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

Back to School

Greetings Dear Ones!

It’s that happy time of year when clothing everywhere is on sale and the children are being rounded up, put on buses, and taken off to government-sponsored institutions where they can’t annoy their parents for six hours a day.  A recent influx of school uniforms to hem has set off a wave of nostalgia in me. Prudence Thimbleton smooths a plaid skirt, sniffs, and notes with satisfaction that the Catholics of today are looking just as lumpy and awkward as they did a hundred years ago when she was in school.  And girls are still fighting with their mothers about how high the hem should be.  In the spirit of “Back to School,” having gotten stuck behind a big yellow bus trundling its shipment of little inmates to the local primary school during my morning commute, I decided it would be fun to stop everything and issue a pop quiz to you, dear readers, to see how well you have been paying attention.  Nothing strikes terror into the heart of one who has not studied like hearing that there is a pop quiz, eh? We are all life-long learners.  We should expect pop-quizzes:

1.       My goal in getting you to do this quiz is:

a.       To satisfy the whims of my inner “teacher” who traded her chalkboard for tailor’s chalk and really misses getting to be bossy

b.      To make you think seriously about the glamorously decadent life of a seamstress

c.       To distract you from rummaging through your closets, examining your Fall wardrobe for stuff to bring here for us to fix (Please, no!  We are swamped….)

d.      To help you squander just a little more time before you break down and start doing the thing you really SHOULD be doing right now, instead of taking mindless quizzes.

2.       This is a service industry.  As such, the Customer is always:

a.       Right

b.      Late

c.       Confused about whether or not she can enter by the back door and if it is open but there is no sign

d.      All of the above

3.       When people see the large sign out in front of our shop, indicating that there is parking in the rear, they typically:

a.       Park in the rear lot

b.      Park at the neighbor’s house (on private property)

c.       Park on the sidewalk

d.      Park right in the road, ignoring the honks and extended middle digits of passing local drivers

e.      All of the above, but mostly b, c, or d.

4.       When one delicately points out that a customer has chosen an unsanctioned and inconvenient (for others) parking spot he or she will:

a.       Immediately spring to park somewhere else, with gracious apologies and gratitude for the information

b.      Tell me “I’m only going to be a minute,” in a tone whose subtext is actually, “I don’t give a rip, the heck with other people…”

c.       Mumble that it is too far to walk from the back of the parking lot all the way to the door (these are usually people dressed in athletic gear)

d.      Just keep talking as if she/he has not heard

5.       The people most likely to park in the back of the building and make the “long walk” to the front entrance are:

a.       The elderly

b.      The infirm

c.       The disabled

d.      Anyone except the robust looking woman in a velour jumpsuit on her way to the gym.

6.       We inform every customer at least 14 times when he or she drops off clothing to be fixed that we “don’t take plastic” (i.e. we don’t take credit or debit cards for payment). To a man, woman, and child, they smile and nod and say things like “oh, right! Good to know!”  Upon pick-up, when it is time to pay for services rendered, they invariably:

a.       Whip out a credit card and act stunned/miffed/insulted that we cannot accept it

b.      Ask if we take Venmo or Paypal instead

c.       Inform us that no one uses money anymore

d.      All of the above

7.       We don’t take credit cards because:

a.       The surcharge on cards is too great—there is not a large profit margin on hemming a pair of pants and people would squeal if we raised the prices.

b.      We are hoarding suitcases of cash in unmarked bills so that we can all disappear to Argentina after next Prom season.

c.       It is God’s honest truth that we who are clever enough to put a new two-way waterproof zipper in your decrepit anorak are simply too stupid to figure out how to make that “square” thing work on a phone with a slow-speed internet service.  We’ve tried. Over and over. We are good at what we do.  Technology isn’t what we do.  (Remember, we are those loveable, anachronistic creatures who still remember how to sew.)

d.      All of the above

8.       We are all working with quiet industry on our various projects when out of the blue, one of the seamstresses will mention a customer we have not clapped eyes on for months.  That customer then:

a.       Is never seen again

b.      Appears within 90 minutes or less with a heap of pants he needs to have hemmed by the next day. He proceeds to prance about in the dressing room for the next 45 minutes, trying to decide if one of his legs is maybe a wee bit shorter than the other…or maybe it is longer?

9.       Having accidentally realized our incredible powers to “MAN-ifest,” we decide to “Woman-ifest” and summon a customer we REALLY want to see: namely, the Cookie Lady, who once brought us a plate of freshly baked cookies to thank us.  She only did this once but we have called her “The Cookie Lady” in hushed and reverent tones ever since.  We focus our intentions on her and her glorious oven and she:

a.       Is never seen again

b.      Comes in six months later with some sweaters she wants mended for her dog (and no cookies…)

10.   We handle several wedding parties every month, all year round.  Normal Bridal sadism includes but is not limited to:

a.       Insisting all her bridesmaids buy a $300 dress they will NEVER wear again that needs $90 worth of alterations and is a color that makes healthy twenty-somethings look like they are in liver failure.

b.      Insisting they all wear dumb shoes that match and hurt their feet

c.       Crash dieting and snapping at everyone because she is “Hangry”

d.      Dropping a dress size at every fitting and then complaining about the cost of alterations

11.   Normal Bridal Sadism should NOT include (but sometimes does)

a.       Forcing a pregnant or nursing bridesmaid to wear the same  dress as everyone else, regardless of what must be done to make it fit her—like buying a second dress and sewing two together (Don’t laugh—we do it!)

b.      Asking her not to bring her nursing infant to the wedding as “children aren’t included”

c.       Insisting the bridesmaids all learn a dance routine they will have to perform at the reception—hemlines have to be up so no one trips.

d.      Insisting that the bride’s mother come dressed as a punk rocker, despite said Mother’s weeping and protestations in the fitting room.

12.   A man comes in to have three pairs of pants hemmed.  He goes into the fitting room to change. When he opens the door, I discover:

a.       A man wearing pants that are too long for him

b.      A sheepish grin on his face

c.       A pile of mystery “powder” all over the floor

d.      All of the above

13.   The mystery “powder” is

a.       Gold Bond (Extra strong Mint) powder with which he has enthusiastically powdered his nether regions

b.      Foot powder that has fallen out of his shoes like snow

c.       God knows what else

d.      All of the above

14.   The pants he is trying on are black.  After we are done pinning the first pair, he agrees to try the grey pair.  When the door opens again,  I now discover:

a.       He has hung the Black pair neatly on a hanger

b.      He has thrown the black pair on the floor and stepped all over them, covering them with white powdery foot prints

c.       He wants to know how much it will be to dry-clean pants he has never worn yet

d.      All his clothing is now covered in powder

e.      B,C,and D, but not A

15.   It’s raining cats and dogs.  A customer leaves the shop and dashes out to her car.  She is back in moments, asking if she can use our phone because:

a.       She cannot get to her phone

b.      She is locked out of her car

c.       She needs to call her husband (who is asleep IN THE CAR)

d.      All of the Above

16.   Which of the following statements is NOT true?

a.       Tailors are called “Cutters” because the Latin root taliare means “to cut”

b.      Being a tailor is fabulously lucrative—a highly admired trade with enviable social standing

c.       Tailors have a bunion named after them

17.    From the corner of a tailoring shop, one can see:

a.       A drug deal going down outside

b.      That your pants desperately need to be taken in

c.       Little slivers of the whole wide world

d.      All of the above

18.   The more one gets into the details of a tiny task and focuses on perfection:

a.       The more one achieves Zen mastery

b.      The less the customer will notice

c.       The more likely one is to thirst for adult beverages

19.   The most important Lesson I have learned from working as a Seamstress so far is:

a.       That pretty much every problem can be solved

b.      If you keep cutting, it will still be too short

c.       I’m not very good but at least I’m slow!

