I've Got Your Back

Greetings my Dearies!

A man comes running in off the street. “Can you fix a pair of pants?” he asks breathlessly. I look at his hands—I see no pants. 

“Sure,” I say, “Just bring them into the shop and we’ll take a look at them and see what they need.”

“Oh, they’re right here,” he says, turning around.  There is a rip extending from his right hind pocket all the way to the back of his knee. 

“What in Heaven’s name did you do to these?” I want to know. “Did you slide down a banister with a nail in it?”

“I have no idea,” he says, shrugging.  “All morning, I’ve been feeling a weird sort of breeze. Finally, I looked at my ass in a mirror and wham, there’s a hole in my pants!” 

I offer to fix them while he hides in our restroom.  Meanwhile, the dressing room, containing a medium-sized Mother of the Bride, is emanating muffled thumps and sounds of struggle.  Finally, the door opens and I go in.  She is bright pink and trying to compose herself after an obvious exertion. She faces the mirror and scans herself critically from head to toe, then smiles approvingly. 

“I love this dress!” she announces.  It is a silver thing with glitter all over it. “It fits perfectly, except that I’m having a little trouble getting the zip closed up. That’s all it needs.”

I look at the back.  The zipper is open like a large wedge of pie.  Her back meat is bulging through a gap that goes from shoulder blade to shoulder blade.  Where she has gotten the zipper up about four inches is strained and rippling, pulling the fabric tight around her waist.  There is no way this thing will close. Ever.  The gap measures at least six inches across the top, meaning we will need to add large gussets to each side, under the arms.  This is going to look, um, well, NOT like the designer intended (a designer, who presumably designed it for a subset of humanity assumed to be shoulder-less).  Meanwhile, she is still preening and smoothing the front of the dress, petting it like a favorite cat. I am standing still, seeing the whole picture from the back, along with what is reflected in the mirror.  The mirror is not lying—the dress that she can see DOES look lovely on her.  But it is not telling her the whole, less-lovely truth, which lurks behind her.  “Can you get that zipper up?” she asks me sweetly. 

Now, I am in that uncomfortable place I often am, where I must tell someone a Truth she will not like.  King Kong could not get this zipper up.  I need her to look in two mirrors at once to see all of herself, so that I can explain (as kindly as I can) what must be done to make this fit her.  Yes, of course, we can make this fit her.  We can pretty much make anything fit anyone.  But I know from experience that it will not wind up being the look she is going for.  She does not currently imagine that we will have to translate that triangle of bare back into two smaller triangles (gussets) of fabric that must make the side seams extend themselves so that all the rest of the dress can be aligned properly.  It’s a delicate business and the proportions of the dress will be off, no matter what we do. 

I can hear my beloved mentor’s voice echoing in my head, “Give the people what they want!” but the truth is, sometimes they cannot have what they want, exactly, only a modified approximation.  This woman wants to wear THIS dress, the size it is.  She sees herself only in THIS light, THIS shape.  She wants the front mirror only.  She does not like the idea that she needed something at least two sizes bigger across her back.

We are all guilty of this “front view” mentality in some way in our lives, says me, who once walked all the way up High Street with her skirt hem tucked into her underwear.  We need help to see ourselves from behind, in the round, as it were.  We need others to see what we cannot see for ourselves and we need their compassion and their help, and sometimes some well-placed shrubbery too… Facing a Truth that has snuck up behind us can be a savage business indeed.

I remember joyously awaiting the arrival of my daughter, nearly twenty-one years ago.  Two weeks after her due date, with her still stubbornly refusing to make her grand entrance, I was getting a lot less joyous. The obstetrician caring for me suggested I go for a long walk or swim to speed things along.  I had been swimming daily throughout the pregnancy and my swimsuit was as worn thin as my patience.  For a start, I had been abusing it by treating it like athletic wear when it was really a nylon maternity confection meant to disguise me as a sherbet-colored sea creature, some sort of unfortunate mating of between a giant Man ‘o War jelly fish and a rainbow-colored manatee.   I went to the fitness center where I was a member, put on that thread-bare suit with its trailing ruffles and ruches, plopped myself into the nearest wave tank, and set it to a medium pace.  There was no lap pool, just these two tanks, side by side, where one could swim forward endlessly, against a current set by jets—kind of an aquatic treadmill. I was swimming hard, taking deep lungfuls of damp, chlorinated air, when I noticed the manager of the center looking in through the glass window.  He was obviously showing a couple the swimming apparatus.  The woman was pointing at my tank, looking interested.  I closed my eyes after that quick breath and plowed forward into the wall of froth coming at me. I don’t breathe every stroke so it was many moments before I caught a glance at the window again.

