Lionesses and Lambs

March is like trying to party with a hangover…

Greetings my Dearies!

I received a kind email last week from a reader who said “I would love to see you do a blog about what Spring does to one’s life.” So I decided to act on the suggestion Right Away—partly because I adore mail and am anxious to please, and partly because I haven’t yet thought of a better plan;  I’ve been crazy busy as a result of What Spring Has Been Doing To My Life! I’m definitely the self-inflicted victim of some March Madness that includes the arrival of a tiny, orphaned Shetland lamb (who has taken up residence in my bathtub until better arrangements can be made) and the purchase of a 32-string Celtic Harp. Why I decided to ratchet up the ambient nuttiness by setting an adorable yet hyper-active miniature farm animal loose in the house while I am attempting to sound terrible on eight times as many strings as I am used to can only be ascribed to utter lunacy—which makes sense, since today’s full moon is a Super Moon and coincides with the first Day of Spring.  There is much Magic and Madness about!

I’m not sure what happens to “normal” people in Spring, but here in the Enchanted Forest, the transition is not exactly smooth.  There is a lot of robbing going on. The government took one of my desperately needed hours, just as I was busy forking over my last sack of gold to its Income Removal Service.  I’m fine with redistributing the money; I bitterly resent the loss of the only hour during which, I am convinced, I used to get anything done!  I too am on the take—continually robbing Peter to pay Paul, I am now robbing the chickens as well. They have taken to laying their eggs any damn place they please—including places that are hard to reach due to snow.  The eggs I don’t collect promptly freeze and break their own shells from the inside.  I am waiting for the weather to warm up enough so that I can move the most incontinent dog and the lamb into the hay shed together.  I am tired of shampooing carpets and excited about planting peas. We are all waiting for the Big Thaw…

In the shop, the annual Glitter, Glam & Lace Parade has begun—pale, spotty, sunlight-starved teens are coming in to exercise their right to bare arms, backs, midriffs, legs, you name it, all in the name Fashion and the competition to see who can bleed their parents’ bank accounts the most before Prom.  My current bet goes to the lass with not one but TWO full-price Sherry Hill Gowns, averaging $650 a piece. “It’s disgusting, when children are starving,” mutters Prudence, “why the hell can’t she wear the same dress to two completely different proms in two completely different towns?” (Apparently, there is a law against wearing the same dress twice that people follow with more far more ardor than traffic regulations.) My favorite dress so far belongs to a young woman who comes in with her grandmother.  The grandmother tells us the girl worked hard at her job after school, earned her own money, and bought this used Sherry Hill gown for $200 on Craigslist.  (It’s still a waste of Money, if you ask Prudence, who thinks all prom gowns should be made of flannel and button at the neck and wrist.)  The girl who sold it, sold it filthy dirty and in tatters around the hem and bustle.  I agree to fix it, taking special pains to repair all the damage and make it look as good as new.  Then we have it dry-cleaned. It’s perfect.  Her happy radiance when she tries it on at pick-up makes my heart sing all day.  Other delightful moments include explaining to a young man that everything goes with navy blue, except navy blue (he is trying to put a navy jacket with navy pants and call it a “suit” but they aren’t the same color “navy”) and fitting a girl with Down’s Syndrome for her prom dress.  She has been invited by one of the most popular boys in the school.  Her parents could not be happier as she spins and admires herself in the mirror.  Stories such as this feed my soul for days.

AND THEN…

Well, we have the Other girls. The Queen Bees and Wanna Bees.  A mother-daughter duo arrives at the shop and the girl slips on her dress.  It’s a fabulous bright orange strapless with a mermaid skirt. She fits this dress like a fruit smoothie that is exactly the size of the glass. Every seam lies quietly without straining or flaring.  There isn’t a single bulge or pucker anywhere.  Prudence and I don’t like strapless gowns generally (for differing reasons), but even I have to admit this is flattering to her figure. I assume we just need to hem it but the girl is turning this way and that, looking into the mirror and sneering.  The mother is looking exasperated. “W-h-a-t?” her mother asks, rolling her eyes like she too is sixteen. “What now?”

“It’s just boring. I don’t like the back.  It’s so plain,” she says to her mother.

“She doesn’t like the back,” the mother says to me, as if there is something wrong with my hearing, or perhaps I need a translation.   The girl continues.  “This back is just so…I don’t know…boring. My friend’s dress is interesting.  It has this ribbon thing...” Prudence is ready to explode with one of her rants about the difference between a complaint and a request.  I bite my tongue. 

“How are you planning to wear your hair?” I ask, noting that waves of thick, straight hair totally obscure the dress down to the middle of her back.

“Um… down,” she says. “Yeah, down.”

“Well, then no one is actually going to see the back, really, so why waste money changing anything?” I point out. (I truly am a lazy seamstress!)

Her shoulders sag. “But it’s so Boring…” she moans.

“Only Boring People are ever bored,” grumbles Prudence inside my head. I try to get the part of me that never judges anyone to kick Prudence but that person is too nice.  She slinks away to daydream about planting a garden while Prudence goes off on a rip about Complaints. “My dear Madam,” she says internally, while I hastily line my lips with pins, “I take exception to your habit of announcing that a situation is unsatisfactory or unacceptable to you with the implied Assumption that everyone around you will subsequently make all haste to correct conditions to your liking. Complaints are not good currency in conversation. They tell us Madam is a spoiled brat but they don’t actually tell us what Madam WANTS and I have no patience for guessing games.”

Complaints that are not attached to specific requests are one of Prudence’s Pet Peeves. (Prudence has so many pet peeves there could be an entire blog on them alone…)  When my children were small and made proclamations like “I’m Hungry!” I used to put out my hand and shake theirs and say “Howdy Hungry! I’m called Mummy!” which annoyed them no end but trained them to say things like “may I have a snack?” instead. When they said “I’m Hot/Cold/Tired/Mad/Lonely/Bored/…” I would say, “hmm… Good job identifying the feeling. Now, what is it you Want?” (By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, this Inspired kind of parenting never really went down all that well.  More often than not, it had the effect of inciting a full-blown, total-body-thrash tantrum and accusations that I just did not Understand.  Nothing sends a teenager round the bend faster than calmly meeting their distress with questions like “Ok, I hear a complaint. Where’s the request? What would you like me to do for you? How can I help you?”

In my experience, Teenagers, Toddlers, and Women over Fifty are some of the wildest people I know.  Like March in New England, they are both thrilling and miserable to deal with. What do they have in common? Frequent Bad Manners and the fact that they are all in the midst of a massive Transition. People in transition do not yet know who they are.  They are emerging.  They are lions and they are lambs.  They are fresh new crocuses poking their heads up through dirty snow and last year’s leaves.  They are mud with ice.  You need all sorts of rain gear around them.  They melt and freeze without warning.  They are faced with daunting situations that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable, in traitorous bodies they no longer recognize.  They understand change is inevitable and they are willing, even excited, to grow.  But then come the moments when their balance is so off they fall. They fall hard and cry loudly. They are embarrassing and embarrassed and their shame tempts them repeatedly to abstain from being themselves but they cannot help it.  Truces must be navigated.

This is the Light overcoming the Dark and the Future taking the reins from the Past. This is New Life.  It’s a wondrous, exhausting, and exhilarating MESS.  It is a churning upheaval bursting with possibilities, laughter, and a new kind of music mixed with the bleating of young lambs who capture our hearts and soil our carpets…. This is Spring. At least from where I can see it.

May you bravely clear away the Old and celebrate your own New Shoots, Dear Ones!  Wishing you many Unexpected Blessings and a very Happy Spring!

Yours aye,

Nancy

A little Sweetness...

Greetings my Dear Ones!

March is Maple Sugaring month in these parts. An older man (and by “older” I mean in his mid-nineties) marches into the shop with an armload of trousers he wants hemmed and three quart-sized mason jars full of amber liquid, which he plops on the cutting table with a thud.  “Here you go, girls!” he announces in a voice that tells us his hearing aid is either off or out of batteries, “I brought you each a jar of my very own maple syrup! I’ve been boiling off all week. This is for you but I expect a little sweetness in return.” And then he holds out his arms as if we are supposed to rush to him and smother him with hugs and kisses.  We all stand still and look at him for an awkward moment.  He is well known in town as “a character.”

“Well,” says one of the “Girls,” “Sir, we’d be glad to hem your pants for you for free.  That’s pretty sweet…”

“Hem my pants for free? Boy, you’re really getting the better deal out of that one!” he scoffs. “Do you know how much this stuff is worth?” he says, pointing at the syrup.  Then he laughs and hugs the lady closest to him.  It’s a brief hug and she laughs it off good naturedly. “My wife’s been dead for these past twenty years and I’m still mad at her for leaving me.  Boy these hugs feel good,” he says, attempting to grab the next woman.  She shrugs and gives him a tepid, wooden little hug.  I am in my corner, behind my table, observing all of this from a safe distance as he launches into some inappropriate jokes that crack no one up but him.  My colleagues and I exchange knowing glances.  Our forced smiles and stiff-cheeked little chuckles accidentally encourage him.  Ours is a “service” industry and we are polite “girls” but does this really have to be part of the service? Prudence is disgusted with him. 

