Greetings Dear Ones!
I am beginning to think I was not meant to be a saint by doing little things. “BIG things, done with Great Flourishes…things that can be done quickly and impressively, with the stroke of a magic wand, or a sword…things that involve galloping horses or fire...these seem like they would suit me better,” I think sourly, as I round hour thirty-nine of what will become a forty-five hour job to remove all the lace from the bottom of the scalloped hem of a wedding gown, only so I can slash six inches off the bottom and start sewing all that lace back on. I look intently at the seam ripper I am using and wonder if it is strong enough to open a radial artery. I simply cannot go on… The sun spins by the window and the colors of the days shift like a kaleidoscope. And yet this chore drags... I have no memory of breakfast, no plans for lunch, no memory of my former life. I have no children, no pets, no houseplants gasping for water on my windowsills…All I have ever done and all I shall ever do forevermore is remove the lace from this damn gown.
The lace has been stitched on with a clear strand of a filament, like finest fishing line, in dizzying circles, over and over and over itself, anchoring five yards of this frilly ornament to a piece of fragile tulle as if it must one day withstand the force of the Apocalypse. The shop feels like it is 105 degrees Fahrenheit and I am trying not to get my sweat or blood (from jabbed fingers) on material that shreds if I pull on it too hard. Each stitch must be picked out carefully with tweezers—and the only way I can see it properly is to have magnifying glasses and a hot white light held inches above it. A subtle variation in sheen is my only clue that a thread is there.
The other ladies are working briskly—machines are whirring, steam from the iron punctuates their progress with pronounced hisses. Hangers click on the racks as they finish mending one item after another. The shop hums with productivity and progress. Except in my corner. Hidden behind this frothy mountain, I think about the stories I read as a child—about how bags of millet were mixed with bags of sand and friendly ants helped the kindly heroine (who had saved them all just that morning) sort it all before the witch came back. I could use some helpful ants now! These stitches are just the right size for ants. I pick away steadily, bitterly, knowing that there is no way out but Through. The only witch here is me.
Growing up, I remember hiding out in the bathroom during afternoon chores at the barn with a book my sister had received as a prize for winning her class spelling bee. It was called The Lives of the Saints and it was filled with thrilling tales of martyrdom and valor, courage and bravery—all the goriest details of their triumphs over worldly temptations and devils in the form of misguided town magistrates. There was not a single mention of achieving glory via lace removal. The closest saint was St. Therese of Lisieux, “The Little Flower,” who, like Mother Theresa, understood the importance of doing “little things with great love.”
Ah… Love! That’s what I am missing! I have no love for this lace, this gown, nor the modern Fairytale tradition of dressing women up in fabric mountains worth thousands of dollars so that they can pretend to be a Princess for a day.
When my children were little, I read to them every night before bed. One night, I read my son a classic fairy tale about three sons who went out to seek their fortunes in the big bad world. The first two sons quite predictably squander their fortunes and imperil their lives by attempting to win the hand of a Princess, whose evil father puts them under an enchantment when they fail. It falls to the youngest brother to survive the tasks set before him and to free his enchanted brothers. He is a good and wise son and is probably doing this just to make his mother happy, since it does not seem that these older brothers were all that nice to him and he is the only one to leave the cottage with his mother’s blessing. Though he is younger and smaller and weaker, he is clearly her favorite. Now that I think of it, this is probably the sort of story told in days of yore to mollify bullied younger brothers… but I digress. We read pages and pages about the youngest brother’s courage and wit and cleverness and in the end he triumphs, mostly due to his strong Moral Character. I read with rising and falling drama in my voice as we near the conclusion. When I get to the end, where I say “and so the wicked King could do no more. He gave the Princess’s hand in marriage to the youngest brother and they all lived happily ever after.” My son five-year-old son is scowling. He had been all in during the deeds of valor, cheering for the youngest brother all the way as he rode horses of various colors up glass mountains and whatnot, but now his eyes are hot and dark and he looks scornful. Something about the ending has greatly displeased him. I am curious. Is it that women should Not be given as prizes? (No, they should NOT) Is it that no one could hope to live happily ever after with a father-in-law like that? Is it that the older brothers don’t say thank you? I ask him what bothers him about the story. He pauses, shakes his head, and says “that poor boy…that poor, poor boy.”