d.      I REALLY need to remove all the pins I have poked into my heavily padded bra, the Victoria Secret Bombshell that, in haste, makes a perfect double-barreled pin cushion, before I go to the grocery store!

20.   From sewing, or from ANY job you do that involves people, problems, and solutions, it is possible to learn:

a.       That people are nuts and you’re one of them

b.      That you would prefer to be a Hermit

c.       Compassion and Commitment to Excellence (whether it is appreciated or not)

d.      All you ever need to know about love and life and Being Awake in this lifetime

e.      All of the above

 

Well, it’s time to tally your score.  Give yourselves a hundred points for every correct answer and then scale your grades in the following manner, according to this rather warped “Bell” (ha ha)(couldn’t resist) curve:

If you are a Baby Boomer:  Well, you’ve worked hard, as you have your whole life probably.  We have you to thank for so many things but we still haven’t forgiven you for being the generation that thought it was a good idea to put linoleum over hardwood floors… Stick to wearing pleats and give yourself a B-

Gen X: You didn’t do quite as well as you could have, or should have.  You never do. You tried, of course you did, but your cynical vigilance just didn’t pay off this time.  Born too late to have Real Character and too soon to have digital skills, you are just beepers in a cell-phone world.  You could take the test again but it wouldn’t do you any good. I have bad news for you: waistline heights are going back up and you get a C+

Millennials: Congratulations! You Showed up.  Give yourself full marks just for breathing.  You did great. You Are Great.  Your trophy is in the mail. Nothing more is expected of you today—relax and get back on Snap Chat.  Don’t even THINK about tapering your pants again. You’re Done! A+

Gen Z: Ok, Homeschooler—you’re too smart already. Hand the phone back to Mummy or Daddy—don’t forget to reprogram it first so he or she can use it again without having to summon a Millenial. Please spend some of your day learning to sew!!!

Be well, my Darlings, and do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

Some Random Thoughts on Chaos

Greetings Dear Ones!

You know when you look out the window and see not one but TWO of your customers attempting (simultaneously) to park on the sidewalk in front of the shop, despite a Large, Clearly-Printed Sign indicating that there is a parking lot in the rear of the building, that either a.) you now reside in Italy, or b.) a big load of Chaos is about to walk in the door. These are not people who follow The Rules. 

You might think anyone such as myself, who owns not one but THREE Jack Russells, is no stranger to Chaos.  And it is true.  Chaos and I have more than a passing acquaintance with one another.  I do all the chaos-inducing activities like work with animals and children and people who think they still have the same inseam they had when they were sixteen.   But the chaos in the shop is a whole new breed! 

I like Order.  Order is safe, predictable.  In the realm of Order, people behave, machines behave, and we are stable, calm, and competent.  Order is having a place for everything and everything in its proper place. We can find things like seam rippers, safety pins, and knitting needles without having to sit on them and be surprised. We don’t have to spend half an hour crawling on our hands and knees to find the female side of a snap that has vanished into thin air.  Order is good lighting, clean surfaces, and cheery civility with strangers who participate willingly in mutually-agreed social protocols.  It is wearing one’s undergarments as God intended them to be worn.

Order is also about having time. It is NOT someone arriving unannounced at five minutes to five with a full bridal party for a gown fitting, or insisting that you need your new jeans to cleave to your bum like a second skin by Friday. “There’s more to life than fitting in your jeans,” croons pop singer Ed Sheeran but some of these folks aren’t buying it.  Fitting in their jeans is Very Important to them.  They want it to happen NOW.  So is having their Harley Davidson patches sewn on their leather jackets while they wait.  People are constantly and randomly dashing in to stop us from The Thing We Are Doing and diverting our course to Something Else.  We try to stick to a plan but we know what happens when mice and men plan… Mainly that neither has a suit ready for the weekend! Chaos is the journey to the underworld, where bobbin goblins live. It’s the tragedy that strikes suddenly that means a bride no longer needs her wedding gown after all.  It’s the man who forgets he has a screwdriver in his pocket and sits down. It’s the black gunk shooting out of the iron all over the hundred-year-old christening gown you just restored.

The phone is ringing off the hook today.  A lady calls.  She cannot find her shoes.  She leaves an extended message on the answering machine about all the places her shoes might be, one of which might be our shop.  The next beep is her saying that she checked her own closet and they were there. (Unexpected Order. Which is another name for Chaos, really.) The cleaners call us. They have lost a purple dress.  We do have a purple dress that we cannot determine an owner for but alas, it is not the purple dress they seek.  It seems that there are two rogue purple dresses at large in the universe, perhaps many more.  We have been trying for the past two weeks to determine the owner of our mystery dress.  Few things are more mortifying than phoning a series of previous customers who have already picked up their orders, asking them if they are missing a purple dress.  It smacks of something slipshod, a lack of Order.

The interruptions don’t stop. A girl comes in the door.  My friend, who has spent a portion of her morning receiving hacked emails from a person who died three years ago, looks at the appointment book and asks “Are you a Bride named Bethany?” “No,” she says, “I’m a Maid called Melanie,” and we all burst out laughing as if we are part of a “Who’s on First” skit. We no sooner get her shuffled off to the fitting room with her gown, when a woman comes in and wants her blouse altered.  “I really like this blouse,” she says wistfully, “but not enough to stop eating.”

