All We Cannot Do

Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special attention to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstances, are brought into closer connection with you. --Saint Augustine 

Greetings Dear Ones!

 Winter finally has us in its teeth.  A raw wind whips and licks the corners of the house and icicles drool onto the walkways and steps.  My unpaved driveway is once more a frozen, rutted track for the daily Subaru Luge.  Thirsty animals gulp greedily as I break the ice out of their black rubber buckets and haul liquid water to the chickens and sheep twice a day.  They are remarkably cheery and stoic for creatures with no boots or socks.    

 At work, huddled by the radiator, I am instructed, by means of an attached scrap of paper, to mend the buttons on this coat.   I look over the coat: The collar is also frayed.  The lining inside is hanging in ribbons. The other buttons are limp and in need of a little button Viagra… I sigh. I am tempted to fix everything.  This decrepit woolen puddle of a coat needs an overhaul.  But I am only getting paid to fix what is on the label that has come from the cleaners.  The customers protest mightily when we fix things they do not wish to pay for… It’s sad to say, but thinking about what is best for the garment is often bound to enrage the customer and lose us money in the end.  So I fix the buttons and hang the rest of the mess on the “Done” rack.  It kills me to do this—to walk away from what would be easy to fix if I could just indulge in the impulse to make everything right with that coat.  It’s as hard to walk away from as a dog that needs a good brushing, or a mewling cat that needs feeding.  Without permission, I can do nothing and too many other items await my needling.

 Lady Mothball has arrived with ten pairs of out-of-date summer-weight trousers she wants tailored.  She needs them in a week, she says, when she will return to Florida with the rest of her acrid-scented wardrobe.  Lord and Lady Mothball are what we call “Snowbirds,” which means they are terrified of outdoor cold and so migrate up and down the eastern seaboard attempting to live their entire lives in air-conditioning.  The only ice they wish to encounter will be floating in their gin and tonics. Because most of her clothing is in storage for six months at a time, it reeks of mothballs so badly that as soon as she exits the shop, we hasten to hang her order in the back hall, where it won’t contaminate the clothing belonging to other customers.  Why do people even use mothballs? I wonder, as I press the iron tentatively against her inseam, turning my head to avoid the tiny mushroom cloud of toxins emanating from her inner thigh.   Working on her clothing is giving me an instant headache.   Judging from the look of these pants, no self-respecting moth would want to eat them in the first place.  Prudence Thimbleton is all in favor of quaint home remedies and practices and maintaining the traditions of bygone eras, however, she draws the line at using carcinogenic neurotoxins as pesticides, even for dreaded things like moths.  As a spinner and knitter who happens to store a lot of raw wool around, I despise moths and panic when I see one.  I have been known to store yarn in the freezer, and fill my storage areas with herb sachets, and cedar to discourage them.   The moths know good material when they see it—eating only natural fibers.  Most things today are mixed with polyester, which they won’t eat.  Lady Mothball’s clothing is almost entirely synthetic, so using mothballs is redundant.  We could bury this stuff in a garden and it would never rot.  But there is no convincing her otherwise; she is of a mindset that insists on smelling of indifference and superstition.

 The phone rings.  A woman is lost. “Do you have a sign out?  I can’t find your shop!”

“Yes, madam, it is a large sign.  We actually want you to find us.”

“What is your address?  The GPS system says I am there but I don’t believe it.”

“Yes, that is our address. We are right across from a large yellow diner, you can’t miss that, surely.”

“Oh, I’ve seen that many times. But it’s on the other side of the street.  You are not on that side of the street.”

“No, Madam, we are not.  I merely mention it as a landmark.  If you pause near that establishment and look directly at the other side of the street, you will see our own rather large sign. There is a little driveway on the side and we have parking in the rear of the building.” 

“Ok….” She says hesitantly, as if I have just told her the world is round and if she goes too far in any one direction she will roll unwittingly downhill all the way to Australia, or downtown Fitswell, which she fears more.   That lady, with her phone, motor vehicle, and the full power of the Global Positioning Satellite System at her disposal, never manages to locate us.

 Day after day, we are presented with what a friend of mine likes to call “Opportunities.”  These are opportunities to be humble, to surrender, to make peace with all we cannot or should not do for others, no matter how we might want so to do.  We cannot stand on street corners dressed as thimbles, flagging down potential customers, like the Liberty Tax person.  We cannot make people forego their impulses to poison their clothes.  Sometimes, we cannot even do what we know ought to be The Right Thing for a garment because someone will complain.

In 2001, my former husband and I bought a house together.  It was an enormous house—formerly a tavern in the 18th century, that had fourteen rooms.  We were a family of four.  What the hell were we thinking, buying a house that HUGE? Our two children were under the age of four.  In the unlikely event that we were ever each in separate rooms (let’s face it, both kids and two dogs usually even followed me into the bathroom) there were still TEN empty rooms in that house.  It was crazy.  But we bought it anyway.  In addition to the house and five acres of lawn, were not one, but TWO enormous nineteenth century barns in need of constant repair.  When my father came to visit for the very first time, he looked around everything and then asked me a question that haunted me for the next seventeen years. “Can you live with all you will never be able to do here?”   I had no idea what he meant. We could do anything! Over time, I learned the wisdom of his insight.  In the twenty-two hours a week it took to get the gardens in shape, the house would become ankle-deep in dust bunnies large enough to carry off the resident toddlers; by the time you got the house cleaned, the lawn would have eaten the sheep. By the time you found one of the goats eating groceries in the back of the mini-van, one of the barns would have threatened to collapse.  On and on it went.  To live there happily, one had to agree that getting One Thing done each day, of a possible 42,000 was “progress.”

 It takes a lot to get things done.  It also takes a toll to live in peace with all that is NOT done, what can never be done, so that we don’t collapse in despair and overwhelm.  It feels like failure, rather than sanity, to walk away from things that Could be done if we chose to do them instead of something else.  It’s daunting to take the reins of our own Free Will and take Responsibility for what is most important in each moment. We must live with this in the tailoring shop on a daily basis.  There is only so much we can ever do in the hours of daylight we are given.  The work always exceeds the time and energy available.  Learning “when to say When” is very hard, yet learning to take care of ourselves and lock the door at 5:pm is vital to our mental and physical survival.  The jobs can extend beyond our capacity; we cannot.  We have limits. Sometimes, like dogs on a leash, we must strain to reach that limit and then simply lie down next to all that we cannot do.

 As we age, as we parent, as we seek to Serve each other, we keep encountering new things we cannot or should not do.  Some of it we may wish desperately we could do. As we try to update our wardrobes, physiques and bank accounts before our New Year’s Resolutions wear off, it is well to remind ourselves of the prickly peace we must embrace in being able to live with “all we cannot do.”  Perfection is not often an option. Embedded in the Serenity Prayer is the notion that we must be able to discern what can be changed and what cannot. Some things could be changed—but not by us—and that needs to be Ok.  All we can do is all we can do. 

 Choose well and BE Well my Dearies! Be kind to your dear selves and do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

A Ripping Good Start

Greetings Dear Friends,

I am painfully aware that the following story does not put its protagonist in the best light.  Therefore, I have put it into fairytale language and changed all the names in the hope of protecting someone who vehemently protests her Innocence—even though we all know she is NOT!

Once upon a time, a certain Seamstress, inspired by the first three chapters of Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, decided to take the contents of her entire closet and pile them on her bed.  With the New Year energy driving her to make a Clean Start, she proceeded to purify the empty closet and dispose of all sorts of rubbish she would not like to mention here because it involves nests of mice and empty pizza boxes.  When the floor was polished and every dust mote removed, she returned to the pile on her bed and began the process of holding each item of clothing to see if it “sparked Joy.” The things that didn’t were thanked, blessed, cleaned and folded to be donated.  The Magic was EVERYWHERE.  Because this is a Fairy tale, the mice were talking mice (very rude mice—not the kind that help you with stitching your ball gowns at the last minute), and the clothes talked back to her—though most of what they said cannot be repeated here.

When nothing but Joy was hanging neatly and ecstatically in the closet, the Seamstress was exhausted and fell into a deep slumber amongst the rest of the sadly departing clothes that she was too tired to pack into bags for donation.  She slumbered for a thousand years but no knight in shining armor hacked his way through the jungle of tangled laundry vines to give her love’s first kiss, nor did the peas and pizza boxes bruise her tender skin. She is a Seamstress, not a Princess, for Heaven’s sake! So she woke up in that mess and struggled in the pre-dawn dimness to find something to wear to work that day.

At the foot of the bed, near one of the snoring canine “footmen,” she could discern a folded pair of jeans. “Ah!” she thought, “I’ll just wear these and have a casual sort of day.  It’s our first day back and the weather is lousy. These will be fine.”  She worked them over her hips in the dark.  They fit beautifully.  “Gee,” she thought, “I don’t remember having these.  How did they get in the donation pile?” she wondered. “These look great!  They feel great! I need to keep these!” she thought happily, sparked with Joy.  (It is important to note that At No Time did this beloved heroine ever ONCE actually look in the mirror.)  Off she went to feed her sheep and chickens and have the local flora and fauna sing to her just like they do in fairytales.  She had porridge for breakfast and left her woodland cottage only a hair late for work, which was progress for her.

At work, because this is a fairytale, all she had to do was wave her silver thimble over things and they got better: Lumps got smoothed, trousers tapered, dresses hemmed, and zippers fixed with a mere whisper.  All the customers danced and clicked their heels and sang show tunes. It’s “zipper time” in the shop—the time of year when every second customer needs to have a zipper fixed.  Noblemen and peasants alike approach with ratty coats saying “Can you help me? I know it’s ugly but I only use it for shoveling snow.”  (It’s beginning to dawn on our heroine that she may be the only resident of New England who shovels snow in her pajamas.)  The “emergencies” that are not zippers are for funerals.  There is a certain percentage of the population of Fitzwell that chooses to shuffle off its mortal coils rather than face another three months of snow and jammed zippers.  Right away, there are three funerals this week and our fairytale seamstress spends a good bit of the morning crawling around men’s ankles, getting their hem lengths just right.  Yes, this is very important to the story: picture a woman CRAWLING on her knees, with mirrors on both sides of her, mirrors she does not see because she is so focused on her work and her attention to her customers. Bending down. Bending over. Crawling...

And now, the fairy tale continues…

A middle-aged man comes in.  She asks him how he is. He gives a stock standard, typically stoic response born from years of snow and funerals and jammed zippers, “Well, I can’t complain!”

“Would you want to?” she wonders. “Why can’t you? Are you not allowed?”  She is curious. Perhaps it is another one of those New England things. Or maybe it’s because this is a fairytale and no one is allowed to complain in fairytales, except the evil ones.  This man does not look evil.  He looks tired.

“I need these pants hemmed for my mom’s funeral on Saturday,” he says.  She nods and leads him to the dressing room. “Your mom just died and you can’t complain???” she wonders in awe. Just WHAT would it take to make you complain??? When the door opens, she crawls around his feet for a few moments, then he leaves.

Over lunch, one of the other seamstresses starts talking about how they have to get back to going to hot yoga together.  Cookie season is over.  It’s time to get serious about having their pants fit again.  First, our heroine wonders idly what would happen if they ate a bunch of Raw cookie dough and then went to hot yoga? Would it bake? Then she looks down at her mystery jeans and thinks again “I must be getting a little squashy in my head.  I seriously don’t remember buying these but I’m glad I did.  I never have jeans fit this well so early in the year!”  Out loud, she says to her co-workers, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could have a second brain that we could have resting on a charger while we drain the first one, like the battery packs on a cordless drill?  Mine runs down too quickly during the day.  I really need another brain! I don’t remember buying these jeans.” They nod understandingly.  It happens to everyone.

She rushes home to feed the dogs and animals, then rip off all her clothes as fast as she can to change for yoga class.  It’s your standard fairytale yoga class with everyone feeling virtuous and supple and smugly sweaty.  By the end, everyone is magically smaller and more toned and infinitely more flexible and spiritually healed, and probably wealthier too, since the class was on discount…

This Whole peaceful, happy FAIRYTALE ends abruptly that evening when the Seamstress gets a call from her daughter in college. “Hi Mom, how’s it going?  Have you gotten a chance to fix the pair of jeans I left on your bed?  It has two large holes in the bum, kind of underneath the cheeks. I’m not sure what happened.  The fabric just kind of gave way and it needs a patch.  I’d get rid of them but they are my favorite jeans.  They are so comfy!”  Suddenly feeling dizzy, the seamstress hastens to her laundry basket and holds up the pair of jeans she has worn all day.  This is the first time, since dressing in the dark that morning that she has actually LOOKED at them.   What she sees makes her want to pass out.  Her whole fairytale day fast-forwards in front of her eyes…the crawling… the bending… Oh dear God… She probably looked just fine standing up but standing up is not the only thing she does all day.  Visions of dough bulging through two holes haunt her. Is it even possible, to be THAT oblivious that a bit of one’s arse can hang out ALL DAY (no wonder those jeans fit better than any she owns!) and not be physically present enough to realize it?  Yes…apparently, it is… Suddenly, she has to lie down.

WHY DID NO ONE SAY ANYTHING???

Because, well… Here in New England, “we can’t complain.” Also, maybe we don’t really look at each other all that closely.  Maybe we are all more swept into the concerns of our own chattering minds. Perhaps a seamstress in bombed out jeans is no surprise to them: “Physician, heal thyself; Seamstress, mend thy ways and cover your bum while you’re at it!”

In any case dear Reader, I sincerely hope that you can stop weeping over this tragic tale long enough to appreciate that, like all good fairytales, this one contains a rather stern Moral: The life changing magic of tidying up is nothing to the life changing magic of looking at your damn clothes before you wear them! If something seems to fit too well, check again!

Be well, my Dearies!  And may your new year be off to a Ripping Good Start!

Yours aye,

Nancy

In the Beginning was....

“Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every year find you a better man.” –Benjamin Franklin

Greetings & Happy New Year, Dear Ones!

As the last sands rush through the hourglass of 2018, a December man, looking a bit like Father Time himself, comes into the shop, tottering on three legs, to see if we can alter his new suit.  “How old do you think I am?” he bellows. We shrug.  We have learned not even to guess such things.

 “Twenty-nine?” I tease.  He chortles.

“I’m ninety-six!”  It’s true; he looks great for ninety-six. “You ever hear of a ninety-six-year-old getting a new suit?”

“You can get a new suit any time you want!” announces my friend from behind the counter.

“You ever see a trailer behind a hearse?” he shouts.  We shake our heads.  He smiles and slaps the table. “I’m getting a new suit because you can’t take anything with you when you go.  My grandson asked me if I was getting it for my funeral. ‘What the hell,’ says I, No Way man.  I ain’t buying a suit because I’m gonna die!!  I’m buying it because I’m gonna LIVE.  I’m gonna live. Live it UP until I go. I’m spending your inheritance.  What else am I supposed to do with this money? I can’t take it with me…Yeah, and that men’s store in town is going out of business and so I thought, what the hell, might as well save a little. It was half off. What a bargain. I couldn’t resist.”  We are tired and he is garrulous. He tells us we are crazy to be so tired at our age.  We are just babies.

Next in are two December Women in their early nineties.  Their niece drops them off out front and they manage to squeeze each other through the heavy front door before it chops them both in half.  They are sisters and still act like it.  Nothing fits them at all.  They come from an era where fabric is supposed to owe them a lifetime of service. “We don’t want to buy anything new at our age,” explains one. “We aren’t going to get the wear out of it so what would be the point?  There’s still plenty of wear in what we’ve got.” What they’ve got is a collection of pants suits hanging off them like they are both supposed to wear them simultaneously. After about twenty minutes of good-natured bickering and teasing, the fittings are done and their niece collects them again.  They insist on paying for all their alterations up front. “At our age, you never know!  Take the money while you can get it!” says one, writing out a check.  She hands it to my friend and then these dear, fond sisters grab each other by the elbow and head for the door, arguing about where to eat lunch. After they are gone, we look at the check.  It is made out for a hundred thousand dollars more than it should be. There are way too many zeros.  “Wow! That’s a big tip,” I say.  My friend shakes her head. “We can’t even cash it.  It’s not made out to us. I don’t know where she thinks she was, but this is not our name.”

These were among our final customers of 2018.  I enjoyed contrasting their attitudes about age and money.  I reveled in the fact that they were so old, like the year itself, and yet so vibrant and so determined to look their best at any age.  Their work is waiting for me as I head to the shop today to pick up my thimble and begin another year of sewing.  I cannot help thinking of them without a certain optimism. 

 I remember last year, on our first day back, a man rushed in with a pair of pants and said, “Here, can you take these in?  I’ve been on a diet for about 24 hours and I think I’ve lost an ounce or two. It would do my mental state a lot of good if you had to take these in already. I would feel like I made progress.  Go ahead and measure me. It would keep me going.  In fact, I want you to make them too small so that I don’t quit.”

I love bodies.  Truly, I do.  I love them in the way that Walt Whitman celebrates them in his poetry.  I can’t help thinking that the ancient Greeks, with their ideas concerning denigration of the body, favoring Spirit over flesh, were wrong.  I feel a pang for all the bodies out there this morning, under the tyranny of fresh resolutions, that will be forced to march on treadmills and drink nothing but spinach juice and chlorella until noon or until this latest impulse at self-improvement crashes. I feel sorry for all the hearts and minds that, three to six days from now, will be tortured around the idea that they “failed” again.  I have done this to myself so many times:  I set a resolution to do something to improve my wretched lot, like practice my fiddle every day, then I miss a day and I think, “damn, the Week is wrecked.  And now there goes the whole Month. Which ruins the year…Now I have to wait until NEXT year to be any good at the fiddle.”  For this reason, I hate resolutions! (I resolve not to have any!)

 Still, the notion of self-improvement is intoxicating.  Who Doesn’t want to be an upgraded model of themselves? Prudence Thimbleton adores the idea that, at the start of the New Year, so many people become dissatisfied with a certain moral mediocrity in themselves and rebel against the idea that they should follow their desires wherever they take them and approve of themselves as long as they aren’t hurting anyone.  She is all for having us take stock of ourselves and find ourselves a little less impressive than we had hoped—to realize there is a humiliating gap between our actual selves and our desired selves.  To her way of thinking, we are going to have to return these bodies and souls, like the abused rental cars they are, to their Maker and be given a huge fine for all the damage we’ve allowed. We should be ashamed of ourselves and do something about it.

 I, on the other hand, rebel against the notion that we can divide ourselves into parts that are unworthy of us and still love and celebrate our wholeness. That a young woman might say “I am a loving mother, a darn good accountant, and a dutiful spouse but these thighs are unacceptable,” feels tragic to me. Your Wholeness includes all the parts of you that you might change, but at a level that is Unchanging.  That is what it means to truly love yourself. I cannot help thinking that if we really want to be better humans (which IS a darn good plan!) we need to be more Whole, not more punishing. The business of being Total means we equal the sum of all our parts and perhaps then some.  It is noble and to follow through on the Higher callings of our best selves—to choose discomfort and trade it for deferred Good, rather than immediately present comforts—but not at the point where we must divorce a fundamental part of who we are.   I cannot think that my aim is to be “happy” all the time. That is not Whole. Being Whole means I am a deeply sad person who also knows joy; I am a deeply joyful person who knows sorrow.