“It’s lonesome out there in the sugar shack,” he sighs. Part of me marvels that he is in a sugar shack at all, instead of parked in a rocking chair somewhere.  I have never seen a man in his nineties looking so robust.  He is built like a windmill. “Do you know how much water has to come off the sap before it becomes syrup? It’s a hell of a lot,” he says, “it’s about forty to one.  That’s why it don’t come cheap.”

Boy do I know… One cannot live twenty five years in Red Sox territory without having tried, at least once, to make Maple syrup.  I’m not sure how other people do it, but this is how I have, keeping in mind Pete Seeger’s comment that “Any damn fool can make things more complicated…” or words to that effect.

1.  Have Scottish husband told by friend in pub that Maple syrup comes from TREES, yes, trees!  Trees in our yard.  All we have to do is poke some holes in them, gather sap, boil it and Hey! Presto! FREE syrup right in our own back yard. No more spending twenty-three dollars a gallon at the grocery store. What could be easier or more fun? The kids will love it!

2.  Become convinced that all that “free sap” on our property will go to waste if we do not boil ninety gallons of the stuff for several weeks. 

3. Rush out and drill six taps in the trees lining our front yard.  Daydream about the Olden Days and how charming this little “family activity” is going to be, despite the fact that the children, resembling brightly colored bear cubs tottering around in their snow gear, munching on dirty snow, are totally oblivious to the project.

4.  Realize we are going to need some buckets. Some families assemble all the necessary equipment BEFORE they commence a project.  Not us.  We prefer the drama of racing to the garage, dumping buckets of junk on the floor, and hastily scrubbing out the dirty cobwebs after the sap is already dribbling down the tree trunk.

 5. Look doubtfully at the bare branches scraping the sky above.  After they have already been tapped, Make Sure you have identified the trees properly. “Are you sure these are the right sort of trees?” I ask, A Field Guide to North American Trees being conspicuously absent..

6. Get reassured by man Who Has No Idea. “Of course they are!” He snorts indignantly.          “They are made of wood, aren’t they?” he says, patting the nearest tree trunk affectionately. “So they are definitely trees. And these,” he says collecting some fallen leaves, “look just like the Canadian flag, so we’re good.” 

7. Watch him grab some of the plastic tubing and chop off a length.

8. Realize that it is not long enough to reach the bucket.

9. Connect trees to buckets using plastic tubing until they resemble medical specimens, hooked up to large plasma buckets, giving blood.

10. Have husband leave for a week-long business trip to Vegas the next day.

11. Check the buckets. Find all three full and frozen.

12. Lug three forty-pound buckets up hill, through deep snow, with a four-year-old on your back. Make two to four trips, as necessary.

13. Consult “granny Google, and Aunty You-Tube,” the modern repository of all ancient folk wisdom, to find out what to do next.

14. Learn that sap must be collected daily.  It will keep a short time if frozen but quickly grows an unsavory mold in less than two days if thawed.  Meanwhile, the tree will continue to produce more and more as the Spring sap run gets going.  The sap rushes up the tree in the morning and returns to the roots as the temperatures drop at night.  This means the sap flows quickly through the tubing, into the collection buckets, twice a day—just like the milking of a cow.  Like other farm activities, it is light-driven and happens twice a day.  Buckets must be emptied at least once a day.  One’s choices are to boil the sap continually, to concentrate it, or keep running to the garage to empty more buckets of tools onto the floor on a daily basis.

15. Also learn that it takes between forty and fifty gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup.  This means an average of 39 gallons of moisture must enter the atmosphere of the home if done on the kitchen stove.  The website is clear: “This is an operation best done out of doors, as considerable steam must be released.  The sap must be kept at a rolling boil but stirred constantly and not allowed to burn.  Traditionally, this was done in cauldrons over large, open fires.”

16. Begin frantic search for a cauldron while children and dogs lick frozen hunks of sap, ignoring the bits of grass, leaves, and tree debris imbedded in the ice.

17. Ram a chunk into the largest saucepan you own and turn the stove heat up as high as it will go.

18. Hours later, discover kitchen enveloped in a sweet-smelling fog redolent of cotton candy floss.  Every surface of the counters and cabinets should be damp and slightly sticky. Look for Moisture collecting in droplets on the ceiling above the stove.  The contents of the pot, once clear, should be the color of muddy chardonnay.  A crystalline frost obscuring the windows signals things are going well. 

19.  Boil into the night, after the children are tucked in bed.  To them, observing syrup production is about as much fun as watching paint dry.  Forget the stories of Laura Ingalls and the community sugar party at the Little House in the Big Woods.  Here, in the Big Suburbs there is no festival; just their solitary, sweaty mother stirring and muttering over an electric burner.  The only exciting part is watching her dance and scream when she accidentally kicks a bucket of thawed sap all over the kitchen floor. So much for their father’s dreams of providing them with “education, exploration, and the power of self-reliance.”  Forget science; at best, they learn a few bad words while their mother mops and mops.

20. Give up at midnight and dump the rest of the frozen hunks into a large, square plastic container formerly used to store mittens.  The mittens, like the junk in the garage, can be stored temporarily on the floor.

22. Discover by dawn’s light that the container possesses a tiny hole which, while not being big enough to permit the passage of mittens, is ample to allow several gallons of melted sap to leak all over the floor. 

23. Begin the day with more energetic dancing and screaming, not to mention a washer load of sap-sogged mittens.

24. While mopping AGAIN, ponder whether other historic wives felt the way you do in this moment.  It’s hard to resist the dazzling enthusiasm of pioneer men who are certain their current plan is cheap, easy, and of benefit to Nature, Family and Society.  To them, nothing could be easier or more straightforward—especially when they are directing operations by cell-phone hundreds of miles away. 

25. Accidentally, set fire to the sap. Enjoy a spontaneous visit from the local fire department.  This is the first thing to pique the children’s interest in the project.

26. Throw out smoking pot and begin again.

27. Repeat steps 11-26 for the next three weeks, varying the order as it suits your whims and fancy.

28. When all is said and done, tally the expenses of making your “free” syrup. Be sure to include $300 in electricity, cleaning supplies, phone bills, Internet fees, not to mention damage to stuff you drove over in the garage that was formerly stored in the plastic buckets. 

29. Realize your three measly mason jars are worth about $900.  Display them to visitors with the pride some people reserve for bowling trophies.  This syrup is “too good to eat.”

30. Months later, cram the pantry shelves with bales of canned goods from the same wholesale retailer where you now purchase all your Maple syrup.  In trying to shove twelve cans of corn into line, accidentally crack one of the mason jars hidden in the back.  Slowly, with the invisible inevitability of a true force of Nature, the syrup will seep out along the shelf and crystallize, permanently gluing all of the recently purchased canned goods to the wooden shelf.  Ever after, when one wants something from the pantry, one must bring along a hammer and chisel to free it from the grip of an ancient tree spirit. 

So! There you are. How to make FREE Maple Syrup in 30 easy steps: All it takes is millions of dollars, some buckets, a lot of hand-knit mittens, every pot you own, some disinterested children, a few dogs, a good mop, new kitchen wallpaper (after the other stuff rolls down the walls) and one totally deluded female.

When the man in the shop approaches me with a jar of amber gold, and asks me what I think it is worth—I don’t know how to answer. Finally, he turns to leave and remembers he has not had a hug from me yet.  As this “harmless old man from another era” shuffles closer and closer, arms extended, I think about the “me too” movement.  I think about whether it is worth it to refuse.  I don’t actually want his syrup or his hug.  I think about how vulnerable we each are in that moment and what any one of us is willing to do for a little sweetness in our lives. However we define that “sweetness,” it is no bargain.

I have been a bee-keeper and a maker of jam.  I can tell you from experience that Nature does not give up her glucose without a fight.  It takes a lot of work to glean just a little sweetness.  As humans, we know that Naivette + Experience usually lead to bitterness.  Bitterness leads to defensive self-protection.  Faith, Hope and Courage make us carry on and keep choosing Sweetness, despite its labors.

And What are we here for anyway, but to add a little sweetness to each other’s oatmeal?

Be well my Darlings!  I hope your day is filled with the kind of sweetness you enjoy!

Yours aye,

Nancy

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Offer it Up

A man who fears suffering is already suffering from what he fears.” —Michel de Montaigne

Greetings Dear Ones!

A dreary wind that sounds like a far off freight train blows an exhausting sort of cold through all the cracks in doors or windows. It’s true; we do have a little more light these days but it feels thin and watery and uncertain. Winter is losing its charm yet overstaying its welcome like a guest who should be going any day now.  It makes me think of that line from an Eagle’s song, “the sky won’t snow and the sun won’t shine/it’s hard to tell the nighttime from the day…” Only our sky DOES snow, with great regularity. Every few days, a fresh layer covers up the grimy stuff like a temporary whitewash that disguises treacherous ice or slush underneath.

The sap is starting to run up and down beneath the bark of the trees, confused as to whether spring is really coming, and all the maple sugaring folks are out there in their torn coats trying to wrestle a bit of sweetness from the bleakness.  It takes a lot of resilience and pancakes to survive in New England at this time of year!

