“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!