I survey the devolving organization of our time and work space and decide to learn what I can about Chaos theory.   To my utter dismay, it has something to do with Math.  Ever since Sr. Davidica’s reign of terror in eighth grade, I have thought I cannot “do math.”  The truth is, I “do” math every damn day.  We all do.  Math is one of the representations of Order throughout our world.  It provides the foundation for Geometry, Physics, and how to make correct change for customers who pay cash.  Apparently, it also says that things can change unpredictably, without warning.  It turns out that Chaos theory “is a branch of mathematics focusing on the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions.”  I think this means that we need to start, not only at the exact same starting point, but in the identical conditions for an action to be predictable and even then, it isn’t.  In real life, this seems nearly impossible. Take leaving for work:

The Same thing happens every day, in that I leave my humble homestead in a 2006 Subaru (I know, I wish it could be a horse and carriage too… or an ox-cart!) and head to my place of employment.  I am that theoretical pendulum heading out to work and back.  However, the infinite variety of initial conditions changes the potential outcome and determines whether or not I drive with one hand on the wheel, one hand on the accelerator, with both feet flying out behind me or have the leisure time to put my lipstick on at red lights, like sane people. The initial variables include anything from not finding my car keys, the level of caffeine in my bloodstream, or discovering a dead sheep just before it is time to leave.

Having made it to work, somehow, by the stroke of nine, we show up each day, not just to hem men’s trousers and discuss ladies’ undergarments. (Not with the men who are there to have trousers hemmed! “Heaven forbid,” says Prudence!) We are there save Humanity, one pair of pants at a time, and to be a force for Good in this world.  We are here to Love and Serve. To listen, comprehend, then transform your personal Chaos manifesting as a broken zipper. Working with us and against us are the forces of Order and Chaos themselves.

Order is using a machine, exactly as you have always used it, expecting the same result.  Chaos is finding out that you have just stitched approximately ten miles with no bobbin thread. And removed all the pins as you went.  For those of you unfamiliar with what a bobbin is, it is a tiny spool of thread that operates underneath the needle, unseen, in synchrony with the upper, visible needle. What it does for real, besides snaggle and rip itself out is anybody’s guess.  I leave the rest to your imagination.  All you really need to understand (all anyone does, really) is that not having one is a Bad Thing.  Bobbins are part of the underworld of sewing.  They work in darkness and they sometimes do good things—like magically making nice stitches underneath the fabric.  But mostly, they are just the Devil’s dice.  Having one last around an entire hem is like a benediction from the sewing angels.  It’s like finding a lucky penny.  It’s a Sign from Heaven that you are Loved and that All is Well.

All day long, we tread the borderland between Order and Chaos.  We have all the thread in color-coded racks on the wall—hundreds of spools.  Instantly find the right shade and this is Order.  Forget to put it back, Chaos.   Our attempts to straddle this fundamental duality is what Balance is all about.

I wake each morning striving for Balance; I let the dogs out to empty themselves in the garden (Order) so they don’t do it on the rug (Chaos).  I feed the sheep and chickens in their pens—fences are the Order containing Chaos.  I attempt to connect equally with the Yin and the Yang nature of existence.  However, when I have one foot on a clean carpet and one foot in Dog poop, I do not feel balanced. Life suddenly reveals itself as intense, gripping, yet ultimately meaningless.   I want to scream.  I feel like smearing their little hairy bodies in gravy and leaving them outside for the Natural Order to reassert itself in the form of a hungry bobcat or coyote.  Who are we to allow these canine fugitives from the Natural Law to soil our carpets? But I digress…

We are always in the known territory, surrounded by the unknown.  And the Chaos, like junk mail on your kitchen counter, encroaches with every breath.  I remember helping my father mending fences on the family farm.  He once paused from wrestling with a particularly thick bittersweet vine, sweat dripping from his brow, and surveyed his land.  His shoulders sagged a little as he said, “In ten years, left alone, no one would ever even know this farm was here.  The vines would eat it all away.  There would be nothing left.”  It’s hard to believe that Chaos won’t eventually win.  I feel the same way about dirty laundry.  And so it is in the shop.  Entropy is at work every day.  We think we are there to patch holes and tailor designer fashions. No.  We are there to labor against Chaos and Entropy and jab at it with our little pins, one pair of jeans at a time, until it is finally five o’clock and it is time to go home and find that the lawn has eaten the house, the dogs have eaten the garbage, and more junk mail has arrived in our absence.  

But…. SOMETIMES….When time passes, and all the right tools are at hand, and the phone is not ringing, and we find ourselves at one with the needle and thread thimble-driven through the silk, when we get so engrossed in what we are doing that we no longer notice we are doing it—it is there and then that we are located precisely between the Order and the Chaos.  We are in the zone.  We are the embodiment of Zen, of Tao, of Beingless Being.  And then, from these tiniest of views, we may absorb the biggest pictures.

Order and Chaos are the two most basic, binary subdivisions of Being.  No matter what you do, if you love and serve your fellow men and women, you are battling the forces of Chaos, for the Chaos is within them, as well as you.  The tide is against Order.  You have your own bobbin goblins aplenty.  And yet, despite relentless and overwhelming Chaos, we all continue to strive in hope for Order, for Serenity.  It is what the multi-billion dollar industry in self-help books and clean closets is all about.  There is something Holy and sanctifying in this struggle.  All of us, attempting to build, help, or heal; nourish or nurture; patch or tuck—when  we call forth Order from the Chaos that surrounds us, when we use our words to create actions, and actions to create results, we are not only as deeply human as we can get, we are also participating in the Divine.  We revisit Genesis.  We are co-Creators.

Be well, my dearies! And do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

Who Buys Your Clothes?

Greetings Dear Ones!

“I’m having second thoughts about this outfit,” says a middle-aged, frumpy woman who has squeezed herself into a skin-tight neon pink and orange neoprene dress adorned with gigantic zippers that look like barracuda teeth.  “It’s for my son’s wedding in two weeks’ time and I just don’t know…”  Her shoulders slump as she turns to consider herself in the mirror.  “I just don’t know why I bought this… What do you think?  Does this even look Ok?”

“Is your son getting married in a tank?” I want to know.  Prudence Thimbleton shuffles up to the nearest eyeball to look out, aghast.  From the neck down, this woman looks like she should be feeding dolphins at Sea World.   On her feet, we expect to see flippers, instead of bargain pumps from Payless Shoes.  From the neck up, she looks like any other dowdy citizen of Frazzletown, with mouse grey hair parted in the middle and hanging lankly to her damp neck.  Her lips purse, her forehead wrinkles delicately.   She is confused but I know exactly what happened:  She fell asleep at the wheel and let her inner Party Goblin go shopping without her.   Some voice in her head told her she needed to make a Big Splash at her son’s wedding—or at least masquerade as if one was imminent.  Hence the dress tighter than scuba gear and made of the same material.  We have been seeing a lot of neoprene dresses lately.  They are oddly popular, out here in the wretched provinces, so many miles from the coast.  Perhaps people are taking the rise in sea levels a bit too seriously… perhaps fashion designers just decided to make the whole outfit into a version of Spanx.  In any case, I have yet to see a woman look like she is actually enjoying the physical sensation of wearing a wetsuit in high heels.  Many women, in dressing for their offspring’s wedding, panic and try their hand at wearing some sort of “power” outfit that is outside their normal scope.  (Ladies, is this really the time for that?) Perhaps this woman feels that the other females attending the wedding—her ex-husband’s new wife, the mother of the Bride, and crabby Aunt Sue are gnarly mermaids she must subdue?  Maybe, subconsciously she wants this vaguely dominatrix outfit to convey a message that she raised a son, so nothing scares her, not even cake…

“Is there anything you can do to this dress to make it look more feminine?” she wants to know.  “All these nickel zippers… in the light of day, it looks…well, a little aggressive…”  Yes.  Yes, it does.  It looks like a shark has gnawed on her, lost most of its teeth, then burped her forcibly back onto shore, hitting a sherbet truck.  Her inner dolphin trainer, who chose this outfit, is probably off water-skiing, or sleeping off an overindulgence of pineapple-infused rum and left her inner Little Old Lady to pick up the pieces.  The bewildered person standing in the dressing room is not familiar with briny buckets of smelt; she is a baker of bread, a church-goer, a respectable citizen who wears sensible shoes and never gets library book fines.  She does not understand why she bought this dress.  None of us do.

