Sabbatical Notes: Fragments on Life and Law

Written by Professor Shauna Van Praagh, McGill Faculty of Law.

Laundry  (April 2004, Ste. Alvère, France)

We have passed the ten month mark in Ste. Alvère and I think I have finally come to terms with the laundry.  It has been a slow process.  From curiosity to disbelief to rage to frustration to negotiation to acceptance to symbiosis, my attitude to and relationship with the laundry has evolved over time.  I have now achieved the requisite degree of patience.  I have just started a load of light-coloured clothes without any particular resentment and am able to sit down to write with the stop and start hum of the very slow and determined washing machine in the background.

The laundry acts as a symbol of the relentless day-to-day routine of taking care of a family and household.  It is a concrete reminder of what being and acting as a mother entails, and it requires concentration, dedication, and a fragile equilibrium of mind and body.  Washing clothes, drying them, sorting, folding, replacing, choosing, wearing, sorting again, washing again: the routine is necessary, mind-numbing, never-ending.  And yet, there is something reassuring about laundry – clothes are lived in, sometimes loved, passed on, and continually cleaned and returned to shelves and drawers.  As laundry manager, I am occasionally explicitly appreciated when I can track down favourite socks or produce a clean, dry sweatshirt in time for school.  There is no break, however…laundry just stretches on and on, and that is why acceptance of its centrality is so challenging and so crucial.

Laundry existed before this year in Ste. Alvère, and it will be part of my life upon the return to Montreal.  But laundry here is somehow special…thus explaining the intensity of my feelings about and towards it.  First, the technical aspects had to be dealt with.  The European front-loading washing machine is small.  One set of sheets barely fits; a typical load is three or four pairs of children’s pants, three or four kids’ shirts, and maybe two adult shirts and some socks.  With three children, this means that I never get to the bottom of the dirty laundry basket and that I have to prioritize: kids’ clothes, then kids’ underwear and pyjamas, then adult clothes, then sheets and towels when there’s time to do an extra load or two.  I have tried to stuff extra clothes into the machine: things don’t get clean and little holes appear in the shirts where, jammed in, they have rubbed incessantly through the entire cycle against something or other.

Then I had to figure out the soap.  Little blocks of soap go into the middle compartment in a drawer that pulls out; next to that compartment is a space for fabric softener although figuring out which kind to use among the dozens of choices – some concentrated, some not – lining the shelves of Leclerc or Intermarché is beyond me.  I bought powder instead of little blocks once, only to discover that the measuring instructions on the box were useless given the absence of anything in the box resembling the measuring cup represented on the back.  Next, I had to register the incredible slowness of the machine in my mind.  The machine goes round and round, then stops, then takes off again sounding like an airplane each time.  The whole process – if I set the machine at “peu sale” or “rapide” (the fastest programmes available) – takes an hour and a half!

All of this means that my original schedule for life in Ste. Alvère had to be dramatically edited after the first few months.  I had marked Wednesday and Saturday as laundry days, thinking that the kids were home on those days so that the laundry couldn’t interfere with my academic work.   Wednesday and Saturday thus became days in which I tried and inevitably failed to do four loads of laundry – laundry trailed into Thursday and even Friday, or into Sunday and even Monday.  As of January, I changed tactics and tried to regain control over the laundry situation.  I now start a load of laundry every night before going up to bed, dry it the next day, and fold it in the evening just before starting the next load.  I can almost keep up with this routine – and only have to do a second load in one 24 hour period once or twice a week.

