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 Lady Mothball has arrived with ten pairs of out-of-date summer-weight trousers she wants tailored.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,