Rather than choose a “resolution” this year, I am choosing a “word” that I wish to live into.  I was inspired to do this after a conversation with a friend who said she is doing this as well.  The plan is to choose a word for the coming year that becomes the lens through which you view your opportunities and choices—like “Powerful,” “Abundant,” “Thrive,” “Flourish,” etc… and ask yourself how living into that word will inform your options.  So, you are sitting on your couch, about to dive into a giant bag of Doritos and you pause and say, “is this helping me live into “Vibrancy” (if Vibrancy is your word)? You get invitations to do things over the weekend and you ask yourself, which choice offers the most of (your word). 

 I like this idea better than a resolution (at which I will most certainly fail) for so many reasons.  For one, words have extraordinary power.  Our Western society and the entire Judeo-Christian tradition is based on the idea of Logos—that a Word can create Order out of Chaos. (Our entire judicial system depends on it.)  Also, choosing “a word to live” reminds me of Benjamin Franklin’s attempts to cultivate his “manliness” (Vir being Latin for “manliness”) by practicing one of thirteen Virtues each week.  Much of his success in life relates directly to his drive to improve himself constantly around Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Tranquility, Chastity, Humility, and Cleanliness.  But the key is that he did not strive to do it all at once.  He focused. He worked on one at a time for a week at a time. Lastly, choosing one word incorporates a satisfactory amount of “grey” area into the mix—there are gradations of (Flourishing), not absolutes.  Perhaps we were not  as (Accepting) as we had hoped but we lived into it somewhat, to the best we could.  There is always the chance of being more (Graceful) tomorrow.

 The world needs more people living into words like “Vibrant,” “Flourish,” “Generous,” “Strong.” If you drop a dress size because that happens to be the outcome of living into “Vibrancy” then, who are you to complain? But believing “the world needs more people to be a size six by March” is just ludicrous.  

I think of the racks awaiting me at the shop today. They are a metaphor for the new year ahead: There is too much Good needing to be done in this world to be able to do it all at once.  Don’t get overwhelmed. Just Pick one thing.  Do what you can. Do one thing at a time. Do your best. Forgive yourself often and make better choices as a result of your learning.

Love and Joy come to you, and to you your Wassail too (or green tea or Kombucha, as you see fit), May God bless you and send you a Happy New Year!

Be well, my darlings! Live into your Words and do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

Bonus Telescope Included!!

“For it is in Receiving that we Give”

 Season’s Greetings Dear Ones!

Christmas has begun!  It’s the Second Day!  All those of you with true loves out there should be getting your turtle doves any moment now.  No?  (Maybe your true love is a little worn out at the moment and needs a foot massage and a nap after getting up at three a.m. yesterday with the excited Believers in your household.)  I am relieved that everything that needed to get done finally got done and none of it really matters anyway, in the big scheme of things.  As my daughter and I finished wrapping up the last parcels on Christmas Eve, she looked at the empty cardboard tubing leftover from the wrapping paper and sighed. “Just think of all those Bonus Telescopes everyone is throwing away!” she said.  We laughed and laughed.  Every year we retell our favorite family Christmas story that goes something like this: (with a few Em-Bell-ishments of course!)

 Once upon a time, there was a happy little family whose father came from Scotland.  Every few years, they would journey back to “The Auld Country” to celebrate Christmas and New Years (Hogmanay) with their relatives and cousins far, far across the sea.  They would pack a minimum of clothing and a maximum of chocolates and sale items from discount stores and big-box retail outlets in their British Airways luggage allotment (with plenty of room for duty Free additions). The children assumed that Scotland was “up in the sky” very near to Heaven, because they could not drive to get there. They had to fly.  (It had not occurred to them that the plane came down as much as it went up.)  When the children were infants, their parents had not had to worry too much about where Father Christmas would deliver their presents.  Of course, he would leave them at their home address in America.  But this year, the children were a bit older—at six and eight, they might not be able to understand that they were not going to receive anything from Father Christmas in Scotland—especially when they saw their cousins receiving gifts—and it might be hard to delay their gratification for another two weeks until they returned home.

            “We told Santa that we wanted him to come to our house in America,” explained their father, “because we don’t want to have to pay for extra luggage on the return flight.  We need the room in the suitcases for other things.”  The children nodded as if they understood completely. They did not really care as long as they got to be with their Scottish cousins.

            “So you’re not going to get any presents, understand?” asked their mother, worriedly.

            “But did you tell him we have been very good?” asked one of the children.

            “Yes,” said the daddy, “and I think if you are willing to wait until you return from Scotland to receive your presents, maybe Santa might even bring you an extra one—if you keep being good, of course!”  

All throughout the advent season, as the candles got lit each week on the wreath in the center of their dinner table, the parents reminded the children again and again why they would not be receiving any presents from Santa on Christmas day.  It was not because they were bad children. Goodness and Badness had to surrender to the supremacy of Logic. The mother continually doubted that the children would actually be ok with this on the day but the father had complete faith.  This was a Good Plan.  It was sensible. What could possibly go wrong with a Sensible Plan?  The presents would be waiting for them under their tree in Massachusetts. That was that.

These horrible, Practical parents even instructed all the Scottish relatives to give their children only the tiniest of presents that would not take up too much room in suitcases.  Things like sweeties they could consume or tickets to a Pantomime would be ideal—Nothing that might take up space or last long enough to inconvenience the baggage handlers at Heathrow Airport. 

For a while, the children really did seem fine with this.  They were so thrilled to be in Scotland with their Grandmother and their Aunties and Uncles and cousins!  There were parties and pantomimes and long walks in the glens and everyone playing music and singing in the evenings.   On Christmas Eve, they all ate mince pies and left out one pie and a frothy pint of Guiness for Father Christmas and some carrots for his reindeer, then went to bed in a big nest of sleeping bags with their cousins.  Their parents tucked them in and told them again about the “deal” where Santa was going to go to America instead and that only the Scottish cousins were going to get parcels under the Scottish tree.  The Scottish cousins had a flicker of pity for their American cousins.  “It’s going to be sad that you don’t get anything,” said one, “but we can share.”

“It’s NOT because we have been bad,” said the wee American boy, though his sister was not of the opinion that he had actually been very Good either.

Downstairs, the adults enjoyed their adult beverages and wrapped presents by the Christmas tree.  The U.K. cousins were having a “big” Christmas.  There was a lot to wrap.  Their dad had just gotten a big promotion and there were two new bikes, a play kitchen, and a huge Scalectrix thing to build, as well as a myriad of other things.  The brother-in-law went through four giant rolls of wrapping paper to cover it all.  “How is this actually going to be tomorrow when our kids open all this stuff and yours sit by and watch?” he asked. “This is awful!  I feel so sorry for them!”

“They will get stuff at home,” insisted their father, who grabbed a cardboard tube and began mock sword play with it. This gave him a Splendid Idea. “Don’t throw these away!” he cried. “I’m going to give these to my kids for Christmas!”

“You’re Joking!” insisted the Scottish brother. “What? We give our kids all this lovely stuff and you just give yours rubbish? That’s not on… That’s worse than giving them nothing!”

“Nonsense,” insisted the Americanized brother. “It’s all in the marketing.  Watch this. I can market anything. They will love this.  This is going to be great!”  He grabbed the clear plastic box the wrapping paper had come in and made a sign.  His wife helped him cut one of the rolls into smaller pieces that became hilts when she cut circles through their sides. 

“They won’t fit into the original box if we attach the hilts now,” she pointed out.

“Even better!” he screamed. He scribbled “some assembly required” on the sign he was making. “Every good marketer knows that ‘some assembly required’ means the buyer has to invest his own creative energy into the product.  This makes it way more valuable, psychologically,” he said, slugging back the last of Santa’s Guinness.  His brother shook his head.

“We have enough to make three swords, with this bit left over,” said his wife, holding aloft a section of cardboard tubing about eighteen inches long.

“Bonus telescope included!!” roared her husband.  “This is perfect.  There are four kids old enough to play with these—three can fight each other and the forth can watch and report on the battle.”

The next morning, the kids were up early.  First, they saw the empty Guiness glass and the pie crumbs on the plate.  Then they rushed outside and saw the nibbled carrots and the reindeer poop on the lawn, which their father picked up and ATE, saying “Yum!  Reindeer poop tastes just like raisins!” to their shrieks of disgust. Their aunt showed them the tiny footprints the elves had left in the butter while they hastily ate a few required bites of a breakfast none of them could taste.  Then they saw the tree, shimmering with lights, with heaps of presents under it.  The young Americans looked at it with shining eyes, then wilted visibly.  None of this was for them… The young Scots tore into their presents and the mayhem began.  

After a few moments, the father of the Americans announced, “Hey look!!! Santa DID leave you a present!  Look!!” He produced the box.  All the children paused, stunned.  They had not expected this.  The older sister lisped out the large sign attached to the box: “It says ‘To Katie & Calum: Genuine Imitation Viking Do-it-yourself-sword-making-kit with BONUS telescope included!! Made in Hong Kong, packaged in Brussels, shipped by way of Cape Ann. Some Assembly Required. I have left the rest of your presents in Americay. Merry Christmas!  Love, Santa”

“Bonus Telescope included?!!!” roared one of the Scots cousins! “Wow! Did we get one?” The Scottish boys began pawing through their presents in search of similar boxes, looking for their “sword making kits.” “Aww…didnae Father Christmas bring anaither?” they wanted to know.

The adults looked at each other in astonishment. They had not expected this! Meanwhile, the Americans were busy assembling their swords and pestering the adults for cellotape and markers.  The Scots had paused in their unwrapping and were watching in envy.  They dropped their gifts and began to help make the swords.   Within moments, three out of four cousins were hacking each other to bits while one looked on through the telescope, and the other gifts went ignored.

“Look what you’ve done!” said the Scottish father to the American father, “You’ve ruined Christmas! Think of the money I spent on all that crap they aren’t even playing with!” which delighted the American father no end. 

“Come now,” said the American father with a twinkle in his eye, “the Spirit of Christmas is not about presents but about family togetherness and memories and having a herd of armed children all hopped up on sugar doing battle in your house for the next four days!”

 That Christmas has become cherished family folklore that gets better over time.  For me, it was a profound lesson in how “trash” received in the right spirit can become treasure.  It’s not just the thought of the giver that counts; it’s very much the thoughts of the Receivers as well… I think the best giving and the best receiving are when we are able to bring our authentic selves into the equation—when we bring our own creativity and imagination to the “present,” in every meaning of that word. That’s when macaroni necklaces colored with magic markers become more precious than anything from Tiffany’s. 

 Allowing ourselves to be Loved, is every bit as much about Receiving as it is about giving.  Feeling “unworthy” is the most selfish feeling of all, it turns out.  Refusing to receive, or “feeling crummy” when someone does something extra special for us that we did not think to do for him or her, leaves us walled off, separated, unable to commune. It aborts the cycle of giving and makes it crash into an emptiness that replaces the Good with Nothing, Isolation, Emptiness.  We trade Heaven for Hell in those moments.  When we pause and consider the story of Christmas itself—that a King comes as the humblest, weakest, most vulnerable of gifts, in the dirtiest of packages (a stable)—we see that the story of Love is not about flash and power.  Babies are utterly incapable of giving. They teach us Love by being the ultimate in joyful Receivers.  Gratitude for what we have changes us internally in ways we cannot imagine and makes for the best legends over time.  And that is the miracle of Christmas.

 Merry Christmas, Dear Ones!

Yours aye,

Nancy

Prudence Thimbleton's Finishing School

“Well done is better than well said.” –Benjamin Franklin

Season’s Greetings Dear Ones,

 “I want to open a Finishing School,” I say.

“Oh Goody!” pipes up Prudence.  “Are we going to teach people not to slurp their soup? That proper tea is made with BOILING water added directly to the tea, not some cup of tepidness with a dry bag perched on the edge of the saucer? Or how to dance over their OWN feet, and not their neighbors’?”

“No,” I say, “It’s not that sort of finishing school.  It’s where people can gather together to Finish Things.  A communal workshop of sorts, where people can work on their PhDs…  You know—Projects Half Done.”

“Oh…” she says, non-plussed. “And just who do you think is going to teach this little school? YOU? Pah! You never finish anything! Just look around you—you are surrounded by Nothing Done.”

I slump.  It’s true.  I am Un-Done again. Christmas is only six days away and here I am, buried in a small avalanche of needles, pins, yarn, scraps of fabric, and BIG, BIG plans that are rapidly dissolving into eggnog and tears.  How do people Finish Things? I would like to know. Those of us with high levels of Creativity, Inspiration, and Ambition present an awful lot like manic, sleep-deprived lunatics at this time of year as we pull all-nighters to finish knitting a pair of socks, or suddenly decide to hand-embroider new Christmas Stockings for all the farm animals we know. (I don’t even want to contemplate those poor souls living with the additional tyranny of an “elf on the shelf!”) We abandon all capacity for rational thought and simultaneously begin baking twenty dozen cookies and knitting eighteenth century thrum caps out of indigo fleece that we dyed in a traditional manner by soaking it in our ex-brother-in-law’s urine.  (Ok, maybe that last one is just me…)  Then we panic and run to Target or T.J. Maxx anyway, hastily buy a bunch of rubbish that doesn’t reflect our value system, then wait until the last minute to wrap it.  As Nana Kennedy used to say, “the hurrier we go, the behinder we get” all month long.  I have convinced myself that there is no time left even to bake the cookies—we should just eat the dough raw and call it a night.

 Speaking of night, when is it going to be time for that “Long Winter’s Nap” the poet tells of? I would dearly LOVE a nap! My cap and kerchief stand at the ready but apparently, according to other maxims we must obey, I am Wicked so there is No Rest for me.  Thanks to a bunch of Teutonic Victorians, there is shrubbery outside that needs to be chopped down and dragged inside.  There are doorways that need to be festooned with garlands of fresh laurel, cedar, and twinkling lights with extension cords to be tripped over.  There are Battenburg lace angels awaiting their colo-rectal appointments with a Douglas Fir. There are pine needles that must mingle with the dog hair on the carpets, carols to sing, and cider that needs to be mulled.  There are two cords of “Yule-tide logs” in the driveway that still need to be stacked before the snow plow comes again... And Christmas cards to write…I am like an exhausted undergraduate at the end of term—up all night, incoherently scribbling drivel, trying to get my final exam in under the wire.  

 Smug customers come into the tailoring shop, hand us more work they need done “in no rush but immediately would be best” and say, “I hope you ladies have all your Christmas shopping done!” and we groan collectively behind their backs as they leave.  We don’t shop!  We are Seamsters; we seam.  We spend eight hours a day or more on Other People’s Projects.  And yes, we have Nothing Done for ourselves. A customer suffering acutely from PPS (Precious Princess Syndrome) announces that she’s had everything done for a month now.  It’s all I can do to resist the urge to poke her with a pin.  Prudence promptly puts me on the Naughty List.

 It’s that time of year when I need a little pep talk.  It’s not even officially “Winter” yet and already I am sick of the dark and the cold. We leave for work in the dark. It’s dark when we emerge from the shop to chip the ice off our cars and drive home under the stars.  The days don’t just seem short—they are. This Friday night, December 21st, the day will be the shortest of the year and the night will be the longest.  The coming Winter Solstice is the physical embodiment of one of the oldest, if not the oldest, story human beings have ever told—the story of Light vs. Dark, representing Order vs. Chaos.   For now, it certainly seems that the Chaos and Darkness are winning.  Perhaps we create all this seasonal mayhem to keep ourselves warmly distracted with all our rushing about and list-making.  (Santa isn’t the only one making a list! Prudence makes lists of her lists.) Even though we know, intellectually, that the Light will return, the primal parts of us want to hunker by the fire, lured by light, warmth, community and grandma’s fruit cake.   (Ok, so no one actually wants the fruit cake.)   Still, we want to be together.  The part of us that fears the dark wants to make something beautiful to give, to share, so that we will belong forever to that circle in the light.  Long ago, we did this with ceremony and rituals that included feasting, carols, candles, and bonfires which have transformed over the centuries into garish neon Christmas lights, clay-mation T.V. specials, and such enchanting musical compositions as “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” (Well, that’s one less fruitcake I guess…) Prudence gets panty-bunches in her backside when she hears real Christmas Carols before Christmas (like, the day after Halloween).  It drives her batty.  I have always called our family the “Jingle Bells” around this time of year, while she vehemently protests that “Jingle Bells” is NOT a Christmas carol! (I’m turning into more of a Silver Bell anyway…)  She reminds me every year that December 25th is the FIRST day of the twelve days of Christmas, not the last.  She is NOT a fan of Jingle Bell Rock, nor does she think that manipulative minx purring “Santa Baby” over the loud-speakers at Wallmart should get anything but a lump of coal and a quick trip to Confession.

  But I digress… My inner pagan, the Shadow side of Prudence, (wait…how can a shadow have a shadow? Perhaps I am taking this too far) adores the ancient druidic traditions of bringing both the fire and the forest within.  On Friday and Saturday, I will be lighting candles all over the house (and little old-fashioned ones on the Christmas tree too!), singing, and playing music with my children, who are grudging participants in my rituals.   The Advent season is all about awaiting the coming Light but I like to pause and honor the Darkness too.  Did you know that chickens lay their eggs according to the cycles of light and dark? Mine stopped laying in October and usually start again on February 15th, the day after Valentine’s Day. I’m pretty sure that’s when the sheep start growing their wool again too, as you can perceive their new growth by March.  I love how the seasons of light and dark regulate my little world, even me, and create necessary spaces for rest and suspension of the relentless forward momentum of “doing” rather than “being.”  

I have been feeling the darkness deeply this year—trying to embrace it, to see my internal lethargy and melancholy as the part of myself that needs to rest and go to seed.  It is time to go inward, be a small “something-that-is-not-yet”—not a pumpkin or a flower, or a vine, or even a shoot— held by a rich, mysterious darkness.  We are all like a bunch of garden pumpkins, softened by the frosts.  Our flesh sags and pulls us towards the earth and we grieve the loss of recognizing ourselves as we once were.  We have aged and sometimes not for better. But inside us, after everything else rots and falls away, is the seed, a condensed blueprint of all we really need to grow once more from our former ashes towards everything we love.

We must take the time we need to grieve the passing of another year, and all the sweet memories that may never come again.  This year, we have known dear Loves and lost them in the tides of time.  It seems treasonous to release them too soon, so we are given this moment with the Darkness to dwell with our sorrows and regret.

It’s challenging to consider the differences between Finishing and “quitting” at a time like this. It can be hard to continue to press ourselves onwards towards our goals at harried times when we feel simultaneously rushed and suspended, despondent and depleted…Waiting.  This is why I want to start a Finishing School. (Yes, I am aware of the Irony inherent in that statement!)   The dream is to have everyone drag his or her unfinished projects to a shared workshop space where we all help each other FINISH what we’ve started, lending tools, talents, and communal as well as moral support.  Both the physical and the metaphysical require that we somehow bridge this gap between Beginning and Ending so that the eternal Cycle may continue.  Some of us get stuck and need a little push.

 How do we know when something is done? Calling something Finished that is not quite as good as we had hoped it would be is really hard.  You know that by “finishing”—either by completing or abandoning a project—you are saying to yourself “I really can’t manage to do anything better than this right now” and if that is not perfect, that can be really hard to accept. When something ends, when something is complete, when you finally Finish—it is to give you new space in which to grow a new dream. You are on the right path to Create more of everything that makes your heart sing.  Even Sorrow is here to redirect our efforts towards a Better Good.

