Minding the Sky while ironing it out

Posted in Blogs, Literary

Nov. 26, 2013

I received an email from a friend of mine which brought me to a full stop. Its message was so true and so truly moving, I feel I must share it with you, all of you out there reading this, those I know and those I don’t know, friends near and far, folks down the street I’ve never met — here are some considerations which may remind you of the real and exquisite beauty hidden in the ordinary details of life.

I love to iron.  No – really – I do love to iron.  Ironing has seen me through fear, loss, anxiety, anticipation, expectation, sleeplessness.  I’ve dampened as many clothes with tears as I have with spray starch or Mrs. Meyers Ironing Water.

And then sometimes I iron just out of pure joy – just for the delight of seeing something finished, feeling that I’ve started and finished one thing – sometimes for myself – sometimes for someone I love. 

Everything about it delights me – the heft of the iron that someone actually invented and manufactured.  Where did that start – hot stones pressing hides maybe?  When did dewrinkling begin to matter?  

I like the capacity for transition.  First it’s wrinkled – then it’s flat.  And it’s the same piece of cloth – the same object transformed.

I like the steam – wind made manifest – how magic is that?

I like the ever-changing scene I observe out of the second-story window where my ironing board sits.  Today – trees hung with flame – busy squirrels leaping from ground to tree to . . .   A few dogs and their walkers bundled for the first time this year in hats and gloves as well as newly uncovered  long-moth-balled coats.  Cycles – cycles.  At these transition times in nature I am newly reminded that change is hard and glorious and inevitable. 

minding the sky degas Woman_Ironing

“Woman Ironing” 1869 oil on canvas by Edgar Degas.

And the smell of ironing – the moist warmth – like walking into the dark room of a sleeping child.  It is fragrant and real and peaceful and so filled with promise. 

And then there’s the moment when I stop ironing.  Finishing for the day – a job well done (usually) and I think now for a moment of the things that don’t need ironing – shar-peis and elephant’s knees and our faces as we age.

─ From the ironing board of Candace Barrett Birk

Candace Barrett Birk who wrote this beautiful iteration outlining the hidden poetry in our daily lives, has been a friend and mentor to me for over 30 years. We met in San Francisco at a place called Western Public Radio which existed for the sole purpose of giving birth to creative work in the radio medium.  It was a fellowship program funded by the John and Mary R. Markle Foundation and brought together top talent in the production of radio documentaries, theatre, recorded comedy, and experimental audio art.

Fellows and mentors worked intensely for a week in small rooms with buzzing machines, encouraging new talent coming up in the field to have wild ideas and then make them real.  It was a great time in the development of the art forms in public radio and many of the voices known and loved on NPR today had their humble beginnings in those studios at Fort Mason Center. That was where WPR was then located, headed up by Leo C. Lee, an archetypal curmudgeon of the Front Page “newsman” ilk who ran the joint with barking commands and twinkling eyes. A lot of good work was done there and then the empowered producers went forth, as the diaspora of a new generation of creative thinkers in the medium.

Candace was my mentor then and there and, as a leading producer of children’s theatre and media in the SF Bay area, she encouraged me to pursue my dream of making quality programming for young people. She showed me what that might look like, sound like, and be like to do. She also suggested, before we had even met, that I should marry David Ossman, whom she had met and approved of as good husband material for me which, after I met him, turned out to be true!

Candace and I continued to work together periodically over the years — including on an all-star centennial celebration for radio of the book, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” which we produced at her behest for the Children’s Museum of Los Angeles. The end result is to this day one of my favorite pieces to have done ever and the Parent’s Choice Gold Medal we received for the four-hour CD release of the program is one of my proudest achievements.

So you see, Candace has had a subtly huge influence on the entire direction of my life and she has helped me iron out so many wrinkles in so many challenging situations, I can’t begin to recount them all.  The important thing to me is that she took me on, the good, the bad, and the ugly, and mentored me into finding my way into the adult world I was alternately sinking or swimming in at the time­­. And she has continued to show me how to get through some of the toughest moments of it ever since.

Minding the sky iron

The tool. 

Before I was a Buddhist, it was Candace who demonstrated that since change is inevitable, better to embrace it, take it on as a creative challenge, rather than cling to what must vanish.  In the course of our friendship, I have seen Candace go from running a children’s theatre, to running a children’s museum, to designing several more museums, to, in recent years, going to medical school in order to design a creative arts program within the hospital system.  More lately, she has gone back to her roots as an actress and appears on the stages of the Gutherie Theatre in Minneapolis in a variety of perfectly wonderful, eccentric roles.  I admire her joyous perseverance at an age when many people are happy to stop their frenzied dance of DOING things and happily sit down with a box of bonbons and a channel changer.  Candace will never do that.  At the very least, she will iron her shirts to perfection and write prose poems about it to her friends.  In this regard, Candace has remained my mentor and my role model. Whether minding the sky or ironing the sheets, life-long learning happens moment by moment.

Coming up on Thanksgiving, I want to express my thanks to my mentor — Thank you, Candace, for showing me how to grow and grow. And to all mentors who take on the young and inexperienced, thank you for sharing your wisdom and precious time in order to encourage learning and development in others.