I am tired of the grime—on my car, on my coat, on the floors when we walk in the door… I am tired of wearing heavy layers and boots that feel like depression yet I am NOT ready to don a bathing suit either! My body, along with my spirit, has gone to seed… Prom gowns and wedding gowns are trickling into the shop and bringing with them big, tiresome hems that take a whole afternoon to do properly. Last week, I did a gown so encrusted with glitter, it was like a glitter bomb had gone off in the shop.  I had to vacuum my machine afterwards because the bobbin case was jammed with a thimble’s worth of glitter.  There was glitter on every surface of the shop, glitter in our lunch, glitter falling out of my hair onto my pillow that night. I hate glitter!  It’s disgusting stuff that I’m convinced is actually an environmental hazard and should be outlawed.  Where does all that shite go eventually? Into our drinking water? Into the playgrounds of baby dolphins? One shudders to think of it.

A girl in the dressing room has eye-color-changing contacts which give her the effect of having the eyes of a wild goat.  She has jammed her arms through the ribbon loops at the armpits of her strapless gown and is now wondering why they are too tight. I explain that those loops are really to hold the gown on its hanger; they aren’t straps.  This is, after all, a strapless gown.  When I emerge from the dressing room, another customer is waiting for me at the counter.  She confides, in tones usually reserved for conveying the news that there has been a death in the family, that her undershirt has a layer that is “loose” and she cannot live another moment with it like that. The shop phone is ringing while a millennial, not realizing that seamstresses use their hands for other things besides texting, is simultaneously texting the cell phone to see if we are open.  Meanwhile, I have to get on with the business of destroying a wedding gown for a bride who fancies herself a great designer.  She bought a dress online that does not fit her in any way and is now having me hack it to bits to make it look like trashy lingerie.

I gaze out the sunless window at a passing plow truck scattering grit and sigh… If only there was some way to make all of this WORSE.  When things get Worse, they are usually on their way to getting Better. This time of year is so dull and dreary and filled with mediocre tedium.  We are all waiting for spring but not ready for it either. Making or forcing things to be better does not seem like a viable option yet.  Literally, we must wait for the planet to hurtle a few million more miles through space yet—it’s like the long trip to grandma’s house—and we are all asking from the back seat, “Are we there yet?” No.  So how can we make things worse?  Prudence steps from the shadows.  “I know a wonderful way to make everything worse,” she says.  “It’s called LENT and it starts today.  Offer it up.  Offer up all your measly little sufferings like spare change you can use to pay someone’s debt in Purgatory.” “Isn’t this Purgatory, right here?” I ask. “No,” she says. “Purgatory is a waiting room in the sky, full of people holding crumpled little numbers like the ones they give at the deli and they just watch the big screen with all the current prayer tallies in numbers spinning like trades at the stock market. They haven’t paid full fare to get to Heaven and they are stuck, hoping your bout with lumbago will get them on the next ferry.”

Offer it up.  It is an echo from my childhood.  Whenever I had a complaint, my mother or grandmother or some nearby desiccated nun would say “Offer it up.”  Whatever you are suffering, whether it is a stubbed toe, the torment of a sibling, or a broken heart, a nice slice of guilt is the perfect side dish for your troubles.  Think of how LUCKY you are and how Unfortunate someone else is and offer your suffering for the release of their pain.  Collude in your own neglect/abuse/discontent by choosing to embrace it, on a spiritual level.  You may not have any choice in the matter in the physical realm, but you do in the energetic realm.  This is what sainthood is all about. Choose to accept your suffering and make something holy of it that you can offer as a gift.  Prudence, who fancies herself holier than most because she “suffers” more than most, smiles a satisfied smile as I roll my eyes.  I hate being told to offer it up.

Still, there is a lot to be said for changing my energy around what cannot be changed.  I often say, “when you cannot get out of it, get into it.” Even if that means making things temporarily worse.  A friend of mine is going through a dark time and confronting some personal demons. “Don’t run,” I say. “Stay and fight. Get in there and wallow.  Get scratched up and bloody and find out what these demons have to teach you.  You’ll be a better man for it in the end!”  Once we admit that the Buddha was right: All of Life is Suffering, then there arises some beautiful evidence against it. 

Today is the day that many people will go to church and have their foreheads crossed with ashes and be told “remember man that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”  (“I wonder if your house is some sort of way-station for people coming and going,” whispers Prudence.)  I used to think that this was to make us humble and to show us that life was essentially pointless. I used to think that we were encouraged to give something up so that we could suffer extra for the souls in purgatory—or just suffer for suffering’s sake. Sometimes Lent was just like a mini New Year’s resolution to lose weight or give up a vice.  I am reminded of the story of the man who told his son he was giving up alcohol for Lent.  Three days later, the boy witnessed his father having a beer. “I thought you gave up alcohol,” protested the son. “Oh,” said the father, “this is just a beer.  It’s not hard alcohol.  I just gave up the hard stuff.” “Whew!” says the boy, “what a relief!  You know how I gave up candy? Well, it was only hard candy!”

For some, the next forty days will be all about dropping a size or two before consuming all their lost calories in chocolate bunnies and peanut butter eggs.  For some, it will be a time of deep reflection and acts of piety and service. Maybe we will all be better for it, maybe not. It’s worth a try—bargaining and reworking our bargains with ourselves until we get back to where we started. It’s a great idea to test ourselves with consuming less and doing more.  These are good ideas any time of year whether you choose to hook them to a spiritual practice or not.

Don’t tell Prudence, but I like the idea that the next forty days is a potential workshop for the soul, though I have no intention of making myself humble as a result. Humility just leads to arrogance, as we try to smugly out-humble each other.  I am the oldest of five—I know exactly what smug out-humbling-as-a-way-to-start-trouble is all about!  When we are arrogant, we think certain people and jobs are beneath us.  When we are humble, we think we are less than and undeserving.  Neither is true.  When we are with What Is and see ourselves with loving clarity, then no job is too awful, no weather is too bad, and no season too dreary.  We get on with the business we came here to do and we continue the journey lovingly with our fellow travelers. We do that filthy, glitter-encrusted work AND we are Grateful!!! Like the pancakes, life is sweeter for our laboring.

Be well my Dearies!  And do good work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

Drama Mamas

“All women become like their mothers.  That is their tragedy. No man does. That is his.” –Oscar Wilde

Greetings Dear Ones!

February is slipping by as if it was greased. March looms and with it one of Prudence Thimbleton’s least favorite seasons of the Shop.  No, it’s not Prom Season—this is just the nasty little hors d’ oeuvres (or horse’s duvet, as some like to call it) preceding that banquet of insanity: Solo Dance Costume season.  Now, for those of you without teenage daughters, let me try to describe what is happening in innocuous-looking sidewalk studios around the countryside:  Essentially, grown people are losing their minds and deciding that fragile, young female psyches should be performing as near to naked as possible in bodies they don’t fully recognize yet, trailing glitter, glory, and grief on their way to their crash landing on a psychotherapist’s couch.  A mother, inquiring after the status of her daughter’s custom-made outfit, turns to me and says in utter seriousness, “Is this material stretchy enough for my daughter to lie on her back and spread her legs as far as possible?” (Prudence, wondering if the child was destined for a dance recital or a brothel, nearly had apoplexy.)  Another mother explains that she will be taking her daughter out of school for her fitting, since she cannot change the girl’s hair appointment after school.  School is the thing that is expendable in their frenzied schedule.

Preschoolers  and High Schoolers alike are being swathed in bling-ed-out spandex outfits that resemble a unique blend of circus performer and street walker. They will be spray-tanning youngsters fifty shades of beige and gluing fabric to their bare skin—all in the name of charging their grandparents five bucks a piece to watch them on stage. There is a lot of pressure on these girls and even more on their fraught mothers who have a series of maneuvers they must perform themselves:  they must keep the prized daughter happy and practicing (an impossible task), they must appease the demands of the coaches who seem to be suffering the after-effects of total lobotomies, and finally, above all, they must never let the husbands/fathers in question know how much any of this costs. 

Needless to say, this does not often bring out the best in the girls themselves.  “If there’s one thing sure to rot my garters,” huffs Prudence indignantly, “It’s brats who treat their mothers as if they are ignorant servants—who roll their eyes at us as if dealing with these simpletons is simply insufferable,” as the door slams on yet another angry-yet-entitled teen, trailed by her bewildered and beseeching mother.

The mothers are barely holding it together.  Last week, a mother of four came in and set three live squirrels loose in the shop.  I’m just kidding, they were little girls.  She held the baby on one hip while she tried to negotiate the fitting of a dance costume for the eldest and the two middle squirrels made laps of the shop and pushed all the pins from one pin cushion into the upholstery of a waiting room chair in the shape of their initials.  Among the rubble left when they all departed was the woman’s wallet and handbag.  We tried to ring her cell phone to tell her but she could not answer because the three-year-old was using it to play video games in the back seat of the car.

Wednesday night, on my way home from Brattleboro, I encounter a completely different sort of mother.   It is snowing lightly and I leave fiddle practice early in the hopes of beating the worst of the weather.  I am a few miles from home when I notice a minivan off the side of the road with its hazard lights flashing.  I slow down.  As I pass, I notice a small child, crouching behind the van, looking at one of the rear tires.  I drive on.  I start feeling a strong pull in the center of my gut to go back.  We are all each other’s angels here on earth.  Maybe this family needs “an angel” who can change a tire quickly in the falling snow, rather than having to wait for triple A to show up.  Out here, that could take a while and the roads are already getting bad.  I can almost hear the music they play in Old Westerns when the cavalry shows up as I turn my car around and head back to the van.  Oh, how my ego makes me laugh sometimes!

I leave my hazards blinking and cross the road to the driver’s window. A woman is sitting there with her hands in her lap.  “Are you guys alright?” I ask as she rolls the window down, “How can I help? Is it a tire?” She looks in her rearview mirror and sighs.

“No,” she says with beatific serenity, “We are just sitting here until we calm down enough for me to drive safely again.  I cannot drive when she is in a rage because it is too dangerous.” With that, the child in the back seat, the one I had seen earlier behind the vehicle, gives a savage kick to the back of the seat in front of her, jumps out the door, and starts running up the road, screaming.  “Is she ok? Will she run into traffic? Shall I chase her and bring her down? What do you want me to do???”  My questions are a torrent that she meets with a bleak and weary smile as she heaves herself out of the car and tries to reassure me.  “She’s ok.  She won’t run into traffic. She’s on the spectrum. She’s just having a really hard moment because she is angry and not getting her way.  It doesn’t mean she’s going to get her way.  I’m just giving her the space she needs around her disappointment.  I’ll wait as long as it takes.”  “Oh,” I say, really wishing I could change a tire instead.

We watch her run up the shoulder of the road, almost out of sight, as the snow begins to collect on our hair and faces.  “You have no idea how much I want to be home right now,” the mother says, her face suddenly dissolving in weary sorrow.  “Wow!” I breathe out slowly, taking in the whole scene.  I realize I have not been breathing until now.

She lifts her chin as some headlights flash by in the darkness and I can see that her eyes are the color of a deep, untroubled sea.  She radiates Resolve and Character and Strength.  This is no cringing, placating, vacillating dance Mom I am dealing with here.  I realized how arrogant I have been, thinking I might stop and “help” her.  She has this all well in hand.  She is forcing nothing.  She is threatening nothing.  She is just waiting, pausing, holding the space—as she has clearly done so many times, through so many dark and lonely hours already.  Divine Feminine Grace. There are no trophies to be won with this kind of mothering but there Should be!

“I’ll go if you want me to,” I offer. “But I would like to keep you company for as long as you like, if it’s ok.  This is one time you really don’t have to do this alone.  I know how awful this kind of stuff can be.  Sometimes being the only gown-up is just utterly wretched.”  She nods.  We stand together in the falling snow.  She tells me about her other children.  This one is the youngest of six.  “The others are normal,” she says, then laughs hysterically, “whatever the hell that means…” We both laugh.  “Normal” is just a setting on washing machines, I say. She talks about how people have judged her harshly based on this one’s behavior—as if having five other children hasn’t given her a single clue about parenting.  She has been told by well-meaning and concerned strangers to spank or hit this child to straighten her out.  “I used to be a preschool teacher,” she says. “I’m actually trained to deal with children! But I had to give it up to stay home and advocate for her.  It’s a fulltime job.”

“Being a mother is a full-time job,” I say, “no matter how ‘Normal’ your kids might be.” She laughs.  She doesn’t remember what it is like not to be a mother.  We talk about how mothers are on the front line for a significant amount of sibling sadism and general chaos that seems medieval by modern corporate standards.  I think about all the anguished dance mothers coming into the shop and a pregnant friend of mine who is awaiting the birth of her first child.  “You don’t know what you are going to get when you become a mother, do you?” “No,” she agrees. “It’s a total hijacking.”  By then, the little nine-year-old is back and begins raging and beating on the car.  She opens the side door, climbs in, stamps with snowy boots on seats and begins screeching for me to leave. “Go Away!” she screams. “Go away!  This is none of your business!” “Honey, you are SO right,” I say, smiling. “This is totally none of my business, except that I care very much about your safety and I’m going to stay here with your mama so she doesn’t have to be alone until you calm down. Take all the time you want. Everything is ok. You know what to do.”  Lest anyone have any delusions about me being a wanna-be child psychologist, let me just say that my kindly words have the effect of making her roar and catapult herself to the front seat and trash the front of the car.  She rips the rosary hanging from the rearview mirror and uses it as a whip to flail against papers and debris around the car.  Deftly, the mother slips her hand to the ignition and rescues the keys before she can be locked out.  Then she leans against the car and sighs again. I think guiltily of the Peace awaiting me by my fireside less than four miles away—my fiddle and spinning wheel, little snoring dogs, happy son playing music… This woman’s night will not end for many, many years, if ever... 

“God Bless You,” I blurt out, “You are so amazing!”  She laughs.  “Children are such irrational beings! Love isn’t rational either, is it?  Love isn’t about being rational or reasonable.  It’s about Inclusion.  It’s about making space for this…” she gestures towards her daughter rocking the whole car with her drumming heels.  “You can’t tell me any child wants to be like this or feel like this… they are at their own mercy as much as we are.”

Her words echo in my heart after they eventually drive away. LOVE is INCLUSION.  I realize that I didn’t stop to help. I was stopped to Learn.  She was the angel by the side of the road, not I.  I need this message. I need to appreciate the tremendous gifts we give one another simply by INCLUDING what is unexpected.  

When all the craziness of mothering passes, when it’s over and our children are gone and we can finally get some good sleep… When they’ve taken our wisdom and our tools and the last of our best shampoo—that organic stuff that’s twenty bucks a bottle—and they are off to reject everything we ever taught them and find out for themselves… When all the dance recitals are just photos in scrapbooks we never look at…  We turn and see that we haven’t raised our children at all. They’ve raised us.  Now we know how tough we are.  Now we know what is truly important to us.  Now we know what cannot break us in the fiercest storm and what can melt us without even a word.  Now we know what Love is…  And that’s pretty much all we ever need to know.

Be well, my Dearies!  And do Good Work!

Yours Aye,

Nancy

And I Love That!

“You can never be a first class human being, until you have learnt to have some regard for human frailty.” –Abhijit Naskar

Greetings Dear Ones!

It’s 4:am and I sit bolt upright in bed, wondering if I can substitute coconut milk for regular milk in the French toast so that all the dairy free campers can partake of it?  We need to use up all that bread going stale.  Can we serve that with the leftover baked potatoes-turned-hash-browns? We have six hotel pans of them leftover.  Will that be bad? French toast with a side of hash-browns? Who does that? It’s a Scottish music camp and they’ve been happy to eat sixty pounds of potatoes per meal so far… Then I remember: I’m home.  Home in my own bed, surrounded by snoring, farting little clumps of twitching fur.  It’s over.  AND I LOVE THAT.

Last Wednesday, exactly a week ago, I came home from work at 5 o’clock in the evening and stopped pretending I am a Seamstress and began pretending I was a Head cook.  For the next five days, I shopped and peeled, chopped and stirred, tasted, muttered, tutted, and cursed, for an average of 17 hours a day.  I stunk of onions. I looked wretched (especially in the God-awful hats we had to wear) with smears of food on every article of clothing I wore.  Lifting such enormous industrial pans and cauldrons strained every aching muscle in my body… AND I LOVE THAT.  

I am by no means what-so-ever a trained chef but I found myself responsible for feeding 125 people three times a day for 5 days.  During that time, I thought a lot about food, humans, and the amazing similarities between being a cook and a seamstress. I got an intense look at how far I was able to push myself emotionally and physically.  I realized over and over how much I LOVE serving people and yet how challenging it is to be a human myself. Over and over, I lost everything from my dignity or patience to items such as a number ten can of beans or an entire case of peaches.   I came to appreciate the mind-body connection in a whole new way and marveled as I watched my body literally dart around in circles when my mind was disengaged.  So many trains of thought left the station without me… AND I LOVE THAT.

So, how did I get this gig?  Years ago, this camp began as an annual gathering in my former home.  A Boston-based fiddle teacher wanted a place to have a weekend retreat for her advanced students.  Initially, there were less than about 25 people.  When you grow up in a large family with a father who loves to cook enormous amounts of food, it turns out that cooking for 25 is really not that big a deal. It was like Thanksgiving every day. I made all the teenagers help.  Some of them had no idea how to peel an apple. They learned. We cooked together, building both meals and strong communal bonds.  I listened to their stories and their dreams and their music.  Everyone wanted to hang in the kitchen, jamming by the fire, while their friends cooked. Over the years, they left to do and be exciting things but always returned to this event and the numbers swelled to 40.  It might sound crazy to have 40 people in one house but they were all so dear and familiar—they really were FAMILY by then. My son slept in a cupboard under the stairs, his sister at a friend’s house; all the people from Vermont slept in the barn; my former husband slept in one of the larger closets. Sometimes I slept in my car, with all the dogs so they wouldn’t bother people.  The floors were strewn with sleeping bags in every room and one could hardly take a step without having to avoid a body.  The music and the fun were sublime. Every now and then, one of the goats would get loose and wander through the house. It was chaos.  AND I LOVE THAT.

Sadly, my husband and I parted ways and left the dear old tavern that was so crammed with music and memories. We had to find a new venue for the retreat, which by now had many people of every age and ability level clamoring to participate.  My friend asked if I could keep up the cooking tradition, if she found a new place. I agreed wholeheartedly. That year, it became an official “Camp” with administrators and coordinators and things like a “decorating committee” (formerly, my “decorating” had consisted of  a quick dusting and making sure there were no dog turds on the carpet!) but we all agreed that the kitchen magic of coming together to prepare wholesome food for ourselves TOGETHER was a key ingredient in community building and would remain.  “How many people are coming?” I asked. “Eighty,” she said.  “Ok…” I said, “so we just make twice as much!” Easy.  Now, more people could come. No one would be excluded for lack of space on the floor. They would have actual beds.  The community would grow.  The kitchen was bigger and could accommodate more helpers. AND I LOVE THAT.

In two short years, the camp overflowed that venue and we found a new one, with an amazing, fully-equiped industrial kitchen full of enormous things I had no idea how to use. There is an immersion blender there for scrambling eggs that looks like it could power a small motorboat. There is a walk-in fridge, a walk-in freezer, all kinds of racks and trays and warmers and steamers and convection ovens and a cauldron big enough to hold a live goat, though sadly, they are no longer welcome! It’s heaven for cooking for a large crowd.  I volunteered and cooked there for a day with the head chef just to learn how to turn everything on and off.  He taught me how to scramble ten quarts of eggs at a time and cook them on a griddle the size of a Volkswagon. AND I LOVE THAT.

This year, 125 people came. I have never cooked for so many people.  I had some challenges I did not expect. I am not a chef.  I never went to cooking school. I learn by saying dangerous things like, “Hey, what’s the worst that could happen?” and “Why the hell not?” But if you put an apron on and pretend you are in charge, people will treat you as if you know what you are doing and expect you to do great things for them.  People will ask you over (and over and over) how they should cut the (melon/pineapple/onions/potatoes) for you until you want to scream at them “How do I know?? For F* sakes? Make them like Lucky Charms in hearts, stars, clovers, and magical surprises for all I care!  Just take that thing and make it into pieces that might fit on the end of a fork so that some poor soul can get it past their lips!” But of course you don’t do that because you are a “A Nice Person” Or at least pretending to be.  And anyway, you cannot treat well-meaning volunteers that way. AND I LOVE THAT.

One morning, the real resident Head Chef, who was living quietly on the campus and observing things from a safe distance, came to help me make breakfast.  In minutes, he had assembled a delicious breakfast casserole.  It was amazing to watch how deftly he chopped things, how unhurried yet efficient every move with the knife was.  “Where did you learn to do this?” I asked. “Oh,” he replied airily, “I have no formal training. I just learned by doing and got the chance to work with some great people who helped me with the finer points.” Hmmm…I thought.  Exactly how I became a seamstress.  Exactly how a lot of us learn the REAL work we do on a daily basis. We talked about the need to tailor the meals to people’s dietary limitations the way one has to tailor the waistband on a pair of pants.  Both jobs involve a lot of cutting, accommodating, understanding what the requirements are, and a good deal of plain old-fashioned Making It Up As You Go Along.  He laughed at some of the struggles I was having.  His warm, understanding laughter made me feel better instantly.  I was Daunted in a way I had never been daunted before but I was going to be Ok.  It was comforting to know that Real Professionals have these troubles too and that the only things that could seriously hurt me were physical burns, mishandling heavy things, and Unreasonable Expectations of myself or others.   AND I LOVE THAT.

I learned again that people interested in Character Building Experiences can accelerate their personal growth opportunities tremendously by trying to accomplish simple, menial tasks in a timely manner with people who have no idea what they are doing.  I learned the value of teamwork and collaboration and that those who just “See what needs to be done and do it” are INVALUABLE everywhere they go.  An earnest young man, wishing to be helpful, came up to me and said “It says my job is to wipe down the tables. How do I do that?”  I paused and looked at him carefully.  He was not kidding. I sensed the Goodness and the Innocence of him and the kindness in his eyes. My heart melted.  I gave him a rag and a bottle of cleaner and showed him how to wipe a table. And my heart sang with joy at the thought of what we are all able to give each other from this shared experience.  We did NOT hire anonymous professionals to serve us.  We learn to serve each other. AND I LOVE THAT.

I love that the Originals who come back every year are now so capable and competent.  They are amazing human beings who have stepped in to fill the significant gaps in my own competence with their own. Every year I try to do better and every year I hit a point where I just fall apart.  So I decided to add the words “and I love that” to every time I must surrender my ego to the process of building something I cannot do alone. I learned that we find out Who We Are by rushing the limits of what we think we can do and we find out where that line is by going past it. Then we find out who our true friends are when they come to gather up the pieces left by the crash and help us put ourselves and the Plan back together. Our weakness, our incompetence, our weariness is the gift we give others who are Strong—who by coming to our aid, belong to our hearts in a way they never could have otherwise. We finish Together—Tired yet Triumphant, totally nourished in Body and Soul.   I wasn’t the Super-Hero I wanted to be. I needed help. I got it!  AND I LOVE THAT.

Be well my darlings!  And do good work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

A Valentine for You (yes, YOU!)

Greetings Dearest,

This letter is for You… Yes, YOU.   I have something deeply personal and intimate to share with you that might make you feel like you have just eaten too many sugar-free gummy bears but I must tell you anyway.  I’m too shy to say it aloud when I am with you, so I have to write it out.  STOP wondering who this is “for”…it’s for YOU.  I love you.  I love everything about you.  Truly, Madly, Deeply—smitten in the most smittenish way one could be smitted. But I’m not sure you know yet… One of the reasons you might not know I love you is because you don’t Notice.  You are so guarded against Receiving what is yours that you don’t even hear me.  Please, pay attention now:

 I said I love EVERYTHING about you.  You are absolutely, without a doubt, 100% Adorable.  I love your laugh, your smile, and when your eyes glitter with passion and energy when you talk about the people, places, and things you love.  I love to witness you being lit up with Joy.  I love all the things about you that are so Good—that are so much better than some things I see in myself. You inspire me! You guide me and instruct me, without your even knowing it, in the Grace-filled ways you move, speak, listen, share.  I am in Awe.

I love all the parts of you that are the same as mine. I love how similar we are.  I love the sense of connection, communion and community I feel in all the ways we are the same.  You make me feel like I belong, like I am not alone.  We are equals.  We are peers. We are cut from the same slightly warped piece of cloth and we can laugh about it.  We understand each other. I love that!

I love all the horrid parts about you: those icky, shameful parts you wish I could not see.  I see them.  And some of them are truly awful—every bit as terrible as some of mine, I realize with considerable relief.  I look at you and think “Whew!  I’m glad I don’t have to deal with that! Yikes!” I watch you flail and struggle with your humanness and then I find myself loving you even more.  Thanks to you, I learn pity, compassion, forgiveness.  I learn that truly loveable people are not perfect.

I love the parts of you I cannot understand yet. Every time you reveal that you are YOU and not someone else, and especially not me, I become more fascinated and intrigued.  Just when I think you are familiar, you surprise me. You are a source of endless curiosity to me.

I love how Wise you are—it gives me a chance to learn.

I love how Stupid you are—it gives me a chance to teach.

I love how Clumsy you are—it gives me a chance to be patient.

I love how Patient you are—it gives me the space I need to try again.

I love how Experienced you are—it gives me a chance to trust.

I love how Innocent you are—it gives me a chance to protect.

I’ve looked around enough to know that there is absolutely no one else precisely like you on this planet. You are Rare.  Of the 7.6 BILLION people on the globe, you are a sub-set of ONE. You were tailor made of the Highest Quality.  You are not mass-produced, off-the-rack, cheap quality goods.  No, my dearest, like the finest Continental suit, you are Bespoke.  You were bespoke in your mother’s womb and you’ve been making yourself ever more interesting with every new scar or skill since that first moment you took a tiny breath of All that is Infinite and set your lungs and life ablaze with your own private fire.

Does knowing I love you this much make you uncomfortable? What an Odd thing that a declaration of Love could make one cringe… Relax! There’s no need to worry…I’m not going to knit you scratchy socks or harvest a bunch of Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme and make you Cambric shirts without needlework.  (I know better than to give you something that requires ironing!) Besides, I’ve made plenty of those in my youth and I am, quite frankly, a little tired of that kind of sewing.  My eyesight and idealism are fading.  I don’t want to be your True Love anyway. (On the bright side, I won’t be asking for an acre of land between the salt water and the sea strand either.  I am too old for that kind of farming.) I just love you, that’s all.  Live where you want.  Wear what you want.  Marry who or what you want. I honestly don’t give a rip if you ever even love me back.

When I was very young, I used to wonder who would ever love me.  Who would comfort me? Who would hear me? Who would see me and be my witness that I am here?  I could feel an ache in my heart-space where love from some source outside of me was supposed to go.  As I matured, and was shaped by Family, Faith and School, I began to realize that my heart ached not with love that was Missing but with Love inside of me that was meant for Others. It was not my job to receive but to Give.  Give and Give and Give. Now that I am what a friend’s five-year-old calls “a little old latey,” I can see that I was wrong both times. Each time, I wound up feeling empty, lost.  Now, I know we must give AND receive. I no longer ask “Who can fill me?” or “Whom can I fix?” but rather “How can WE play a useful part in helping all of us love each other better?” How can I help you to love yourself? How can I see my own love in your mirror?

One of the most amazing things a True Love ever said was “You are so Special!  What is it you do that makes you You? I need to know so that I can help you keep doing that thing.  I love you and I don’t want you to stop doing anything that makes you Who You Are. It would be a terrible loss if you could not bloom into all you could ever be.”

So now I put the same question to you: what is it that makes you YOU? What makes your heart sing?  What makes you giddy with Joy? What makes you calmly Serene? What do you need to do or experience or create or feel to bring yourself to the center of your own sacred Being and give glory? Do you need to Run? Dance? Garden? Fiddle? Drive with the windows down and classic rock blaring? Neuter tom-cats? Macrame plant hangers? Knit things out of animal fibres? Play Guitar? Keep shuffling important papers in a cubicle in HR? Stop thinking about what the world around you needs.  It needs You. You need to show up and do your best You. I want that for you more than giving you twelve dozen roses, your weight in chocolate, and a winning lottery ticket. You’ll be a far better student, parent, worker, artist, dreamer, writer, builder… if you are fully present as your full self.  Once you realize how precious you are, you won’t care so much if the secondary details are not as important as you thought.  Who cares if your house is not that tidy, or your mind isn’t either for that matter? And if you do your best to show up and that “you” is sometimes grumpy, lazy, ill-tempered and sad—ask yourself what you need in those moments. Know that I want you to have it.

I know you are more comfortable Giving than receiving.  I’ve seen you. I know. You are conditioned, like me, to prefer the subtle resentments of over-giving to the guilt of receiving. It’s one of the endearing things I love best about you.  But it worries me too.  Even now, I know you are wondering who I’m “really” writing to.  Trust me, it’s YOU!! You need to be able to Receive.  If you cannot receive the love in this note, how will you know which sunset is for you? (hint: ALL of them!) How will you tune your soul to the magnificent Silence of starlight on snow? How will you remember to stop and sniff all those over-priced roses for sale this week? (Do it!! They’re gorgeous!) Or even appreciate the exquisite beauty of someone who actually knows how to execute properly the entry and exit of a traffic circle round-about? (a true miracle of Un-nature)

It’s not your endless Giving that depletes you, Dear One—it’s that you do not let your own well refill with gracious Receiving. You are mostly Wonderful—apart from the fact that you are not loyal to your own wonderfulness. Like a stray cat, you expect others to notice it and feed it.  Stop doing that. Adopt yourself.  Doing so will not make you “selfish” in that horrible leave-all-your-dishes-in-the-sink-for-others-to-do kind of way (it shouldn’t!) but if you don’t start serving seriously your own wonderfulness, then you deny the world of a precious gift it was meant to enjoy—and in essence you steal yourself from us all.  

Thank you for being you. I love you so much! Today, please do what it takes to keep being you.  Serve your gift. Do whatever it takes to bring the Love to the world that only you can bring. Tomorrow is Valentine’s day—a good enough reason to send you this letter.  But please, don’t think I love you just for this day only.  Read this letter Any day!  I love you for Always. Receive it as best you can and pass it on.

All my Love,

Me

 P.S. Now go smell the Roses!!!  REALLY smell them.

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire!

“What upsets me is not that you lied to me, but that from now on I can no longer believe you.” – Nietzsche

 Greetings my Dear Ones!

It’s February…our temperatures have fluctuated by almost sixty degrees in the past five days.  After the recent cold snap that went only as low as -12F at my house (not quite the polar vortex suffered by the Midwest), we ran around like fools in T-shirts when the mercury rose to 50F—it felt so balmy!   Every year, I have to remind myself to make no major life decisions before the daffodils appear.  It’s too hard to trust anything in February—from the weather to my internal sunlight-deprived state of mind.  One must dress in layers of wool and skepticism.   We have nothing to look forward to but mud, shams, and shamrocks in March too—it’s tempting abandon all attempts at Elegance until mid April.  Getting from the house to the car will be a full-contact sport for many weeks to come.

Valentine’s Day is coming up.  So is Prom season.  It’s as good a time as any to ponder lies.   For one thing, people seem to lie to us in the shop all the time.  Sometimes, their lies are really funny.  Sometimes they are deeply painful.   Sometimes they affect us financially.  Sometimes they keep us up at night.  Some might argue that a lie is a lie and any Untruth is a crime against our spirits.  I think reality is more confusing than that.  For one thing, we create our own reality based on both our ignorance and our experience.  A woman came into the shop and said “I’m so glad I found you!  I had no idea you guys were here.  I’m not from around here.” “Oh, really?” I ask, instantly curious. I love meeting people from other places.  “Where are you from?” I inquire, thinking she will say something exotic like Colorado or Michigan.  But NO.  She names the town Right Next To This One—the one whose very border is less than three miles from our doorstep.  She’s lived there all her life, never lived anywhere else, just never bothered to go three miles southwest! But she’s not from “around here.”

Sometimes lies are just big verbal turds that people leave behind, expecting others to clean up.  There is a woman who works in the local prison system who had all her uniforms altered and then got promoted before she could collect her order.  She no longer needs those shirts, so she won’t come pick them up.  Nor will she send a check.  This has been going on for nearly a year.  On the rare occasions that she can be reached by phone (by tricking her and disguising the number of the shop) she laughs and says she’ll be in “tomorrow” to get everything.  Then she isn’t.

A bride came and picked up her wedding dress on her wedding day.  She did not have the full payment with her.  She gave us less than a third of the total cost and gratefully promised to send a cheque with the remainder later.  We let the dress go.  What kind of monsters would deprive a bride of her dress on her wedding day?  Who doesn’t have compassion for the disorganized and flustered on that day?  These things happen.  We have allowed many brides to take their dresses. Now, she refuses to pay for about fifty hours worth of work that she feels should be free because she didn’t like the price of professional service to begin with.  A trip to small claims court did nothing.  She tearfully told the adjudicator that “it’s not like she didn’t pay something—she paid “what she could” but we were just “too greedy.”  Our prices were too high, though she admitted that the quality of the work was outstanding.

I agree with a man who says lying can be defined in terms similar to murder: There are first degree lies that are told with malice aforethought and intent to deliberately mislead or do harm.  Then there are second degree Falsehoods of Convenience that folks use to convince themselves that they can have things the way they want them, unencumbered by the Truth.  Finally, there are the so-called “White Lies”—which are some of the dirtiest.  (Why tell someone they look good if they don’t?) But we are all guilty of saying we are “fine” when the reality is more like your cat just pooped in your shoes, your girlfriend dumped you, and you just found out there is a snow storm on the way and you have neither bread nor milk.  Sometimes these “White lies” are told to prevent an argument or bad feelings over something generally meaningless: “This? Why it was on SALE! Yes…it was practically free.” Sometimes the information we have said only includes things we want to say and excludes things that we don't want anyone to know. So while TECHNICALLY we have not told anything false, we have also not revealed all that we know to be true—as in: Me holding up crusty trousers:“Did you wash these?”  Customer: “Yes. (once, a long time ago, probably during the first Bush administration) Yes. Definitely. They have been washed.”

Growing up, lying of any kind was a Serious Offense in my family home, with swift and HARSH consequences—what Prudence nods to approvingly as “Good Old-Fashioned Discipline,” not  the little chat or “time-out” that people give their kids today.  My mother had a fool-proof way to get us kids to tell her the truth.  When crimes or misdemeanors were committed in the household, Inquisitions were held immediately.  Anyone whose testimony was doubted was required to stick out his or her tongue.  She had us convinced that if we told a lie, a “black spot” would appear on the surface of the tongue.  We lied to each other and into mirrors all the time to test this phenomenon but we never saw a single black spot.  She told us it was something “only mothers could see” and that one day, if we were lucky enough to have rotten little children of our own who lied to us, we would be able to see the spots then.  It was incredible.  She always could tell when we were lying.  We had no idea how she managed it.  She was never wrong.  (Let’s not get into the extreme Irony around the fact that my mother told this great Whopper herself, in order to get us to keep to the straight and narrow.  Maybe anyone who has five or more children is allowed to fight dirty for Justice to be served.) Twenty years later, over a beer, she admitted that she could always tell by how fast or slowly we would stick our tongues out whether or not we had something “to hide.”

I learned very young that Yes, the Truth hurts—sometimes excruciatingly so.  As I have aged, I have also come to learn that the hurt from a harsh truth never lasts as long as the hurt from a lie, no matter how well-intentioned.   

So why do people lie, especially when they don’t need to?  Do we really care whether it was your dog or your cat or your own recklessness that caused your pants to rupture? We don’t need to hear what you were drinking when your sleeve caught fire.  From my little sewing desk in the corner, here is what I think is The Truth about lies:

Most Liars really want us to like them—at the very least, they don’t want to disappoint us.  They come up with the most fascinating stories to make themselves look like good-humored, totally innocent victims we should Not Judge.  Fundamentally, they are trying to hide themselves because they suspect they might not be acceptable, never mind loveable, just As They Are.

The lies may not matter to us, but they matter to our customers.  They invest in their stories, no matter how irrelevant we may find them.  They actually care deeply about centering themselves in a reality of their choosing—even if it’s that they own a magic Christmas tree farm that requires them to wear costumes from the Australian Outback in the nineteenth century. 

They are often trying to control a situation and are using lies to manipulate an outcome. “I need this shirt done by Friday (which is secretly two weeks before I actually need it) because my sister’s/friend’s/pet gold fish’s previous owner has requested I wear this shirt to her wedding on Saturday…” instead of simply ASKING “Is there any reason I could not have this when I want it?”  At least once a week, we are in a panic that someone has not come in to collect an important item, only to find out they don’t need it for another week or two and had given us a false date. Such subterfuges are demeaning to us because they belie a customer’s lack of faith in our willingness or ability to serve him/her just because it is the Right Thing To Do! (How does anyone stay in business if they don’t give their people what they want when they want it??)

Lies swiftly become great big, fat snowballs.  They roll downhill gathering weight and collecting more and more details and complications as they go.  I can always tell when a customer is feeling nervous and starting down a tricky path of um…. “FABRIC-ation” about her garment.  Sometimes a little inaccuracy saves them tons of explanation.  Sometimes tons of explanation leads them far astray. 

They don’t think they are lying anymore—they have told this particular fib for so long that they actually think it is the truth. “No, seriously, I AM a size 10.”

They know it is not the truth but they so desperately want it to be true—like the time I asked my five-year-old who had scribbled on the wall in crayon and written her (misspelled) name about eighteen inches off the ground and she told me right away that “Daddy did it.”  Among my personal favorites:  “This fits great—I just can’t get the zip up.” “It’s not my size but it fits me.”

I believe most people are honest most of the time.   Some statistics would have us believing that people are confusing or misrepresenting themselves to us about thirty percent of the time but as Mark Twain pointed out, there are “Lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

What do you hear when you know someone has lied to you? “I hear that I am not valued,” says a friend.  Personally, I think it’s just the opposite.  I think the liar is not valuing him/her Self.  The lies we tell other people are nothing to the lies we tell ourselves—sly deceptions spun from clever minds and bitter hearts.

And that’s as close to the Truth as I can get today.

Be well my Darlings!

Yours aye,

Nancy

 

In the Trades

Is education possibly a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth? The goose who trades his is soon a pile of feathers. Aldo Leopold 

Greetings Dear Ones!

 It has come to my attention that quite a few carpenters and “handywomen”  read this blog! One might not think so but it can be pretty difficult to tell carpenters and seamstresses apart: We use a lot of the same tools, materials, and methods—just on different scales. We both “measure twice, cut once” and swear like naughty sailors when we get it wrong.  We both deal with bolts, though with differing meanings for that word, and in the end, we each produce a lot of scraps.  We both find ourselves doing the most ridiculously simple and menial chores for people whom, had they not eliminated Shop and Home Ec. classes from the standard high school curriculum in the 1980’s, (or had a conscientious grandparent!) should have been able to do for themselves. As we work, we both visually tessellate items in our minds—turning things inside out and backwards in our imaginations. We have the kind of brains that can imagine things “taken apart.” We are both dependant on the reference points of “plum” and “level,” though we seamsters are more apt to refer to it as a garment’s “center line.”

 Recently,  I had a conversation with a professional designer/builder and told him all the ways our work was similar.  He laughed and said that being a seamstress was more like being a shipwright—that making clothing was more akin to building a boat. Everything has to be accommodated in biomorphic shapes, dealing with rounds; there are no perfectly square edges on a human. “Plum” and “level” become only relative reference points that must be read with a skilled and experienced eye in relation to the ship or body itself, rather than a fixed point on earth.  Humans bob around in air the way that boats bob around in water. If only every hemline had a gimbals! (that mechanism, typically consisting of rings pivoted at right angles, for keeping an instrument such as a compass or chronometer horizontal in a moving vessel or aircraft).

 In both carpentry and tailoring, there is a difference between being a “tradesman” and a “craftsman.” Sadly, we don’t get to be craftsmen (or craftswomen) very often.  We are too busy fixing people’s stuff! A woman comes in to have us stitch a label back on her husband’s tie.  A mother needs her daughter’s uniform skirt hemmed. A young man needs a button sewn on his coat. Another man has ripped his jersey.  A debutante has bought a bargain at TJMaxx only to discover that the shoulder, stitched on with a chain stitch, has given way and is now unraveling the way one opens a sack of dog food.  “It’s just a little thing,” they say, “I wish I knew how to do this.”  So do I, Dear One, so do I! 

Craftsmen devote themselves to making Lovely and Useful things and harnessing Beauty in wood or cloth or metal.  You find a lot of them on Etsy. “In the trades,” we are more often relegated to serving the public than the Muses.  It’s much dirtier work.  Here, I want to avoid creating the wistful, romanticized notion that mine is a “simpler” life that is somehow more authentic or more democratically valorous for being “working class.”  However, I do wish to rehabilitate the honor of the trades.  There is a great sense of agency and competence that comes from doing manual work that is better than any therapist or self-help book in terms of building one’s confidence.  I have been told many times throughout my life that those who work “from the neck up” have way more money and opportunities than those of us who work from the neck down and that does seem to be true.  However, our increasing manual disengagement in a “post-industrialist” society is leading to some terrible things. What ordinary people once made for themselves or each other, they now buy. Instead of fixing things, they just discard and buy new. Our landfills cannot take this.  Also, and I mean this kindly, people seem to be getting dumber about basic, practical stuff they should know how to do.  Not a day goes by that Prudence doesn’t look at some item and say to herself, “Seriously? How is it that a grown-arsed-adult doesn’t know how to x___ y___or z___?” If they are simply too lazy, that’s one thing and we are happy to help.  If they are truly Ignorant, in that unsullied, delicate, exotic way that Oscar Wilde talks about, well then, we as a Society need to look into some things!

 Today, most of our schools, with the exception of a tiny number of Vo-tech schools, give manual trades little Value—celebrating instead the ideals of “potential” rather than achievement. Craftsmanship is about learning to do one thing really well.  Traditional colleges, especially those championing what is known as “a liberal arts education” are designed to give one an open passport to a future, rather than any concrete or saleable skills.  Yes, we are taught rhetoric and logic, but it is not the logic of the skill saw, lathe or sewing machine that could bite or maim us.  It is not even logic one can stub her toe upon.  It is the type of learning that propels smart people into the cubicles of middle management.  As a result, rather than producing skilled workers, our highest levels of educational institutions are churning out hordes of compliant “generalists” untethered by any single set of useful skills, qualified only to go on to more schooling. Plato himself makes a distinction between technical skill and rhetoric in that rhetoric has “no account to give of the real nature of things and so cannot tell the cause of any of them.”  I just LOVE rhetoric.  I could sit and talk about it for days.  But there is a certain submission one must undergo when dealing with the logic of Things, rather than fantastical arts of persuasion.

Give me a good, old fashioned system of indenture! Let us learn by doing. (Think how good this would be for those whose alternative learning styles don’t conform to the factory model of today’s educational system.)  Skilled manual labor involves a very systematic encounter with the material world.  Experience is key.  In days gone by, a young tailor would expect to be an apprentice for a minimum of seven years to be called a master.  As one who works with her hands daily yet still feels the ache of all I am not yet “good” at, seven years to Excellence seems like a dizzying pace.  The wonderful ladies I work with have more than sixty year’s worth of professional experience between them (Which is amazing, considering they are both only “29!”) and yet they are still learning and trying new things. There is a joy in making things. I know the enclosure of my skills and I feel a secret thrill when I am drawn over the edge of them into new experiences, new learning, new patterns and ways for the hands to manifest what the mind imagines.  This is going to take me WAY longer than a mere seven years to master! It is a path, not a destination. 

 The dictionary defines a Trade as “a skilled job, typically one requiring manual skills and special training.”  It is also the exchange of something for something else, typically as a commercial transaction.  I like digging deeper and finding out that the modern word came into Middle English from Middle Low German, and literally meant ‘track’ (of West Germanic origin).  It is also related to “tread.” Early senses included ‘course, way of life’, which gave rise in the 16th century to ‘habitual practice of an occupation’, ‘skilled handicraft’. The current verb senses date from the late 16th century.  A trade is not just a skill but a way of life, a thing one “trades” for things like money (or help building a chicken coop), and a way of knowing and navigating one’s world. I like the notion that “Trade” embodies, at its root, the notion of Life’s Path, or vocation.