Many’s the time Prudence Thimbleton  has wanted to ask a customer, “Pardon me, Madam, I’m just curious…exactly what part of that little ensemble you have put together made you look in the mirror, sigh with satisfaction, and say YES… This is how I choose to represent myself today?”  Or, in this case, “is this how you wish to be commemorated for all time in the wedding album?  Did you not get the memo that the Mother of the Groom is supposed to shut up and wear beige?”

But I get it.  Truly, I do.  I feel for this woman who let her inner Party Goblin and inner Dolphin Trainer get together over a few too many pina coladas and make this choice she now regrets.  We all have rogue inner ingénues who show up and toss crap into the cart at TJ Maxx, or late-night click on items from Nordstrom’s that we would never dream of purchasing in the light of day when our more sensible monitors are in charge. Nothing makes me thirstier for adult beverages than taking all my clothes, one by one, throwing them on the floor and realizing that I have Nothing to Wear.    Well, nothing that the “me” who has shown up that day really likes.   Nor is that “me” entranced by the idea of running naked for the rest of the day.  (These are the days I not only hate all my clothes, but the body that goes into them too.)   You may not know this about me, but I have a team of personal shoppers whose job it is to squander my money filling my closet with crap I do not like that does not fit.

Ralph Lauren is quoted as saying “Fashion is about something that comes from within you.”  Well, what if what you have “within” is a cast of sadistic demons and giddy trollops?    Perhaps you have a few of these characters too? There’s the inner anorexic  all hopped up on Dexatrim who convinced you that you would actually be a size six by June (she lied) and told you that you would need that full-price silk skirt you will never wear but can’t get rid of.  (That is not a garment as much as it is a monument to hope and disillusionment.) She also begs you not to discard those slacks that have not fit you since the eighth grade.  She is a skinny little hoarder.  Getting even with her is the chubby girl who retaliates by buying an assortment of maxi-dresses that might as well be burlap sacks.   Then, there is your inner Grandmother knitting you wooly confections out of homespun yarn—capes and shawls and woolen slip-covers as if you live on the Nebraska Prairie in 1850. (Wait, maybe that’s just me?)  The inner hippie just adores all those one-size-fits-most (most what? Animals? Vegetables? Minerals?) Indonesian batik dresses—the scraps of which are turned into table cloths for Pottery Barn.  And who bought all these suits? Were you ever in business? Are you secretly a corporate lawyer in your spare time?  I don’t think so.  Tiny little Exercise outfits?  Why so many of these with tags still on?  Why the mounds of tattered, paint- stained, sit-on-the-couch-binge-watching-Netflix-and-eating-Swiss-Cake-Rolls clothes in every size?  Church clothes, 18th Century Clothes, 1940’s dresses, Vintage Velvet Hippie dresses--WHAT are we supposed to wear to work Today?  You’ve got everything from “Geriatric Cave-dweller” to “Pole Dancer”--Why do none of your fashion “statements” say “Competent, Highly-trained, and Capable Professional”?  You are letting the wrong goblins shop for you.   

When we say “I have nothing to wear,” what we really mean is that “there is nothing here for who I am supposed to be today.” I might have to masquerade as a Responsible Guardian at a parent-teacher conference; or as a person who does NOT deserve that speeding ticket, or someone who turned down a movie deal on the way to her son’s soccer practice.  (You can take that last one as anything on the spectrum from “getting the starring role as an actress in a movie to deciding not to buy one of the discounted DVD’s in the bargain bucket at Wal-Mart.)  I might just need to be a Matriarchal Tree Sprite, or an innocent Five-year-old who likes any color as long as it’s purple, or some unfortunate throw-back to the Eighties, with shoulder pads that would be the envy of any linebacker.  I have no idea who I am going to show up as…

When I was growing up, my options were more limited.  I had three choices:  school uniform, church dress, or barn clothes for doing chores on the family farm.  I could only be three people—student, sinner, or serf.   My mother bought all our clothes.  She was a savvy bargain hunter who bought things “big” so they would last longer before they were handed down. I went off to college and had no idea how to wear anything that wasn’t plaid.  It’s been a problem ever since.  The people in my head are not always the people who want to wear what is in my closet.   The people I have to show up as, as a Responsible Adult, are not always the people who run amok in a thrift store with my credit card.  Consequently, I have plenty of options for the inner Tree Sprite to wear while she fiddles on a tree stump but few of these attires could be worn in public.  (She is a close cousin of the inner Trollop who likes shoes that are bad for the knees.)  Crabbit Prudence Thimbleton watches all this with a wary eye—the inner Church Lady on alert for dubious hemlines and sensual impulses.  

I learn a lot from the customers who come in with their own struggles, whether they are frumpy, frazzled mothers of grooms or trendy young men exercising their God-given right to look dapper.  I am delighted to see the number of youthful souls coming into the shop to revise their “look” and fit and to create a wardrobe that reflects their individual sensibilities, however odd they may seem to those over the age of forty.  The cleverest among them are up-cycling clothing from second-hand shops and bringing it to us to refine, revive, or revise according to their needs.  It’s refreshing to see that our clothing chooses us just as much as we choose it. People simply glow when an outfit is “Them.”

From my standpoint as witness in the fitting room, I realize that these aspects of our Being are not just roles we are playing.  Our clothes are not simply costumes that help portray us as hero, clown, martyr, or lost child.  They are part of the complexity of us as humans—part of why we frustrate ourselves so much and potentially a source of delight too.   We LOVE it when we get to wear the thing that sings “ME.”   Self-awareness is the antidote to self-obsession.  Who are we? What do we really need? How do we want others to see us? Do we really want to wear something that gives us more opportunities for penance than a medieval hair shirt? We have to work today with today’s best answers to today’s questions.  The answers might change for us tomorrow.  That does not matter. 