In addition to mastering the technical requirements and limitations of the equipment comes grappling with the relentless physicality of the process.  The dryer takes just as long as the washing machine and seems to take up an incredible amount of very expensive electrical power.  And there is something theoretically (and sometimes literally) appealing about hanging clothes up on a line overlooking fields, grazing deer, and neighboring horses, where the sun and wind gives them a fresh smell and feel.  So I have incorporated hanging up clothes into the routine.  When the weather is amenable – whole months have been excluded, of course, given the remarkable rainfall in the Dordogne – I carry the clothes and clothes pegs around to the back of the house and hang them up in the morning.  They come back down at the end of the day – assuming the elements have cooperated – and the basket is used to transport folded clothes up the bedrooms and dirty clothes back down.  All of this is good exercise, I suppose – but it takes time and energy in a way that throwing things in the dryer doesn’t.  The laundry is literally present in my life morning, afternoon and night; it operates in an ongoing and draining physical as well as mental cycle.

The tangible features and challenges of laundry management come hand in hand with the psychological aspects.  Understanding laundry is as important as actually doing it.  Thus, stains have to be remembered and treated; delicate items separated from the jeans; baby clothes isolated (until Ari turned one, at which point I decided he had joined the rank of “big boys” as far as laundry soap was concerned); water softener tablets occasionally thrown in.   And there are the expectations and disappointments.  The hysterical tears when a particular t-shirt is dirty or wet on the very morning when its owner wants to put it on are all directed at me and my laundry failures.  The fact that a sock has disappeared seems to be my laundry-related fault; the determined jumping and climbing in the red winter mud seem aimed at testing my patience and laundry skills.  And yet, I am fiercely possessive about the laundry; convinced that only I can do it right, I insist – in what is sometimes a fairly maniacal and masochistic way – that only I can fulfill the ongoing laundry mission at our house.

The anger I have felt at the intrusion of laundry into my head, daily schedule, energy levels, and limited child-free time has gradually dissipated.  Perhaps this is part of accepting the side-effects of having three small children; perhaps age and the pace of life in the Dordogne have helped me find a livable level of acceptance and patience.  I have even begun to explore and appreciate the surprising aspects of my laundry self.  With some emotional distance, I can see something strangely positive in the quiet centrality of the laundry in our lives.

First, there is the way in which human and especially family relations are tied up in the entire process.  There is the quiet way in which René sits down with the clean clothes every evening and folds the tiny shirts and pants, placing them in shaky piles in the basket, and carrying them upstairs when he goes to bed.  This is a time to sit together, drinking mint tea and watching whatever there is on our two or three French television channels, and there is a real intimacy in sharing the task of completing the laundry cycle.  There is the way in which offering to add visitors’ laundry to the pile, and hanging up other kids’ underwear and socks, and handing back piles of fresh clean clothes to friends here for only a few days, cements friendship and understanding and a sharing of the experience of overseeing the day-to-day details of family life.  And there are the ways in which the boys participate in, and are beginning to appreciate, the work entailed in laundry.  Ari hands me clothes pegs as I hang up clothes in the sunshine; and Daniel and Micah throw their dirty clothes in the laundry basket at the end of the day, understanding now that pajamas need not qualify as dirty after only one or two wearings!

There is also the way in which laundry provides an easy and significant topic of conversation, and concrete link, with the other women I know in Ste. Alvère.  Indeed, the realization that I am not alone with the constant pressure of family laundry and that every mother I have met here has also figured out a way to fit laundry into the quotidienne, has perhaps been the most important contributor to my newly found calm.  Sandrine hangs up laundry at 6:00 in the morning, talking with her baby Raphael as she does so.  Janny – at whose home Ari goes to daycare – can always update me on the weather and the drying potential for the clothes on any given day, and we commiserate with each other when the rain comes too fast to rescue the clothes so that they stay sodden on the line for another day or two.  Corinne, who comes to clean our house one morning every week, reassures me that the pace and quantity of laundry at our house is “tout à fait normal” for three active kids!  And I can see Nathalie’s laundry drying on the line whenever we drive past their farm on the way to Le Bugue – laundry that quietly gets done without getting talked about, squeezed in between milking goats and raising kids.  They have all found ways to avoid overwhelming frustration, although they all are forthright about the work and demands and particular tasks incumbent on mothers.  And I am happy to try to follow their example.

An hour and a half is up, the washing machine has stopped its strange whining noises that sound as if it is about to take off into the air at any time, and I will have to hang up the clothes inside today given the driving spring rain.  I am off-schedule again, behind with my list of things to do, aware of the fact that it is Friday and that the remaining time in the week without children in the house is limited, and engaged in a never-ending dance with the laundry.  We have surrendered to each other – the laundry knows that I will get it done, and I know that it will always be there.

 

Rules  (April 2011, Buenos Aires)

Last week, Micah learned about rules.  He had to look up, and then write down, the definitions of Spanish words all related to rules: regla, ley, derecho, sancion.  The exercise was fairly straightforward, at least for all the kids whose parents aren’t law professors.   For Micah, it was a homework hour of frustration as he carried the dictionary from one parent to the other, asking for help in choosing among the various options of meaning and being subjected to reflections on the inaccurate or partial definitions of the terms, and on the connections among them.  There are formal and informal rules, we told him; different kinds of sanctions exist; ‘derecho’ can be ‘law’ or ‘right’ or ‘straight’, all with distinct connotations depending on context.

Most likely, the class was meant to come prepared to learn about what a rule is, and what happens if you don’t obey.  Even more likely, the Spanish teacher had prepared the exercise in conjunction with the French teacher who had given a test on ‘consignes’ the week before – a test that everyone, except for Micah and a new kid from France, failed miserably.  The children were told to read all the questions on the test before starting to answer.  The two who actually followed the instructions found out – at the bottom of the page – that they were to reply to only three of the questions and then to hand in the completed test.  For Micah, it was particularly amusing to watch his classmates struggle through the questions, having ignored the very thing that the test was all about!

It’s not a bad starting point, of course, for teachers to take seriously the need for children to learn about law.  These kids will grow up into adult citizens with an obligation to act responsibly vis-à-vis each other, and an obligation to follow and obey the rules.  In particular, rules regarding safety have to be conveyed, understood, and respected.  Micah and his peers all had to pass a road safety test last year as they finished off fourth grade.  According to the law, seatbelts have to be worn by all passengers in any car in Argentina.  Pedestrians should cross only on a green light, or when they have checked in all directions for traffic.  Cyclists, whether on bicycles or motorcycles, should wear helmets.  Before age ten, then, children have the rules drilled into their heads – even before they reach the formal lessons on ‘law’.

These kids, however, already know plenty about law and its significance.  They know that children don’t generally wear seatbelts (let alone sit in booster seats), and that the taxis in Buenos Aires usually don’t even have any available for passengers in the backseat.  Even if they know how to ride a bicycle – somewhat improbable given the lack of safe places to practice – helmets aren’t part of the picture.  They see adults on scooters and motorcycles carrying their helmets on their arms, rather than actually putting them on their heads.  They’re used to crossing streets whenever there’s a gap in the constant traffic.  Some of them have been allowed – or even encouraged – to stand in the back of their parents’ moving cars with their heads sticking up out of the sunroof.  In eight months in this city, Micah has seen it all; over ten years, his Argentinian counterparts have absorbed it completely.

Earlier this year, in Colonia, we saw parts of an exhibit on human rights that included an excerpt from Kafka’s “Ante la ley” reproduced at the entrance to the old walled town.  It was remarkable to watch people stop to read the fairly extensive excerpt, and then to carry with them its messages as they strolled around as tourists.  But the effect was dampened – or at least made strangely ironic – by the fact that an automatic voice message was triggered as each person crossed the threshold of the doorway: “Hola, bienvenidos!”  The welcome was a perpetual installation in the stone archway, simply meant to greet visitors to Colonia.  Combined with Kafka’s reminder that the doorway to law is particular to each individual and thus dependent on how that individual leads her life, the “Hola” was comical in its lighthearted inclusiveness.

Maybe the combination – of welcome and warning – sheds light on the ‘law’ that even ten year olds in Buenos Aires understand, create, and respect.  On one hand, the tacky tourist ‘bienvenidos’ could be turned into a comment on how seriously people here take the rules.  Disdain for the official rule in Buenos Aires about cleaning up after one’s dog, for example, translates into the complete irrelevance of that norm in the lives of most dog walkers and thus of all sidewalk users.  The rules posted around the park next to Micah’s school clearly state that people cannot enter with animals, cannot practice sports, should not throw garbage, and shouldn’t walk on the grass.  But Micah walks by that park every day and can’t help but notice all the dogs running around, all the joggers on the grass, all the men practicing football, and all the piles of trash waiting to be cleaned up.  It’s hard – or perhaps hilarious – for him and his classmates to swallow a teacher’s insistence that rules are meant to be obeyed.

Instead of just shaking a collective head about the pathetic adherence to the rules here in Buenos Aires – something that many porteños tend to do, particularly when we saw we’re law professors – it might be the case that the ‘bienvenidos’ could be turned into a serious invitation to look for ‘real’ law in our everyday lives.  The fact that we still don’t understand the rules regarding the right of way at intersections simply means that we aren’t full participants in the highly complex legal system that governs drivers on Buenos Aires roads.  There must be subtle normative understandings of how to behave and when to yield to others; in other words, the law must exist even if its content is opaque for those who aren’t immersed in sustaining it and living with its consequences.  This pluralist stance, this willingness to pay careful attention to where and how law is created and developed, seems particularly well-matched to the reality of this city.  Furthermore, it seems like a fruitful path to avoiding early cynicism among Micah’s ten-year-old peers.

However, it is far from easy to identify sites of law creation or promulgation, far from obvious to define the groups or communities within which rules are sustained and applied.  The idea of doing a critical anthropological study of law – whether regarding rules of the road or any other facet of life in Argentina – is daunting.  But maybe a grade five classroom is indeed the best place to start.  Instead of teaching the children about rules and why they have to be read, understood, and obeyed, the lycée might do something truly groundbreaking if it asked the ten year olds about the law they observe, experience, and develop among themselves.  If asked, they could probably articulate, with a high degree of sophistication, the rules of family relations, use of public parks, organization of clubs, completion of homework, and walking on the sidewalk and streets of Buenos Aires.  They do need to be safe, to play, to learn.  But getting there isn’t simply a question of learning what the laws say and then doing what’s dictated.  Instead, the kids may need to learn how to create, and then live by, rules better tailored to their reality.

Also this past week, my Spanish teacher brought to my lesson a copy of the newly passed “Ley de proteccion integral a las mujeres” – a federal law, supported by the Argentinian National Women’s Council.  In it is an incredibly sophisticated, highly theoretical, and markedly feminist definition of violence against women.  The piece of legislation has as its purpose the prevention, punishment, and eradication of all forms of violence, including, among others, physical domestic violence, inequality in the workplace, and limits on reproductive freedom.  My Spanish teacher is now working for the Council, trying to develop workshops to increase awareness and thus compliance with the new ‘Law.‘  She had brought the legislation to our class to discuss with me ideas for how to go about meeting its objectives.

At the same time that we read the words together, she told me that official statistics don’t exist in this country for recording how many women are killed by their domestic partners each year.  All the Council can do is gather approximate information by gleaning from local papers any stories of women dying as a result of physical violence.  There is an obvious and striking gap between the promise of the law to eradicate inequality, and the reality on the ground of at least 200 violent deaths of women per year.  The law makes Argentina seem almost utopic in its recognition and protection of women’s dignity and integrity.  The failure of police and social service protocols in the context of domestic violence signals a different reality.

Maybe, after finishing its limited lessons on law, Micah’s class could visit the Council.   The ten year olds would discover that the dictionary definitions don’t get them very far.  And the women might find that these ten year olds have a true wealth of collective expertise on the connections, and distinctions, between the reiteration of rules and the real changing of behaviour.

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