In this liminal space, take a moment to meet and feel the Darkness all around you with openness and curiosity, with your own breath as your only companion.  This is Ancient Magic. Your breath is the oxygen you are giving to help burn all the tiny fires inside of you.  Dance then with the Cold and the Dark, knowing that you yourself are warmth and light.  It’s true, you come from dust, and to dust thou shalt return—but RIGHT NOW you are dust that is magically on fire.  You are dust mixed with Light.  You are Magic and absolutely anything can happen.  Any sort of Miracle at all—like getting all those presents finished, wrapped, AND to the post office on time or making peace with cousin Betty!

In the midst of Constant Change, lie deeper things that never change. We are part of something Bigger than we could ever imagine.  Let your inner tree-sprite sink her toes deep into this darkness and anchor you firmly, as you reach towards new seasons coming with the returning Light. May you too find your rest, your bliss, and your new growth—perhaps your heart’s own Love—in the stretch between the two.  You are not alone in the dark.  I’m cheering for you from over here!  When we Finish really well, what do we do but usher in a New Beginning?

Solstice Blessings Dear Ones! May you be Merry and Bright and do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

Tis the Season...

“Real Generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.” —Albert Camus

Greetings Dear Ones!

Well, the Holly Daze is in full swing here at the little corner of the world where I spend my days looking at the world through the holes in your pants.  Mishaps with pants have been a running joke in the shop since Thanksgiving.  First, there was the young woman who brought in three pairs of yoga pants because her dog had eaten the crotch out of all of them.  She wants us to patch them as best we can…crotchless Yoga is definitely NOT a thing here in New England, at least not yet. (“Lord, have Mercy!” exclaims Prudence)  She notes snarkily that if this young woman hadn’t left these pants in little piles on her bedroom floor, this would never have happened.  “Her room is probably a pig sty!” she mutters. 

Next in is Mr. Winchester, a senior gentleman whose pants have been very hard to fix.  The fabric, which probably dates to the Geneva Convention, is fraying badly and the very act of patching it is creating more holes.  “I’m not sure there is a whole lot of life in these pants,” I start to explain.  His eyes widen with astonishment and his nostril hairs quiver as he snorts, “Young lady, I’m not INTERESTED in having life in my pants!” He seems quite put out by the very idea.  I can’t help being drawn to him. He would make a fabulous New Year’s date for Prudence. 

Another woman comes in with a bag of pants to hem.  She plops them on the counter and says “Betcha can’t guess where I just came from? Holy Mackerel Cemetery is having a sale!  Yeah, get this—their little niches are usually a thousand dollars a-piece but all this week they are going for seven hundred!”

“What’s a niche?” I want to know. 

“It’s when they cremate you and you have a little hole in the wall to put the ashes in after,” she explains.  “I decided to go for it.  It’s probably my only shot at getting a smokin’ hot body in this lifetime. Anyway, you should go for it!  I bought two—one for me and one for a friend so I know who my next door neighbor is going to be.  The sooner you do it, the cheaper it is.”

“Which church is Holy Mackerel?” I ask.

“It’s that big old cathedral on the south side of Main Street. Their two main gripes are about loose living and tight giving,” she says with a roll of her eyes. “I don’t go all that often but I thought I should end up hanging out where everyone I know is going to wind up eventually. My parents are there already. But they’re in the ground. I ain’t going in the ground.”

Mrs. Merryweather pops in then to collect her order and says “I’m sick of all this rain.  I hear it’s going to snow.  Well, at least you don’t have to shovel rain.” She sighs to indicate how hard her life is under an umbrella all the time.

“Wadda ya expect?” says the cemetery lady. “It’s New England.  It’s supposed to be cold!”

“I don’t mind the cold so much,” says Mrs. Merryweather primly, “It’s the snow I hate.”

“Really? I’m just the opposite,” announces the other one. “I’d take four feet of snow any day just as long as it’s ninety degrees out! I’m back to Florida as soon as Christmas is over.”

They leave together and I pick up a tiny pair of pants to hem.  “It says ‘hem as marked and pinned but there are marks all over this pair of pants.  Which one is right?” I ask my friend who did the fitting.

“Oh,” she says giggling, “those belong to a little boy who asked why I was marking his clothes.  He was fascinated with the chalk and wanted to draw some of the lines himself.  These are his lines,” she points out a series of marks, “and this is where the finished length should be. Leave him plenty of hem for growing.”  I nod.

And so it goes in our cozy little shop…an ordinary day of gossip about the weather, the afterlife, and our various plans for growing and dying and trying not to get too cold or wet or miserable in between.  As usual, it’s a balancing act of appreciating the absurd and having heart-touched contemplation as we Prepare… both for Christmas and what comes next.

I finish hemming a batch of pants and dial the telephone number on the order slip to let the customer know he can come any time before five p.m. to collect them.  A woman answers the phone.  I ask to speak to the name on the slip—a man’s name. “Who is this?” she asks in Alert, Suspicious tones.  I am taken aback and pause, confused.  She must not have heard me identify myself and the shop when she first answered.  “I don’t recognize this number,” she says, her tone escalating sharply, “Why are you calling my husband?!” For one delicious, wicked moment, I consider responding in my most sultry voice “well, madam (breath…) if you MUST know (breath…breath…) your man left his pants here when he came to visit me last week…(squeak) and I cannot divulge my identity but he knows (breath…sigh…squeak) where to find them if he wants them… And honey, please remind him we only take cash for our services…He usually remembers but…just in case…” Luckily, Prudence steps in and smacks my inner harlot upside the head before I can go through with it. 

There is a lot of seasonal sewing and attaching-red-plaid-bows-on-things to do.  Luckily, it’s the time of year when customers are most apt to bring us plates of cookies!  Hannukah has been and gone—not that there is too much sewing to be done for that—and all the Nutcracker costumes are finished being tailored to fit the dancers.  (All excepting the wee boy who played Fritz, whose britches kept falling down during the entire party scene.)  The bulk of what we have left to do consists of commissioned Christmas gifts and all the formal gowns for New Year’s Eve events—three of which are actually weddings.   Thanks to a kindly aunt, nine lucky grandchildren will awake on Christmas day to find their deceased Meme’s blouses and shirts turned into pillows they can hug.  A border collie named Molly is getting a new hunting vest in neon orange, and a rabid sports enthusiast is getting a custom-made sport coat made of eye-wateringly “busy” Red-Sox-patterned fabric his wife dragged here from the quilting section of Jo-Ann fabrics.

This fabric was never intended to be used for a garment.  But this is Red-Sox Nation.  Baseball is a religion. Apparently, this man is going to wander his village as some sort of loudly dressed prophet, with his clothes silently screaming about fly balls, foul balls, and whatever other sorts of balls they have in baseball.  Does he really WANT this? The mind boggles.  To see his excited wife bounding about the shop, clapping her hands with glee worries me.  Is this something he actually wants or is this something she is relieved she has designed because better ideas were not available?  At the end of the day, does it really matter? It’s the thought that counts.  And the hours of labor… She has no worries about how much this will cost.  “He’s going to LOVE this and you have NO IDEA how hard he is to buy for!” she gushes.  She is so excited that she has hit the jackpot on Ideas this time.  With the Bruins, the Patriots, and the Celtics—each with their own garish, god-awful fabric designs at Jo-Ann’s, his wardrobe expansion is set for the next 3 years to come.  “Can you make matching suit pants?” she wants to know. 

As deadlines approach for mailing things and finishing things, we grow a bit more frazzled and frantic.  “The Most Wonderful time of the year” can often be the Most Stressful too.  (No…wait, that’s Prom Season!)  It’s dark and bitter cold by the time we close the shop.  At home, it’s a deadly game each evening on my little homestead, as I skitter to bring water to my chickens and sheep over an alien topography of residual snow that has turned to icy cement.  Survival, for any of us, is not guaranteed.  It’s a blessing to distract ourselves with happy projects and thoughts of giving and anticipating another person’s delight.  It’s a privilege to be creatively involved in other people’s impulses to share.  We need things to warm not just our hands but our hearts and minds as well.

Our lives can seem small and rough and drearily mundane sometimes.  It can feel like we aren’t getting what we wanted or that we are unable to give others what it is they might want.  Some of us are prompted to ridiculous, over-extended extremes.  Giving itself can be a tricky form of asking—asking to be special, asking to be loved.  Sometimes, as George Bailey learns in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” it’s not about getting what we want after all.  It’s about realizing all we already have—and what we give daily, without even thinking.

 Blessings Dear Ones!  Keep Giving!  Keep Creating! Keep doing Good Work! May your hearts, hands, and homes be warm and merry and bright.  

Yours aye,

Nancy

Who is Prudence Thimbleton?

“We are all failures—at least the best of us are.” –J.M. Barrie

Greetings Dear Ones!

Few things in life are quite as satisfying as making a very neat job of turning up a sleeve on a man’s tweed sport coat and replacing the buttons and buttonholes precisely, in such a manner as to be indistinguishable from the original.  Lucky for me, I have good old Prudence Thimbleton, that internal nit-picker, watching over me to make sure I do it right.  She does not deal well with praise of any kind.  Her job is to find fault.  So when I hand the coat over to its owner, a distinguished looking man with a stern countenance and eyes the color of the sky after a summer storm, and he says, “hmmmm…. You do not disappoint.” Prudence goes all giddy and burns with so much Pride the poor thing nearly rushes herself off to Confession right then and there.  She does not know how to deal with such glowing approbation!

“Am I Prudence?” asks one of my friends.  Others have asked this too, wondering if I am writing about them.  Heavens No!  Prudence lives in my head.  She is the amalgamation of every wretched little old lady I have ever known, as well as one gay male horse trainer (he trained female horses too) and two truly terrifying nuns who have haunted me since grade school. She is simplistic and inflexible.  She does not take the ambiguities or subtleties of life into account what-so-ever. There is not even one shade of grey for her, never mind fifty!  She assumes that for every crime, there is a criminal who must be brought to justice.  She is like an over-active immune system that, with nothing “real” to fight, will turn on me and attack me.

Where did Prudence come from? I don’t really know. When you grow up with 19 Barbies dressed as nuns under your bed, you tend to attract some interesting “characters” into your life.    She is full of fantastically bizarre ideas such as killing two birds with one stone by translating the license plate in front of her into Morse code with Kegel clenches at traffic lights.  (This keeps your Morse code skills at the ready, should you ever need to signal that there are German U-boats off the coast of Maine, using only your vagina.) She makes all her own clothes and has despised “today’s fashions” for more than 100 years.  She will tell you simultaneously that “Jesus loves you very much” and that “you are going straight to hell” without perceiving any contradiction in the matter.  She likes to hang out in the shop and grumble quietly about the customers who abuse their zippers and brides with blurry tattoos that don’t look right under lace.  She’s from the era where most women knew how to sew and her dry, witty rants about “the state of things today” continually leave me in stitches.  

For years, she was just a horrible sense of dread—a nameless, vague, discontented wretch who seemed to hate everything about me—a heavy rock in my chest I carried about that negated every nice thing anyone said to me.  I once carried her for nearly a half marathon hearing nothing but “Is that a stitch in your side? What’s wrong with you? Why do you sound like a steam engine when you breathe? Is this the best you can do? How come everyone is passing you? At least get by that one-legged woman on the crutches—surely you can take her!  It’s mile 6—how has she stayed ahead of you for SIX miles? Easy now, you are going to get diarrhea in front of all these people if you keep swilling Gatorade at every mile marker—one more bowel-curdling sip and you are done for young lady…” By mile 11.5, when I was limping due to a seizing I-t band, she took to barking. “This is to what happens to people like you.  You should have trained better or stretched better, or at least worn a better outfit so that when the ambulance comes to scrape you off the pavement you look a little more coordinated than THIS…” she snorted with contempt. So much energy was going into beating myself up—and then beating myself up for beating myself up—the concentric levels of beatings going on were breathtaking, literally.  It was like being in a bar fight and punching myself in between jabs from a drunk. (I am astoundingly good at making myself the villain in my own melodramas.) I finally stopped right there in the middle of the road.  I could choose to finish this race or I could lie down and continue making myself feel like dog poo on a running shoe.   I did not have the energy to do both. I told that part of me to shut the hell up and I headed for the finish line. “Once we get our medal and a damn banana, then you can start berating me about where I may have left the car keys,” I told her. She seemed huffy but relatively content with that.

Afterwards, I realized I needed to befriend her or at least put her in her proper place or she was going to kill me.  Like the scary Bumble in the iconic “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” television special, she needed to be named, have her teeth knocked out, and be given a proper job.  She can still waste an incredible amount of energy worrying, being fearful, feeling  inferior and at fault.  She still judges harshly things like Winnie the Pooh tattoos and people who grind and smack their chewing gum sideways like they are bovines cudding.  She will “should” all over me at the drop of a pin. One of her little tricks is to point out how horrible other people are in order to make me feel like I could make some progress if I applied myself and overcame their low standards.  This is dangerous. I need only to compare myself to who I was six months ago, or this morning, to see how I am doing. I am my own Ruler, in every respect.

I have thought many times about whether or not Prudence should be killed off anyway. She is bloody annoying when she isn’t put to some constructive use.  There are plenty of self-help books (“Silence Your Inner Critic Forever”) and programs and coaches willing to collude in this murder of the Inner Critic. Yet I have decided against it. Firstly, I am against murder of any kind (though I quite happily usher blood-sucking insects to their after-life and encourage them to come back as dolphins or polar bears). Secondly, having an inner critic I can trust is extremely valuable.  I need this self-critical, judgmental part of my psyche—this is not a “bad” or “damaged” part of me that needs to be silenced or fixed—though sometimes her impulses are ridiculous.   I just need to understand, with extreme clarity, who she is and what her motives are. 

Inner Critics evolved as the part of us that wanted to stay safe. It’s very human to be naturally more attuned to what is negative and that is not a bad thing.  Historically, those of us heeded warnings were safer than our compatriots who perished, leading our species to evolve in ways that depend more on “watch out! That’s a scorpion!” rather than “Gee, Thor, I really admire how you handle that club of yours…” Negatives have an immediacy and a relevancy that positives often don’t:  Don’t touch that iron! (or you will burn)  Don’t eat that mushroom! (or you will die) Don’t wear white after Labor Day! (or we will kick you out of the tribe and you cannot come to our drum circle and drink things out of coconuts).

The importance of discernment cannot be underestimated. To know when a person is talking rot—especially if that person is me—is invaluable! Prudence keeps me honest.  She makes my seams straight.  She is the part of me that pulls out a row of stitches that “might pass” and makes me do them again perfectly.  I need this part of me that says I can do better, because usually, I can.  At heart, I am a Slacker.  She is not always a trustworthy moral guide like a conscience:  I have to listen carefully and discern whether she is saying what I have done is wrong or who I am is wrong. 

I have so many friends who are wonderful musicians, artists, writers and Intensely Creative People.  Through their tales and triumphs, I see that there is nothing more painful about the creative process than struggling against the feelings of self-doubt and self-loathing.  Some of us literally hate everything we write or paint or scupt or make or compose.  Nothing is clever enough, funny enough, good enough—or worse, our best ideas have already been done.   Apparently, this is not only “normal”—it’s often a sign that you are pushing yourself towards an interesting frontier, which is a Good Thing.  True Creativity is NOT safe.  It will definitely arouse your Inner Critic and have her snuffling out of her lair, stumbling towards strong coffee and a crowbar the moment you think you are meeting with some success.

And sometimes we just get it Wrong.  That’s ok.  A healthy inner critic, one who is fighting for us, not against us, will help us to learn. And learning itself is a beautiful thing.   Sometimes, after we learn, we have to try again, risk again, unfurl again and hope for a better outcome.  Sometimes, we just have to ignore those inner voices for our own damn good.  But first, before we do that, we must listen very carefully to what they say and why they are saying it.

Once in a while, that inner voice is not just toxic for toxicity’s sake; there may be a painful but true message that you need to heed.  Plenty of data from social psychology studies indicate that many of us are deluded and are not nearly critical enough.   Maybe your song only needs four verses and one key change, instead of thirty-seven.  Maybe you shouldn’t have composed fiddle tunes in F and expected gin-swigging mortals in the intermediate levels to learn them in a week or less.  Perhaps choosing a mermaid-style wedding gown with hips like yours was indeed a ghastly mistake. 

When should we worry when the inner critic is too strong? When we aren’t taking good care of ourselves; when we are overly self-effacing and cannot receive compliments; when we ignore health issues and don’t exercise; when we spend ten days in a row knitting and binge-watching “Bojack Horseman,” eating (and drinking) out of cans only.…  We NEED a sense of judgment to navigate in this (basically unsafe) world.  However, the intensity of that judgment lies along a continuum from gentle redirection to crippling shame.  It is a life-long process to learn to co-exist and persistently co-create with the parts of ourselves that wish to criticize or complain.  To compound the problem by blaming ourselves for engaging in this struggle is both futile and absurd.  A good friend reminded me recently: “Those who Judge don’t understand; those who Understand don’t judge.”   If we seek to understand, we are on the Right Path.

Incidentally, Prudence does NOT approve of this blog. Every time I click on the “save and publish” button, she has to take two aspirin and go lie down. She surveys my “purpled prose” and feels sickened, over-exposed, distraught.  She would much prefer it if we would Hide and work out our rash creative impulses on the cleaning the garage or sorting out the enormous stash of homespun wool that is attracting nesting Jack Russells.  I pat her hand and say, “my Dearest Prudence, fret all you want; I’m a Seamstress who doesn’t give a Rip.” We are going to be Ok.

And you are too, Dear Reader.  Keep creating!  Keep birthing your Beauty into this world that needs it so desperately.  Let us all strive to possess impressive inner cohesion, despite our fragmented, scattershot lives and abilities.  Our minds can be consistent and our hearts dependable, regardless of adversity from within or without.  We can delight in the flaws we perceive around us as we strive to make things better.  Keep radiating your own Moral Joy as you see what needs to be done and you DO it! Keep doing your Good Work!

With so much love,

Yours aye,

Nancy

Asking "For a Friend"

Greetings Dear Friends!

A woman in her early seventies comes in and deposits a vintage hunter green wool coat on the counter.  The lining is what we call “ripe”—in that any kind of touching it causes it to split and disintegrate along the vertical lines.  There is no sewing a lining like this—it must be cut out completely and replaced.  “I’m asking for a friend,” she says looking at me. “I’ll be your friend!” I say instantly, naively assuming this poor dear is lonely. She purses her lips. “No,” she says, “I don’t need a friend. I already have a friend. This is her coat.  I took it out of her house without her knowing it to see if you could do something about the lining. I’m sick of telling her she needs to get this fixed!” “Gee, that’s too bad,” I say wistfully, “I sure could use a friend like you who would pilfer all the things that need fixing out of my house!” This catches the woman off guard and she looks by turns irritated and confused. “As for this coat,” I continue, “it’s going to be quite a bit of money to replace the lining.  How much of a favor are you willing to do her?” It turns out, not that much.

“I’ll just leave it here with you and tell her how much it is and that she has to call you if she wants to have it done.  At least I have done this much,” the lady says with an exasperated sigh. Yes, at least she had done that much.  How much is too much to do for our friends? It’s a question I ponder for the rest of the day as I marvel at all the boundaries that lady crossed in her benevolent thievery.

Ours is a Friendly shop.  It goes without saying that the women who work here are dear friends.  Quite a number of our customers are also friends, soon become our friends, or bring their own friends. “Patty Payalayta” always comes in without cash or checkbook.  (Perhaps because she is a long-time friend and loyal customer, she always seems surprised that her work costs money.)  She whips out a credit card and then pauses in shock as if hearing for the very first time that we cannot take any form of “plastic” payment. She will take her stuff anyway, promising to mail a check later because she is such a “good friend” and we know she is good for it.  We trust our friends.