When we are triggered to abandon some part of ourselves—to condemn the Inner Trollop, Pixie, Sinner, or Saint—it is a form of self-mutilation.   When we have no idea who is buying our clothes—we have lost touch with all the vibrant, creative, eccentric, insecure, reckless and bizarre parts of ourselves who are calling us to see them, to welcome them home.  We all have these fabulous  fashion archetypes lurking in our minds and closets—from tweedy professors to harlots.  And we are Bigger Yet, far bigger than the sum of all of them. We cannot abandon these selves to wordless fears and judgments—“did I do something wrong by being authentically who I am? Does this dress make me unlovable ? Will I be fired if I wear comfortable shoes to a board meeting?” These questions are not based in Love.  If we begin to live just one day at a time, with our most heart-centered wisdom in This moment, we can trust that the best learning will come to us from whatever decisions we make.  When we know and LOVE  All of who we are, we will know exactly what to wear.  And whoever shops for us will be Ok.

Rock on, Inner Dolphin Trainers!

Be well, my darlings, and do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

It's the little things...

Greetings Dear Ones!

I am beginning to think I was not meant to be a saint by doing little things.  “BIG things, done with Great Flourishes…things that can be done quickly and impressively, with the stroke of a magic wand, or a sword…things that involve galloping horses or fire...these seem like they would suit me better,” I think sourly, as I round hour thirty-nine of what will become a forty-five hour job to remove all the lace from the bottom of the scalloped hem of a wedding gown, only so I can slash six inches off the bottom and start sewing all that lace back on.  I look intently at the seam ripper I am using and wonder if it is strong enough to open a radial artery.  I simply cannot go on… The sun spins by the window and the colors of the days shift like a kaleidoscope.  And yet this chore drags...  I have no memory of breakfast, no plans for lunch, no memory of my former life.  I have no children, no pets, no houseplants gasping for water on my windowsills…All I have ever done and all I shall ever do forevermore is remove the lace from this damn gown.

The lace has been stitched on with a clear strand of a filament, like finest fishing line, in dizzying circles, over and over and over itself, anchoring five yards of this frilly ornament to a piece of fragile tulle as if it must one day withstand the force of the Apocalypse. The shop feels like it is 105 degrees Fahrenheit and I am trying not to get my sweat or blood (from jabbed fingers) on material that shreds if I pull on it too hard.  Each stitch must be picked out carefully with tweezers—and the only way I can see it properly is to have magnifying glasses and a hot white light held inches above it. A subtle variation in sheen is my only clue that a thread is there.

The other ladies are working briskly—machines are whirring, steam from the iron punctuates their progress with pronounced hisses.  Hangers click on the racks as they finish mending one item after another.  The shop hums with productivity and progress. Except in my corner.  Hidden behind this frothy mountain, I think about the stories I read as a child—about how bags of millet were mixed with bags of sand and friendly ants helped the kindly heroine (who had saved them all just that morning) sort it all before the witch came back.  I could use some helpful ants now!  These stitches are just the right size for ants.  I pick away steadily, bitterly, knowing that there is no way out but Through.  The only witch here is me.

 Growing up, I remember hiding out in the bathroom during afternoon chores at the barn with a book my sister had received as a prize for winning her class spelling bee.  It was called The Lives of the Saints and it was filled with thrilling tales of martyrdom and valor, courage and bravery—all the goriest details of their triumphs over worldly temptations and devils in the form of misguided town magistrates. There was not a single mention of achieving glory via lace removal. The closest saint was St. Therese of Lisieux, “The Little Flower,” who, like Mother Theresa, understood the importance of doing “little things with great love.”

Ah… Love!  That’s what I am missing!  I have no love for this lace, this gown, nor the modern Fairytale tradition of dressing women up in fabric mountains worth thousands of dollars so that they can pretend to be a Princess for a day. 

When my children were little, I read to them every night before bed.  One night, I read my son a classic fairy tale about three sons who went out to seek their fortunes in the big bad world.  The first two sons quite predictably squander their fortunes and imperil their lives by attempting to win the hand of a Princess, whose evil father puts them under an enchantment when they fail.  It falls to the youngest brother to survive the tasks set before him and to free his enchanted brothers.  He is a good and wise son and is probably doing this just to make his mother happy, since it does not seem that these older brothers were all that nice to him and he is the only one to leave the cottage with his mother’s blessing. Though he is younger and smaller and weaker, he is clearly her favorite.  Now that I think of it, this is probably the sort of story told in days of yore to mollify bullied younger brothers… but I digress.  We read pages and pages about the youngest brother’s courage and wit and cleverness and in the end he triumphs, mostly due to his strong Moral Character.  I read with rising and falling drama in my voice as we near the conclusion.  When I get to the end, where I say “and so the wicked King could do no more.  He gave the Princess’s hand in marriage to the youngest brother and they all lived happily ever after.”   My son five-year-old son is scowling.  He had been all in during the deeds of valor, cheering for the youngest brother all the way as he rode horses of various colors up glass mountains and whatnot, but now his eyes are hot and dark and he looks scornful. Something about the ending has greatly displeased him. I am curious.  Is it that women should Not be given as prizes? (No, they should NOT)  Is it that no one could hope to live happily ever after with a father-in-law like that? Is it that the older brothers don’t say thank you?  I ask him what bothers him about the story. He pauses, shakes his head, and says “that poor boy…that poor, poor boy.”

I pry a little more. After all, the boy marries the princess and becomes a prince. He wins! What’s the problem? Finally, my son looks at me with his clear, blue eyes, and begins to explain: “He won a princess.  Princesses are a lot of work.  They need princess shoes, a princess dress, a fancy bed with lots of mattresses and no peas—not just a regular bed.  They need all the princess versions of everything.  This is going to cost him a lot of money.  He’s going to be poor again in no time.  I wish the prize was just a bag of money he could share with his mother so they would not be poor.  Now they have to take care of a whole Princess and princesses cost a lot of money.” He shakes his head sadly and sighs. Needless to say, I nearly wet my pants at the notion that my frugal five-year-old is an authority on the fiduciary constraints of royalty.  

So I read the same story to my seven-year-old daughter and she has no problem with it.  She loves to talk about princesses and to dress like one as often as she can from the overflowing trunk of dress-up outfits I have made for her and her neighborhood ladies-in-waiting.  She smiles. Princesses are supposed to be expensive and beautiful and glamorous.  Who wants to be a pre-pumpkin Cinderella? No One. For her, the Moral Character is not as important as the glass slippers and the glittering gown, the bigger and more sparkly the better! 