We don’t just shape things; they shape us as well.  They literally change our Minds, our very brains. I am also beginning to suspect that manual dexterity is far more easy to cultivate in the young.  It is not impossible at any age, however, the odds are stacked against the older learner, who will require more repetitions than a more malleable younger brain. The cognitive demands of skilled manual work are very high.  They involve a kinesthetic learning over time that creates skill that cannot be had by reading about or watching a task.  I had to do over two hundred button holes by hand before I could reliably create buttonholes that were of consistently uniform size and shape and quality and more than seven hundred before I was actually proud of them.  The intellectual “knowing” or understanding of “how one makes a buttonhole” and then there is the ability to make one.  The two are vastly different things and can only be synthesized over years of practice.  The “brain” must extend all the way to the fingertips and into the tools that are being used—and dendrites grow slowly!

There is literally and figuratively a lot to be said for the hands-on approach to problem solving. Sometimes it begins with the realization that the assumptions and demands of formal education must be ignored or actively resisted.  Once launched, this process of exploration-by-doing, the self-education and development never stops.  There are infinite ways to explore a craft.  No two problems or situations are ever the same. People become skillful and thoughtful only when they care what they are doing.  Through our work, we begin to link the wisdom of the body with the wisdom of the Spirit.  There is no fundamental separation.   Only by pursuing knowledge through our hands do we come to appreciate the interdependence of human skill, intelligence, and soul.  “If thinking is bound up with action, then the task of getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on our doing stuff in it,” writes Matthew Crawford, author of the brilliant book Shop Class as Soulcraft.  I could not agree more!

Be well my Dearies!  And Do Good Work!

Yours Aye,

Nancy

...Of Mice and Brides

“Plans are worthless but planning is everything.” –Dwight D. Eisenhower

 Greetings Dear Ones!

Here in the dark underbelly of mid-January, the thoughts of this shivering Seamster turn to ice, mice, and brides.  “Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ waste/ An’ weary Winter comin fast/ An’ cozie here, beneath the blast/ Thou thought to dwell…”

The recent storm was the perfect opportunity to dwell in Snowetry (snow + poetry):   Burns by the woodstove—while outside, the whole forest became its own Poem. Friday is the 260th birthday of Scottish poet Robert Burns and anyone with a drop of Scotch in his/her veins will be wearing “hodden grey” and dining on “hamely fare” of “neeps and tatties” and singing odes to mice and lice and prehistoric-style sausages made of all the mutton the Scots couldn’t sell to the English. This morning, according to Accuweather, it is -2F degrees with a “real feel” of -27 and a wind speed of 17 mph here in my enchanted Forest.  It’s the kind of cold that makes one’s nostril hairs clink if one sniffs quickly.  It’s the kind of cold that has all the Jack Russells piddling on the welcome mat outside the door because they will venture no further into “bleak winds ensuing, baith snell an’ keen” to do their business. (They care nothing for Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening either!) Our wee homestead is a vaguely familiar foreign planet I navigate shin deep in a white, granular substrate. My snow gear, like an astronaut’s suit, impedes any forward momentum as I bring the breakfast hay to the sheep and fresh water to the chickens. It is literally Breathtaking to feel my eyelashes freeze and my eyebrows go crispy as I pause to gaze at the fading morning stars, which seem like local chips of ice themselves, rather than heatless distant suns.

 In the warm bright shop, our “earth-born companions an’ fellow-mortals” come blasting through the front door, stamping their gritty feet, blowing on their reddened hands “wi’ bickerin brattle” and blurting dumb things like “Cold enough for ya?” Most folks seem to hate the cold and can’t believe how COLD it is. “I just can’t believe it is this Cold,” shudders one woman.  I can’t believe she can’t believe it.  “Were you here last year?” I want to know.  It’s Winter… In New England. This shit happens Every year.  And it’s MAGNIFICENT.  The intensity of all four seasons is why we live here! (It’s certainly not for the antics of our fellow motorists in heavy traffic, on macadam renditions of Swiss cheese.)

In the dressing room, the theme of “white and wild” continues.  We have two bridal fittings: First up is a  “wee, sleeket beastie”— standing on the platform in the dressing room.  She is beaming into the mirror and turning this way and that to see the contours of lace frothing about her like she is a dishwasher gently overflowing.  Her wedding is not until October but she is Ready.  Her eyes glitter with deep satisfaction.  “You are so Organized!” I say with admiration.  “Well,” says her mother, nonplussed, “She’s only been planning this since the fifth grade. She has been holding a spot at her favorite venue for the past two years, just in case her man proposed. You know how those prime venues are…” I nod because everyone else is nodding knowingly but secretly Prudence and I are Astonished that Franz, the head coordinator at Top-of-the-Hill-Posh-Weddings-R-Us-Estate knew her wedding would take place there before the groom knew he was going to be a groom!”

Later that afternoon, we have a vastly different fitting with another bride, with “O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!” who, by no stretch of the imagination seems to have been planning her nuptial celebrations since last week.  Who knows?  Maybe she just woke up on Monday and realized she had to get her act together by the weekend. She has been pulling all-nighters for several days. Her bridesmaids are with her.  They look irritated and exhausted.  She just got the gown and it needs quite a bit of work.  We’ve got less than a week to slap this thing together before it gets stuffed in a suitcase bound for a beach resort in the Carribean.

It amazes me that on the Same Day, we could entertain the opposite poles of the Bridal Planning Spectrum.  One girl is methodically ticking items off a long list of Everything She Ever Wanted, the other girl, the now-crazed slacker, is going to have to make mad dashes, split-second decisions, and surrender to the Best that Can Occur in the moment.  Both women will be beautifully dressed and equally married by the time all is said and done but one will have the blood-pressure of a New York stock trader and the other will have nothing to do but organize her future husband’s sock drawers.  No doubt, the friendships of all those in both wedding parties will be tested to the limits.

It makes me think about the clarity needed to manifest what we want—whether we know that years in advance or moments.  We need to ask for help.  We need to rely on our friends. We DO need plans. I can’t help thinking that astute couples will look at how they are getting through the wedding prep as a potential blueprint for how the rest of the marriage could go.  I imagine one couple systematically acquiring a mortgage, coordinating the arrival of their children around their vacation schedules, then saving for college and retirement…the other couple just winging it in a perpetual state of reactive astonishment as Life Choices come at them like asteroids in a video game.  In the Amusement park of Marriage, some couples choose to sit in the Tea cups and go gently round and round smiling; others ride the roller-coasters, holding hands, strapped in, screaming all the way.

You might think that I, or certainly Miss Prudence, might have some judgments around which one is doing it “Right.” (Prudence does not care as long as they all Get married and Stay married, with minimal fuss and as little karaoke as possible.) Truly, I have equal affection for each bride.  Each one is a strong, young woman doing her best, with certain presuppositions about how she manages her world or how her world manages her.  Things change.  If there is anything I have observed from my little sewing table in the corner, it’s that Life usually throws the Best Planners a curve ball or two and those who don’t plan at all lurch abruptly between disappointment at not getting what they think they want and suddenly having things work out for the best anyway.  Fate has a way of grinding the roughest edges off us all. But I’m not saying anything than an Ayrshire farmer turning over a mouse nest in the 18th century didn’t already say way better!

Despite all our anxiety and fretting, the truth is that none of us REALLY knows what is really happening until it happens.  We live for our goals, for our routines, for the constructs and structures we create for ourselves “Till crash! the cruel coulter past/ out thro’ thy cell.”  We all know “the best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men (and brides, and parents, and lovers, and seamstresses) gang aft agley,” but what is there to do but plan anyway?

On we slog, in “Winter’s sleety dribble, an’ cranreuch cauld!” and backward cast our eyes on prospects drear—while forward, though we “canna see,” we guess and fear!  So we plan, and insure those plans… and then, when plans fall through, there’s always Poetry! 

Be warm and well, my Darlings!  Button up and aye be cheerie! And do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

P.S. If you come visit me any time soon, please don’t wipe your feet on the Welcome mat!

All We Cannot Do

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

Greetings Dear Ones!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours aye,

Nancy

A Ripping Good Start

Greetings Dear Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

And now, the fairy tale continues…

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHY DID NO ONE SAY ANYTHING???

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

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

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

Yours aye,

Nancy

In the Beginning was....

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

Greetings & Happy New Year, Dear Ones!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours aye,

Nancy

Bonus Telescope Included!!

“For it is in Receiving that we Give”

 Season’s Greetings Dear Ones!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Merry Christmas, Dear Ones!

Yours aye,

Nancy

Prudence Thimbleton's Finishing School

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

Season’s Greetings Dear Ones,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours aye,

Nancy

Tis the Season...

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

Greetings Dear Ones!

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

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

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

“What’s a niche?” I want to know. 

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

“Which church is Holy Mackerel?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours aye,

Nancy

Who is Prudence Thimbleton?

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

Greetings Dear Ones!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With so much love,

Yours aye,

Nancy

Asking "For a Friend"

Greetings Dear Friends!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours aye,

Nancy

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

Which guest will you feed?

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

Greetings my dear Fellow Pilgrims and Pioneers of Life,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With so much Love and Gratitude,

Yours aye,

Nancy

Wishful Thinking

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

C.S.Lewis

Greetings Dear Ones!

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

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

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

Example #1:

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

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

Example #2:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wish certain customers came with warning labels.

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

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

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

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

Yours aye,

Nancy

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

Living with Bias

Greetings Dear Ones!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be well, my dearies, and Vote!!!

Yours aye,

Nancy