There are a variety of archetypes that come in as “friends” to assist one another with the tedious difficulties of getting their clothes adjusted and setting the needle just right on that fashion dial that goes anywhere from “I was just on my way to church to donate alms to the poor” to “I AM the Poor” to “my services are available for hire on an hourly basis.” We need these knowledgeable people to tell us that carrying around a stained mug of cold tea is NOT a fashion accessory or to prevent us from roaming the streets in tight yoga pants with enough panty-lines to make us look like a well-trussed Easter ham. (Not enough people are getting this memo!)

More often than not, “The Friend” is that annoying person who comes with a weak customer to tell her everything she is thinking is wrong.  Yes, I said She.  That’s because I never see any men bringing anyone like this, unless of course she is his wife.  (It takes the matrimonial bondage of church and state to entice a man to submit to the overwhelming strain of a steady stream of well-intentioned advice.) This friend, while not an actual customer, is the authority on everything that customer does.  She is a fashion expert, a tailoring expert, and an expert on how much things should cost.  She will sit through a lengthy pinning and consultation only to advise her friend that she should go elsewhere. 

I recently overheard the following half of a conversation emanating from the dressing room: “So, where’d you get this little number? Did your ex-husband’s new girlfriend pick it out, or what? What do you mean what’s wrong with it? It’s fuggly! No…I definitely was NOT with you when you bought this.  Take it off.  We’re taking it back.  I’m not going to let you do this to yourself…”

How we long to get our fingers in each other’s clay and take over where the Potter left off!  What forbearance it takes to stand back and allow people to hurl themselves towards their own destinies in coats that you think should be longer, shorter, cleaner, or taken to the back yard and burned.  What fortitude it takes to let them roam the earth in colors that make them look like they are awaiting a liver transplant.  Some friends have no idea where they begin and the other person ends.

I observe a lot of tricky partnerships from inside a pair of pants.   I always feel sorry for Little Herman Peckhen:  He is brought in by Mrs. Peckhen who is here in case Herman attempts to say a word—she will say it for him, and quite a few others besides.  She is vastly irritated with him and follows him in to the fitting room to make sure he buttons his trousers properly and puts his shoes on the right feet. She will tell us everything he needs and how things are to fit him. She will tell us what he likes and what he cannot abide under any circumstances, though in the end, it will matter far more how things look to her than how they feel to him. 

The Siamese Brain—every now and then one comes across this amazing duo getting by on one single brain between them.  Since they have only one mind, and they don’t want to wear it out too soon, or lose it altogether, they keep it safely at home a good deal of the time.  Somehow, through deft use of muscle-memory and reflexes, one of them manages to operate a motor vehicle to the shop without incident.  It is there they discover that their Brain has been left at home, often with the wallet, the shoes, or the garment that needed altering.  Every query directed towards them, such as “May I help you?” is like a pop quiz for which they have not studied.  Immediately one turns to the other one with a blank and beseeching look, as if the answer might be written on his/her forehead.

Straight out of a Geritol commercial, Mr. and Mrs. Adorable are the retired couple who come in to show off how cute they are and how they do everything together now that the kids are grown and the mortgage paid off.  Their affection for each other can be seen in the way they gently correct each other’s anecdotes about how good-looking the other one used to be.  He will talk about how she was such “a looker” back in the day and how tiny her waist used to be.  She, thoroughly pleased, will bat his compliments away with shining eyes that belie her protestations.  Something about the way he hands her his trousers makes eye-brow-arched Prudence think their other errand that day will be stopping at the pharmacy to refill their Viagra prescription on the way home. 

There is something endearing yet ultimately cloying about each of these co-dependent, symbiotic dyads. Like any good partnership or pair of pants, there are two legs to them—two sides, working in tandem to maintain a risky sort of balance.  One submits while the other pushes forward with an agenda. I can’t help being convinced that when a woman can be her own best friend, that’s when life gets easier.  We don’t need to boss anyone else around, nor do we need to submit to bossing. When we trust our own competence and inner wisdom, when we know Who We Are and How We Want to Look the dressing room safaris are much simpler.

Friends are supposed to be the people with whom we dare to be ourselves but sometimes our “friends” can be very hard on us, or we on them. I can’t be bothered to look up the information now but I am sure I have read something to the effect that says our blood pressure is lower around our dogs than around our best friends.  Unless of course, our dogs have just taken a dump on the carpet.  Then the blood pressure is apt to sky-rocket. (I’m pretty sure that last part wasn’t in the original study…but I know it is true.)

I think a lot about the partnerships and friendships we enter into.  I think about the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. (Ms. Bridesmaid, ask yourself, would you have someone follow you into the dressing room and tell you your gown made you look like you could play tight end for the Patriots? So why are you doing this? Margueritas are no excuse…)  And that other bloody good biblical suggestion: “Love your neighbor as yourself!”  These two maxims are not really about being Nice to other people—though they seem so at first glance. These are Equations, not injunctions.  They say that we must each be strong.  We must bargain as hard on our own behalf as we do for others’ or we risk slipping into the dynamic of slave or tyrant.  We must be equal partners.  It is much better for any relationship when both partners are strong.  As Carl Jung points out, this means embracing the sinner who is yourself as much as forgiving and aiding someone else who is stumbling and imperfect or trying to wear a shade of orange you cannot stand. (I’m pretty sure he didn’t mention the orange part…he surely wanted to and just forgot.)

In my own periods of darkness, during my long, dark nights of the soul, I find myself often overcome and amazed by the ability of people to befriend each other, to love their intimate partners, children, parents, family and do what they can provide for each other’s good and comfort.  I give them immense credit for their ability to act productively and selflessly.  Navigating healthy boundaries when we are trying to love and serve each other is tricky business indeed.  It takes amazing communication skills—both in speaking and in Hearing the Truth.  I think hearing another’s truth requires the most curiosity and courage.  Plenty of people go about blabbing their truths—the only problem is that no one else is listening.

Eventually, Silence is where the real conversation happens between true friends.  It’s great to be able to say anything you want to another person.  It’s even better not to have to say anything at all…  It is in listening to the great Silence within our own hearts that we become our own friends.  Once we do that, we can be nice to anyone! (Yes, Prudence, even if we fall short of Glory, even if we attempt to mold others to our image instead of leaving them as God’s, and even when we find ourselves tempted to pilfer a friend’s ratty coat for her own good.) 

Be well, dear ones! May you be merry and do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

P.S.  You don’t have to be crazy to be my friend—I’ll train you!

Which guest will you feed?

“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.” A.A. Milne

Greetings my dear Fellow Pilgrims and Pioneers of Life,

Don’t forget to set your scales back! Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day—the day when patriotic American families gather to feast on traditional foods, crab about referee calls in football, and give thanks for ALL THEY HAVE in preparation for storming the malls less than 24 hours later to trample their fellow Americans in the pursuit of MORE—spending money they don’t have on things they don’t need to give to people they are not even sure they like. (And so the Holly Daze begins…)  As Seamsters, we know it as a day that is particularly hard on pants (and Turkeys, bless them!).  Some of us will eat until we have enjoyed a polite bite of everything and have had “enough.” Some will eat until “full.” Some of us will eat until we hate ourselves and need to be cut out of our jeans—especially when we find out that there are three kinds of potatoes on the table and something called pumpkin chocolate chip cookies for later….  Come Cyber Monday, when the rest of you are cyber-clicking yourselves into debt until March, seamstresses everywhere will be receiving untold numbers of popped buttons, stressed out waistbands, and shattered pants that look like they’ve just barely survived Custard’s Last Stand (or Sit as the case may be).

But I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s focus on the Thanks and the Giving part of the holiday first. As Prudence Thimbleton primly points out, “It’s not Happiness that brings Gratitude; it’s Gratitude that brings Happiness.” In the shop, we’ve been talking all month about things we are grateful for.  We are thankful for a range of everything from thimbles to safety pins and customers who don’t call us every five minutes to see if their stuff is done yet, which it would be if we weren’t so interrupted by calls.  (I am personally very grateful for this job!) We have been dealing with a flurry of customers who need special outfits to wear in front of their families during the holiday.  Their motivations range from “not arriving naked” to deviously making envious sisters wish they had done weight-watchers all summer too.  The people chat about their plans, or lack of plans, whether or not the grandchildren will make it back from Georgia and whatnot…

I listen carefully at my perch and from what I can tell, most people will be bringing along at least two Unplanned Guests. I know how that goes.  I often entertain those guests too. One is there to make war.  She is angry, defiant, and capable of torching more than the crème brulee if she needs to get attention. She is like a character from the Netflix series “The Norsemen” who arrives breathless, clad in animal skins, on a magnificent current of Righteous Ego and firmly held convictions—Certain Rights she needs to fight for, claim, or preserve. There is a knife in her sock and her Honor is at stake in every utterance and gesture she perceives from those around her.  She is desperate to discuss unhelpful things in unhelpful ways. She feeds on the ideas that she deserves more, better, or something different.  In a crowd of people, she is hollow, lonely, removed. She HATES to sit at the kids table.  She is not there for the mashed potatoes and gravy.  She is there to pick a bone.  She is there to feed on every morsel of Un-lovingness she can glean, gathering evidence for her future case against you and all of humanity.

The other guest is the one you really want to sit with:  She is the Angel of Serenity.  She floats in on light and with just a smile, replenishes all that aches within you.  She catches the pain of others with her deep, knowing eyes, and reflects back only love and sympathetic understanding. She is gentle.  She takes all that makes us want to fight and cradles it in her Unconditional Love.  Over and over again, she loves us Just As We Are.  She is warm. She is tender. She is funny. She takes disasters and makes us laugh with new-found unity at the wonderful stories they become.  She creates community.  All the kids want her to sit at their table! She heals, where the other guest wounds. She serves, rather than severs.  She replaces, restores, and revives where the other robs.

They are twin sisters, these two, in our dual nature as humans.  In the heat of certain family gatherings—especially those kinds of families that Hallmark never puts on its festive cards—it takes incredible courage to choose which one of these guests within us we are going to feed. It’s hard, when one feels ambushed by a comment or a look, to take the Peaceful Angel’s soft hand, rather than the weapons offered by the Warrior.  Weapons we all know far too well how to use—(We could have that certain sibling or nephew sobbing in the car, on her/his way home in minutes if we wanted!) Such power, such intensity is so alluring—intoxicating in its force, though weak at its root.  The gentle choice is far less glamorous. It requires dropping deep, getting grounded, breathing soft full breaths, rather than rising up and spinning like a roman candle on the fourth of July.  It requires holding ourselves instead of hitting another or the bottle.  Every triggering moment will be this choice—which guest will you feed?

The inner warrior is the one we must hold with all the love we can muster in our hearts. She is angry because she is afraid and trying to protect her own softness. She will lead you to eat with a hunger you cannot satisfy, or to drink with a thirst you cannot quench, and shop like you have Croesus’ gold to spend, and it will never be enough.  Then she will blame and torment you for not having filled her emptiness. She will be the one berating you when you are broke, exhausted, hung over, staring at a closet full of “nothing fits.”   Only Loving her will bring her to submission. She can only survive because we have forgotten to love her.  Loving her makes her small, contented, ready to sleep.

There is no question which choice will feel better in the long run.  Our souls are not asking for more anger.  No one will suffer more than you if you choose war, even though you might temporarily enjoy the glory of fighting.  It will be the hollow sort of victory that has you limping for the rest of your life. Living takes courage. Holding ourselves peacefully in the midst of wine, combative relatives, and really good pumpkin pie takes an inner kind of parenting we cannot do without Gratitude.  Gratitude gives us instant access to the love we are longing for.  Even the smallest things can make us grateful and be the tiny handles by which we drag ourselves back towards the Light.

A beautiful girl was in the shop recently.  She was complaining about the shape of her nose and the shape of her thighs and the thickness of her ankles.  I wanted to wrap my arms around her and say, “Aw….Sweetheart, can your nose smell? Do you know the scent of a rose? Or puppy breath? Or fresh, sun-dried laundry right off the line? Can those thick little legs of yours run and swim and climb and dance?” What a GIFT to have a body!  Sure, some of us have gotten into bodies, like bumper cars at a carnival, that don’t look quite like or work like some of the other bodies bouncing around out there—but we can still have fun.  We can still enjoy a good ride. May we be grateful for our Bodies.

Some people in the shop struggle with their mental faculties. (Often, one of them is me!) They drop things off and forget to pick them up, or they pick them up and come back two days later forgetting they already came two days ago.  They think we have coats we don’t.  They call three times in a row. They can’t remember where they lost their shoes. We all get side-tracked, find it hard to focus, battle ADD and lack mindfulness.  May we be grateful for our Minds.

Some people have been feeling alone, isolated, left-out.  Others are nursing long-held bitterness over heart-shattering loss. Some are falling in love again anyway as little kindnesses lap away and melt the frozenness within.  Some are being angels here on earth. May we be grateful for our Hearts.

May we be grateful for our Spirits which long for beauty and music and Connection and Community. 

May we be grateful for Each Other—warts and warriors, bumpy-rumpy bumper cars and all.  Life is the FEAST—we are each of us a unique and necessary flavor—some of us, like Prudence, are crab apples; some are kale; (I think I’m a brussel sprout), some are pure Maple syrup or honey; some are nuts or turkeys…we ALL are needed for our tartness and sweetness and comfort and substance. So let your better angels win today--your pants and seamstresses will thank you!

I am grateful for YOU, dear ones!  More than you could ever imagine.  Thank you for reading, thank you for subscribing, thank you for taking your precious time to comment or share. 

With so much Love and Gratitude,

Yours aye,

Nancy

Wishful Thinking

If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.”

C.S.Lewis

Greetings Dear Ones!

I am sewing a bridal gown.  I begin by pretending that taking up the shoulders so much (four inches!!) will not change the structure of the gown.  When I realize I now have to incorporate a disproportionately large sleeve that no longer fits, I pretend that I can just gather it.  When the resulting lumps make it look like the bride will be hiding dinner rolls under there, I pretend that I can just make a center seam where now there is none.  When that is blazing a crooked trail down her arm like the white dot trail on nearby Mount Monadnock, I pretend I can camouflage it with lace and beading… On it goes… my fantasy life with this gown—one wish making way for other wishes—each wish getting smacked by a new, emerging Reality that cannot be denied.  I am looking for comfort, as C.S. Lewis would say, rather than truth.  The truth is that I don’t want to mess with lowering the armhole because there were too many bones involved—both mine, and those belonging to the dress. (Yes, most fancy dresses have more “bones” than a bad piece of haddock. They are little plastic rods added to seams for the dual purpose of supporting the structure of the dress and driving innocent seamstresses to drink.) Besides, this bride does not need the extra space there.  She has skinny upper arms. “Never wielded a pitchfork in her life!” mutters Prudence.  I sew on, with that combination of hasty, lazy Diligence that I do best—trying to atone for my short-cuts with other shortcuts.  I think, not for the first time of that maxim emblazoned on swim-team T-shirts everywhere: “Winners make a habit of doing things Losers don’t want to do.” I am not quite sure yet if I am winning or losing with this gown.

There is a lot of wishful thinking in sewing, as in Life. (Was it not wishful thinking on the bride’s part to think that she could buy a dress so out of proportion to her body and have us wave a magic wand, or needle, over it and have all that extra fabric just magically disappear?) The Wiki definition of wishful thinking is “the formation of beliefs and making decisions according to what might be pleasing to imagine instead of by appealing to evidence, rationality, or reality.”  Also known as thinking that eating salad for six days will make you a size 6, or believing that one tank of gas should last a week, despite three trips to Vermont.

Sometimes, I am blundering my way towards Truth through a series of failed experiments. This is pure Science.  But when the desire for something to be true takes the place of evidence for the truthfulness of the claim, it becomes a logical fallacy or a cognitive bias that causes one to evaluate evidence very differently based on the desired outcome.

Example #1:

I wish I was a size [x]. Therefore, I am a size [x].  Size [x] is what I buy.  I cannot understand why it looks terrible on me.   

Prudence says: Madam, wishing it to be so, and finding it to be so are two entirely different matters. Empiricism wins the day, at least in dressing rooms.  Blind faith should be reserved only for God and rooting for the Patriots.

Example #2:

I know in my heart of hearts that you can fix this for me and make me look like something out of a magazine.

Prudence says: No, Madam, you don’t know that, (unless the magazine happens to be “Cast Iron Skillet” or “National Geographic”) and what the heck is your “heart of hearts” anyway?  You need two EYES, not two hearts—heck, even half a brain would do...  LOOK in the mirror. This is classic wishful thinking -- wanting your closed-eye “vision” so badly that you begin pretending that it is/has to be true.  In fact, it is so possible in your mind that that there will be no one to blame but Everyone Else if we fail you.  (Just because you spent thousands on this gown does not mean this is not your fault!)

Exception: When wishful thinking is expressed as a hope, wish, or prayer and no belief is formed as a result, then it is not a fallacy because no direct or indirect argument is being made.

I really hope that I don’t have to undo all this beading! I really hope she likes this! Is it lunchtime yet?

What I am learning about Wishful Thinking here at my little sewing table is that wishing for something to be true is a powerful technique when and only when, a) you have an influence on what it is you want to be true and b) you take action to make it come true -- not just wish for it to be true. Magic doesn’t happen by wishing. It happens with Doing.  Only Doing changes facts.  As a sewing “scientist” I can mess with the current “fact” that this dress does not fit by changing all the variables within my power to change.  As John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”  No amount of wishing has ever made mosquitoes suck fat instead of blood.

I read a lot about the Law of Attraction and about the theory that says “whatever we think about most” will come to us.  It’s an intriguing idea but I must confess my doubts and wonder if it is not just another form of Wishful Thinking.   If it were true, I would have a lot more cookies in my life and no broken appliances in my home. (This week alone, my washer, the stove, and the hoover are all awaiting repair!)  I never think about breaking things.  It just happens.  I think about cookies all the time yet never have them.   I spend an inordinate amount of my days, sewing quietly and wishing fervently:

I hope both arms of this coat turn out the same.

I wish this woman had washed her pants before bringing them in to be mended.

I wish that very tall, skinny young man had not bought all those ragged, portly-short waistcoats at the consignment shop and brought them here to be tailored for himself (It’s wishful thinking on his part to think these things will ever fit him right or remain any sort of bargain after we put twenty hours into remaking them)…

I wish my bank account filled up as easily as my dirty laundry basket.

I wish I could have faith that our government always served the will of its people. 

I wish certain customers came with warning labels.

I wish everyone I knew enjoyed perfect health and vibrancy...

 Not all wishes can come true.  I have a recently-divorced friend who commiserates, saying, “I don’t have a lot of wishes. I just want to play my fiddle, drink some decent gin, laugh a lot, and then take my cute ass home to love the same man every night—why is that so hard?”  I don’t know.   Some days, I wake up feeling so ugly inside I wonder if I should just eat my bag of make-up rather than apply it to my face. I wish I could climb inside the dryer and shrink my skin for ten minutes, instead of my jeans. I wish life was easier for us all.  As Burgess Meredith’s character says in the movie Grumpy Old Men, “Well, you can wish in one hand and crap in the other and see which gets filled first.”

We need to stay away from useless wishful thinking as much as we need to stay away from anyone who makes us feel like we are too hard to love.   Wishes are a form of magical thinking that says we can make wonderful changes without doing any work—though To Wish is one of those primordial, axiomatic elements of Being.  Such is our human condition:  Between the rocks and the stars, we make our home.  We can wish on all those stars but we live here, in the dirt, made of Dust ourselves, so it’s no wonder we crave sparkle. It’s absolutely necessary that we thirst for and create Beauty where we can.  Sometimes, our wishes lead to other wishes; sometimes they conflict with our other desires, or the desires of others. When we come together and share our wishes, prioritize them, evaluate what is actually Possible—then we arrange them into hierarchies of what is Do-able.  This makes them, and us, Sophisticated. We get Organized. We begin to work with each other, with the desires of other people and the wider world beyond our own closets.  Our wishes lead to our values.  Our values become our morality.  Our morality leads our actions.  Our actions become the foundations of the Good we leave behind.  Sometimes we don’t get what we want until we get up and just DO that Thing Which Must Be Done. Don’t tell me you didn’t get everything you “wished for” in the last election or that sale at Macy’s. Tell me how you are now building a bridge to what is Possible.

Be well, be Merry and Kind my dearies—and do Good Work!  Wishing you the BEST sort of day,

Yours aye,

Nancy

P.S. For those of you “wishing” I revealed more outcomes in these blogs, that bride turned out very happy with her sleeves—we got very lucky with the beading and the lace.  Some wishes do come true!

Living with Bias

Greetings Dear Ones!

 

The lady standing in front of the dressing room mirror is huffing, tutting, stamping her foot, and wiggling like a five-year-old who has to go potty.  She is mad because her dress does not fit her like it fits the model wearing it in the catalogue.  She ordered this dress on line and it is supposed to make her look Just Like That.  What the hell? Vexation emanates from her in billowing waves.  I study the dress. It is a long, bright fuchsia contraption which is made entirely on the bias.  What is bias, you say? Well, in sewing terms, the bias is the when you cut diagonally to the grain of the weave of the fabric.  The word “bias” comes to us via the Middle French word “biais” but originates from an older Greek word meaning “oblique.”  The fabric has been cut on an oblique angle.  Picture a grid: When cloth is woven, it is constructed on a loom whose strong warp threads run north to south.  The weft fibers are then woven in side to side, east to west and back.  When you cut the cloth north to south or east to west, it will not stretch as much as if you cut it on an angle. Any time you cut a curve into woven cloth, you will have to deal with some sort of bias issue—meaning that part of the hem will sag or those pieces of the pattern will not go together smoothly without some deft convincing.  There is a lot of “give” to one side rather than another which is jolly useful, mostly, but also causes a lot of problems.

 I start trying to explain this to the woman.  She has no idea what I am talking about.  She impatiently wants to know why this dress is pooching out over her navel in such an unflattering way. She thinks it is too big and I need to take it in. The opposite is true.  It’s too tight under her armpits and needs to be let out.  She won’t hear of it.  “But I’ve LOST WEIGHT,” she insists.  “This is NOT too small for me!”  No, it does not look too small, but just because she can get it on does not mean it “fits” her.  The way the entire front of the dress was cut in one piece, on an angle, means that it is going to behave in an oddly stretchy way when the normal forces of body physics are applied.  Biases aside, we cannot supersede the Natural Laws of physics!  When you pull this dress tight across the breasts, it creates a series of ever-enlarging ripples that end up looking like a pooch of “extra” fabric over the navel.

The lady’s attitude makes me realize I am dealing with more than fabric bias.  We have cognitive bias too! A cognitive bias is “a mistake in reasoning, evaluating, or remembering, often occurring as a result of holding onto one's preferences and beliefs regardless of contrary information.” This woman has seen the photo in the catalogue that shows a person wearing this dress looking sleek, elegant, svelte—approximately 5’9” and 120 pounds.  She is guilty of a heuristic bias. (The lady in the dressing room, that is, not the waif on the page)  Heuristics are simple, efficient rules humans tend to use to form judgments and decisions. They are mental shortcuts that streamline cognitive thinking (saving our energy for remembering where we hid the Halloween candy) that involve focusing on one aspect of a complex problem and ignoring others.  For example, this woman has not focused on the fact that she is neither 5’9,” nor 120 pounds.  She thinks “if I wear this, I will look just like that!”

While I am working with her, I discover a few more “bias” issues: Of the 25 most common cognitive biases, she has a mere 26.  First, there is the Intrinsic Bias—she “just knows” quite a lot.  She just knows how sewing works, even though she does not do it, and she just knows how fabric is supposed to work, even though she has never heard of a bias cut before. She also has Choice Supportive Bias.  She has chosen this dress; therefore it is the Right Choice. If she chose it, it must be right for her.  (This is why we often believe in who we vote for, rather than vote for who we believe in, especially if we have voted for someone based on the Bandwagon effect—which is when we just go along with what everyone else is doing so that we can belong to the majority.) Having chosen this dress, she backs it up with Confirmation Bias—that is, she will listen only to information she already knows.  She is not interested in facts that don’t support her current beliefs.  My attempts to get her to recognize other truths are met with Ostrich Bias—this is her subconscious decision to ignore negative information such as “this may not be the dress for you.”  She bats that away like a gnat at a summer barbeque.  She wants only to know when I will fix her dress, not how or if.  Negatives do not apply to her.  She is never told “No.” (Ostrich bias is the foundation of all ignorance.) So I trick her with a Placebo bias: she tells me to take the dress in and I don’t.  She puts it on again and insists it fits “much better.”  I hem it to the length she wants and she is happy.  Outcome bias: after a decision has been made, she evaluates my performance solely on whether the end result was positive or not.  She will not consider the conditions under which we had to work to get this result; the result is all that matters.

 Today, on Election Day of all days, I am thinking about bias a lot.  Just like in sewing, where we flex and stretch along our bias points is where we will come together to create what fits us best.  Perhaps the most challenging bias facing any of us is not the one that makes our clothing look lumpy but the one that makes us guilty of Naïve Realism: The belief that we see reality as it really is – objectively and without bias; that the facts are plain for all to see; that rational people will agree with us; and that those who don't are either uninformed, lazy, irrational, or biased. Or the Bias Bias—the belief that other people have biases, not us.

We all have biases—we have been shaped by our choices, experiences, culture, and religions, which are beautiful things so long as we take them into account and recognize when they might be impeding our higher cognitive functioning and causing us to hurt others.   I think many of us have been shocked to discover the level of bias in our country. Our nation is suffering from a compassion deficit as a result of clinging to entrenched and flamboyant bias.  We can be passionate about our beliefs while still being moderate in our behavior towards one another. Moderation, like fabric cut on a bias, is often misunderstood. It’s not just finding the bland, neither-hot-nor-cold mid-point between two opposing poles.  Rather, it is based on an acceptance of the inevitability of conflict. It’s absolutely necessary when making something two-dimensional fit a three-dimensional body.

Understand that you are biased and that others are too.  We still have to come together, and it won’t be seamless, to fashion the fabric of our version of Democracy in the 21st century.   We can take all these divisions, rivalries, and competing factions and still make something coherent and lovely, like the patchwork quilt that is our country.  Sure, it won’t look perfect but the truth is we need each other.  We need Both sides.  We cannot make a dress with left sides only.  We cannot have coats with right sleeves only.  By exercising our rights to enforce moderation, we are not saying that we have to have all the answers today—merely that we are willing to work towards workable temporary arrangements that balance our needs for security with our desires for liberty.   In an organized society, we must have room for the disorganized.  In a healthy society, we must have room for the unhealthy.  There is no ultimate resolution to these tensions.  We have to expect that—we are all fabric cut on a bias, rather than the straight of the goods.  There is damn little in this world that is pure and straight and unyieldingly perfect.  Most of us have curves. Some would have us believe otherwise—that having faith means that one must not tolerate those with no faith, or differing faiths. We must not tolerate each others’ curves. 

There is an age-old trade-off between liberty and license.  Political cultures are traditions of conflict.  As author David Brooks says, “There are never-ending tensions that pit equality against achievement, centralization against decentralization, order and community against liberty and individualism.”

We have this fantasy that there is glory to be gained in struggling against “Others.”  But Character only comes when we struggle against ourselves, against our own weaknesses, judgments, and bias. Great matters are not settled by listening to only one voice, one opinion, or one point of view. 

It’s how we will come together, despite the rhetoric that seems so fashionable at the moment that ultimately will make us strong at the seams. Yes, we are blessed with the right of free expression, but what about our responsibilities to the freedom of expression? Let us speak with In-tention, not to get Attention or to create A Tension.  At the end of the day, regardless of how the polls go today, we can still be kind.  We can be gracious in victory and humble in defeat. None of us want to be hard-hearted or cruel but we sometimes operate from unconsciousness of our own biases. We blurt out things that are mean.  We listen to messages of hate and fear and we don’t stand up.  Today is our day to stand up, individually and collectively, and admit we really do have dappled souls but we will strive to do better.  We have optimism and Hope. Reality might not look quite like it was sold to us in the catalogues but it will be ok.

 Today of all days, don’t be a bystander.  Of all the sins we commit, let’s not let today’s be the sin of Omission. To paraphrase the poet Marguerite Wilkinson, let us not, commit the sin of “unattempted loveliness.”  Loveliness is waiting for us, where our biases come together and fit us just right.  

Be well, my dearies, and Vote!!!

Yours aye,

Nancy

 

Resting Witch Face

Greetings Dear Ones!

Halloween is one of those truly scary times of year for a seamstress. I’ve been feeling the Dread: IT’s on its way again…IT’s coming…AND THERE’S NO ESCAPE. (Cue the chilling organ music)  But tonight IT is all over and finally a small, festering portion of our seasonal work can be let go until next year.  We’re done (temporarily) making dresses fit grown men, vampire costumes for dogs, and altering any number of polyester inventions that came from China via Amazon to persons who had no idea how to interpret sizing charts on the internet.  

Traditionally, All Hallow’s Eve is the night the ancient Celts believed the veil between the worlds lifts and all of Hell is free to wander our realm dressed as their favorite T.V. or video personalities demanding candy.  Well, Hell comes to wander early in our dear little shop.  Adam and Eve come in together and stand in the corner bickering quietly.  They are newlyweds who have been invited to a costumed barn dance. I ask how I can help.  Eve turns shyly to Adam and refuses to speak to me.  Adam greets me with a “Surprise! Everything is grand” look on his broad, suddenly-smiling face and insists that his costume suits him just fine but Eve is a tad unhappy with hers.  I ask her to try it on and show me the problem.  Mutely, she follows me to the dressing room.  When she opens the door, I can see the difficulty immediately.  I have no idea who made this costume originally, but whoever did either needed a lesson on female anatomy or was considerably aged and used herself as a model.  Two large, green felt “fig leaves” are dangling upside down, mid-torso, near this young woman’s waistline. The costume is a one-piece beige flannel thing that looks like the unintentional mating of men’s pajamas and a hospital johnny.  It’s basically a rectangle one enters through an enormous slash in the back that ties at the neck.  The crotch, with the rest of the fig leaves, is hanging at her mid thigh, while the legs end abruptly at mid-calf.   Eve is scowling at herself in the mirror and looking pissy.  She hisses quietly to Adam, who scampers to her side.  She mumbles something to him.

          “She wants to know if you can take this in, maybe make it fit her better. Smaller somehow… and move the fig leaves up where they belong,” he translates, while she growls incoherently. (Eve is speaking English, by the way, just not loud enough for anyone but Adam to hear it.) I explain that I would love to take in the sides for her but with the big slit in the back, it won’t do much good—it will just cause the back to be more open, not the sides to be fitted.  There is basically no structure to this sack of flannel.  Eve is not happy.  These look like costumes from a biblical play held in a church basement somewhere.  For two people attempting to look as naked as possible, it’s adorable how cuddly and frumpy they look.  These are the most chaste Adam and Eve costumes one could imagine.  It dawns on me that this is precisely Eve’s problem.  She wants to look sexy.  She is tall and slender, with a waterfall of golden curls cascading down her back.  With her sky-colored eyes and aqualine nose, she could easily pass for one of Leonardo da Vinci’s angels if she wanted to.  (She doesn’t.) This costume is as far from sexy as your grandma’s furry bathrobe with oatmeal on the cuffs.  Even Prudence Thimbleton—that wanna-be nun in my head—totally approves of these costumes.   “It’s a damn shame they are portraying Adam and Eve after the Fall, instead of before,” whispers Prudence dryly, “Otherwise this one would be free to run butt naked through the barn dance, dining on fruit and not giving a second thought to fig-leaf placement, which seems to be the look she’s really going for…”  

Adam is talking to Eve again. “No,” he insists, “I like my costume” (which has one clump of dangling leaves, not three) “It’s warm and I have plenty of room to wear long-johns under it. I’m NOT wearing a leotard.”  He turns to me with a sigh and asks, “She wants to know if you can take the leaves off these costumes and put them on a leotard.”

“Of course,” I say. “No problem.” Eve smiles but Adam rolls his eyes.  He turns to her again.  “Look, honey, how about if we don’t match? We don’t actually have to match, do we? You could wear a leotard and I could just wear this…” he says, gripping his costume tightly. I can’t help giggling at the layers of irony going on here.  Adam just wants everything to stay the same. He wants to be warm and innocent, able to drink beer and enjoy his long johns but Eve won’t be happy until she looks like a little tart.  She does not care how hellish is the Cold.  (Apparently, she has never read Dante’s Inferno all the way to the middle. Or partied in a barn in New England in October, for that matter.)    I leave them in the dressing room in order to attend to other business in the shop.   It’s not long before they depart:  Eve leading the way, looking purposeful, her jaw set; Adam trailing behind, looking bewildered and defeated.  They will be back, he mutters, with leotards. He’s just going to do whatever Eve tells him to do.

How does one describe modern-day Halloween in North America to those who have not experienced it? Frankly, the custom is a little insane but, with more than 175 million Americans planning to partake in festivities, Halloween is big business. According to the National Retail Federation, total spending for Halloween is expected to reach $9 billion in the U.S. this year. Celebrants are planning to shell out an average of $86.79 each on badly-fitting costumes, masks and candy, so their offspring can go door to door threatening their neighbors and being rewarded with miniature chocolate products that will rot their teeth, and make their temperaments impossible to deal with until next summer.

Naturally, my focus is mostly about the costumes (and, um…the Milk duds). Before the 1930’s most people fashioned their own disguises—typically bed sheets with eye-holes cut in inconvenient locations.  In 1930, Sears started selling the first boxed Halloween costumes and the humble home-sewer has been in competition ever since.  Whether you are a professional seamstress or not, if you can wield a needle and have even so much as a tiny sewing kit purloined from your last hotel visit, chances are you will be pressed into service at the last minute to make some adjustments to  someone’s outfit. (For the rest of you, there’s duct tape and staples.)  Either way, you will have a fun-size taste of what it is like in this shop on a daily basis.

Show me a seamstress who has not pulled an all-nighter for a Halloween costume and I’ll show you someone who thinks all that chocolate is actually for the kids. You might think that my children had fabulous costumes growing up. But then you might stop and ask yourself whether or not the cobbler’s kids wear shoes… Every year, the night before Halloween would find me in my workshop staying up all hours of the night, howling at the moon, surrounded by fabric and panic… Sewing, you ask? Well, that was the Plan. In actuality, I would spend hours carefully sifting out all the tiny boxes containing Milk-duds from our cauldron of candy, gnawing my way through them, insisting to myself that each box was “the last box.” Dawn would find me feeling icky and deciding that my children didn’t really need costumes after all.  This was the year I could convince them to take a few spare shingles from the barn and stand on them with their violins and go as “Fiddlers on the Roof.”  At least they would not forget to practice their arpeggios, in the midst of the festivities. They never bought it.  They much preferred to hide in the leaves of our make-shift graveyard on the front lawn, scaring people who came to trick-or-treat us.

Scaring people can be thrilling. Serious Fear drives the whole enterprise in general: fear of “razor blades in apples” drives up candy sales; fear of predators makes the grown-ups of today dress up and accompany their children on their begging rounds (children used to go alone); fear of not having the Best Costume (and thus facing exile from the tribe) drives up iParty sales… Halloween is when we wander around being each other’s nightmares and playing with what terrifies us most—like sexually dominant women dressed as slutty pirates or men with boobs.

Not all hell returns to the other side of the veil when the night is over.  Some is trapped here on earth. The genuine horrors we face in the shop are far more sinister than any candy-corn-flavored Nightmare before Christmas.  Me? I’m not afraid of bats or spiders.  I think witches are just AWESOME. The things that scare me most are the bride who has a gown fitting in the morning, leaves crying, and comes back drunk after lunch; the grandmother who brings a bag of her granddaughter’s clothing and says “can you let the waists out all the way, but don’t tell her mother—I’m sick of her yelling at the kid that she’s too fat”; and the wife in dark sunglasses who can’t pick up her husband’s shirts until pay day.  Pretend horrors are WAY more fun!

Halloween gives us an official, Amazon-sanctioned chance to use clothing to disguise ourselves, or perhaps reveal a part of ourselves we otherwise hide.  It is a time to risk, to experiment and face fears of mortality or morality.  (Hmm… wait there!  This is sounding like just another day in the dressing room!) But we get to kick it up a notch in a bigger, larger than life (or Death) way.  In my humble opinion, we should get to wear these costumes any time we want. Some of us just have those “I must impersonate-a-Tricerotops or Buzz Lightyear” kind of days more often than once a year.  So be it.  May we smile at each other fondly and be not Too Afraid.  What is clothing anyway but a balance between protecting our tender, bald skin from the elements and protecting our tender psyches from shame? Thanks a lot, Adam and Eve…we’re still trying to get the compromises right.

Stay warm and safe, Dear Ones! Be merry and do Good Work! (and save some Milk Duds for me!!!)

Yours aye,

Nancy

 

Ants and Grasshoppers

“Being forced to work, and forced to do your best, will breed in you temperance and self-control, diligence and strength of will, cheerfulness and content, and a hundred virtues which the idle will never know.” Charles Kingsley 

Greetings Dear Ones!

Harvest time is drawing to a close.  The hay is in the shed, the firewood is getting stacked up close to the house—I am working like an ant but still wanting to party like a grasshopper. My Now has become all about The Future. A killing frost has silenced the cricket choir—a harsh lesson warning my inner Grasshopper to shape up and Prepare: With frigid, snow-furred claws and icicles for teeth, It cometh. We’ve had hail, heavy rain, a sun burn, a rainbow, and a light dusting of snow all in one week.  It’s New England—Winter could be any moment now. 

Even in the shop, we do our work with an eye to the future.  A woman brings in a pair of slacks for her son. I secretly put four inch hems on the boy’s suit pants.  I normally only turn up two inches on a hem but this mother is getting them hemmed “for no reason.” There is no upcoming “event”—she just wants to be “ready for anything.” (All Yankees are part Boy Scout.) I say, be ready for this kid to grow! If I know anything about teenage boys, it’s that they go through a phase when they will eat the contents of the fridge on a daily basis and grow an average of six inches a week. I think about how the future versions of this mother and son will thank the little ant-minded seamstress who thought to make room for another half a leg. 

There is a somewhat skewed Bell curve to the time management strategies of our customers.  At one end, there are the pure Ants and sweet, polite Mr. Brisk-Vigour who gets all his winter woolens and long-johns mended and dry-cleaned in August. In the middle, representing the bulk of people, are the ant-grasshopper blends ranging from cheerful workers to dour party-ers. Most of them manage to give us just enough time to accommodate their needs. At the far right of the spectrum is Ms. Breathless Grasshopper: “I know it’s Thursday after 5, but the wedding is this Saturday and well, I just got the dress in the mail and…” One look at her tells Prudence that she has been chosen as a bridesmaid for her Karaoke talents rather than her organizational skills. The waft of tequila in the dressing room is palpable.

