Don’t Drop the Laundry, and the Ethics of Losing Control


I slide open the window, the adrenaline shoots through my spine, and I reach out to put the first clip on my dripping shirt. I’m squeezing it so hard it will wrinkle. I put on a clip, and another, and another–six clips on one light shirt. With every new clip, I still grip the fabric in my hand, because . . . my shirt might fall, ten stories down.

I wonder if the clips are strong, if the plastic links that hold them to the frame are sound, and then I wonder if the frame itself, and its hook onto the beam are dependable. I remember hearing pigeons flutter nearby once or twice. And the wind can blow.

Giving up control.

I’ve already backed inside: of course I have, as quickly as possible, and I’ve closed the window, too, because I was in peril, just reaching with my two hands and a nylon shirt over an abyss.

When I was a kid–and even now, I confess–I would balance on a curb and tell myself if I fell, I’d tumble twenty feet, no, two-thousand feet down. The space beneath me was hazy with distance, and omething dire depended on my making it across. I’d hurry, rush, each leg supporting the next until the whole pretense of control was lost, and I’d be fa–but only until a new rule flashed in, by necessity.  I had made it to a safety, to a platform, where I could get my balance again.

I’m traveling right now. I’ve lost control.

Dios es mi guia, it said on the bumper stickers on the typical Guatemalan bus back in my Peace Corps days.

Yes, Dios es mi guia. That is, I am not my own guia at times.  Knees clinched on my daughters hips, hands behind me gripping the underside of the motorbike seat, helmet on my head obscuring what view her helmet doesn’t obscure, I am my daughter’s passenger. She is taking us somewhere through streets littered with other vehicles with footprints I’m not used to–equilateral triangles, right triangles, rectangles, squares. Columns–the motorbikes pulling bamboo. And chickens–that’s more how the motorbikes move than anything else I picture. They bob, dip, spring, make surprising oblique get-aways. My daughter stops abruptly four or five times “because my passenger can’t hold a cell phone and navigate”–because her passenger is still trying to predict the best moment to let a hand go to tuck the skirt under her thigh or against her daughter’s bottom so it won’t flap, to reach a finger pull the helmet back in a place so it might, conceivably, protect her rather than damage her brain-stem if she falls.

We arrive at a place that looks a lot like the places we’ve been passing for the past half-hour. We order, and I trust that the water and the ice are the kind that are safe for me, because I trust that my daughter has already worked out these safety details. I eat hard pale green items and small beige ones with sauces, and I trust they are foodstuffs that I would eat if I knew what they were, that the plates on which they’re served were cleaned with warm water, that the food handlers understand the fragility of a traveler’s system.

Dios es mi guia. I am not in control.

I learn from travel. I learn patience. I learn endurance. I learn trust. Think of the flight delays, the child two seats over who screams on take-offs and landings, the hospital visits in foreign countries and that moment when they scrub your scalp to do something, but you don’t know what.  You eventually land, the child eventually is out of your hearing, and you learn it will only be an EEG–not an unexpected brain surgery conducted through a foreign medical system without your consent.

Mostly, we’re not in control and we survive.

We can’t control everything.

In fact, when I hang that same blouse at home, feet on the ground, I never drop it. The clothespins, the clothesline–they never fail. And still, here I am, broken from the ordinary. I am aware.

Travel reminds me of all the times I have no control. It gives me a chance to appreciate how often I benefit from the goodwill of humans, and from my underlying knowledge of probability.

But as peaceable as this sounds, this reasoning has a flaw. What about the times they press new plastic bottles of water on me, when there is filtered water nearby I could refill my old bottle with? Or they order too many dishes–with meat, and other environmentally costly items–so I will feel their hospitality?  Or they purchase me a first-class ticket (well, that only happened once), causing me to use the space of three people, and thus the fossil fuel of three people, for a long flight?

Handing control over is not to be done with carte blanche. It can’t be.  In some situations, we have an imperative to “Do, Don’t Hope.” By small acts, we must refuse the plastic bottle and show our suitable one instead. We must eat the meat they’ve offered, but sparingly. We must not let all of cultures’ mores be our guia because that guia does not have the same map from two thousand feet up as we do. We can predict where those mores are taking us, and we need to push back.

Lean out, clip the blouse, pretend you’re on a beam above Earth. Become giddy letting loose your fallacy of your control. But contribute to moving our actions forward the best you can, sometimes by small acts with plastic bottles, and sometimes with larger acts.

For example, don’t get on that plane. Take a walk on a curb, exercise the awe spot in your brain, live where you are with the people and curbs you’ve seen before, but let the people and curbs remind you there are times to let go. And there are times to step onto the platform and evaluate the rules. Then Do, Don’t Hope.

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