Remembering how these separate genders responded to fairytales as children makes me smile as I sit picking lace.   What are weddings anyway but an excuse to spend a whole lot of money so that a girl can be a Princess for a day?  A castle, or something vaguely resembling a castle, must be rented; court musicians must be hired; linens for two-hundred and fifty guests must coordinate within two Sherwin-Williams paint shades of the bridal bouquet; and a Royal Banquet with an open bar must be served.  All because two people love each other and need to share a Health-Care Policy. Does the groom want all this?  I suspect he would rather have a pony. Or a small sack of gold.  Probably the sack of gold. But no, everyone pretends for a day that they now have a kingdom.  The rival Kings and Queens and their significant others are summoned by royal proclamations printed on hand-stamped parchment and encouraged to part with many sacks of gold.  Guests are encouraged to purchase items for the palace from a Registry—so as not to let their own lack of taste interfere with the required furnishings of the royal household. The female inner seven-year-old is saying Finally, I get to stuff my little piggies into some itty-bitty shoes and wear the BIGGEST damn glittering gown I can find, while every inner five-year-old man within reach of his wallet is groaning and saying “I wish I had just ridden away on that golden horse while I had the chance! Why did I do all those feats of valor?”   

For whatever reason, we as a species need to convince ourselves that Magic really happens, that champagne is as good as derma-bond at sealing two souls together for life, and that if a girl gets to have a good party dress for a day, she won’t really notice that she will have to spend the next sixteen years of her life as the grubby version of Cinderella, driving her bickering brats to soccer practice in a minivan that smells vaguely of dried ketchup and dead hermit crabs.

I sigh and look down at the gown all over my table and lap and legs.  This particular Princess has no idea how long this is taking.  She has no idea how much work this is.  Her mother has been in twice already to complain about how much the rest of the wedding is costing, delivering the not-so-subtle subtext that we are the serfs who should not expect to get paid much for this, this little “hem”—the napkin rental alone has already cost her plenty. I think seriously about the energy I am putting into this gown and realize that it is full of grumbles, not good wishes.  I need to restore my own faith in magic, in the Fairy Tale of “Happily Ever After,” not “Grudgingly Ever After, Until Debt Do Us Part.”  

I know that our energy inhabits our work, long after it is finished—that everything we do receives our blessing or our curse, whether we want it to or not.   We can taste the love in food others cook especially for us.  We can feel the love in hand-knit socks hugging our feet. We can see the love in a neatly made bed with the pillows fluffed just so, or a love note packed in with our lunch.  We know that little things done with Great Love bring the most happiness to our aching lives.  It is good for our own souls to do this, no matter how tedious the task, no matter it may be received by others, or not noticed at all. We are, every one of us, magical creatures.

I DO want this dress to be a blessing—since I am not allowed to set fire to it—so I settle my mind around an old rallying cry of “if you can’t get out of it, get into it.”  I learned this many times, growing up, having been discovered in the bathroom with The Lives of the Saints while the barn chores weren’t getting done.  I surrender and give myself The Speech: The work does not do itself, Nancy.  It must be done and it must be done by YOU.  NOW.  So just do it.  With all the love you can muster.  If you can’t love the work, try to love the person you for whom you are doing it.  If you can’t do that; at least love yourself enough to do your best.  Take pride in your work, no matter how trivial or cosmically and existentially Absurd it may be.  One stitch or pitchfork at a time. Sometimes, Good People have to do Stupid Tasks and do them Well because it’s not about the work—it’s about the test of our spirits. At least that much of any fairytale is True!

Be well my Dearies! And do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

All Buttoned Up

Greetings my Dearies!

One of the biggest sources of shame I witness on a daily basis, besides the basic, garden variety forms of body shame, is around buttons. Why don’t people learn to sew on a button? I have yet to see a person come in to the shop to have a button re-sewn and plunk it down on the counter with an air of blithe confidence and cheery, self-respecting expectation.  No, they cringe, they apologize, they confess, they twist in torment that they did not think to swipe a hotel sewing kit when they had the chance in Rio…  (Whatever happened to having sewing kits at home?)  Why don’t people know how to do this?  They act like they should.  (“I agree, they Should,” rants crabby inner Prudence Thimbleton.  “What kind of Wasteful Slackers drive across town and pay the likes of you a whole Dollar to sew a button on? It’s disgraceful! No proper education is complete without knowledge of how to change a tire, how to make a simple meal, and how to sew on a button!)

I have told you not to expect any practical sewing information from this blog—as there are others out there who can do that so much better than I.  However, in this case, for the sake of alleviating Shame from my fellow men and women, I will offer a brief tutorial:  Firstly, a button needs to be what we call “shanked” if the button if it is to be used to actually close something.  It needs to accommodate the buttonhole. If you sew it flat up against your pants, there will be no room for anything to go under it and the strain on the thread will just make it pop off again. All you do to shank a button is hold it away from the fabric as you sew it on—hold at a distance that equals the thickness of the fabric to go under it.  For example, on a shirt, you might only hold it away the thickness of two pennies, for jeans, it might be as much as a quarter inch.  It’s a little bit of a balancing act to hold the button away as you sew it but if you can drive a motor vehicle and operate a microwave (not at the same time, of course!), you’ve done harder things. Stop whining. If you really want training wheels for this part, you can simply place a toothpick or match-stick over or under the button then stitch down over it into an adjacent hole, but who has time for that? A button usually has two or four holes; stitch until each pair of holes has been bound five or six times. A little trick—use three pieces of thread at one time in your needle. Then only stitch twice. Or use six threads and only stitch once.  (The math part of this is so fun.) However, a needle eye that can accommodate that number of threads at once is probably too big for your fabric.  You should use smaller needles and lighter threads on lighter fabrics. Six threads per hole should be plenty to hold a button securely. To make the shank, hold the needle and thread between the fabric and the button, remove the toothpick, if you used one, lift up the button, and wrap the thread tightly around the exposed threads between the button and the fabric several times until the button is standing up on a perky little “stalk” or shank. Tie off the thread under the button. I don’t actually tie a knot—I just use my needle to make the thread disappear off into the fabric and cut it.  There! Spread the word.  I don’t regret the loss of income one damn bit!

I spend an inordinate amount of my time sewing buttons on things.  Most of them, going four at a time on the outer sleeves of men’s sport coats, serve no purpose whatsoever, which vexes me.  Life is short.  What am I doing squandering my dwindling youth and strength and eyesight on vestigial buttons? In biological terms, their function has dwindled and been rendered meaningless by the evolution of the coat over time.  They remain as useless decoration only.

The Germanic hordes that brought the Roman Empire to its knees, eventually became so civilized that by the 13th century, they were the first to use buttons to keep their clothes on. Those clever Germans!  The idea gradually swept Europe and everyone has been buttoned up ever since.  Sleeve buttons became a thing in the 18th century, when sleeves were tighter than they are now—supposedly buttons helped one pass his hand through the sleeve.  Suit jackets followed masculine swagger of military uniform designs.