These harried ones, the Grasshoppers rushing in with their hair or pants on fire, these are visions of myself I could do without.  They haunt me. I see how Inconvenient I must be to the truly Organized.  The furthest to the left of this Bell Curve—which moves in a continuum from “People on Time,” to “People with extra time,” all the way to “People who make Extraordinary Preparedness an art form”—these are exotic creatures to me.  I long to live among them and study their ways.  They don’t seem to have the same troubles I do.  But then, they don’t have some of the domestic companions I do.  Apart from a beloved son, an assortment of animal criminals and a Russian tortoise, I live daily with someone else who drives me Totally Bonkers…who makes my life more fraught than three incontinent Jack Russells put together.  Let’s call her Past Nancy.  She’s a warped Zen ideal of “burning in the Now,” who thinks never of past nor future.  She’s a menace. She never thinks to refill what she empties. She never empties what she fills. She never puts the caps back on anything. She makes my life a living hell sometimes—spending money we need for more important bills on fabric she already has, somewhere, but cannot find; forgetting to turn the water off when refilling the sheep’s trough so that their paddock turns into a marsh and her well runs dry and burns out the pump motor; leaving apple cakes and scones in the oven until they are cinders… She’s a mess.  She’s the worst roommate I have ever had. “Who left these dishes in the sink? Who forgot to lock the chickens up at night? Who let her car inspection sticker lapse four months?”  Present Nancy often cannot get ANYTHING done because she is like a dazed member of FEMA following in the aftermath of destruction left by hurricane Past Nancy.  

The once and future Nancys are always in some form of conflict over what needs to be done Now. Present Nancy lurches between damage control and forward planning that would make tomorrow less hellish.   Inevitably, Past Nancy has aimed too high or too low, perhaps just too chaotically (if at all), which keeps Present Nancy in a rut—a rut that seems occasionally to be on fire with emergencies.   When the ambient chaos level leads to unwarranted suffering, it’s time to pause and have a little meeting with my selves.  Prudence is always the first to show up.  She has a long list of complaints, observations, and grievances. She is like the woman, years ago at a Maynard town hall meeting, who got up and told everyone she checked the mileage on our town policeman’s cruiser every morning when he went into the Bean House to get coffee.  

“Excuse me,” I say to my selves, “Winter and worse yet, Tomorrow, are on their way, even as I speak. I am tired of coming home to a place that looks like it’s been the scene of an epic Struggle.  The mice, not generally known for being such great planners  yet who are clearly much better planners than we, have taken over the kitchen and are even now annexing the closet, as evidenced by the pile of dog food I found in my boot this morning. I’m sick of realizing I cannot wear half of my clothes because they need: a. a button, b. a patch, c. a hem.  I am a seamstress, for crying out loud! (or as a friend likes to put it, a “Seamster” which sounds infinitely tougher.)  We need to pull together and turn this ship around!

The ranting feels good while it lasts.  Prudence tries to take potshots when she can, but the rest of me feels defeated, sullen, and bored.  Only Prudence is smiling. She is a fine one for issuing demands to “shape up or ship out,” immediately demanding more, being punitive and caustic about what we DO manage to achieve—such as having clothing on that is not back to front or inside out, remembering underwear and such things... She is an obnoxious Ant lecturing Grasshoppers.

I change course. “Look,” I plead, “I know we hate making decisions and that our choosit muscles are generally fairly weak but the fact is that we make around seven hundred decisions a day whether we want to or not.  (Very Important Life-affecting decisions like deciding NOT to smack that certain customer who leans on the back doorbell like it’s a fire alarm until I am almost to the back door before she skitters round to the front door instead. I can’t afford any jail time because they don’t let you have knitting needles in jail—so this is a very Important Choice.)  Could we not aim one or two of these many other choices at a better result for tomorrow? I mean, I don’t expect to find my wallet, car keys and cell phone all in the same day—so let’s aim low, at something achievable, like being able to eat breakfast at home, not at ninety miles an hour on the way to work so that we show up, literally, with egg on our face or a lap full of oatmeal? How about, starting now, we think of a few LITTLE plans that could make life a tiny bit better before sundown tonight? I promise to notice. I promise to celebrate. There WILL be a reward—so long as it is not Swiss Cake Rolls or whisky… The Inner Child perks up but Grasshopper Nancy is pissed.  She was counting on some whisky and a few Swiss Cake Rolls.  She would happily fiddle while pretty much anything burned, including Rome or Ashburnham.

The truth is, dear readers, we all are somewhere on the spectrum between Grasshopper and Ant.  It’s necessary to plan for the future but it’s important to have fun too.  What good is securing a future that will not be any fun? I love it when I get my act together and leave gifts for my future self—like when I get into a clean, neatly made bed at night, a gift from Morning Nancy—with my nightie folded under my pillow like a love note, or when I get to work on Mondays and find I have already changed my needles and threads to the right colors and prepped my work station so that my first project will go smoothly, or when I think to  buy toilet paper before I have to shuffle through the house with my knees bound together by jeans half-way down, scrambling for any kind of substitute that will work, like junk mail or Jo Ann Fabric receipts.

I work really hard at Accepting What Is and trying to change what I can for the better but I also have to admit that sometimes it feels churlish and ungrateful to denigrate my current insufficient (to me) success in order to benefit from my imaginings of  improving the future.  It’s hard not to feel guilty when we in this country are all so blessed and prosperous beyond the wildest dreams of most of the world, where both ants and grasshoppers are starving.  I should stay put and be overjoyed with my lot. Why plan ahead for a “lack” when there is such bounty? And yet, I also can’t help thinking “here I am at point A and I can clearly see that at point B, just over there, everything will be so much More Organized, Peaceful, Prosperous and Serene—with more to share, beds I don’t have to vacuum, houseplants that live, and car keys whose whereabouts are not a total mystery—let’s pack up and move there at once!” All I have to do is stop slacking off and fiddling…A little earnest, persistent drudgery is all it takes. Every day I get up before dawn and announce to myself “Today is the day I am going to Get Organized. Life is not going to happen to me; I am going to happen to It.” And then…Then, I find out that Past Nancy, that blasted grasshopper, has left a load of wash wet in the washer for the last three days and it is starting to smell…

Be well, my dear ones!  Some days are not so much about the Harvest we reap as the seeds we sow. Do something now that your Future selves will thank you for!  Pay it forward to yourself, and when you receive your own gift one day, may you smile and thank your Past Ant self.

May you do Good Work AND be Merry!

Yours aye,

Nancy

P.S. If only Past Nancy had written this Blog sooner, damn her!

Chipmunk Heaven

Greetings Dear Ones!

Here in Ashburnham, the Giant Silent Requiem has begun, with the cricket chorus singing its last, hushed “Te Deums” from the grass.  We are having the kind of crisp yet warm and sharply focused Fall days that New England does best.  I look with glad and wistful eyes on the shameless glory of Death as it flutters in a thousand vibrant hues around me.  It is Magnificent.

It is time to dig a grave, though I know not for whom and I know not for when.  I am a shepherdess. All I know is that, come January, I cannot spend a FOURTH winter with a deceased sheep in my garage, wondering which Spring will thaw first, the ground or the smell? The old-time farmers around me say I must dig a hole now, before the frost, so that I will have a safe place to put a corpse, should the inevitable occur.  My sheep, though they think of themselves as house pets, are too small for the rendering plant and too large to flush down the toilet, so we have to be practical and prepared. It makes sense, though every year I think it Cannot happen again… can it? This year, I will dig the hole.

In the tailoring shop, a little boy needs to have his suit pants hemmed up for a funeral on Saturday.  He is too little to be much concerned about the reason he needs fancy pants—he is more interested in the pin cushion.  I smile at him fondly and think about how Children host the best funerals.  My mind wanders back to the day, a day just like today, when I learned that Heaven comes in every size:

……A soft breeze causes the oak leaves to etch the cobalt bowl of sky like green razor blades.  There is the occasional plop of an acorn hitting the sand in the playground.  I am monitoring the outdoor free play of cheerfully grubby Waldorf students aged 5 to 11.  I have been hired to lead arts, crafts, and story-telling sessions one day a week for a handful of after-school students who must remain until after five p.m. because both of their parents are busy working full-time jobs to afford the dizzying private tuition of this school. 

Suddenly, a group of excited children rush up to me with bright eyes and dirt-streaked faces.  “Miss Willow, Miss Willow!” they cry.  (I have told them I used to be a tree. I firmly believe in telling children outrageous possibilities before their minds harden and set like cement. Unable to disprove a negative, they cheerfully embraced the notion and took great delight in telling me what they used to be.  A charming little lass said she had been a beautiful sunset!)

“Look!!” they clamor, “We have found a past Chipmunk!”  A past chipmunk? I wonder.  What the hell is a past chipmunk?  I don’t understand.  All I can think of is Dicken’s “A Christmas Story” and the ghost of chipmunks past.  Then I notice that one of the children is proudly displaying in his bare hands the lifeless remains of a very stiff chipmunk. 

          “Oh,” I say, “a PASSED chipmunk. A DEAD chipmunk.” I notice that folks in New England say “passed,” as in “passed away,”   more often than they use the word dead.  And they tend to abandon the word “away.”  I have often been confused to hear someone say “My aunt passed last night.”  And I think, passed what? Gas? A Kidney stone? A driving test? What did your aunt pass? Only by observing the concerned and sympathetic responses from the other New Englanders do I surmise that the aunt in question actually passed AWAY.   Perhaps the notion of “away” frightens them at some level so they drop it. Most New Englanders never see any reason one should ever go away and, Heaven forbid, leave New England. (Unless it is to go to Florida, which to them is New England but with palm trees…) But why they don’t say “died” intrigues me.  This notion of passing over some sort of “Rainbow Bridge” or through some imaginary curtain or membrane between worlds seems pervasive in this land that birthed the Transcendentalist movement.  I remember my dear friend Margie saying to me with intense certainty and quiet excitement from her hospice bed in her living room, “Nancy! I know where the Kingdom of Heaven is!  It’s just right there!” she said, eyes shining, pointing to the kitchen.  Ever after, even now, I do believe that the Kingdom of Heaven IS in the kitchen.

So here Life presents us with a dead chipmunk.  Far from being afraid of death or even germs, they crowd round him, taking turns to study him up close and stroke his stripes with thin, gentle fingertips. Death has made him accessible to them in ways that Life never could.  He is perfect. We can perceive no clue as to why he died.  He did not seem a victim of foul play. He left no note disclosing his personal anguish.

“Where did you find him?” I ask.

“Under the trees, over there,” comes the chorus. 

“Probably he fell out of his home in the tree,” says one of the littlest.

“Don’t be silly,” corrects a bigger child, “chipmunks live underground!”

“Speaking of underground,” I say, “This guy needs to get there soon or he is going to smell very bad.  He needs to return to the earth and feed the tree that has been feeding him.”

“Yes!” they agree. “We need a funeral!”  And immediately, the older girls assume command of the situation.  They know exactly what must be done. Everyone springs into action.

 “We need flowers!” they bark over their shoulders as they dig.  The older boys, having had the fun of looking at the chipmunk quickly lose interest in being bossed around and head back to their former game of kickball, all except for a younger boy named Charlie, who has the velvet eyes of a poet and continues to hold and stroke the chipmunk as if he is made of spun glass. I love how gentle he is with Death in his grasp.

“We don’t know who you were,” he says softly to the chipmunk. “We can’t notify your family, or your synagogue, or your friends.  You are just an unknown chipmunk.  But we know you were here and we know you must have loved jumping around in the grass looking for all these acorns.  You must have loved the warm sun and the tickly grass. And acorns, of course.”  He keeps up a sad, steady, soothing (if somewhat repetitive) murmur to the clump of fur in his palm.

Meanwhile, the girls have transitioned with smooth efficiency from whatever momentary flicker of grief they might once have felt for the loss of an anonymous chipmunk to busily digging “the tomb of the unknown chipmunk” under the direction of the self-selected Planners.  They scoop the ground with sticks and dirt-darkened fingernails, clawing back a chipmunk-sized opening in the earth’s crust.  Some pick flowers from the nursery school garden next door and are yelled at immediately by their bosses, “Hey! We’re not allowed to pick those!” Shamed, the girls freeze and drop the crumpled flowers where they stand. Common, honest, law-abiding dandelions will have to do.  Finally, their preparations are done and they summon Charlie to lay his tiny burden to rest on a little golden bed.  The headstone is a scrap of board they found by the equipment shed and inscribed with colored chalk “R.I.P.”  The foot stone is a pine cone.  They fill the hole above him with flowers and layers of warm dry sand, jostling each other for position.  Eventually, dusty and satisfied, they stand up in a ring around the grave.

          “Well,” announces one of the Queen Bees after a moment of quiet, “That’s all done! Thanks for coming, Chipmunk!” There are no tears.

          “Wait,” says Charlie plaintively, “we need to build him a stairway to heaven, like the ancient Egyptians.  How will he reach it without our help?”

          “Don’t be ridiculous Charlie,” snaps one of the girls, “recess is almost over.  We don’t have time for a project like that!” Her collaborators shake their heads and snort their unified mutual contempt of the idea.

          “Come on,” pleads Charlie, “It won’t take us all that long.  Chipmunk Heaven is really only about up to here.” He gestures to the side of his ribs.  The girls ignore him and run off to the swing-set tossing their pony tails like young horses galloping away.

          Charlie remains alone, slump-shouldered, staring at the grave—thoughts, neck, and head fully yet invisibly immersed in Chipmunk Heaven.  For this dreamy poet-child, a puddle is a galaxy, a bathtub is an ocean with an Antarctica of bubbles at one end—the whole of the universe merely a whisper in God’s ear. The dung beetle has a kingdom. The mouse has a commonwealth. A patch of grass is an ant safari. The sky is not some overturned bowl above us—it begins right at the moment his feet touch the earth, just like he has been taught in art class.  His own boy’s world is where this series of intertwined circles, spheres, and cosmoses overlap in magical, transcendental Venn diagrams of existence—with him at the very center. Suddenly his eyes light upon a stick nearby.  He grabs it and props it at an angle from the edge of the grave to reach the nearby fence.  He steps back and smiles.  His plan appears to be that the soul of the chipmunk will make its way up the stick, over to the fence, and thence up a steep climb the rest of the way to his Eternal Glory.

Moments later, the bell rings, and we are summoned inside to the humble human doings of snack, craft, bathroom breaks, and stories.  I follow the rushing bodies slowly, reluctant to part from the golden light shimmering on the oak tree, waist up in Chipmunk Heaven myself…

These Autumn days bring us graves to dig, and threats of cold and dark—yet they shine with the promise of Chipmunk Heaven too—in the lights of dusty smiles, in the warmth of noisy collaboration, and in shared beliefs that we were all Something Else once and something else to become again when we return to Mother Earth.  For now, we Live—in that sunlit space Between—in the games we play, the work we do, and the love we share.  And, unbeknownst to most of us, from the ankles up, we run and breathe and reside in a myriad of concentric Heavens for every living creature from wee tiny beetles to great mastodons.  The ancient poets and the earth-streaked seven-year-olds know it to be true. And so it is.

Be well, my darlings, and do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

 

I shall only learn this once

Greetings my Dearies!

For the most part, my work is fairly predictable and orderly.  I know what to do and I do it.  Currently, I have anywhere from six to eight men’s jackets hanging on my rack, waiting for me to shorten their sleeves.  That’s as many as 28 sleeves (see? I AM good at math...) I will shorten exactly the same way, using a tried-and-true sequence of steps.  Following the formula that has evolved over time ensures that nothing gets forgotten, everything is predictable, including the outcome. Doing what you expect to do and getting an expected result is a great comfort—though it has the potential to lead to complacency, boredom, or the urge to daydream about renovating the chicken coop.  In a life that is otherwise fraught with drama and dilemmas, I never tire of these small bursts of competency.  They are a welcome relief.

However, my brief yet blissful “competency” is interrupted today by the arrival of a pumpkin-colored frock, dragged here from the badlands of Chaos on the outskirts of Hell, by a frantic bridesmaid who needs this thing done in a hurry. “Of course she does,” snipes Prudence.  The wedding is this Saturday and it is imperative she matches precisely all the other pumpkin-frocked bridesmaids when I am through.  The shoulders of the gown need to come up around four and a half inches on each side and the waist let out as much as I can give her. Then it needs four layers of gauzy fluffy stuff hemmed, most of which is on the bias—which is technical seamstress parlance for “this baby is going to sag, drag, and look like total doo-doo if I cut it wrong.”  Sure, it’s a lot to pull off on short notice, but it’s all do-able—nothing I don’t already have secret formulas for… The only thing making the sweat trickle down my spine is that there is this sheer piece of fabric imbedded in the neckline that comes out in a drape-like covering over the whole bodice.  It covers the arms like a shawl, the illusion of sleeves.  It goes all the way around the back and is imbedded in the zipper too.  It might be helpful to imagine it as a giant “collar” that you can see through, that goes to the elbows. There is no seam in this sheer fabric.  It was cut as a circle with a hole in it from one piece of cloth. There is no way to take the shoulders up FOUR INCHES (ugh… shoot me now!) and have this piece look right.  Putting in a seam will ruin the effect.  She will not match the other pumpkin girls.  Taking it apart completely and cutting it will only make the surface area I need to contain even bigger. (Trust me on this…) What I need is for that hole to be smaller. WAY smaller.  I can’t gather it. I can’t seam it. I can’t cut it… And…worst of all… I can’t say I can’t do it.  I’m a professional.  I have to pretend I can do this.

I pause and think of the tools at my disposal.  The first, Most Essential thing I must do, is NOT run screaming for the liquor store in the middle of the day and put a big straw in a bottle of gin and drink until the lights go out. That’s step One.  Step two is to find a way to embrace this challenge.  Thomas Merton wrote, “Souls are like athletes that need opponents worthy of them, if they are to be tried and extended and pushed to the full use of their powers.”  It’s all well and good to sit here complacently chopping the wrists off of jackets belonging to our portly-short male patrons, but what am I Learning? How am I growing? “You are staying out of Trouble,” says Prudence. “And that’s a Good Thing.  This dress is going to wallop you. Watch out!”  Truly, I don’t feel worthy of this opponent, but I pluck up my courage and a blade and begin shredding the threads holding the seams together.

As I snip, and pretend I know what I am doing, I fight with Prudence (even she is beginning to suspect Gin might be our best bet. Or maybe Scotch). I try to see my life, and this work, as a Moral Adventure Story in pumpkin hues.  I don’t care what you do for a living—whether you engage in patient manual labor like I do, or you stroll Wall street in a natty suit (with appropriate-length sleeves, of course) your best work is always Internal. It doesn’t matter if you are at the top of the income scale or the bottom; there are heroes and schmucks, and your version of the pumpkin Bridesmaid dress from Hades everywhere you turn.  How do you respond?  Prudence pipes up primly, “this is a chance to Build Character…to take advantage of everyday occasions to strengthen Virtue and be of Service to the world.” I want to smack her.

