. It was amazing how much lint accumulated. I cleaned the front of the machines as well. One day I noticed that the seals on the washing machines were loose, and were becoming receptacles for all kinds of grunge, much of it organic material! This was not healthy. I put on industrial gloves and started pulling the grunge out. Now, what to do with the clothes that had been left for several days in a couple of carts? I didn’t want to be presumptuous, but I folded the clothes and put them on the folding table. I was no longer thinking only of my laundry, but the various needs we all had. Yes, I was actually thinking of “us,” not just me. I began to recognize a feeling of interdependence in a matter-of-fact way. I became curious, and rather than complaining about the mess, thought about more ways to make it better.
The more I cleaned, the more I enjoyed it. The few times someone happened by in the middle of the night, they never acknowledged me. Perhaps they didn’t want to interrupt my work. It makes me feel good that my dana is given freely and just as freely, silently accepted.
One night, two chatty residents appeared. They could see that I had a spray bottle in one hand, and a cloth in the other, and was stretching to reach the tops of the machines. One of the women asked if I worked there. The other said the place was never cleaner. And they both agreed that it was kind of spooky to clean at this late hour. Then like a magician, I pulled a feather duster out from behind me. Merriment ensued.
Buddhism emphasizes that egos aren’t static. We have many selves. I’ve found a self I’d not known before, who shows up to care for the laundry room and the tenants who use it. I’ve even caught him whistling while he worked!
My compassion for my neighbors has blossomed. I began to realize how difficult doing laundry is for many of them. How is it that, in this senior apartment building, I hadn’t paid much attention? Neighbors were in wheelchairs, for example, trying to reach up to fill the dispenser, or doing a balancing act while maneuvering a walker. That’s why the spills were there. Dozens of dryer sheets floated like tumbleweeds across the floor. I can stoop to sweep them up. Perhaps those errant clothes are still in the carts because someone became ill. Maybe they’d been taken to the hospital, a common event in senior living. Maybe they simply forgot. Or maybe they were just pissed off. I began to imagine all the things that could happen, then my complaints began to melt away.
Zen teaches us that each and every one of us is a Buddha. I like to imagine all of the three hundred Buddhas in the building, each tucked away in their own apartment, and how it was buddhanature that had pulled me in the right direction, to do what was right.
I love picturing the early birds coming down to the laundry room in the morning, and finding everything sparkling clean. They might tell each other there’s a ghost afoot. But it’s not a hungry one. Just hard-working me. With no complaints.