 I’m not sure this story is true—I defer to my friends who are actual fashion historians to corroborate or deny this tale.  If it is not true, at least it is a fun story—which is about all you can hope for in this wicked world. Supposedly a General—I’ve heard it was Frederick the Great, ruler of Prussia from 1740-1786; I’ve also heard it was Napoleon, liked nothing better than to ride out and survey his troops arranged in rows and neatly turned out in spotless uniforms. Marring the scene were these grubby soldiers who insisted on sweating, getting dirty, bleeding profusely, and—worst of all, in the days before Kleenex—wiping their snotty noses on their sleeves.  In order to keep the lads looking snappy, he ordered buttons sewn in rows on the bottoms of their sleeves so as to scratch them when they tried to mop the blood, sweat, or snot off their faces, in the hopes that the threat of minor physical pain could supply what basic public decency could not. More likely, buttoned sleeves may have enabled surgeons to give urgent treatments to injuries near the hands during battles.

In any case, until recently, men’s suit coats all came with working buttons and button holes on their sleeves. Not that long ago, in the days before casual or “button-down Fridays” turned into “no buttons, ever, everyday” and swiftly devolved into the current garb of the modern Wallmart Shopper, men wore jackets all the time, not just for business. A man’s shirt was considered his underwear.  Even farmers and day laborers and shopkeepers (ancestors of Wallmart employees) wore suit jackets. When exerting himself and getting hampered by his clothing, a man would roll up his sleeves, rather than remove his jacket. Taking off his jacket would be akin to stripping to his underwear—or a somewhat deranged 21st century woman painting the exterior of a three-storey house in her bikini (wait, that’s another story…)

Clothing was serious body protection from the elements and people, even men, wore aprons while working to protect it. Clothing represented a much higher percentage of a person’s personal budget and was highly valued. One of my favorite pastimes (right up there with eating homemade peach ice cream from Rota Spring Farm) is trolling the Old Bailey accounts online to read stories of “criminals” accused of stealing clothing in the 18th century. Fascinating stuff!  This is a great way to learn about what people were wearing and how it was valued in society and in the courts—the descriptions are sometimes hilarious.

All this to say that the buttonholes were cut (that means they worked—they weren’t pretend), the suits were individually made to spec and the sleeves could be rolled up.  Form followed function.  Modern bespoke and high-end (i.e. expensive) suit buttons still work. This is a chance for dapper dudes to wear one button undone so they can show off that it is a really good quality suit.  But most jackets today are not bespoke (made to order).  Off the rack jackets no longer have functional buttons or buttonholes—this is to facilitate tailoring them, i.e. make my job that much easier, so that I can cut the buttons off and lengthen or shorten the sleeves to suit either a man with the wing-span of a T-rex or a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal. Manufacturers, in trying to accommodate everyone, have designed suits that fit no one. Buttons on those suits are purely decorative.

One can only surmise that these conspicuously useless (often made of plastic, yuck) buttons stay there for the same reason men wear ties--#1 it’s always been like that, #2 it looks vaguely natty, #3 most men are so baffled by matters sartorial that it never dawns on them to agitate for change, #4 they are too busy tapering their trousers into tourniquets from the knee down to notice.

In college, I used to eat lunch occasionally with one of my favorite philosophy professors. She was about 8 years older than my roommate and I, which seemed like a lot back then, but she seemed to enjoy our company.  I asked her what made her want to study philosophy. She said that she started graduate school as a biochemistry student but when she found herself on a research project that involved stroking the backs of centipedes until they peed into little vials, she knew that she needed to find something less pointless to do, hence Nietzsche and Goethe. Personally, I saw her life up close and I am not certain that lecturing to hung-over undergraduates about the contributions of Heraclitis and Aristotle to western thought was any less pointless. I observed her youth and idealism and how it was being squandered on exhausted people more interested in discovering the ancient Greek principles of Brotherhood out behind Lambda Chi Alpha and I thought there must be much more exciting things to do in this world. 

Um, yeah… like sewing on buttons.  Thirty years later, here I sit, on my buttons, sewing...  Buttons that don’t even close anything.  I might as well be stroking centipedes. 

We all have these meaningless little tasks involved in our work.  Sometimes the work is exciting—you get a big project, like your version of a wedding gown, and there is all this drama and pressure…  You spend four whole days removing lace that has been attached microscopically with fishing line and you are over budget before you even begin to hem the gown…  The mother of the Bride comes in, glaring at the bride and bellowing about how she has just been charged $600 for the rental of linens for the reception, and it’s not a good time to mention that the gown is taking a lot more time than anticipated… And time is money… well, not in this case, since no one will have the courage to tell this Mother of the Bride, so we will do the rest of the work for free… So Time is just time in this case… Time you now spend thinking about buttons and how sometimes having little boring things to do, mundane and simple chores with some anecdotal link back to the snot of Prussian soldiers, is not so bad.   

Be Well, my dearies, and do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

 

 

Does this need to be said?

 

Greetings my Dearies!

No joke, countless versions of this phone call actually happen on a regular basis:

The phone rings.

I say:  “Good [morning/afternoon], Nancy speaking, how may I help?”

“Yeah…uh, hi…” a young man’s voice falters.  Having just dialed the phone and waited patiently for someone to connect, still, he seems disoriented to be talking to another human being and needs to collect his thoughts.   “I uh, have a question…  I’m trying to buy some pants off the internet.  They’re work pants and they don’t make them anymore.  The smallest size I can find is a 40 but I am a 34.  How hard is it for you to make them smaller? Is that something you even do?”

 I want to say: “Well, DUH!!! You just called a tailoring shop, buddy. Do you know what that means? It means we take your clothes, cut them up and sew them back together—usually, but not always, in ways that make them fit you better.”

I actually say:  “Well, sir, yes, we do indeed take in men’s trousers.  We are a tailoring shop.  That is exactly what we do.” I add briskly, “however, to take a waist in as much as six inches is going to alter the basic geometry of the pants so much that they won’t look right.  We can take them all apart and remake them, but that won’t be the twelve-dollar fix you are hoping for…”

What he says: “Really? What do you mean? Do you think it would make them look bad?”

What I want to say: “Dude!  Do you even know how much of a goober you would look like if we did that for you? Seriously?  It would look like your bum ate your pockets.”

What I actually say: “Well, men’s pants are designed to be taken in at the back.  When you take six inches off the back, first of all, the pockets get too close together.  Look at the pockets now—they are not separated by six inches to spare.  You will also have to have a lot of fabric taken out of the crotch. If we take it only from the back, the side seams will no longer be at your sides.  The front will look weird.”

What he says: “Ohhh… gee… I hadn’t thought of that. Well, I don’t know what to do.  40 is the smallest size I can get.”

What I want to say: “What kind of work is this you do, that you are the tiniest man wearing these pants?  How come all the pants for this kind of work only come in larger sizes?  Should you consider changing jobs? Maybe you could eat more at lunch…”

What I actually say: “Well, if you bring them in, we can remake them to the best of our ability, but that means taking them all apart and basically starting over.  They might not look the same when we are done.”