The people were still watching.  In fact, a crowd was gathering. Rather than feel embarrassed, I felt oddly pleased.  They seemed really interested in my speed, my precisely powerful yet economical strokes.  While I lumbered awkwardly and heavily on dry land, here, in this tank, I was a dolphin at one with this water, at one with each breath, eyes closed, plunging on…   I could tell just from how I felt that I was Magnificent.  I felt great!  After a several minutes, I decided to crank it up a notch.  I stood up in the rushing current to adjust the dial to its highest setting and that’s when I saw two things that suddenly changed everything.  The first was the sight of the female manager approaching me with a large towel.  The second was the pale skin of my enormous belly and the total absence of my swimsuit, which had finally given up, sloughed off my body, and dissolved into tattered shreds that were now clogging the filter at one end.  I have no idea how long my bare back and wobbly bottom had been bobbing visibly in the waves but it had clearly been the subject of much discussion by those peering in the window!

In retrospect, I wish I had put my arms over my head in a victorious gesture, roared, or claimed some pride in the Magnificence of fecund Femininity. But no… (For an instant, I seriously contemplated drowning myself, right then and there.) Instead, I slithered out of the tank, up onto the deck, like something lunging for a fish snack at Sea World, and scuttled off to the locker rooms, never to be seen again in that establishment. All of this is said to illustrate the point that I know Full Well the horror of realizing that we don’t always know what we look like from behind.  We might think we look fantastic. We head out into the world with our glasses on straight but the back of our hair, where we slept on it, is a flattened mess that looks like rats have danced there all night.  We conduct our business with happy, expectant faces, oblivious to the fact that we are trailing toilet paper on our shoe, or we have sat in jam.

When my children were little, they were utterly convinced that I had eyes in the back of my head because they had no idea how a rearview mirror worked and could not figure out how I could see what they were doing in the back seat as I drove.  When my son wanted my full attention, he would say “I want you to see this with your FRONT eyes, Mummy, not your back eyes.”   It would be so convenient if we did have eyes in the back of our heads, or 360 degree vision, like sheep.  But that’s what lovers, friends, and seamstresses are for.

When someone says they “have your back” it means they are there to help you out, they will watch out and take care of the things you're likely to miss, that they are a second set of eyes and hands for you.  They can see the things that you cannot see.  I think the term actually has a military origin dating back to Roman gladiators who fought back to back in a buddy-system form of combat, though linguistically, the phrase emerges much later and probably refers to a rear guard of soldiers.  Certainly, one of the indicators of cowardice is to shoot someone in the back. This means to shoot someone who is at the least, undefended and at the most undefended and retreating. So, while ‘to have someone’s back’ doesn’t necessary have anything to do with retreat, military knowledge allows us to surmise that it is about offering protection to someone where they are most vulnerable.

And we are Most Vulnerable without warning, when we least expect it, when we only view our pants, or dress, or relationship with another, from one angle only. We can only see so much of ourselves at one time.  As with me in the pool, and the dear lady in the dressing room, this can be a euphoric time of delightful delusion.  We are in danger of thinking we are Magnificent, for sure.  As Buddha said, when we are Enlightened, “We are the Seer and the Seen.” But when we are Seen but Unseeing, things can get interesting indeed.  Then, we are not Enlightened; we are just very, very, (excruciatingly) Human, caught in the act of being ourselves. Sometimes when we have no idea that we are Naked, we are momentarily and joyously returned to the innocence of Eden,  and we are actually at our very happiest. One minute, we are enjoying a nice breeze on our nether regions, the next,  “Wham, there’s a hole in our pants,” we have fallen from Grace and the notion of our own shame destroys us.

Then, nothing can help us but each other, with gentle humor, compassion, and CLOTH!! More Cloth!  Until we all come back as dolphins, we're going to need a lot more cloth!

Be Well, dear ones, and Do Good Work!!

Yours aye,