Back to the dress… It’s not going well. The challenge is to take up the shoulders by four and a half inches and keep this collar thingy looking like something floaty and sensual and mysterious—the mystery NOT to be “what the hell happened to that woman’s arm?” I try gathering the extra inches and shoving them under the top layer of the bodice like I’m hiding something under a rug.  It looks lumpy. And sneaky.  I can’t get away with that. I try a dart.  It’s too sharp.  Her shoulders will look like they have thorns sticking out of them.  I redo each side at least fifteen times.  Each time I fail, I learn a new thing about what will not work. 

My colleague is working on curtains for a dance studio.  She has acres of cloth to measure, cut, hem, and iron.  She has been at this for six hours straight.  She looks at me and sags a little.  “It’s ok if we hate our jobs once in a while, right?” I giggle.  We are both engaged in a mighty struggle with cloth and with our inner ingenuity.  I say, “The trouble is, some things we only get to do once.”  She laughs.  She knows exactly what I am saying.

We will keep having the same trouble with these jobs until they come out right.  Once they are done, we will never have to do them again. They are one-offs. If I had to do another I would do such an amazing job. (Please GOD, no one else buy a dress like this! With any luck, the designer responsible for this mess will come to a rather sticky end before he or she can ever make another.)  But if so, I would now know at least fourteen things not to try and that alone is a giant time saver. So it is with so many of our troubles.  By the time they have taught us everything we need to know, we never get to do them again. 

Once we crack the code, then it becomes no big thing.  This Thing We Have Never Done Before becomes a thing we can do, if not easily, at least readily and willingly.  It’s like when you take that first baby home from the hospital with a glazed look in your eye and some vague understanding that if you don’t keep this tiny, bald creature alive, the authorities will throw you in jail.  I actually ran back into the hospital, deposited the loaded-with-fresh-baby car seat on the counter and asked them to “hold this and credit my account—I’d be back in two weeks after I have studied more.” That’s when I found out that Real Life differs considerably from school in that School gives you the lessons FIRST, then the test.   (Those darn nurses forced me to take my own child home!) In Life, the process is reversed: We don’t learn so we can get tested; we get tested so we can learn.  Once we learn, then we move on to other tests. (Lucky us…)

We learn, not by trying, but by Doing—sometimes doing again and again for years.  Just when the colicky baby is getting easy to deal with, you wake up one morning and it’s been switched for a toddler whose foods cannot touch each other on the plate. Graduate from toddler? Now you get a school-age child and all the complexities that brings. Just wait until you hand your own flesh and blood the keys to your car—it will make you long for the days of tap-dancing a colicky infant to sleep! Life was such a doddle then…

We only get one first love, one first kiss, one first heartbreak, one first born, one second born, one third, or fourth, or fifth-born… (Take this as far as you want, Catholic friends!) Each one is a first.  Each one is the product of your unskilled labor, as you fail and learn and try again. And so it goes with children, beach vacations, pets, and pumpkin dresses.

It’s a balancing act to embrace both the monotonous success of men’s sports coats as well as the terror of a gown with a gossamer shawl collar that goes to the elbow.  Good old Prudence, that battleaxe, reminds me that “Success leads to the greatest failure—which is Pride. Failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility and learning.”  Me? I love Pride.  It’s addictive when one is trying to do good work with good outcomes and happy customers.  But making friends with failure is getting easier than it used to be.  I’ve reached an age where my brain more readily goes from “You probably shouldn’t do that” to “what the hell, let’s see what happens.” That’s where some of the best learning comes.  And if we do it right, we only have to learn it once!

Be well my dearies, and do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Ah, when to the heart of man

Was it ever less than a treason

To go with the drift of things,

To yield with a grace to reason,

And bow and accept the end

Of a love or a season?

From “Reluctance” by Robert Frost

Greetings Dear Ones,

The leaves are beginning to turn just the slightest bit, here in New England.  We want the rain to end but we don’t want snow.  We are done with the heat but we still want the light.  It is a time of clinging and letting go—sometimes gratefully, sometimes with some other bargain in mind.  We swirl through the annual eddies of attachment, fear, release, surrender… My thoughts turn to hoarding firewood, and wondering who might be the grateful recipients of these freak vegetables I have produced and don’t have time to turn into soup.  In the shop, people are coming in with clothes they have not seen for months and wondering if they can be salvaged for yet another trip around the dark side of the sun.  

A young man, probably in his mid-thirties, hands me a coat and asks with a slight catch in his throat if there is anything that can be done to fix it.  A further sniff makes me pause and look at him closely.  Is he suffering from the cold/virus crud that has been going around? Almost everyone I know is battling some sort of “bug” these days.  No, the moisture in the corner of his eye is not viral—it’s emotional.  He is looking at the tattered husk as if it is an ailing Labrador puppy and he doesn’t want to find out it is terminal.  He doesn’t want me to say it is “too far gone” and needs to be put out of (what will be my) misery.  The cuffs and collar are shot. The elbows are worn thin.  The lining inside is frayed to slivers.  He looks at me with his red-rimmed eyes and I see a five-year-old boy clutching his blankie.  This coat is not just a coat to him.  This canvas pelt, this Velvateen Rabbit of a jacket , is so much a part of HIM, it has attained its own level of mute consciousness.  It’s been through so many things with him as silent witness and companion. “Apparently, it’s been to a hot-dog stand more than once, as well as a campfire or two,” notes Prudence with her eagle eye, “this man gets too familiar with mustard and sparks.” I sigh heavily, and agree to put his precious rag on life support.  

Another woman comes in with a pair of black pants she wants fixed.  “Please,” she insists dramatically, “You HAVE to fix them.  They are the only pants that have ever fit me just right.  I bought them twenty years ago and I am waiting for waistbands to come back up so I can buy something similar. So far, no luck.  You MUST resuscitate them one more time.”  After she leaves, I hold them up to my ears and I can hear them crying. “Please,” they wimper, “just let us die in peace!” They are exhausted. The fabric where the thighs rub together is so frail in places that you could read newsprint titles through it.

Saying goodbye to our clothing is hard.  We become emotionally attached and entangled (sometimes literally) with it.  I get it. It’s a complex love-affair. Sometimes, no matter how willing we are to be done with something, it’s still hard to let go. Recently, I had to write the following letter to a pair of my own jeans:

Dear Glitter-bum Blues,

We need to talk but I cannot even look at you without wanting to change my mind, hence, this letter. This is one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make.  After all, we’ve been together for many years now.  It started out as a bit of whimsical flirting.  You caught my eye on the sale rack of that up-scale department store when I was shopping with my sister.  She looks Adorable in jeans like you so I thought I could make this work even though you are not really my type.  I tried you on for size and thought you were just the tiniest bit tight but you looked like you might stretch. Granted, we should have had a longer courtship—perhaps I should have hung out with you first and gotten to know you better but I just couldn’t help it. I was smitten. To be fair, as with most infatuations, the one I was falling in love with was actually me. Suddenly, I felt glamorous in ways I never expected. This whirlwind romance made me feel impetuous and daring—bold and Free. We were destined for each other, or so I thought.  I should have looked more closely.

The giddy infatuation lasted until I got you home and noticed bits of doughy flesh hanging over the edge of your waistband. “Oh, that’s just a little muffin top—it’s cute,” you said, refusing to take any responsibility for it.  Well, muffin top IS cute until it starts to look like you have a bun in the oven, which was only a matter of time. “One should not wear garments that make one look as if one is running a bakery in her undergarments,” snorts Prudence with disdain. (She was against you from the start.)

Still, when I went through my closet and culled the duds, I never parted with you.  I saw your sparkles, I sighed longingly and remembered how much I wanted us to fit together. Even when I popped the button off the front, I repaired it immediately. And HOW did you repay my devotion? With further denials, further constriction, no space anywhere for my spirit or my thighs to expand into their full potential. It was sad. I was bitter, naturally, but there was never anyone else who could make me feel as tall as you did, when I wore you with those clogs that hurt my knees. (Those traitorous co-conspirators!  They’re next…)

The last few months have been horrible. There are no bright spots to speak of…I guess we’ve each been secretly thinking that the other one was going to change.  I thought we had something, that we could turn this relationship around and start to be seen in public together again.  I’m weary of the struggle it takes to be what you need. It’s not exactly that you are breaking my heart.  To be fair, my heart just isn’t really in it anymore… as, obviously, neither is either buttock…well, not at the same time.  I wasn’t expecting big things—just a little progress would be nice.  Maybe you could try to accommodate me once in a while, instead of me being the one to look like a Cirque de Soleil acrobat on my closet floor.

Relationships are the crucibles in which we form ourselves.  Our relationship, especially given the way you treated me last Monday, is seriously impeding my ability to have a Serene Inner Character, a quiet but solid sense of Right and Wrong, and the ability to think Good Thoughts about myself and others.  I don’t just want to look Good, I want to BE Good.  I simply cannot manage this in a garment that is cutting off all circulation to my lower regions.  I simply don’t feel grounded when I can no longer feel the earth because my feet have gone numb. I want to return to my roots and savor the warmth of a family meal without thinking I shall have to digest the mashed potatoes with my eardrums.

Prudence warned me about you. She said you were not good for a girl like me—that you would lead me astray from my core values.  Let’s face it; Prudence can be a total crab apple at times. She took to heart everything the nuns in school ever said and she seems to have adopted their fashion sense as well.  By this, I don’t mean tasteful-but-repressive dark habits and wimples in fine woolens—I’m talking about the regrettable era after the Second Vatican Council gave young women in devotional orders permission to rummage through the bins at Good Will and wear anything the poor had rejected.  Prudence, that Queen of Frump, even she is right about you.  You appeal much more to my inner harlot who loves shoes that dislocate her knee sockets.

And Yes, I must also confess, there IS another.  I’ve given my heart (and bum) to a humble pair of barn jeans, what they call in New England “dungarees” perhaps for their associations with “dung.” Sure, they don’t have your flare, your sparkle, your decorative stitching or your style but I feel at home with them and they have made friends with all the holiday cookies I have been carrying around since last December and haven’t been able to shake. (Well, to be perfectly frank, they shake quite a lot…what I really mean is that they are like undergraduates you invite home for Thanksgiving who guzzle all your sherry and don’t know when to depart.)  These barn jeans…they stink a little up close, like some of the very best folk I know, but they accept me just as I am.  I don’t have to pretend to be someone I am not in order to be with them.  I am free to stretch and grow—in ways that feel good and natural to me.  I can eat lunch and laugh, all at the same time. They go well with my boots.  (Boots are like the best of friends—they never let you down; they never care if you gain or lose a little weight; they just keep helping you plod through crap with your feet dry.)

And so, my darling, we must now go our separate ways.  A part of me will always love you and want to be with you.  But our blighted romance was never meant to last long.  Please understand.  I hope you are able to move on and make some other skinny floozy very happy. Love, Me.”

I have a moody little sport jacket and some uppity church dresses that need a stern talking to as well but one goodbye is all I can take for today.  I shall give them some time to see the error of their ways before I top up my bag of clothing donations and evict them from the Enchanted Closet forever.    

So it goes with Fall in New England. It’s time to change our wardrobes and our minds—accepting both what Must be changed and what Cannot, with love for each and wisdom to know the difference. It’s all part of the cycle of Life. Some old things need to be cherished, others let go of in order to make room for new bargains, new britches, and new beginnings. It doesn’t make the Passings and Prunings we must endure any less painful, but it’s ok to let Hope fill the gaps they leave behind.  Take Heart! A new season is on its way! Dress up!

Be well, my Dearies, and do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

 

 

Olden Girls

Greetings My Dear Ones!

“Time is a dressmaker specializing in alterations.” –Faith Baldwin

I fell in love again this week.   A woman in her nineties came in, clapping her hands briskly and yelling “ok, ladies, who wants to get to work? I gotta lotta work for you! I’m ninety-six years old and I ain’t buyin’ no new clothes and I’m sinking faster than Venice…These pants is coming up!”  She rattled around the shop trying to whip us up, like she was hosting a pep rally.  Her voice sounded like a cross between a little bird and a cattle auctioneer.  I was smitten. I hadn’t seen anything so cute since eighty-year-old Herman Dinglehopper glued a tea-towel in his pants.

“This is my favorite suit,” she said, stripping down to her large, heavily padded, cotton underwear right in front of me, rather than going into the dressing room, “you gotta help me wear this suit.  I need it for a party coming up.  I had this suit fifty years.  It’s my best suit. I love this suit.”  She tried on seven suits.  She said that same thing about every single one.  “This one likes to party,” whispered Prudence, “in suits.”  The lady went through her bag of clothes—dresses, blouses, jackets, and skirts, shrieking with delight and greeting each one like it was a long-lost friend or relative.  “I can’t buy new clothes,” she said, clutching a blouse to her chest possessively, “what would I do with these poor things?” as if they would be orphans without her.  “Besides,” she continued with a sudden air of blithe indifference, “I’m ninety-six years old!  What the hell!  I don’t need to buy new clothes; I just need to borrow them.”

Like I said, I instantly loved her.  I have always loved what I formerly, when I was younger and the gap was bigger, called “old people.”  Now, these formerly “old” people seem younger to me with each passing year.  I cannot believe how much trouble I have keeping up with my friends in their seventies, or this ninety-six-year-old bird flitting about the shop in her underwear.  I wish I had half her energy!

When I was young, I adored my elders.  They had the most time for me and the best stories.  I loved spending time with my father’s mother, who taught me to knit, crochet, and sew.  She made all her own clothes and was just, well, Fabulous. I also knew my mother’s grandmother, Nana Emma, until I was nineteen. Her kitchen had a big, black, cast iron stove squatting in the middle of it, lord of all it surveyed, that belched out soft, chewy cookies with unfailing regularity. There was usually a box of kittens under it for warmth. Upstairs, was a claw-foot tub.  Her furniture was not antique when she bought it but it is now. It was an old-fashioned house and she was a truly Old-Fashioned Lady who always wore a girdle and was a good judge of horseflesh. She liked to hang around at the local track, betting on winners well into her early nineties.

I had only one regret, growing up: That was that I was not born “in the olden days.” I used to sit on the large, upholstered foot cushion that supported my grandfather’s crippled leg and listen to his stories of growing up during the time of the 1918 influenza pandemic.  His family ran the local grocery store and it was his job to take the horse, with all the boxes of groceries, deliver them to the houses, and pick up new lists of what folks wanted delivered next time.  The first time he did the route alone without his father, that horse knew the route better than he did.  She knew which houses to skip and which houses needed a stop.  If my young little grandfather walked on to the next house, from one doorway to another, the horse knew to move along to the next house and wait.  To protect her son from catching the flu that was claiming so many lives and decimating families, my great grandmother put some camphor on a cloth and tied it over his nose and mouth.  He never got sick.

I adored my grandfather and his stories.  His withered leg stuck out between us, a silent reminder that life in those times before penicillin was hard. He had shattered his leg at the age of 16, when a toboggan he was in veered off course and hit an iron fence. It was a compound fracture that took years to heal after infection set in. He lost so much bone from that accident that his leg was shorter than the other and his knee was fused straight, unable to bend. Despite this, he found a way to angle the leg out to the side so that he could kneel at church.  This always impressed me a great deal. In his walking gait, he always swung that leg as if he was constantly taking a step up.

I especially loved the story about the day his father went to town and bought one of the new motor cars that Ford was selling.  You did not need a driver’s test.  You just went in to the shop, paid some money and bought the thing and drove it home.  The whole family, all eight kids went out with their mother, to stand alongside the house and watch, beaming with pride as their daddy brought the very first car back to their neighborhood.  No one else had one.  But their smiles and eyes turned into horrified circles as they watched their patriarch stand up behind the steering wheel, pull on it for all his might, while yelling “whoa!!! Whoa!!” and then crash it into the side of their barn.  It seems I have inherited his facility with machines.  I am much better with horses than cars, cell phones—or even sewing machines.

If only I had been born in the time of horse-delivered groceries, I lamented over and over as I trudged with my siblings in our little plaid skirts the half mile up hill (Yes, of course, BOTH ways) to the tiny bus shelter at the end of our lane, where we would wait, with invisible ice monsters gnawing our bare knees with their teeth, until a big yellow school bus would take us on a lurching, one-hour ride to a school that was approximately seven miles from the house.  We went to a Parochial school that was serviced by the town buses but it had to collect all the heathen, agnostic, Protestant, and Jewish children and drop them off at the public school first. It was part of our penance to ricochet off the insides of that bus for an hour each way, to and from school.  I didn’t mind so much.  It gave me more time, knees braced against the seat ahead of me, to study the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder until bus fumes made me nauseous.

Once at school, we would form an orderly queue at the back of the classroom, where the lone pencil sharpener was anchored over a large, metal trash can, and sharpen two #2 pencils each for the day’s work ahead.  I can still smell the acrid scent of a freshly sharpened pencil. One was to use, the other was in case the tip of the first one broke, or to loan to a friend who needed one.  It was NOT to be the center of a paper pinwheel constructed by lining up all the holes in a piece of loose leaf paper and spinning it, no matter how irresistibly the holes matched the diameter of the pencil.  Sister would hand out smeared, purple, mimeographed worksheets to do, or make us practice the Palmer Method, while we passed notes to each other and poked each other with the pencils.  It was all so horrible and “Modern.” Why couldn’t we have slates, like Anne of Green Gables? Instead, we were on the leading edge of technology such as the world had never known. Our little nuclear drills proved it:  Once in a while, we would be required to crawl under our desks and tuck our heads between our knees, in calm preparation for the day we would kiss all those little plaid-clad asses goodbye.  We were only mere miles away from Three-Mile-Island during the crisis and this seemed like the most sensible protocol to implement.

I deeply resented being Modern.  I hated seeing the “Keep America Beautiful” ads on our enormous T.V. with its tiny screen that only got two channels without snow in them, seeing Iron Eyes Cody, the crying Native looking at how we had ruined his environment with our trash.  I wanted to go back in time, before such a thing as litter existed. When our home-Ec. Class got replaced with a thing called “computer class” in High School, I could not see the good of it.  To me, it was just math class in disguise—with rows and rows of mystifying code just so a stick figure could walk across the bottom of the screen and get stuck at the other side! I grew up hearing about “the good old days” before there was such a thing as a phone in the center hallway of every house.  Just my luck.  We moved to a house that had TWO phones! We got our first microwave in the eighties and with it, mullets and parachute pants.  Sure, there was a little backlash in the brief resurgence of calico and ruffles and outfits with bows that made women resemble enormous, out-of-scale toddlers but Modernity continued to be a mess.  I wanted to be OLDEN.

Now, today, I am officially fifty-one.  I am no longer just fifty; I am “IN my fifties,” which, in the Olden Days, was OLD.  But do I get to be “old fashioned?” Not yet. Just frazzled and clueless.  Technology and modernity still hound me as I peck at this keyboard and try to post this blog.  Ever so grudgingly, I manage to use a cell-phone—with constant tech support from those people I created in my old-fashioned womb just for this purpose. (It certainly doesn’t seem to be for keeping the lawn mown…)  I raise sheep, spin their wool, and drive a vehicle that still uses a key to start it, does that count? On the bright side, I am a seamstress—which I am told by nearly everyone who comes to the shop is VERY old fashioned indeed. “No One does this anymore,” they insist. Perhaps there is hope.