What I also want to say: “Honestly, just forget it. They will look like dog poop. And furthermore, it will be a complete pain in the arse to do all this; work pants are triple-stitched, you’ll crab about the price and it won’t even be worth it to us in the long run because we will lose all the profit each time we have to redo something you are unhappy with, and you will never be happy with the result.”

What he says: “well, I haven’t even bought them yet.  I’m just trolling around on the internet looking for them.  I don’t even know if it’s something I’m going to do.  I was just calling to find out if you did that sort of thing.”

What I say: “Yes, sir, we do.  We do alter pants.  But there are limits to how much we can alter them that are still economical and effective for you.  There are men who drop a lot of weight and want their favorite pants altered to fit them but at a certain point, it’s just better to buy a more appropriate size.”

What he says: “Gotcha.”

I say: “Thank you for calling, have a nice day!”

 

Saying what we think, saying what is true, and being able to communicate clearly without hurting someone’s feelings takes all the verbal ingenuity and discretion of a foreign diplomat.  When a bride with an ill-fitting gown asks us why the zipper is rippling so much and doing a snake dance up her back—“Does the gown need to be taken in? There seems to be too much zipper.”  We cannot proclaim, ‘Dear God, Woman, are you out of your mind?! That zip ripples because it is lodged on a roll above your hips.  We need to let that out two dress sizes.  No amount of gut-B-gone underwear is going to save you now…”  Instead, we shrug diplomatically and say, “Maybe we could do that…We can also make some adjustments in the hips—we know how to fix it. Don’t worry.”   The customer never knows if we have let things out or taken them in.  All they need to know is that it fits better in the end.  The less we say the better.

In today’s political climate, it is trendy to “say what one thinks” no matter how rude it is by old-fashioned standards of polite convention.  However, I happen to think Eric Hoffer was right when he said “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.” I am a huge fan of honesty in general but I question how baldly it should appear in the work place.  Honesty need not be painful. My genuine fondness for people means I usually have to struggle through some verbal calisthenics to say what I mean.  Do I really want to tell a dear old lady that the reason her collar won’t button is because her dowager’s hump, which rivals that of the famed resident of Notre Dame, has pulled up all the extra fabric?  Do I want to tell a man that his cuffs were full of body dander or that I know what it is he really “spilled” on his crotch?  As seamstresses, we know things about people that they might rather we not know and we need to be somewhat careful how we let them know we know, in ways that protect their dignity. Because, after all is said and done, we ARE HERE TO SERVE. Or we try to be. Sometimes, we have to fake this a little too.

I’m not saying we should ever be untruthful, don’t get me wrong! Flattering inaccuracies are like cute little Jack Russells that will come back to bite you in the buttocks.  In his book The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz talks about being “impeccable with our words.”  Impeccable means “flawless, faultless, without stain”—literally, it means “without sin,” since its Latin root is peccare, or “sin.” I like to think of it like a verbal Hippocratic Oath for seamstresses, or anyone who wants to flourish in life or business, to “do no harm.”  Or, in Recovery circles it’s known as “Say what you mean; mean what you say; don’t be mean when you say it.” This goes a long way in the dressing room when one is faced with a myriad of unfortunate fashion decisions.

Good language is the knife with which we carve truth from fiction—it can be a weapon or a useful tool.  Just this past prom season, we had a girl come in at the last minute with an “emergency”—a beautiful but complicated gown that we had to alter in a day because she refused to wear her first gown, which she had purchased months before and had altered at a rival shop in town.   The seamstress in that shop had made unkind comments about the girl’s weight and the girl had collapsed in grief and self pity and didn’t want to attend her prom at all after that.  Her mother, in desperation, had found this other gown at the last minute and wondered if we could change it quickly enough—but even more important than that, could we make her daughter feel good about herself in it?  Stories like that break my heart.  Yes, of course we could. And we did.  She looked like a radiant princess.   

When we choose our words carefully, we build bridges for our spirits to find one another and guide each other to better places.  We build collusion, cooperation, and trust.  We are able to be on the same team.  I can jump into your boat and say “where do you want to go? I will help you row.” Using language that cuts these ties and alienates us may feel satisfying in the moment but it does not serve a greater good.   Ultimately, it sets us adrift, going nowhere.

This little shop in a tiny corner of the great big world contains every element of that world as much as a cup of sea water contains the sea. Our pool of customers represents each economic and political stratum from poor day laborers, who will not pick up their work until pay-day, to the heiress who has brought ten silk blouses back from her latest jaunt to Italy. We are “Sew-cialists” who sew for everyone.  We service the mayors and selectmen of three towns as well as the local cat shelter, which needs custom slip-covers for its cages so the cats won’t fight. We work equally for male-strippers, people needing fetish costumes, and children receiving their first communions.  We do all the tailoring for a reputable men’s store, as well as all the fire fighters and police uniforms. In winter, we patch sweatshirts “while-they-wait” for migrants who have no coats and repair ice booties for dog paws who ride to the groomer’s in forty-thousand-dollar SUVs.  In summer, we create clothing that can be slipped easily over someone in a wheel chair and swimwear for the handicapped.  We do custom alterations for every kind of amputee, spinal scoliosis, or physical departure from “the norm” that you can imagine. We make eye patches for a man who has lost an eye and soft head scarves for cancer patients who have lost their hair.  These are deeply precious souls from every slide and margin of the political spectrum and I hate how they sometimes talk about each other.

I feel deep dismay around the plummeting level of discourse in our country today. Sure, some of it feels good.   Some of it feels like cleaning a wound that has festered too long. I too fantasize about what I wish I could say to people who irritate me.  But there is a difference between cleansing and carving out fresh injuries. I have an acquaintance who rails against “PC” (politically correct) language.  She does not think we need to be inclusive or thoughtful of other people’s feelings.  This makes me crazy, like she’s saying let’s just slaughter all the polar bears.  I say please, for the love of Civility, bring it back, not just to the work place but to every place.  Let’s make P.C. stand for all sorts of things like Polite Civility, Protecting Customers, Pain-free Clients, Personal Contact, Perfect Compassion, Professional Courtesy, Peaceful Co-Existence and of course, Pin Cushions! (Feel free to send me your ideas—this could be a great list!)

The other day, I drove home in the darkness and saw that I had left a light on in my home.  I had departed in the daylight and could not see that light glowing when I left.  But as darkness descended, the light became visible.  In its way, the Darkness was showing where the light was.  We can be that too.  As others descend into their darkly “honest” rages, we can be beacons of bright yet equally honest Politeness that used to be so ubiquitous we were unaware of it. We can preserve this endangered language of Helpfulness, of compassion and friendship, of building tribal bonds and community—Old Fashioned and formal and stuffy as it may be—it might just help us find our way Home where we remember we are all Family.

Be well, my Dear Ones! And do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy