I shall only learn this once

Greetings my Dearies!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be well my dearies, and do Good Work!

Yours aye,