Here on Whidbey Island, we have ample opportunities to give and receive the mentoring blessing in our lives, everything from the 4-H Club, to the Boys and Girls Clubs, to the HOPE Therapeutic Riding Center, and more.   One of my personal favorites locally is the Mother Mentors of Whidbey program. With the holidays coming up and stress levels rising, it’s a great moment for the experienced mothers and grandmothers among us to help those younger ones who are just now beginning to stare down Santa and his gang of reindeer in the waning winter light.

Judith Walcutt is a writer who has been living and learning on Whidbey Island for over a quarter century with her only husband, David Ossman.  Her essay “Can a Buddhist Revise a Sexy Novel?  Writer as Chodpa” will be published in the Winter 2013 issue of Talking Writing.  She remains a grateful alumna of Hedgebrook Women Writers’ Retreat


  1. Judith!
    I adore this post. I love the ironing metaphor and activity. It is what I do to smooth out fabric before I paint my tablecloths. I use the warmth of the steam and the slow repetitive motions like a trance dance to calm and clear my mind to bring design ideas to come into focus. This year I am thankful for many things. You, my dear, are the first gold leaf that draws my eye at the first hint of fall. Thanks for glimmering!

    • Thank you both for these wonderful responses. I love the image of you, Doe, dancing as you steam and, Ann, the poem–is perfect. Why AREN’T we painting?

  2. I share your love of ironing–how many “chores” smell as good, and produce such elegance? In thanks for this post–here’s a poem that blew me away when I read it in the NYer…the watching “husband” has since become a good friend…

    Steam Reassures Him

    My husband is watching me iron.
    Steam reassures him. The hiss of starch
    The probing slide around each button of his shirt
    Speaks to him of Solway Street in Pittsburgh.
    As for me, the wicker basket is a reproach.
    There is last summer’s nightgown,
    And several awkward round tablecloths
    Which refuse to lie flat.

    My house specializes in these challenges.
    Bags of mail I did not ask to receive
    Choke the floor of my linen closet.
    A photograph of me, holding a baby on a beach.
    But which beach and, for that matter, which baby?
    A Japanese chest whose bottom drawer has irresponsibly locked itself,
    And who can remember where I put the key?

    That night, waiting for sleep, I whisper,
    I did only trivial things today.
    And he asks, Why aren’t you painting?

    –Elizabeth Pierson Friend 1933-2003

    • Thank you both for these wonderful responses. I love the image of you, Doe, dancing as you steam and, Ann, the poem–is perfect. Why AREN’T we painting?

  3. Here is some info on the invention of the clothing iron (from Wikipedia) (Another example of Chinese technical prowess?):
    Metal pans filled with hot water were used for smoothing fabrics in China in the 1st century BC. From the 17th century, sadirons or sad irons (from an old word meaning solid) began to be used. They were thick slabs of cast iron, delta-shaped and with a handle, heated in a fire. These were also called flat irons. A later design consisted of an iron box which could be filled with hot coals, which had to be periodically aerated by attaching a bellows. In Kerala in India, burning coconut shells were used instead of charcoal, as they have a similar heating capacity. This method is still in use as a backup device, since power outages are frequent. Other box irons had heated metal inserts instead of hot coals.
    Another solution was to employ a cluster of solid irons that were heated from a single source: As the iron currently in use cooled down, it could be quickly replaced by a hot one. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there were many irons in use that were heated by fuels such as kerosene, ethanol, whale oil, natural gas, carbide gas (acetylene, as with carbide lamps), or even gasoline. Some houses were equipped with a system of pipes for distributing natural gas or carbide gas to different rooms in order to operate appliances such as irons, in addition to lights. Despite the risk of fire, liquid-fuel irons were sold in U.S. rural areas up through World War II.
    In the industrialized world, these designs have been superseded by the electric iron, which uses resistive heating from an electric current. The hot plate, called the sole plate, is made of aluminium or stainless steel. The heating element is controlled by a thermostat that switches the current on and off to maintain the selected temperature. The invention of the resistively heated electric iron is credited to Henry W. Seeley of New York in 1882.

    • All that creative thinking and industry to relieve us of wrinkles in our drawers! Thanks for the added historical perspective!

  4. I too love ironing, though now I mostly iron pillowcases or something I’ve created on the sewing machine. Pillowcases were the first thing I learned to iron when my mother trusted me enough to learn, at about age 8. I so love my freshly ironed, embroidered pillowcases.
    Even better is the smell of line-dried clothing, fresh from the clothesline. Never fails to transport me back to my childhood and helping with the “women’s work.”

    • I think Candace captured well the way in which this simple process evokes so much–I am happy it resonated with you and invoked precious sense memories! Thanks for reading and responding!

  5. Judith – Your essay resonated with me especially the gospel wisdom ” …change is inevitable, better to embrace it, take it on as a creative challenge, rather than cling to what must vanish.”

    Behaviorists have remarked for decades that change is the most common yet most difficult situation humans deal with. I use to embrace change and recently got a bit paralyzed by not wanting to accept what is. Your essay helped me thread the needle.

    Thanks my friend. Love and Happy Thanksgiving, Mary

  6. Thank you mary for reading and responding! The news is hard to take, but the truth is, we have to let go, to get going! And of course, ironing is one way to get ready to get going. I think I’ll go do some now! Love you & grateful for your friendship-

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