I pry a little more. After all, the boy marries the princess and becomes a prince. He wins! What’s the problem? Finally, my son looks at me with his clear, blue eyes, and begins to explain: “He won a princess. Princesses are a lot of work. They need princess shoes, a princess dress, a fancy bed with lots of mattresses and no peas—not just a regular bed. They need all the princess versions of everything. This is going to cost him a lot of money. He’s going to be poor again in no time. I wish the prize was just a bag of money he could share with his mother so they would not be poor. Now they have to take care of a whole Princess and princesses cost a lot of money.” He shakes his head sadly and sighs. Needless to say, I nearly wet my pants at the notion that my frugal five-year-old is an authority on the fiduciary constraints of royalty.
So I read the same story to my seven-year-old daughter and she has no problem with it. She loves to talk about princesses and to dress like one as often as she can from the overflowing trunk of dress-up outfits I have made for her and her neighborhood ladies-in-waiting. She smiles. Princesses are supposed to be expensive and beautiful and glamorous. Who wants to be a pre-pumpkin Cinderella? No One. For her, the Moral Character is not as important as the glass slippers and the glittering gown, the bigger and more sparkly the better!
Remembering how these separate genders responded to fairytales as children makes me smile as I sit picking lace. What are weddings anyway but an excuse to spend a whole lot of money so that a girl can be a Princess for a day? A castle, or something vaguely resembling a castle, must be rented; court musicians must be hired; linens for two-hundred and fifty guests must coordinate within two Sherwin-Williams paint shades of the bridal bouquet; and a Royal Banquet with an open bar must be served. All because two people love each other and need to share a Health-Care Policy. Does the groom want all this? I suspect he would rather have a pony. Or a small sack of gold. Probably the sack of gold. But no, everyone pretends for a day that they now have a kingdom. The rival Kings and Queens and their significant others are summoned by royal proclamations printed on hand-stamped parchment and encouraged to part with many sacks of gold. Guests are encouraged to purchase items for the palace from a Registry—so as not to let their own lack of taste interfere with the required furnishings of the royal household. The female inner seven-year-old is saying Finally, I get to stuff my little piggies into some itty-bitty shoes and wear the BIGGEST damn glittering gown I can find, while every inner five-year-old man within reach of his wallet is groaning and saying “I wish I had just ridden away on that golden horse while I had the chance! Why did I do all those feats of valor?”
For whatever reason, we as a species need to convince ourselves that Magic really happens, that champagne is as good as derma-bond at sealing two souls together for life, and that if a girl gets to have a good party dress for a day, she won’t really notice that she will have to spend the next sixteen years of her life as the grubby version of Cinderella, driving her bickering brats to soccer practice in a minivan that smells vaguely of dried ketchup and dead hermit crabs.
I sigh and look down at the gown all over my table and lap and legs. This particular Princess has no idea how long this is taking. She has no idea how much work this is. Her mother has been in twice already to complain about how much the rest of the wedding is costing, delivering the not-so-subtle subtext that we are the serfs who should not expect to get paid much for this, this little “hem”—the napkin rental alone has already cost her plenty. I think seriously about the energy I am putting into this gown and realize that it is full of grumbles, not good wishes. I need to restore my own faith in magic, in the Fairy Tale of “Happily Ever After,” not “Grudgingly Ever After, Until Debt Do Us Part.”
I know that our energy inhabits our work, long after it is finished—that everything we do receives our blessing or our curse, whether we want it to or not. We can taste the love in food others cook especially for us. We can feel the love in hand-knit socks hugging our feet. We can see the love in a neatly made bed with the pillows fluffed just so, or a love note packed in with our lunch. We know that little things done with Great Love bring the most happiness to our aching lives. It is good for our own souls to do this, no matter how tedious the task, no matter it may be received by others, or not noticed at all. We are, every one of us, magical creatures.
I DO want this dress to be a blessing—since I am not allowed to set fire to it—so I settle my mind around an old rallying cry of “if you can’t get out of it, get into it.” I learned this many times, growing up, having been discovered in the bathroom with The Lives of the Saints while the barn chores weren’t getting done. I surrender and give myself The Speech: The work does not do itself, Nancy. It must be done and it must be done by YOU. NOW. So just do it. With all the love you can muster. If you can’t love the work, try to love the person you for whom you are doing it. If you can’t do that; at least love yourself enough to do your best. Take pride in your work, no matter how trivial or cosmically and existentially Absurd it may be. One stitch or pitchfork at a time. Sometimes, Good People have to do Stupid Tasks and do them Well because it’s not about the work—it’s about the test of our spirits. At least that much of any fairytale is True!
Be well my Dearies! And do Good Work!