 Be well, my Dearies!  And do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

The Bobbin Goddess

Greeting Dear Ones,

“It’s all fun and games until the bobbin runs out…”

Each time I go to the henhouse, there are fewer eggs these days.  Even though it is warm and sunny—oppressively warm at times—the girls are shutting down their egg production for the season.   Chickens lay according to the light cycle. The Autumn Equinox is on its way and my little feathered friends are ending the tyranny of daily ovulation and just eating their Cheerios in peace (God Bless them!  Can you imagine anything worse?  Ovulating every day, that is, not so much the Cheerios…)  The harvest time has already begun. It’s time for drying the herbs from the garden, collecting the fruits and seeds, and burying treasures of bulbs.  I am like a jay hiding acorns or a mouse taking stock of the larder.  It is a time of hiding and tucking things away for later, hoping we can find them again. We are all preparing for the cold and darkness to come.  It is a busy time of finishing projects—the big Hurry in the hope of a long Rest. Though all of Nature will soon take its rest, in the shop, there is no such thing, as people shuffle in with sweaters to be mended and their fall wardrobes to be revamped.  The bridesmaids’ dresses are turning colors, like leaves, from shades of summer sherbet to pumpkin and cranberry.

On September 23rd, night hours will equal daylight—aequus (equal) + nox (night) and we begin the shift into dark times ahead.  Ancient stories swirl about Persephone’s return to the underworld. Naturally, my thoughts turn to witches, goblins, and bobbins.  What is a bobbin, you ask?  Webster’s dictionary defines it as: “a cylinder or spindle on which yarn or thread is wound (as in a sewing machine) b : any of various small round devices on which threads are wound for working handmade lace” but I know it as that little thing I scream at on a daily basis when it jams or runs out of thread. How does it work in a sewing machine? Well, I am told that as the upper needle shoves the thread through the cloth, a hook rotates, capturing the thread from above and looping it around another thread, this one reeling from the bobbin below. The two threads interlock around the layers of fabric, binding them to one another and a seam is formed.  But you and I know this is a lie.  Really, it’s Magic.  Little sylphs and pixies are in there, sorting things out—pretty much the same way there are tiny fiddlers having pints of Guinness in your CD player—until (play the scary theme music here) the Bobbin Goblins show up and ruin everything.  When the Bobbin Goddess is smiling, your seams turn out smooth and even.  You don’t turn the cloth over and discover that you have accidentally been manufacturing something with more loops than Turkish bath toweling. She is the angel of the underworld of sewing machines.

The bobbin factor is Huge: if things aren’t right below the surface, they won’t be right above. It’s a hell of a metaphor, eh? In modern times, we are not predisposed to see the world sacramentally—as outward signs of inward grace.  We talk more about how “our subconscious intentions are thwarting our ability to manifest prosperity…”  It’s all Bobbin Talk.  Unconscious manifestation, like a snaggled bobbin, often leaves us feeling frustrated. We think we want one thing, but may keep creating something entirely different. Until we understand what thoughts, beliefs and emotions are really running the show of our realized manifestations, we may keep creating what we don’t want. Take a look at the fabric of your life and the way things are coming together for you—how is your inner Bobbin Goddess doing?  What you have around you is what your secret intentions are calling forth. Is there Chaos or Order? Check your closet—does it look like a ship wreck? Mine does. Apparently, I also have an inner yearning for an inexhaustible supply of dog hair, house dust, and crispers full of limp vegetables ready for the compost heap.  So many of us with tangled bobbins are often frustrated that the “world is standing in the way” of us getting what we want or feel we deserve. This often results in a victim mentality. (Please note: I’m NOT a Victim.  There REALLY is a Committee established to thwart the forward momentum of Nancy Bell, whose honored members include every pet, vehicle, or machine I own, every red-light between here and where I need to be on time, and anyone I have given birth to.)  Maybe it’s time to pause, unwind, rewind, reflect.  It’s ok to seek help.

 The shop is a marvelous, often hilarious, intersection of all the forces of Upper and Lower, Darkness and Light, Yin and Yang, Outer clothing and Foundation Garments. We often think of Balance as that midpoint between two extremes. But if we replace our sense of “the edge” with “the Infinite,” then those extremes become meaningless. The “line” becomes a Circle.  We reconnect to Unity and it is then impossible to be Unbalanced. The pendulum swings and patterns complete themselves in time.

 A woman came into the shop several weeks ago with a sewing machine she has owned since the 1970’s.  “I really don’t sew very much,” she explained, “and I have just run out of bobbin thread and don’t know how to wind up more.”  As someone who, by necessity, finds herself winding bobbins on a daily basis, this woman was something of a wonder to me.  I very much admired her humility and courage in seeking help, as much as I marveled that she had made it all the way from Gerald Ford’s administration until now on the original bobbin! Listening from the corner was my beleaguered friend, busy sewing a football field’s worth of curtains for a ballet studio. She just sighed.  Her bobbin runs out every twenty minutes.

 The proper workings of the “surface world” very much depend on the smooth functioning of the hidden, under world.  Just ask anyone wearing Spanx.  There is an elderly man with a thick German accent in the shop.  His wife has MS.  He is trying to help her get dressed and he is having trouble sorting out her foundation garments and getting the tiny bra loops in the dress snapped so that her bra straps won’t show.  What is foundational must stay hidden.  I wonder idly how old he is and when he came here (to America, that is, not the shop—he’s only been in the dressing room about 20 minutes) and if he survived the aftermath of the Third Reich only to be stymied by complexity of his wife’s bra… Finally, muttering in German, he gets her sorted out and wheels her out of the shop. What meets our eyes as we pass each other on the street is only the shell—the barest skimming of the Real Story.

We’re all on this ride around the sun together.  As the darkness in the months ahead makes us seek the light and warmth of our hearths, may we have good work for our hands to do, and good friends to with whom to share our bounty.  May we seek out and cherish our inner Bobbin Goddesses, the mysterious, hidden, inward Feminine part that has such power to make us stop and curse or weep with sweet relief when things go well.  May it all go well! Never before was so much possible.

 Be well, my Dearies, and do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

People who ask us to ruin their clothes

Greetings my Dear Ones,

“Great calm, generous detachment, selfless love, disinterested effort: These are what make for success in life.  If you can find peace in yourself and can spread comfort around you, you will be happier than an empress.” –Rabindranath Tagore

It’s been quite a week, here at my little sewing table.  I am Not happier than an Empress at the moment... It seems like every second person through the door is asking me to ruin his or her clothes.  A mystery customer has come through the cleaners and wants all the flounces cut off her brand new dresses.  These are dresses whose main features are these gorgeous, flowing flounces. Once they are all cut off, these dresses look shorn, naked, embarrassed, like short haircuts that you hope will grow back quickly…What in Heaven’s name possessed this woman to buy four dresses, whose main selling point was a flounce, and then have all the flounces chopped off?  I don’t get it.

Next in is a young mother who wants to wear a dress she just bought to a church event this weekend. It has a flounce.  Guess what she wants chopped off? Yes. Clearly, people have not yet gotten the memo that flounces are “in” and are having them amputated with breathtaking speed, as if we can stamp out this trend quickly and go back to making everything too tight without skipping a beat and letting the fabric pendulum swing the other way. Without the flounce, this mother of four is planning to wear a dress now the size of a swimsuit. To a church function.  Prudence has her knickers in a twist over this one! Why do people ask us to ruin their clothes?  Shouldn’t seamstresses have some sort of Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm”? My co-workers shrug benignly and say “Give the people what they want!” Why is that so hard?

Don’t get me wrong—I am not in favor of flounces either—they don’t enhance femininity so much as they make one look vaguely matronly and old fashioned—rather like one has repurposed a Victorian table cloth into a garment.  My problem is with people who want to change something fundamental to the whole integrity of the item.  Why buy it in the first place? Certain things are not worth fighting in a piece of clothing.  Some things just need to be passed up on with a polite “no thank you,” not taken home and hacked to death with a kitchen knife—or brought in to me so I can do your dirty work! Fashion designers are serving a buffet—most of which they seem to have cooked up on a dare, or under the influence of Methamphetamines, but that’s beside the point—we get to pick and choose what suits us best from the selection.  We don’t have to take things we don’t like.  (Ladies, FYI, I’m pretty sure the “mermaid gown” was just a practical joke to play on brides: you cannot walk properly or sit down in them. You need to strip completely to toilet yourself.  And, you look NOTHING like a mermaid. Admit it!) Let’s just leave the skinny jeans, jeggings, and flounces where we found them and move on to the good stuff, like anything made of tartan or tweed.  

The next woman in the door is wearing a beautiful coat I secretly covet.  It is in shimmering shades of my favorite autumn colors.  She had asked me last week to hem the sleeves, which were way too long for her.  After she left, I looked more closely at the coat and realized that the sleeves had no lining near the cuffs and the fabric, a rich boiled wool, was bonded in such a way that we were actually meant to turn the cuffs up against the outside of the sleeve, as part of the design.  The edges fell open in a sweet little angle that was very flattering and went with the rest of the coat. I turned them to her length and then tacked them in place (with stitches, not actual tacks—for those who don’t sew).  She shuffles up to me holding both paws out and whining like a 5-year-old who has been persuaded to try “just one bite” of broccoli, “I don’t like it…I just don’t like it…” She wants me to turn all that loveliness UNDERNEATH, where it will make her wrists bulge oddly.  As she is saying this, an actual five-year-old, who is waiting for his mother in the dressing room, spits out a brightly colored plastic head from a pin and says to me, “I crunched this up in my mouth but it’s not candy.”  Real five-year-olds are apparently WAY more adventurous than this lady.  “I just want it PLAIN,” she says, with emphasis.  What I hear is “I need this to be ugly.”  I sigh, take her name and number and agree, with what cheer I can muster, to ruin her coat by Thursday at the latest.

As I sit back down to work, thinking that that coat is like a nice kitten going to a bad home, I think about the work of my hands leading me to the work of my soul.  I need to stop judging people’s choices.  This is not for me to decide.  They are entitled to the expression of their own free will and the consequences of their bad choices.  It’s not like I don’t also make terrible choices.  I would probably be just as crazy as some of these customers who come in here asking for nutty solutions to their fashion dilemmas.  The only difference is that I can sew.  I don’t have to reveal my insanity to anyone.  Moi? Have an item in my closet made from three kinds of plaid that still has no arms, three years later? No one ever has to know how many of my own clothes I destroy or how many of my little “creations” have made their way to the Salvation Army dumping grounds in the hopes that some visually impaired person might be searching for the perfect thing to wear to a train wreck… So, you see, I have NO leg to stand on.  Prudence Thimbleton and her smug judgments needs to have a moment in Prayer: God, grant me the Serenity to accept the customers who want me to ruin their clothes; the courage to remove flounces, reveal ankles, and to add another forty yards of tulle to a wedding gown that already resembles a Portuguese Man-O-war; and the wisdom to know that I am just as bad as the rest of them.

No matter who we are or what we do with our hands and hearts all day, we need to let ourselves off the hook for other people’s choices. (Well, most people, most choices…) We cannot make anyone, or their clothing, better than they choose to be.  If they want to stroll the streets wearing jeans like tourniquets and flounce-less costumes of their own wretched designs, who am I to judge? If it were up to me and Prudence, we would all be in pinafores and petticoats; aprons and mob caps would be all the rage.  But the Good News is that I DON’T get to decide.  (You can all breathe a huge sigh of relief!) I remain just a humble “mistress of the cloth,” making commentary on the rips in the fabric of society, which I see from hanging by my own thread.  The rips are not from what we wear, but from how we see ourselves.  When I focus on myself… oh, crap…I look down and notice that I just stitched ten yards with no thread what-so-ever in my machine.  I am so lucky to have this work that engenders so many wonderful opportunities to practice detached mindfulness!

Be well, my dearies, and do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

Happily Ever After is Cancelled

Greetings my Dear Ones!

It’s nearly five o’clock and a tiny bride is sobbing in the dressing room.  She arrived just moments ago, on the way to her rehearsal dinner, with her wedding gown, which she has just picked up this afternoon from a bridal shop which supposedly had alterations done.  Only, the gown does not fit.  She tried it on but there was no one there that could do further alterations for her.  They had farmed it out to another seamstress in another town who is now unavailable.  The frantic bride searched the tri-county area and we were the only thing that Siri could burp up.  We invite her in and agree to help in whatever way we can.  Her red-rimmed misty eyes make it clear that she has been weeping.

When the dressing room door opens, I can see a plain, strapless sheath of white hanging off of her.  Her delicate spinal bones protrude through the skin on her back like a whippet’s. She sniffs. “I guess all the stress I’ve been under has made me drop a few pounds…” she mutters.  I cannot help thinking that I have had pets larger than this woman.  The other ladies rush to pin her up and stuff foam rubber bust pads in the concave chest area of the gown, while speaking soothing and maternal words to her about how it will all be ok.  We all agree to stay late to help her. 

Just then, her phone rings.  It’s her bridal party.  They are lost.  They cannot find where they are supposed to meet for the rehearsal dinner because it is part of a Historic Site whose roads do not show up on the GPS.  The groom has the maps, but his phone does not seem to be working.  He cannot be reached. Her future Mother-in-law is trying to take charge of the situation but things are not going well.  The bride explains that she is going to be late.  “There has been a glitch with the dress, and I’m still waiting to hear…”she hiccups into the phone.  She blinks. She can say no more.  A flurry of phone calls ensues during which people check in with her and report their status.  We keep pinning and begin sewing as fast as we can.  The bride changes into her regular clothes and goes out to her car to wait. 

We finish doing what we can just around the time she comes back in. It’s clear that she has been crying harder than ever.  Her eyes are now swollen. “Take it easy,” we say, “everything is going to be fine.  Look, the dress is going to look great on you now—well, at least it will stay up and you won’t have to hold onto it for fear of walking right out of it anymore!”  She attempts a wan smile and puts the dress on again.  The phone keeps ringing and she keeps checking the numbers and ignoring the frantic pleas from her bridesmaids.  Finally, it rings again and she answers it. She goes even paler.  Meanwhile, Prudence and I are having a private chat about how Some Girls make too much of their weddings, how things like Dresses need to be kept in perspective (It’s just a dress, who really cares? It’s not like anyone is dying, right?), how Things Should Not Be Left To The Last Minute (I keep quiet on this one, since I leave pretty much everything to the last minute but Prudence rants on because such behavior drives her batty), and how grooms with dodgy cell-phones should never trusted with the maps.   The bride says a few words, choking back tears, and says “I’ll be right over.  Thank you so much…” She looks in the mirror, at the dress that now fits her, and slumps to the floor and sobs.  We stare at each other in confusion.  What is wrong?  The dress fits. Now what?

A boy with large, worried eyes comes in the back door and proceeds hesitantly to the sound of the crying.  “Aunty,” he says, “I think you need to come.  His breathing is changing.  I don’t think he is comfortable.” She looks up at him. “I just got the call. It is cancer after all. We have to have him put down tonight.  There is no way he can survive until we return from the honeymoon. We’re going back to the vet’s next. I guess I’m going to skip the rehearsal dinner and just show up at the wedding tomorrow instead…” It turns out that the girl had been crying over her dog, who was out dying in the back of her car this whole time!  We help her out of the dress and hug her while she sobs.  She turns to me and says, “Seriously, is THIS how Happily Ever After begins?  My dress has been a disaster, my guests are lost, my mother-in-law is a she-beast hounding my poor bridesmaids, we don’t know where the groom is and I have to skip all the evening festivities to go have my dog put to sleep! Please tell me my life will get better tomorrow! I wish I could just cancel everything but it’s all paid for…”  I have no idea what to say.  My entire mouth has turned to clay. All the usual cheery platitudes about Faith, Hope, and Love just seem tacky and plastic, even if I could spit them out. 

The truth is, none of us know what Tomorrow brings.  We can choose fancy spoons and forks and goblets, color-coordinated napkins and goofy things for our best friends to wear but what good is it if Fate throws a dead dog right in the middle of it?  The weather can change, cell-phones can fail, and I don’t have the heart to look this girl in her mascara streaked eyes and tell her the God’s Honest truth: “Happily Ever After” has been cancelled until further notice.  It never existed to begin with.  It’s been false advertising, Fake News, all along. Thinking that getting dressed up in expensive clothes that don’t fit you, so you can have some champagne with a big slice of dry, white cake while your friends, who are all dressed identically (and somewhat ridiculously), sing karaoke and get shit-faced is the ticket to Happily Ever After is a giant mistake.  She might as well know it as soon as she can. 

As much as fifty percent of the marriages in this country end in divorce and I think the concept of “Happily Ever After" has a lot to do with it. Ask the people who have been married 25, 30, 50 years… Happily Ever after never came.  The magic comes from adapting, not arriving; from growing, not accumulating; from learning, not leaving.  The only option is Happily Ever Now-ing. Now.  Now, that is something we can really sink our teeth into, unlike the “jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today.” As the journey continues, they look back on a life of Happily Ever Now-ing that became the best years of their lives—dead pets, sick kids, crabby Mothers-in-law and all.

I am really looking forward to attending a friend’s wedding in Vermont this weekend.  I know she has put so much love and loving energy into choosing a great reception site and yummy food and brilliant music that will help us all celebrate with great Joy her union with her beloved.  She has done everything to anticipate our comfort and delight as we all eagerly and equally anticipate the merry-making around the love we all share for these two people.  This is a great couple, a great match.  They will make each other blossom and shine in ways that living separate lives from each other never could.   We gather to say we believe in them; we support them; we come to bear witness and to bless this union and all that it brings.  

But this Day…this “wedding” day is just a day, just One Day in their lives.  For a little while, it will be the “Now” that is happening—as it shifts from one horizon to another, slipping from Expectation to Realization, from Future to Past.  One version of Now will involve the dramas and cares of planning and preparing, one will involve Joyful dancing, one will involve the cleaning up, savoring the memories, and wondering just what did Uncle Larry do in the men’s room?

Being a Vermont wedding with super cool people, of course there is going to be a Barn Dance! There are no destinations at a dance—and this seems to be a better metaphor for marriage than any “happy after-ing” that never comes.  Rather than setting goals based on targets, why not set goals based on learning? Happily Ever Learning, Happily ever Growing, Happily ever Nurturing?  Being the guardians of each other’s spirits, each other’s creativity, and solitude. When we release ourselves from the idea that another person or situation will “make us happy,” we become open to the possibility that Happiness is not outside of ourselves.  Happiness is not something we receive, but something we share, from within.

We don’t choose a destiny.  We choose being open to Experience with another soul partner.  This person is going to dance the dance of Life with us.  Being a good dancer does not mean that you are there to carry your partner.  Having a strong partner does not mean he will carry you. Good partners know how to connect and also how to get out of each other’s way.  They support each other’s ability to shine. They tune into each other through their individual and separate, primary connection to the Beat, to the Music flowing through all of our individual movements.  How can we dance with another who does not hear the same Music?

There are divorced 57-year-olds still looking for “the one.”  As if a partner is a destination who will make all the difference, not one of multiple pathways to creative self-exploration.  There are young people who think having to communicate clearly is a “failure” to be understood magically and intuitively by a beloved. (How can she love me if I have to tell her what I want?) They want “Happily Ever After,” not this dance of Give and Receive, this endless exploration of “How can we dance better together?”  They want Ideal Partners. But we are not here to be the best partners.  That is not the goal. We are here to be the most connected to the Music.  We are here to help each other be the physical manifestation of our best Connection—to each other and to Spirit.  Sometimes it will be graceful, sometimes not. Whether we limp, hop, or waddle, we are here to become The Dance.  THAT is Happily ever Now-ing.

I salute the resilience of those who remain committed to their partners and the courage of those just beginning their journey. May you hold each other carefully—sometimes tightly, sometimes loosely, and Keep Dancing, always, in the Happily Ever Now, whatever that may bring.  

Dance well, my Dearies, and do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy