A Hero's Journey

Greetings Dearies!

Before I even begin, I must tell you that the following story is True. Well, mostly. There are a few of the usual em-BELL-ishments… Yet the subject of this story has given his full permission to have it published in this blog. 

People have been asking me if I worry about folks recognizing themselves in my stories and my answer is “I most certainly hope they do!”  I hope we all recognize ourselves!  We are all some version of these beloved customers in the shop, struggling to make something fit us better in some way, whether it is a pair of pants or Life itself.  We are all Magnificent and Weak. But my shop “characters” are not really Real—merely believable.  As their guardian, I change their sizes, nationalities, ages, or genders to scramble their descriptions beyond recognition.  I told you on page one: “All the names (and other identifiers) have been changed to protect the insolent.”  But I digress. On to this week’s True Story—a Mother’s Fairytale:

Once upon a time (last week), there was a handsome young prince who recently (this past June) came of age and was wont to set out in the world and seek Adventures. He announced to his mother, the Queen that he wished to go see the world or at least some of the bigger National Parks.  (She is not really a queen but we know she is probably a Princess of some sort because she sits for hours at her spinning wheel, just as all the storybook princesses do. And when princesses grow old and crabby and start bossing people around and threatening to chop the heads off woodland creatures if they poop on the carpet one more time, they get the reputation of being Queen.  So, for the purposes of this story, we shall call her the Queen.) The Prince said he wanted to travel, test himself, experience adventure, and reconnect with Nature.

Frankly, the queen thought this was a terrible idea.  She had been hoping he would reconnect with Nature by introducing himself to the Palace lawn mower and vanquishing a few weeds.  She sighed. She could see the zeal in his eyes and she knew in her heart, like all fairytale mothers, that it was time to send him on his way with a bannock and a blessing so he could leave home and have some sort of heroic quest to find Himself, or some apples, or a Golden Fleece of some sort.  (“Ooooh! Yes! Please let it be a Golden Fleece!” she thought, momentarily thinking of her spinning wheel rather than her darling son.)  The Prince's plans, she found out, were to travel in his mother's  Royal Carriage, a Ford SUV,  with an exceptionally clever and talented damsel who, though of age, had no driving license. The thought of him driving cross-country with no back-up driver—especially since he had racked up no fewer than FIVE moving traffic violations in the previous five months—made the queen Very Nervous indeed.  She issued a very unpopular Royal Decree: No Ford.  Besides, heroic journeys are always, at least partially, on foot. (I don’t recall Hercules setting off in an air-conditioned SUV with full stereo and satellite navigation system, do you?)  There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth but the Mean Queen held firm.  The King, the prince’s father, stepped in and offered some Royal Air Miles but the damsel bagged out.  She was not interested in a Heroic Journey on public transportation.  Only the Royal SUV would do. So the Prince had to decide to go alone, which, if one thinks about it, also makes more sense for a Heroic Journey anyway.  What hero brings a girl on a Quest? He might save one or two along the way, or need them to save him, but either way, they tend to pop up according to plot demands.

So the Prince continued his plans solo, though sadder at the loss of the SUV and the companionship of someone so lovely and clever. He graciously and gratefully accepted his father’s Royal Air Miles and packed an enormous rucksack for his adventure. When he had installed his tent, gear, clothes, and toothpaste, it weighed nearly 55 pounds.  He decided not to bring the big camera.  He took out half his clothes.  He got it down to a manageable 48 pounds.

The night before he left, he saw his mother, the queen, putting some green things in his shoes, hidden under the insoles. “What are you doing?” he wanted to know. “Are those leaves?” he asked, wrinkling his nose in suspicion.  He was used to her doing witchy things with herbs.

“These are not leaves,” she said, “this is in case of emergency. It’s called money. It’s very old-fashioned stuff but it still has magic and might come in handy.”

“Oh, I don’t need money,” he replied airily. “I have my phone. I am a thoroughly Modern prince. I use Venmo and Paypal.”

“Well,” she said, “just in case.  If anything happens, you can pull these old ‘leaves’ out of your shoes.  They might be helpful. Each one has a little number in the corner.  That will tell you how much it is worth.”

“Where is your itinerary?” she wanted to know. He waved the phone at her again. “Your list of contacts?” Phone. “A map?” He just kept smiling and looking at his phone.  By this point, he was texting someone.  He didn’t even hear her. He was looking at slice of glass barely four inches by three inches on the palm of his hand, through which he could see anything, anywhere, except that which was right in front of him.

The King arrived to take the young Prince to the airport and lifted his pack.  He groaned and said a few words that don’t really belong in fairytales and insisted the Prince repack.  The Queen intervened on the Prince’s behalf and said that Experience is a wondrous teacher and that all astute young men learn the same way to pack lightly in the future. It is a rite of passage she would not have him denied. So off went the old King, muttering, and the young Prince, also muttering, with forty-eight pounds of Experience-just-waiting-to-be-had on his back and a sliver of the whole world, all he needed, in his pocket.

In the silence that descended after their departure, the Queen performed all sorts of prayers and enchantments to keep her naïve Hero safe upon his quest.  As in all proper fairytales, she sent her Blessing after him to prevent him from harm, as well as a few Guardian Angels. In her heart, there was deep foreboding and misgiving, so she asked Archangel Michael to tag along too, totally forgetting that he has a sneaky sense of humor.  She did not sleep that night.  “What the hell was I thinking?!” she asked herself a thousand times. “How could I let my only son be flown to VEGAS of all places—that den of Sin, where he would have to spend a night alone, just so he could hop on a Greyhound bus for 5 hours to get to Zion National Park?” At least the King had thought to book him a hotel room near the airport. At least he had his phone (the Prince that is, not the King)(though one presumes he had one too) and she could text him every twenty minutes and check on him. Again, the Prince that is, not the King.)

From the moment the Prince arrived at Logan Airport, the journey was doomed.  His flight was cancelled due to engine failure.  The next available flight was five hours later and went to Phoenix, not Vegas.  He managed to get a connection to Vegas and turned up very late at night, only to discover his good father accidentally had booked him into an over-21 hotel which refused him entry. Undaunted, and with the use of his phone, our Hero managed to transfer his reservation to a different place, where he slept until he nearly missed the bus the next day.  After five hours discussing saxophones with a cool jazz musician, he was dropped off in Saint George, still two hours away from his destination. The Queen was frantic when she found out from his sister, Princess Tattle-tale that he had taken to hitch-hiking! (The Prince immediately blocked them both from all his social media posts.)

In old-fashioned fairy tales, the hero does not need to have booked a campsite ahead of time—but our modern Hero was chagrined to learn he should have thought of this, especially at the height of tourist season.  Seeing him standing at the information booth looking forlorn and perplexed, wilting under his enormous pack, two young women from New York took pity on him and invited him to share their campsite.  The three of them shared a fire and a conversation that lasted until the wee hours of the morning about Life and Direction and the Vision Quest that each was making in his or her own way.  The Queen slept more easily that night, knowing angels in the forms of confused twenty-six-year-olds were guarding her son and asking him why the hell he was shouldering such a heavy pack. 

“I’m kinda lonely, Mom,” he said two days later, on his third call to the Queen that day.  She noticed that he was calling more frequently. It turned out that a heavy pack was a lot of work. (Surprise, Surprise!)  It was hot in the desert. He was exhausted from sleeping on a mattress pad that deflated a few minutes after he fell asleep.  He kept waking up on rocks digging in to his bruised shoulders.  He was getting nosebleeds from the dryness. He had to walk miles to go anywhere or do anything.  He found himself just sitting alone in his tent looking at Snapchat. He was being plagued by squirrels. Squirrels? Seriously? The Queen was confused.  She had never heard of these sorts of torments in the Myths and Legends she read to him as a child. Were there no monsters to slay? No Truths to defend? No Virtues to discover? “They aren’t like the squirrels at home,” he insisted, “These are wee bastards! They are CRAZY!”

The next day, after an amazing hike, followed by a trek into town to buy groceries, he returned to the campsite to find his tent wiggling furiously. It was filled with squirrels after some pistachios he had left in his pack.  They had chewed a hole in the tent, holes in the pack and some of his clothes and they had jobbied all over everything. Two of them were dead, from heat stroke or perhaps from nibbling his socks. The tent reeked of Squirrel Excrement and expired rodent. Thoroughly disgusted, our Hero picked up the whole tent and dragged it to the nearest river to wash all his gear, including his sleeping bag, as best he could. As he was doing so, his phone—that magic window on the world, that umbilicus to Starbucks, Venmo, SnapChat, and his parents—slipped from his pocket and into the river, along with all the Squirrel turds, and Died.

Now, his Adventure would really begin….

For the next two days, she received random text messages from him on alien numbers, as kind strangers let him borrow their phones.  For fifty-six hours, she did not hear from him at all, as he navigated his way back to Vegas, to the airport, to Boston, without the use of a cell phone or watch, relying on helpful bystanders to tell him the time. When she finally collected him in Boston, she was surprised to see how Calm he was, how Serene. How Changed.

“You know, Mom,” he said thoughtfully, “the moment my phone died, suddenly I wasn’t lonely anymore.  I just went back to the river and piled rocks for three hours.  I couldn’t think of what else to do.  And then, it was just great!  I got so into piling rocks and being with the water and the river and the sunlight.  It was magical.  I was like that young swamp-rat I used to be as a little boy, before I ever got a phone, down behind the old Tavern in the marsh, playing for hours with no real plan. Just Being. I went on a great hike and because I could not take pictures, I stopped and stared at things for as long as I wanted. Sometimes I sat down on the path and just Looked.  And I realized that that was what I came here to do. I really did connect with Nature. I saw all these people rushing by, click-clicking away, and I thought about how much they were missing.  I thought about my friend who took his life.  I thought about the music I love. I thought about past and all sorts of things.  It was awesome.  I connected with real people too.  My last night, a Mormon family took me into their home so I would not have to wait at the bus station alone.  They had a piano and I played for them.  They loved it.  I learned that people everywhere are basically helpful and kind, except in Vegas, which is an ugly, ugly, insane place! I lost ten pounds schlepping all my squirrel-scented crap around and I learned I can survive without any of it, even a phone—in fact, life was so good without my phone I’m not going to get it fixed right away! In a weird way, breaking my phone was the best thing that happened. It turns out that the only person I really needed to contact was Me.”  The Queen smiled at him with tears of joy in her eyes.  Everything had turned out Perfectly. 

All they have to do Now is live Happily Ever After. May it be so.

And for all you dear Readers too!  BE Well and do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

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Mating for Life

Greetings My Lovelies!

According to a Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds, bequeathed to me by my beloved Uncle David, “when their breeding efforts are complete, the males of most of the duck species in the Northern Hemisphere molt from their brightly colored nuptial plumage to a dull, cryptic plumage. Their brilliance is dimmed—they go into ‘Eclipse’.”  The eclipse plumage is generally retained for a brief time—sometimes for weeks or months, sometimes until the following spring, sometimes until the young flee the nest with his car keys and credit card.  Until then, male ducks just sit on the couch and blend in with their natural surroundings as much as possible so as not to attract predators or irritated spouses with “honey-do” lists. Basically, male ducks have the water fowl equivalent of “the dad bod.” They don’t regain their fancy breeding garb until there is some advantage of impressing females in advance of the impending breeding season.

At the shop, wedding season is still going strong.  We have as many as ten full wedding parties on the racks. Huge white dresses, the size of small yurts, are destined for beaches, back-yards, and ballrooms; court-houses, carriages, and country-clubs.  They are all extravagant confections in more shades of white than a bee can see.  A wedding dress is one of the most memorable garments a woman will ever wear. Above the invitations, the flowers, the cake, the gown stands out as a symbol of the bride’s temperament .  Some reflect exactly what she wanted; some reflect how she was steam-rolled by other, stronger, adult females in her tribe.  The suits and tuxes we are altering for the men have not such variety.  In fact, if we are not super conscientious about pinning labels to each one, it would be easy to mix them up.

We are one of the few species on the planet where the female is now the most ornamented. In most species of bird, she is the dull one, the camouflaged one. Today’s Wedding fashion and “Courtship Plumage” of the young male is getting to be more and more like “Eclipse” plumage with each passing generation but it wasn’t always the case. Long ago, men were every bit as frilly, fancy, powdered and high-heeled as women, some even more so.

The “Macaronis,”of Yankee Doodle fame were upper-class British youth that took a grand tour of Europe, many to France and Italy, in the 18th century.  Supposedly these youths were given their moniker because they had developed a taste for the exotic dishes of Italy, including the pasta. When they returned home, they often wanted to emulate the vivacious fashion they had seen abroad. Rather than don the typical matching suit of breeches, waistcoats down to the knees and long vests of their fathers, these fellows created a trimmer look and used wild, mismatched colors. They pushed the limits, as teenagers do, with embroidery, ornamental swords, and jewelry.

A group of six men and their groom have just figured out that their particular wedding is less than ten days away.   One of their women-folk alerted them to this fact and four of them called within an hour of each other. They “aren’t in any hurry,” so they say, but they might as well get these suits altered before their mothers, wives, and girlfriends take to drinking gin straight from the bottle and prodding them with sticks.  Within hours, I am faced with tailoring a row of medium blue (the hot color this year, it seems) suits. Also, as part of a newer trend, they have opted to buy suits they can all wear again, rather than wearing rental tuxedos. The younger the men are, the more they need the waist in, sleeves up, and shoulders out.  These guys are all “ripped” as they like to say, which is what will happen to their pants if we don’t make the right adjustments.  They come into the shop one at a time and make jokes about the others all having “dad bods.”

“Yeah… heh heh, this is the last time [the groom] will ever be these measurements! He can’t wait to get through the wedding so he can relax and have a dad bod,” says one dude with glee.  I am curious.  I want to know what a dad bod is. The Urban Dictionary’s top definition of Dad bod states that it is “a male body type that is best described as ‘softly round.’ It's built upon the theory that once a man has found a mate and fathered a child, he doesn't need to worry about maintaining a sculpted physique. Having a "dad bod" is a nice balance between working out and keeping a beer gut.”

 It goes on to say, “If human bodies were cuts of meat, the dad bod would skew more marbled rib eye than filet mignon; or, if human bodies were sea mammals, dad bod would be more like a grazing manatee than a speedy dolphin. The dad bod is more mudslide than mountain, more soft serve than sorbet, more sad trombone than clarinet, more mashed potato than skinny fry. The dad bod is built for comfort.”

So, basically, dads are just ducks in Eclipse Plumage.  Right from the beginning, from before the wedding day, women are going to have a completely different relationship with their bodies. The women are going to try harder, spend more, have more fittings and more costly alterations.  Their bodies will be far more affected by the bearing of their young.  And yet, not once, have I ever witnessed a bridesmaid saying “Yeah, [the bride] will never see these measurements again! She can’t wait to relax and start working on her Mom bod.  She can’t wait to quit working out and worrying about what she looks like. She can’t wait to be soft and round and cute in a socially acceptable way that shows she’s just a family gal taking care of her family. ” Nope. Never heard that yet.

None of these young guys has a “dad bod,” but clearly, they are well aware of the concept. They are looking forward to the physical manifestation of Complacency that will be their reward for having twenty-three thousand discussions about what kind of flowers to put on the cake. They don’t give a shit, as long as there is cake.  Any kind of cake. They don’t really want to discuss that either. With that bite of cake, they get to keep eating cake forever more, until death do they part or Jenny Craig weeps.

I pick up a brand new suit to be worn by the father of the groom.  It is labeled “Portly Short.”  This is the Men’s Store label version of what a Women’s store calls “petite.”  Petite clothing is created shorter in the waist and leg length than regular clothes, otherwise, the sizing of the widths is similar.   I cannot imagine women feeling comfortable with the label “Portly Short” but the men don’t seem to mind at all.  It kinda just tells it like it is and they are ok with that.  Nothing proclaims “Dad bod” like the words “portly short.” They would not thank you to be called “petite.”  There is something far too delicate about that.  They don’t mind being called portly or short as long as they come off as strong.  We don’t say men are petite. We say they are “stocky,” “rugged,” “built,” or “big.”

A little while later, an impressive bride overflows the dressing room, pouring through the doorway into the shop like suds overflowing a bathtub.  She is handsome and well-built, as well as very tall, and rides out on a foam of tulle like a Sea goddess clothed in white surf.  While her groom will look nearly identical to his men, No One at this wedding will look anything like this bride! She looks triumphant. Yet, up close, we can see the tell-tale gaps under her armpits: the dress needs to be tweaked and taken in.  She comes on a weekly basis, having lost more weight, to have us adjust things yet again.  Her wedding is still a month off.  We have made so many changes to this dress that I fear I am beginning to live out one of those philosophy questions about “when is the ship not the original ship if I gradually replace every single board and rebuild it with another board?”  I am beginning to anticipate her wedding with even greater joy than she is, merely so I never again have to deal with the lace overlay on her ever-shrinking bodice. (It never before occurred to me how lucky most folks are to see a wedding dress only Once!)

Unlike swans, ospreys, coyotes, and termites, the primates known as Homo sapiens do not generally mate for life. While some of us naked apes may find one partner and stay with them forever, never straying, history tells us that it has not been the norm for our species. Nevertheless, marriage, a social technology, has sprung up in most societies and on every inhabited continent and we all do our best while we can.

Another bride comes in for a fitting—this one is a middle-aged bride on her third wedding. Her white dress is similarly voluminous.   She is cranky and difficult to please. She fusses over the layers of tulle and the glittering belt of rhinestones at her waist.  Above the swooping neckline, her jowls sag and she furrows the wrinkles on her face in displeasure.  After she leaves, we wonder why a vigorously “petite,” middle-aged woman would want to do the whole Big White Gown thing at all.  Why not get a more flattering gown in a more flattering color?  Perhaps an elegant dress?  Maybe even blue jeans… Pretty much anything would make this woman look better than the ten yards of tulle making her resemble an enormous lemon meringue pie (with droopy lemons).  Did she like how she looked in her previous wedding gowns? I wonder.  “Maybe her maidenhead keeps growing back!” says a colleague.

The truth is that wearing the color white has more to do with Joy than purity and is a purely western tradition dating only to the 19th century, when Queen Victoria broke the status quo at her 1840 wedding and rocked lacy, ivory-colored silk satin. Women's magazines embraced the look's innocence and simplicity, calling white "the most fitting hue" for a bride. Its popularity caught on and has yet to flag. Around the world, women of other cultures are just as likely to wear red, as the most auspicious color for a wedding. We had a bride in last week who wanted a red wedding dress but she was “afraid to break with tradition.” I told her about how positively Stunning and Magnificent my sister-in-law had been in her deep red velvet bodice with white skirts. Far from being bold and cheeky, she was just wearing a color that was More Traditional than the current traditions!

American brides didn't always wear white.  Before the Victorian fad swept across the Atlantic, most women wore their “best” dress, regardless of what color it was.  The idea of wearing an extravagant dress for one day only and one event only, never to be worn again (except by succeeding generations) was something that poorer people could not contemplate.  White is not a practical color for daily wear. Only the wealthy could afford such a high-maintenance garment.  So white is not even as much for “purity” as for status and the ability to show off squandering a huge whack of money.  Personally, I’ve always thought it strange that women buy their dresses and men only rent their tuxes for formal occasions.  For both genders, dressing up is only temporary—or Occasional (i.e. for the Occasion).  

A young Bride-to-Be is back the shop with her soon-to-be groom, asking if we can tweak his already tight tux and make it even tighter. “I want to show off his bod,” she explains, lustfully clawing his chest.  “Everyone at this wedding needs to see what a great bod this guy has!” He smiles sheepishly. This is the “bod” he is going to have until the moment he starts eating cake.  She better enjoy it while it lasts.  From the looks of things, society will forgive him for “going to seed” the moment she conceives, but she might not!

Be well, dear ones, and do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

 

Independence Day

Greetings my Lovelies!

The more time I spend in dressing rooms, the more I begin to believe that children should be given Whatever They Want. Hear me out on this! I have to say this to Prudence Thimbleton, that crabby inner voice who is piping up to say that “Children should be seen and not heard.” “Children need to get what they get and not get upset.”  “The Parent should be the Boss.” Yes, Prudence, children need to learn Gratitude and Resilience.  But Cruelty is only one way to teach that.  It’s tried and true but it also leads us to the problem I have today.

A woman has been clogging up the dressing room for the better part of an hour with three outfits, two kinds of underwear (with option C being no underwear at all, which she is also considering) and her INDECISION.  The garments are not taking nearly as much time as the Indecision.  Unfortunately, this woman has only one body she can bring to her son’s wedding and so she will have to decide Which Dress with which to slipcover it.  It’s not Sophie’s Choice; it’s a dress.  It’s an outfit to wear to an occasion where people will be more interested in seeing Her.  They will, at some level, appreciate that she has not arrived naked but the chances of having their full attention riveted on her clothing, given the magnitude of the competing distractions at that event, are slim indeed. She is not going to win a prize for her choice.  She will not be voted out of getting a slice of cake.  It’s merely a benignly beige/rose/or navy costume for a day, for a specific scene in a particular act, in which she has, at best, a supporting role.  She is not really the Main Act. (Let’s face it; the Mother of the Bride is…)Yet there she is, wringing her hands, asking me what I think, wondering if she should put on the other dress again, just to be sure.  I smile as politely as I can, without baring gritted teeth, shut the door and retreat doing the mental math around the number of possible combinations that three dresses and three underwear options can give this lady.  I come to at least three hundred and seventy. (I’m not that good at math…)As I sit back at my sewing machine to await the reopening of the dressing room door, my colleague asks what is going on in there.  I whisper, as discreetly as I can, that this poor woman has the flabbiest “Choose-it” muscles I have ever seen. 

Choosing is a muscle that gets stronger as we practice making choices.  I know this because I struggle, painfully, with making choices myself.   I have learned the hard way that I can only make a few choices a day without getting axle deep in mental mud. One of the things I do to help myself is to limit my opportunities to choose things that don’t matter all that much—such as what I eat and what I wear—and save my strength for the big stuff, like whether or not Scotland should be part of Brexit.  I remember the day I realized that all of my animals—sheep, chickens, dogs, tortoise—they all eat the same damn thing every day and it is the happiest moment of their Now when the food arrives.  What a revelation!  I began making the same thing for breakfast every day—no need to waste precious time or energy “deciding.”  I do a big, exhausting “Choose” workout on a Sunday evening, when I make 5 identical lunches for the upcoming week, and choose the 5 outfits I will wear to work.  Then, I am DONE, worn out, crawling towards bed, like a limping marathoner with diarrhea at the finish line.

So!  As a fellow sufferer of Choositis, I feel sympathy for this dear woman. We all suffer with a varying degree of flabby Choose-it muscles, which are connected to the Do-it muscles.  How often we lament our lack of “doing anything” when the real cause is our lack of choosing anything.  Choosing deep and hard, connecting to the Joy of our choice, makes the doing part easy.  I’m not talking about the things we know we ought to choose, like spinach instead of potato chips, or water instead of yummy slush from a straw.  (Those are horrible choices.)  Then, we basically know what we should choose—that is if we want to have vibrant skin, glossy hair, straight teeth, and High Moral Standing.  I’m talking about the choices we need to make that are purely for us, that have no external consequences and no guidelines but those whispered whims from within that actually hold the keys to our personal truth or comfort.  Like what to wear to your own son’s wedding, or your child’s baptism, or your niece’s Quinceanera... I’ve noticed that clothing does not fit well over flabby choose-it muscles.  Nothing feels “right.”  At the end of the day, the woman (and it’s almost always women) will sag her head in resignation and say without conviction, “I guess I look alright,” or some pathetic version of “This will do.”   They are settling, because they are rudderless.  They are like 18th Century sailors adrift on the tides before Longitude was known. They are hoping they will land on the right mark and that when they wash ashore at the intended Bar Mitzvah or Wedding or Victory Dance that the natives awaiting them won’t eat them. They don’t know…maybe they made a mistake…

So this leads me to want to write a parenting book. The fantasy takes me through my lunch break as I imagine titles such as “Parenting through Benevolent Neglect” and “Children should be ruined, go on, try it!” and other such outrageous titles that get Prudence Thimbleton’s knickers in a twist.  In chapter one, I open with insisting that children should be given exactly what they want, especially if it is “bad” (as long as it’s not potentially lethal) for them on a regular basis.  Step two is insisting that while they are kept safe, they are still made to deal with the consequences (good or ill) of their choices.  Show, don’t tell. We need to give them practice at making choices, even bad ones, so that they understand what Choice actually means.  If they can’t screw it up royally, it’s not really a choice, is it?  Make them eat that disgusting mystery-meat nugget they wanted, make them carry that extra-heavy back-pack they packed, let them lose the prized toy they should never have taken to the beach.  Help them evaluate their choices after. Help them learn to trust themselves. Above all, let them choose what they want to wear! Show me a dad grocery shopping with toddlers in ratty Halloween costumes in June and I will show you some damn good parenting! They need these little chances to build up their puny choose-it muscles and begin to respect the incredible powers of Free Will, bequeathed to them by God at birth and formally endorsed by the courts on their 18th birthdays.

Not giving children choices makes life a lot easier for their parents. As one who is both a champion Slacker and a parent, I shudder at the energy it takes to make a teenager live out the consequences of packing no socks for a ten-day trip, not putting enough gas in the car, or wearing dumb shoes on a four-hour hike.  I would prefer to dine on broken lightbulbs, for sure.  Then I remember a conversation I had with my son about my role as his parent. He was about 12 at the time and he wanted me to continue doing his laundry but I refused; I insisted that from now on it was his responsibility. “Come on Mum!” it’s your Job, he insisted. “No,” I said, “my job is to raise a strong man who knows how to do his own damn laundry, not have Mummy do everything for him!” He rolled his eyes and we lived through endless batches of stained, mildewed, or ruined clothing but he now does an AWESOME job at laundry.   All this to say to fellow parents, Buckle Up--We are not raising children; we are raising adults.  If we don’t put ourselves out of a job by the time they are 18—if we haven’t shifted from direct “Management” to “Consultant,” we’ve just created a great big baby.  To clip them of Responsibility is to cripple their Choose-it muscles forever and abandon them to a shadow life of wandering the aisles of Macy’s in a fog, wondering if they should buy a fourth dress for the same event.

Of course, having them ruin laundry, and make unfortunate clothing, hair, or music choices will most certainly make them better citizens, better voters, better choosers, better men and women in general, but these are just interesting byproducts. On the bright side, I will be trapped in the dressing room with fewer people who cannot decide whether they want to wear underwear to their offspring’s nuptials, which is really at the heart of my motivation.  I am tempted to say things like, “Seriously, Madam!  Are you telling me that you would prefer an anonymous seamstress’s opinion to the wisdom of your own heart, or the comfort of your own body in deciding what to wear to your own son’s wedding? You who tucked him in each night, taught him to pray, comforted him when he was sick, went to endless parent-teacher conferences and little league events, who pulled all-nighters doing boy-scout projects and book reports… YOU?  You could wear a paper bag of rags and you would still be The Queen, the most important woman there for him, who made him the man he is—ready to begin his own safari into Love, Family, and little missing Leggo pieces. Why are you asking me? Where is your sovereignty? Who took over your kingdom and talked you into Spanx? Look at me carefully and ask yourself if that frayed and frazzled person standing before you, with pins in her mouth, dog hair on her clothes, and sheep shite on her shoes is really the sort of person from whom you should be seeking fashion advice anyway?

It is a sad fact seldom talked about but if you are a seamstress (or teach adult learners to play the fiddle), a considerable portion of your day will be devoted to doing psychotherapy for which you have no training.  Part of my job seems to be about giving people permission to think about what they really want and force them to choose it.  I steadfastly refuse to give opinions—I can’t go squandering my own flabby choose-it muscles on frivolous things like other people’s undergarments!

I view the recent movements around “Me Too” with grave sorrow and understanding born of these dressing room experiences.  We cannot seriously pose the question about why women collude so willingly in their own abuse and neglect when we have groomed them to an externally-focused helplessness that makes them unable to choose anything, even pantyhose, for their own good.

Today is the anniversary of the American Declaration of Independence.  I think of the power and integrity of the women of 1776—the mothers, daughters, sisters and wives of Liberty and all they were willing to do or forego in the name of a voiceless, vote-less “freedom” their men carved out for them. “Remember the Ladies!” pleads Abigail Adams.  Today, I say, Ladies, remember your selves.  You get to choose.  Work those flabby Choose-it muscles! Not so that we can become selfish tyrants in the pursuit of happiness or bargains, but so that we can define ourselves according to our own power—so that when the choices really count, like whether to wear pasties or sewn-in bra cups, we have the strength to make them. Remember my beautiful aunt who once showed up to a family gathering at Nana’s house with a bag of pretty clothes.  She was dressed comfortably, in jeans, while we were all in starchy party gear. “Here,” she said, opening the bag to each of us, “This is what it would have looked like if I had decided to get dressed!” She wanted to show us that she did have party clothes; she just didn’t give a damn.  She’d rather show up as herself.  I loved that.  I still do.

What does Independence mean?  To me, it means being able to live out the consequences of our own choices—to shake off the authority of others who think they know our own good better than we do, or the self-imposed tyranny of wimping out and making others choose for us.    “Mistakes” are merely opportunities for learning and choosing differently next time. Ultimately, our authority, our sovereignty, even our freedom comes from our best Choices.

Choose well, me hearties! And do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy “Liberty” Bell 

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,

Nancy

 

 

Faith in Destruction

Greetings Dear Friends!

Over and over, people say to me “I would do this myself, but I’m afraid to wreck something.”  Well, let me tell you, all ye afraid of wreckage: The very first thing I do, the moment your back is turned, is start to destroy your clothes.  I grab a thread ripper—which is a small, razor-sharp blade designed to go dull within three inches of a 24 inch seam—and I begin to hack your garment to shreds. I never want you to see me do this.  It is a little secret of mine that I don’t want you to know.  It doesn’t matter if it is a wedding gown or a grubby pair of work jeans—if you bring your clothes to me to fix, I wreck them first.  I might wreck them a tiny bit, or a whole big lot, depending on the size of the alteration you require, the kind of fabric it is, or even just my mood if I don’t feel like fiddling around in tight spaces.  By the time you get back, your clothes will look as close to perfect as I can manage and you will never know what has happened to them, if I am lucky.

A bright-eyed, smallish older lady is peering at a pair of navy blue slacks with great interest.  She has brought them in to be “shottened,” as they say here in Massachusetts.  Even after living here for twenty-five years, certain turns of phrase still catch my ear sideways and won’t go in properly so I ask her again what they need.  She sees me focusing on her lips so she speaks slowly and deliberately, as if she has to drop a grade-level with each word, so that I can understand her. “I…need… you… to… make… these… shot.”  Shot? My brow wrinkles.  Do we need some sort of pellet gun for this endeavor? Madam, I feel more comfortable ripping your pants the standard way, not shooting them! Seeing my confusion, she tries a new approach: “you know, cut the bottoms off these somehow and bring them up,” she says. Oh!!! Short… She needs them to be shortened. I breathe a sigh of relief.

“I would do it myself but these are tricky.  I don’t know how to do it.  How are you going to do it?  Can you even do it? I just don’t know…” she is Very Concerned.  She doesn’t want anything "wrecked." Maybe she has purchased a pair of trousers for which absolutely nothing can be done.  A series of unrealistic possibilities bombards her. Maybe she should just wear stilts every time she needs to go out in public.  Maybe she should have grown taller when she was younger and had the chance.  Maybe with a diet of broccoli and jumping-jacks she would not have to face the likes of me. Sadly, I am her only ally in this dilemma. “They have this vent here and this big thick elastic cuff around here…I just don’t know how you are going to do this.  They have to go up quite a bit because they are at my ankle now and they need to be mid-calf.  As you can see, I’m very shot.”   She points to all the details at the bottom of the legs.  “I like all this here.  This is what makes the pants look so pretty.  It’s a shame you are going to have to cut all this off.”

“Oh, I’ll put it all back on, don’t you worry,” I say, trying to alleviate her fears.

“Well, what’s the point of that?” she asks somewhat huffily. “If you just put it back on, it won’t be any shot-er!” Clearly, I am an idiot.

“No, I will shorten them before I put the cuffs back on,” I explain, smiling. It’s instantly obvious to me what needs to be done—it’s a wonderfully simple job—but there is no convincing her of this.  After a lengthy discussion in which we both squander a portion of our lives that we will never get back, she agrees, sort of grudgingly, to trust me and leaves the shop shaking her head.  She still does not know how I, despite being a skilled professional, am going to manage this little navy blue melodrama she has just deposited.   She is afraid I am going to wreck it.  But her fear of what she might do to her pants outweighs her fear of what I will do to them, so she leaves them.

A few days later, she comes in to pick them up and scans them all over. “I can’t see what you did,” she says.  “How did you cut them? How come they still have the elastic cuff? Did you even do them?”  She is full of wonderment.  She holds them up against her leg. “Wow!  Would you look at that!  They’re shot alright.  You guys must have a magic wand in here.  I’ll never know how you did that.”

Over and over, customers—dear, anxious yet hopeful customers—venture in with skepticism and pants or dress in hand and want to know “how are we going to do this [Thing Which Must Be Done].  “It is a mystery,” we say, “Please, don’t worry!”  I love these customers the best.  There is something so endearing about their confusion and their utter lack of faith.  These customers are far more preferable to the ones who storm in braying about how we should do our job, when they clearly have no idea.  Though it’s sometimes very entertaining to sit there and listen to someone pontificate on how it might be done.  I can’t help but think of Lady Catherine DeBourgh saying “..and had I ever learned, I should have been a great proficient!”  We usually listen very politely then do it the Right Way instead.

Step one is to rip things back to a reasonable starting point.  This sometimes means removing anything the dear, misguided soul has done to fix the problem before coming in.  Sometimes we have to remove staples, glue, duct tape, paper clips, hotel-sewing-kit thread in honkin’ big stitches in the wrong color…you name it…whatever they have added to their garment in order to survive a day.  Honestly!  The number of men who have split their suit pants and STAPLED them back together is astounding.  

Sometimes, they think they are being “helpful” by doing some of our work for us ahead of time, like the woman who comes in with a skirt in a bag.  “My aunt was a seamstress,” she announces, “but I never seemed to pick it up.” She says this as if being able to sew is some sort of virus that one catches by sheer proximity to needles with threads in them.  “Anyway, I was going to hem this skirt myself but then I thought it would be better if you did it instead. I didn’t want to wreck it.”

“Sure,” I say. “Do you need to try it on?”

“Oh, no, thanks, I’ve already cut it to length.  All you need to do is just even it off and sew it up.”  She smiles breezily. I take her name and number and the woman exits the shop.  I take the skirt out of the bag and get a good look at it.

“Oh for crochet!” I mutter. “Ladies, you won’t believe this!  Come get a look at what she did!”  We look at the skirt.  Its jagged edges look like something Thelma Flintstone or Betty Rubble would wear.  And she didn’t want to “wreck” it?? Did she cut this with a rusty kitchen knife or a chainsaw?

“I can see what she did,” says one friend. “Look, she scrunched it all up in one fist, like a bouquet of flowers and snipped the whole thing off in one chop.  See how the edges look like an accordion!” 

“She has no idea how much shorter this is going to be by the time we even this off!”  She’s going to wind up with a loin cloth!  Why didn’t she trust us to do it right the first time? We all want to know.

Before we can fix anything, it must be broken down, made ready, opened up, torn apart, so that it can stop being what it was, which was unsatisfactory, and begin the journey to what it will become.   And before we can do this work, each supplicant must walk away—detatch from the situation, leave it all in better hands.  Come back later and be surprised. This is as true for a pair of pants as it is for all of our Spirits.  I think about all the areas of my life that need to be broken down, made messy, before they can be refashioned into something better.   I think about how I have prayed, in sheer, teary desperation because I did not know how to solve a problem—and yet I was praying in such a closed off way that I was not open to any other way of being fixed, except by my own ridiculous ideas, which were the kind of thinking that caused my troubles in the first place... I am that sweet, misguided customer, storming Heaven’s gate, unwilling to detach, wondering how Someone’s going to fix my pants!

I like to imagine my Guardian angel joining in with a flock of other Guardian angels going to the break room up in Heaven,  having some sort of heavenly snack or smoking their little angel cigarettes with a cup of angel coffee, and bitching about their charges down below.  They probably say a lot of things we say right in the shop: “We got this; don’t they know that? That’s what we are here for!” “I wish they wouldn’t worry so much.”  “Why are people so afraid of us wrecking things? Things can’t be fixed properly unless they get wrecked a little more first.” “Wait til she sees how great this will turn out.” “Something is breaking through that which is breaking down.”  “Oh, for crochet, would you look at what my guy tried to do to fix his Life this time?” “Yeah… well, my gal keeps praying she’ll win the lottery! Ha! That’s her answer to everything. As if!”  On it goes until the bell rings and they brush the crumbs off their feathers and resume their Loving Work.

Never mind asking Celestial Beings to look out for us. It takes genuine faith to ask humans to fix things.  Some people say there is no such thing as a Higher Power, but I say there are many, all around us. Just because I can fix clothing does not mean I can unclog a drain, rewire the garage, or flush my own transmission. (Some days I can’t even flush my own toilet!) None of us has to know Everything—we are here to ask each other for help, to trust each other’s specialized skill and wisdom. We need faith in our doctors, carpenters, and car mechanics—in all the overlapping and concentric circles of expertise that surround us.   Desperation gives us no other choice.  Musicians and Veterinarians are terribly clever people but they are just as easily flummoxed by a jammed invisible zipper as the frantic businessman who recently stapled his fly shut to attend a meeting.

Anything worth fixing is worth wrecking properly. When we have made a mess, or are afraid to, we need to take it to someone brave enough to Wreck it Better.  We don’t need to understand How it shall be done.  We just need to trust. And so it is.

May you trust in the cycles of wreckage and repair, dear friends! Be well, and do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

Male Fashionism

Greetings Dear Ones!

Father’s day is right around the bend.  One can tell by the escalating numbers of T-shirts reading “Best Farter Ever” for sale.  So it seems appropriate to write this week about Male Fashion.  Marketwatch anticipates that Americans will spend 1.8 Billion dollars this year on bad ties and golf shirts in an attempt to spruce up Dad’s wardrobe.  And Heaven knows, they need it!  You should see the stuff they are sneaking into the shop saying, “Can you fix this, please? It’s my favorite.  Can you believe I caught my wife trying to throw this away?”

I love tailoring men’s clothes.  They are very different from women’s in that they are designed to be altered.  It is assumed that male waistlines are going to expand and contract over the course of the lifetime of a pair of pants—consequently, they are very easy to take in and let out.  Male sport coats and blazers have a secret entrance built right into the sleeves so that you can get into the body of the jacket and make room for a Thanksgiving turkey or take out the four inches they lost after ten days on the Ideal Protein diet.  By contrast, Women’s clothing is a nightmare to take apart and fix.  The industry seems to assume that women’s fashions are going to change faster than their bodies so their clothing might as well be disposable but men are in their garments for the long haul so everything needs to be adjustable.  In many cases, this is true. Regardless of trends, some men get off the fashion train at a stop somewhere in their mid-thirties and there they remain for the rest of their lives, completely unaware that wide ties and white shoes are passé and that all the things they once wore in the hopes of seducing women are now having the exact opposite effect.  Just consider for a moment how fun it is going to be twenty years from now to see fifty-year-old men in skinny jeans… or worse yet, those baggy ass things they wear belted BELOW their underwear.  Mercifully, the current crop of fifty-somethings is still in cuffs and pleated pants, in the hopes that they will soon be back in style.

I must admit that before becoming a seamstress, I never paid much attention to male fashion.  My sisters and I grew up sharing twenty-three Barbie dolls bequeathed to us by a former neighbor who had outgrown them.  Of the twenty three, only two were male. One was an original Ken doll, the very first ever made.  His hair was painted on his hard-boiled head and his kindly face wore a look of mild, perpetual surprise.  He couldn’t bend his legs at all.  He sat in chairs with this ankles jutting out from his body at a 45 degree angle, looking both alert and confused. The other guy was a newer Ken, a younger model with more rubbery hair, molded in waves. He was a little more rubbery in general and could somewhat bend his knees if you cracked them like big knuckles, and balanced him carefully against the leg of the table at which he was sitting. His face wore a kind of smug, “dumb jock” leer.  They had one suit each, and one pair of swimming trunks between them. They had no other clothes and we never bothered to make them any.  Male clothing was boring.  Even when we were allowed to look at the clothes for sale in stores, there were thousands of dresses for Barbie, all with coordinating shoes the size of thumb tacks to stick on her absurdly tiny feet, but almost nothing for Ken.  The male Barbies didn’t figure much in our plots anyway.  We made them a “car” out of a shoe box and they pretty much just drove around under the bed until it was time to get Married. Then, the older Ken would wear priestly vestments made of Kleenex over his suit and officiate over the younger Ken’s vows to one of the Malibu horde.  The rest of the attendees were either nuns or baronesses.   

My father was not much help.  His answer to every fashion demand was a navy blue blazer. Whether he was going to church or changing the oil on the tractor, he had one uniform.  I have since learned that men can be extremely imaginative, creative, or downright fussy about their clothes.  Some are fussy about color—they have a palette of four shades (two of which are black and grey), all solid, all muted, no logos of any kind.  Some are fussy about fit—they need their shirts tapered within an inch of their lives, and jeans that look like they came from a can.  This has nothing to do with age, either.  We have an octogenarian who visits us on a weekly basis, complaining that his jeans aren’t fitting his bum “like a girl.”

I am not attempting to judge ANYONE (ever…)(I cannot stress this enough)  but it is fun to report the facts as I see them, from my little corner of Thimbledom.  Men and women ARE different, Very different, in a tailoring shop. 

For one thing, we never have women come into the shop holding a bunch of rags saying “can you fix these?  I dug these out of the trash.  My husband cleaned out our closet and tried to throw them away.  Look at the wear still in them! He’s nuts!”  Women are every bit as dirty as men but when we ask them if we can launder their clothing before we work on it, they say “sure,” not “naw…I’m just going to get it dirty again! What’s the point?”

Some women will spend months agonizing over what to wear to an upcoming wedding, no matter how irrelevant or precarious their link to the actual wedding couple may be, while the actual groom himself might give us only a few days’ notice to alter his suit, which he has only just purchased.

I never see men going to the dressing room in groups, or even with one male buddy, to try on a bunch of clothes and have them take pictures of him.  I never see a guy ask another guy to help him get dressed, decide the hemline of his trousers, or comment on whether or not a certain color “does anything for him.”   A man travels solo, unless he is under the management of an exasperated wife who is insisting that we should not listen to him—“he does not know what he is talking about!”  

Some women take the management of their men way too far—like the time we get a phone message from a woman whose nasal voice explains with exaggerated patience that her husband will be stopping by with a pair of pants she wants hemmed.  She has pinned them where the final length needs to be. He does not need to try them on.  She has pinned them. Call her if we have any questions. Beep. Fine.  We think no more about this and move on.

Within minutes, a man with a pleasant face is standing there holding a pair of pants on a hanger.  He is wearing a business suit and tie and looks very professional.  “I believe my wife may have called about these pants?”  His voice is cheerful and confident.  His gaze is direct and inquisitive.

“Oh! Yes, she did.  There was a message on the machine,” we say.

“Very good. Well, here they are,” says the man.

“Just let me grab your name and phone number,” I say.

“It’s all here,” he says, indicating a long note pinned to the pants.

“Ok,” I say, taking them from him. “Any rush?  When do you need them?”

“It’s on the note,” he says, making a quick turn on his heels and dashing out to his car.

I look at the note.  It is a neatly scripted paragraph, written long hand, in the kind of penmanship had only by people shamed by nuns from a certain era. It reads: “Hello.  My husband needs these pants hemmed.  He is bringing them in to you this morning.  He does not need to try these on, as I have measured him and put a pin where I think they should go. We do not need these in a terrible rush but sometime soon would be good.  Thank you so much. Signed, (name) with a phone number.”  I should have looked at him more closely to see if his name and lunch money were pinned to his shirt.

Just then, the phone rings. It’s her. “Did he bring the pants? Did you get my note?” She wants to know.  “Are there any questions?” Well, yes indeed, I think privately.  I have quite a few questions, as a matter of fact. How is it that a man in the prime of his life, clearly a successful business man, with license to operate a motor vehicle, is deemed incapable of being in charge of his own pants?  Does the term “co-dependent enmeshment” mean anything to you?  Do you realize the way you are micro-managing this grown man’s life gives him all the dignity of a kindergartener who has not yet memorized his street address?  Not to mention, you look positively daft doing this. You are making us judge you!

Young men are stepping up their game and wearing more suits these days.   A customer in his mid-twenties needs a suit altered. Again. “What?!!!” says his mother, who is also a customer, when she hears about it. “Again? You’ve done four suits for him in six months! What the hell? How many suits does one man dandy need? Has he ever considered wearing one twice? Most men only have one and they never think about it until they drag it out of the closet for a wedding or a funeral and then they discover they are suddenly too big.  That is the only time men buy suits!” She rolls her eyes and snorts.  

The truth is that men care a lot about how they look, even though that’s sometimes hard to perceive from a distance.  They suffer the same excruciating body shame that women do but with the added bonuses of more baldness, snoring, and halitosis to contend with.  Alone with a seamstress in a fitting room, they are incredibly vulnerable about showing their anguish over how things should fit, whether or not they look decent, and how much ankle is really supposed to show.  I can’t help having a great deal of compassion for these “tough guys” who can’t tell pink from brown.  The saddest ones are the guys whose wives have died and left them rudderless in the tide of mystifying trends.  They need that incoming Father’s Day wardrobe infusion—they need the choices that the people who love them best make on their behalf—to make them feel like they look ok, or in the case of those ghastly “Best Farter Ever” T-shirts, at least loved for what they are.

Wishing a blessed and Happy Father’s Day to anyone who protects, provides for, coaches, or inspires!  We are all so grateful! 

Be well, dear friends, be kind, and do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

Love Offerings

Greetings Dear Ones!

Just since last Wednesday, I have had two conversations with inspirational people who profoundly changed how I look at my job as a seamstress.   The first one was with a very dear and long-time friend who has become an Anglican Priest and followed a ministry of music, prayer and peace in the past quarter century I have known him.   We sat, on the finest and final day of May, in the serenity of the garden by his church and talked of his mission to Guatemala and to “the poor” and the call to live as Love to all our brethren (and sistren).  He is the kind of friend who makes your heart grow two sizes just by listening to him. Within minutes, totally inspired, I was burning to go to Guatemala and the inner city soup kitchens he patrols… I thought about the poor where I live and I did not find them nearly as glamorously deserving as the poor in Guatemala or Haiti, or the other places we talked of.  I do not want to serve my own local poor.   The city nearest me is full of drug dealers and con-artists who should not make me judge them, but they do.  I want to go somewhere Magnificent, like India, and serve their poor—their noble and deserving poor.  My poor, the people nickel-ing and dime-ing us to death in the shop are just a total nuisance who bitch about prices and want us to fix their grubby clothes for nothing.  My poor are victims only of their own bad choices, such as buying that regrettable dress from Walmart, or thinking that they could buy a cheap wedding dress online from China at 2:am.

The next conversation that changed me wasn’t really a conversation at all; it was more of a comment.  Another friend, an ardent and self-confessed cat lady, was chatting away, enjoying her first cup of freshly brewed nettle tea this season, when her tom-cat appeared and deposited a decapitated mouse by her foot.  I love cats but I have never spent much time around them, Jack Russells and cats being mutually exclusive… So I was a little horrified to witness this disgusting gesture on the part of the cat, which then proceeded to retch a little on the carpet, in a self-satisfied, almost swaggering way.  (If anything can retch in a self-important way, it seems to be a cat.)  Far from being tempted to retch as well, my friend behaved as if she were enchanted.  She praised him and cooed over his dead, headless mouse as if it were a bracelet from Tiffany’s.  “This is a Love Offering,” she hissed to me in a stage whisper behind her hand, as I joined the cat in gagging. “This cat is saying he LOVES me.”  I think about Gary Chapman’s book about the five languages of Love.  The languages are: acts of service, words of praise and affirmation, gifts, quality time, and physical touch.  The cat and my friend exchanged all of the viable translations of love possible for a feline and his doting mistress in just one interaction.

In the days that follow, I start to feel crummy about not serving the poor near me. I consider the Love Languages of cats and about juxtaposing all these ideas into a new way of being with customers.  Just for a week, I am going to treat everything they bring me as a love offering—everything from the crusty jeans of a male octogenarian who has glued tea towels inside them to the police uniforms of a young woman who wants us to take them in so much and make them so shapely that she will barely be able to lift her gun.  If my friend can perceive love in decapitated rodents, I can surely find love in pants that have been stapled shut by a panicked businessman who split them on his way to a meeting. I don’t have to go to Calcutta or Guatemala City to offer service to the poor.  I can offer love and service right where I am, with the work of my hands, kind words, smiling eyes, and quality time.  I will go one step further and throw in a little Transcendentalism, a little Walt Whitman.  I will fall In Love with my fellow bretheren and sisteren.  I will BE the love I want to see in the world.  I will be a balm to the afflicted and to those who have outgrown their Alfred Dunner polyester elastic waistbands.   I will view our interactions with all the formal reverence and ardent longing of a medieval courtship.  

Here is Day One:

My first love of the day is a very tall, exhausted looking man resembling an extremely skinny tortoise, who shuffles painfully to the door with a pair of khaki pants in his hands.  There are chocolate smears all over the bum and a button missing. He doesn’t know how this happened.  I assure him in warm and loving tones that it is my pleasure to take care of his pants.  By sewing a button on them, by having the trousers laundered for him, I am taking care of him, perhaps even lengthening his life, since his wife would want to kill him if she saw what he had done to these new pants.  He smiles gratefully and departs.  He can feel the love. I know it. 

My next suitor is a woman who has no dress.  She stops into the shop and wants to speak to “a seamstress.” I gaze at her adoringly as she tells me she is planning to get a dress in Mid-June. (And presumably, just wants to share her joy? I don’t know. ) She launches into an exciting tale about why she has no dress yet but needs to make an appointment because as soon as she gets this dress, she’s going to need it to fit about two weeks after that.   Our courtship is a whirlwind of her plans for herself and her dress, which she does not have yet. She leaves me feeling slightly dizzy.  I have no idea what we decided.  We don’t actually make an appointment, er, set a date.  But I love her.  I have no idea if she noticed.

By contrast, my next lover is brisk and to the point.  She has these curtains she hates. She does not make eye-contact with me—just keeps glaring at the offending curtains, which huddle miserably on the counter.  She wants them cut and hemmed shorter.  She needs them as soon as possible.   I can’t help feeling like we are in a lover’s spat.  Have I done something wrong already? Our courtship is brief.  She bangs the door on her way out.

While my co-worker is out on break, a worn-out looking woman with bleached blonde hair and raccoon eye makeup staggers through the door with an armload of posters for the upcoming St.  Somebody Carnival.  She looks at me and says “you guys aren’t interested in putting up a poster are you? Probably not, huh?” and before I can receive her love offerings, she shrugs and staggers back out the door!

A lovely gentleman with thick white hair and kind blue eyes comes in to have his pants fitted and a jacket evaluated.  The jacket is fine but the pants are baggy.  I tell him we can fix that and that nothing will bring me greater joy than to remove all the excess cloth from his seat area. He looks alarmed, hopeful, and doubtful all at the same time.  Perhaps I need to confine my love of my fellow man to the silence of my heart and actions, not my words, so as not to scare him.

A young man smelling vaguely of French fries, greasy hair, and poor self worth comes in with a broken jacket zipper and some jeans to hem, which are ragged. He says they need to be shorter than the ragged bit. I beckon him (lovingly!)  to try them on in the dressing room so that we can get a more accurate target than that.  Sheepishly, he shuffles in.  I hear thumping through the door as my Beloved puts on his ratty jeans.  I wait, patiently.  Finally, the door opens again and he comes out with the jeans folded over his arm.  I point out, as lovingly as possible, that I never got to see them on him.  He folds up one leg where he thinks it needs to go. “It doesn’t matter if you get them wrong,” he insists, and leaves.  There’s only so much love he can take in one day.

The next woman through the door is easy to love.  She has interesting hair and make-up and that cheery yet no-nonsense confidence of a woman from the Mid-West. The air around her sparkles.  I gaze into her eyes.  It is love at first sight.  She has a jacket that needs a snap A.S.A.P. as she is flying out to an important job interview in Michigan tomorrow morning and this is the jacket she wants to wear.  As I am putting the pin in the jacket where the snap is supposed to go, she leans over and inhales my hair. “You smell good,” she purrs.   “You smell like Trust!”  After she goes, while I am still in the delirium of requited love, my co-worker looks up from her sewing machine and says dryly “and just what does Trust smell like?” I toss my hair—“Like THIS!” I say, giggling like a school girl.

The door bangs and in comes one of the “poorest of the poor”—poor manners, poor grammar, poor attitude—with one pair of pants.  He thinks they need to be shortened about one inch but he refuses to try them on.  He needs them by Friday but he doesn’t want to be up-charged because of the rush.  His energy is combative.  Being Love in Action for someone like this is tricky.  He behaves like I am a firefly he’d like to swat.  “Don’t say you’ll call me, I’ll come get them when I’m ready,” he growls.  He leaves with one shoulder higher than the other and gives oncoming traffic the middle finger as he crosses the road.  Sometimes, the most difficult to love are just asking for love in the most difficult to understand ways.

My final love affair arrives just before 5, saving the best for last. He has been collecting hangers for us in the back of his truck for weeks.  They’ve gotten a little rain on them, he informs us, but they’ll be Just Fine with a little brillo pad and maybe a coat of paint.  He makes four trips out to the car to create a mountain of tangled rust and wire on our cutting table.  I thank him as effusively as a cat-lady presented with a decapitated mouse.  He looks pleased with himself as I coo my praise and gratitude. “Yeah,” he says, shuffling his feet and grinning, “all ya gotta do is give them a good scrubbing and then spray paint them all and they’ll be good as new.” He’s said this four times.  I bless him and wait until he pulls out of the driveway so I can haul his treasured love offering to the nearest dumpster.  I don't have the needed hours to spend sanding and painting his crap. 

I’ll try to be a better Lover tomorrow.

Be well, dear friends, and do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

 

Its not my size but it fits me

Greetings My Lovelies!

A tall, slender woman comes in with two skirts from Talbots.  She makes a beeline straight for the dressing room without asking if it is available.  “I need you to fix these skirts for me,” she says irritably as she brushes past.  “Actually, one fits fine. It doesn’t need anything but I need you to see it.”

          “Ok,” I say, since we are really busy and have other appointments scheduled, “why don’t you just put on the one that needs altering and open the door when you are ready.”  She opens the door, I pin the offending flare that she complains about, and I inform her that she is all done.  A few minutes later, the door opens again.  I expect her to leave the shop but she is just standing there in the other skirt, frowning at the mirror.

          “I thought you said that one didn’t need fixing,” I say.

          “It doesn’t!  But look at this. Just look at this!” I peer closer. It fits her beautifully. I am unsure about what the problem is but Clearly, judging from the turn of her mouth, there is a problem.

          “It’s a [number],” she hisses.  “I’m not a [that number]! Why does this fit me? And how come the other skirt, which is [a smaller number], needs to be taken in? What is going on here? How is the smaller skirt the one that is too big?”

          “Well, obviously, the smaller skirt is not smaller,” I think to myself. What I say out loud is “Well, sometimes different manufacturers make things slightly differently. To be honest; the difference between one size and another is really only about a quarter of an inch all around all the seams.  The sizes are way closer than you think.” She isn’t having it. She keeps shaking her head and saying, “Well, you’re the expert, you tell me why two skirts from the same store are so different.”  First of all, anyone who spent the first eighteen years of her life alternating between a Catholic school uniform and grubby barn clothes should never be considered a fashion expert. No way.  That piece of my brain is missing. But from the stubborn set of her jaw, I can tell that this Problem is right up there with things like animal cruelty and the current threats to Alaska’s pristine habitats. More than any banking crisis or the situation in the Middle East, what keeps this woman up at night is that the number on a label (a label no one else will ever see) is wrongHer number is not what she thinks it should be, no matter how the skirt looks or feels.  An Impostor has infiltrated her wardrobe.  “I don’t know why I even bought this,” she sighs, “I am definitely not  a [that number]!”

So! Just how did we come to have these randomly assigned, numbers? What does an 8 or a 12 or 22 even mean? Why do I hear one of two things on a daily basis: “This is not really my size but it fits” or its sister corollary “I don’t understand why this doesn’t fit me—it’s my size!”

It turns out that we have been trying to figure out what size we are for more than ninety years. Long before Amazon or EBay was a thing called the Sears Roebuck catalogue, which provided a variety of mail-order products from plows to gowns to rural Americans, who sat in their outhouses and dreamed, then wiped, with this wonderful publication.  Initially, sizes for young ladies and children were all based on age — so a size 8 should fit an 8-year-old and a 16 would be for a 16-year-old.  For women over the age of 16, it was about bust measurement, as if no other part of her body mattered except her boobs.  Despite the obvious limitations of assuming all 8-year-olds are the same size or that any two women with a 36-inch bust must have exactly the same hourglass dimensions, it was assumed that most women in the house would know how to sew and could alter clothing as needed.  Even so, by the late 1930’s clothing manufacturers determined that the lack of standardized sizes for women was costing the industry hundreds of thousands of dollars in returned merchandise and they decided to do something about it.

Both the U.S. department of Agriculture, in 1939, and the National Bureau of Standards in the late 1940’s tried to regularize American sizing so that women could be able to order from mail-order companies with relative security that what eventually arrived on their doorstep would fit them and not their next door neighbor’s Cocker spaniel. "Each subject — matron, maid, scrubwoman, show girl — will be measured in 59 different places," a 1939 article in TIME states. (I’m curious.  Were these fifty-nine places on the human female body? Or fifty-nine geographical locations, towns, or cities where the testing would take place? The article is astoundingly vague on this.) However, the results were flawed due to a variety of factors including the fact that the population they measured was not an accurate representation of the wider society.  Many of the volunteers were poor white women who were lured in by the participation fee offered them, meaning more “scrub women” than matrons or show girls showed up.  They tried again in 1958 to get a standard for women’s sizes by using data collected from measurements of women serving in the U.S. Air Force—the fittest group of women in the country.  Um…again, not the standard mean of the population at large!  And by at large, I mean larger than an Air Force cadet for sure.  Eventually, in 1983, the Department of Commerce withdrew its commercial women's clothing size standard altogether and the government gave up measuring women and washed its hands of the whole affair, leaving us to guess for ourselves again, and fostering that great American pastime of taking loads of randomly numbered clothes into the dressing room, trying them on, determining that none of them fit, feeling like shit, and needing [a stiff drink, new shoes, a pumpkin latte, or a 12-step group meeting, perhaps all of the above] on the way home to soothe our frazzled nerves.  A private organization called ASTM International then began publishing its own sizing tables in 1995.

Since the late 1980’s, designers have run wild attempting to keep pace with our egos and our waistlines simultaneously by using descending numbers until we reached the modern ridiculousness of a size known as 00.  Most of us know vaguely that, once upon a time, a woman’s size 8 was a very tiny size.  In 1958, for example, a size 8 corresponded with a bust of 31 inches, a waist of 23.5 inches and a hip girth of 32.5 inches. There was no such thing as a size zero, never mind the double or triple zeros on the market today.  This business of calling sizes a series of zeros mystifies me.  I was taught that zero signifies “nothing.” It is the absence of a quantity of something.  By definition, it cannot be a thing itself, never mind two or three times itself, or even two or three of itself added together.  How can “no size” be a size?  What kind of messed up “seamstress math” enables one to say that zero actually has a variety of dimensions ranging from what might fit a three-year-old birch sapling down to what might clothe an endangered newt?  Marijuana has only been legal in Massachusetts since Trump was elected. So, Who has been smoking What to get to these decisions?

In the ASTM’s 2008 standards, a size 8 had increased by five to six inches in each of those three measurements, becoming the rough equivalent of a size 14 or 16 in 1958. We can see size inflation happening over shorter time spans as well; a size 2 in the 2011 ASTM standard falls between a 1995 standard size 4 and 6.  We went from size 16 being a model in the '40s to 12 in the '60s. Marilyn Monroe was a 12 in the 1960’s, which would now be a size 6.

To my mind, if it fits, wear it! If it gladdens your heart or brings you joy, if you feel Magnificent in it, then it has earned a place in your wardrobe.  Otherwise, chuck it or bring it to a seamstress and alter it.  Numbers are fake news. We can always cut the label out!

Be well, dear friends, and do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

 

Re-ginnings: Commencement (Again)

 

 

Greetings my Dearies!

It’s five a.m. and some bright eyes and a wet nose find mine in the pre-dawn light. “Is it time to get up yet?” little Pip wonders hopefully, wriggling all over.  He hopes so! There are SO many exciting things that must be done with this new day! There are things that must be peed on, chickens to harass, breakfast to snarf down in three seconds or less to give him time to inspect everyone else’s bowls… He is going to be late for his morning agenda if I don’t hurry. He is SO excited—it’s as if he has no idea that we get a new day every day. He cannot believe I am still lying there instead of bouncing around rejoicing and flinging dog food into dishes.  He begins digging busily at the covers in an effort to unearth me, then his eye catches my baleful glare and he stiffens to stillness at my low growl.  Oh… (ears droop) It’s one of those mornings… He sighs, tucks his tail around his tiny bum and waits.

I lie there, hearing the sheep bleat in the distance, wondering why I have any animals at all, especially this one.  I am not particularly looking forward to this day or any other day for that matter.  A nagging voice in my head says, “You need to get up! You have bills to pay! This place is a mess. If you want to be a professional, you need to act like one, Missy! No booze, no staying up late playing music.  Life is not a party, you know. You need to get to work!

And that’s when I realize that this moment is just like Graduation from college all over again, only without the tequila hangover or the ugly cap and gown.  Well, that’s fitting, I suppose, since it is Commencement Season.  At the shop, we’ve been hemming and tailoring all sorts of outfits for awards ceremonies and commencement rituals for weeks.  I decide that what I need, this morning, right now, is a good old-fashioned Commencement Speech to myself.  I have been working so hard for so long.  I’m tired. All Spring, there has been one test after another here at the University of Me. I am the only pupil, which means there is a lot of pressure—I am simultaneously the best and the worst in the class.  My teachers are everywhere—I’ve even given birth to some. Some grade fairly, some harshly, some are total slackers just like I am.  Just for a moment, I want to be Done with it all.  I want to graduate. I want the summer off to travel. Mainly, I want a diploma and a keg party.  I don’t want to grow up… and I can’t believe I am still saying this at Fifty!

From my bed, I reach for my dictionary and look up the word “commencement.” It’s from Old French and means beginning, start, opening, outset, onset, launch, initiation, inception, origin.  It says nothing about finishing.  I like this.  I like beginnings way better than endings—though they often wear each other’s disguises and it can be hard to tell them apart.

I am more familiar with Beginnings mostly because I really struggle to finish anything.  I start strong, then get to the 80% mark and fizzle. As a seamstress, my daily work is all about beginnings and what I call “re-ginnings.”  Lately, I have been plagued by a little two piece purple dress for an eighth-grade graduate.  (Seriously? Who puts and eighth-grader in a two piece? Answer: an eighth grader who is 13 going on 43, who should be running her own country by now.) It’s been back four times for re-dos.  My life has become a “ground-hog” day of sorts where I go to work and the first thing I do is take apart this little dress and start all over again. This is because the young madam, bless her, is so darn busy that she can’t personally attend any fittings. I haven’t seen this garment on her actual body since starting this work.  From track practice and soccer practice and the horse-back-riding ring she sends first her mother then her grandmother, both of whom behave like ragged pages totally in awe of their Queen, to tell me that the top is now too tight, the bottom is still too loose.  They gesture vaguely with fingers maybe “this much?” and I do my best to guess what this mini-fashionista requires.

I lie in bed and think about that dress, waiting for me on the workbench.  Will today be the day I am rid of it for good? Who knows?

My formal education did not prepare me for this.  I was an English Major. To paraphrase John Mullaney (also an English Major), after four years of not actually reading any of the books I was supposed to read, I then walked across a stage and received an honors degree for a language I already spoke before I started my course of studies.  I was unsure if I had been educated at all until I learned of British philosopher John Alexander Smith’s 1914 opening lecture remarks, “'Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life – save only this – if you work hard and diligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.” Well, college must have done some good because I certainly hear my share of rot, especially these days!

I know that once I get out of bed and off to work, the rest of the day will be fine. My job is simply to fix, with my hands, one little problem at a time.  That is all. It is an immeasurable comfort—at  a time when my whole world seems so unmanageably tangled, unraveled, broken and disordered, my very self so out of focus and ill-defined—to have someone hand me a pair of socks and say “Can you darn these?” Yes.  That I can do. I don’t always know how to balance a checkbook, pay my bills, or get my children to stop bickering but golly, I CAN darn a pair of socks. The Real way, not just by holding them over the trash can and announcing “darn it!” before dropping them in. I know how to take a wooden egg, slip it under the contours of the rip or hole and begin the tedious but satisfying weaving of threads back and forth, up and down, until the hole is sealed up and filled in as good as new.  It is deeply comforting to do One Thing and see it completed.

So I summon the reserves to deliver and listen to my own “Commencement Address” from my pillow:  “Attention, Nancy!  Thank you for showing up today. On behalf of Prudence Thimbleton and the host of other characters in your head, I would like to honor the work you have done thus far and say a few words in the hopes that you will get your ass out of bed and keep doing it:

 “Forget that garbage about just being yourself.    Right now, your “Self” is someone who would rather nestle into your duvet and eat Swiss Cake Rolls directly out of the box.  Be Someone Better, if you can.  No, you may not go to work today in hairy pajamas and wellington boots.  Society has lost its passion for elegance. Bring some of that back.  Find a dress for Heaven’s sake! And two shoes that match, if not the dress, at least each other. Do one good deed today, even if the best you can manage is to tell a red-cheeked woman to ditch her Spanx reinforced steel and rubber undergarments—a bride has a right to be comfortable on her wedding day, damn it! (At the very least, she should be able to manage toileting herself without an army of attendants.) Good Character is a muscle. Build it.  Be on the lookout for people talking rot.   They are everywhere and rot is accumulating at an alarming rate. Listen to the Quiet ones.  Think before you speak. (And Look before you step—especially on the downstairs carpet!) See what needs to be done and just Do It.  When you can’t get out of it, get into it.  One thing at a time; one day at a time. Now, you GO girl!”

When a baby cries in the night, we begin (again) to be a mother.   When our best friend is acting like a total nut job and we resist the urge to clobber her and use our words instead, we begin (again) to have a relationship. When a child needs our full participation, protection and guidance, we begin (again) to be a father. And when a crabby customer returns with a dress we have fixed five times in the last 48 hours, we begin (again) to be a Seamstress.  Over and over, we rise from tear-stained pillows and our own ashes (or asses), like ancient Sisyphus, and begin again to roll those boulders up the hill.  Not because we are dead but because we are Alive. Because rising makes us better people.  And….because that squirming little dog really needs to get outside NOW!

Be well, dear friends, and do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

Dirty Secrets

Greetings Dear Ones!

The scissors grinder came today.  Yes, the scissors grinder! There is a youngish man who comes to town and goes door to door to sharpen our scissors for us.  I’m not sure if he comes because he remembers our scissors must be getting dull by now, or if he simply runs out of money and heads back out on his route to get some, as there is no apparent schedule what-so-ever but our scissors are forever getting more dull and it’s always a great delight when he shows up.  I hand over my nippers, embroidery scissors, and shears with deep gratitude that such a useful and charming traditional skill still exists.  Here on Main Street U.S.A., we have a traveling scissors grinder AND our very own cobbler, down the street from our little tailoring shop.  (Sigh...) It’s just like Disney, only with more poo.  Significantly more poo.

Is it too soon to talk about the poo?  This is only week 6 of this blog.  My inner critic, whom I call “Prudence Thimbleton,” purses her lips sternly and says “No, for pity’s sake, never tell them about the poo, you daft girl!”  “But, they want to know the secrets of a seamstress” I say to her, “those secrets involve poo!  I think that secretly, they want  to know about the poo!” “Rubbish,” she snorts with contempt. “No one wants to know about poo.”

So, dear reader, if you secretly want to know about the poo, read on.  If not, I’ll thank you for getting this far and urge you to turn back now and tune in next week, when I promise, there will be no more poo. (I think.)

For the most part, sewing is a pretty safe job, without a lot of hazards. There are the repeated and inevitable pin-pricks and burnings with the iron, but unless one happens to run her finger under the running needle on the machine (which happens, but not often) the risk of injury is not that serious.  There is, however, an undeniable “gross” factor. Most people don’t know that every time we open a seam body dirt falls out.  If the garment is an old one, there can be so much debris falling out, that we have to sweep the table and roll the inside of the seam with a sticky roll of tape to clean it up before we can work on it. This debris is made chiefly of dead skin and smells awful when you iron it.  I often wonder what a trained sommelier would think if he were presented with such a bouquet: “hmm… under the first wave of crud, I’m getting lily-scented bath powder and a splash of cat urine…”

I take a pair of black trousers from the rack and begin working on taking in the waist for an elderly man who is shrinking.  They have been hanging at the back of the rack for nearly a month.  His daughter, who brought them in, said there was no particular rush for these trousers and so they kept getting pushed to the back of the queue because of prom “emergencies.”  Finally, it is his turn.  I work quite happily for several moments, removing the waistband lining, marking the measurements with chalk.  I often daydream while I work; humming fiddle tunes in my head, making grocery lists, composing vitriolic letters to fashion designers… In my half-present daze, I become dimly aware of a vague farmyard kind of odor.  Quickly, I check my shoes, thinking I have stepped in poop of some kind. Living where I do, with three incontinent Jack Russells, free-range chickens, and a herd of sheep, it is more likely than not that I am the culprit who is bearing some form of feces on my feet at any given moment. Nothing.  I sigh and consider it no further.  Many older garments have their own odors that are released when we open them.  What are a gentleman’s pants but a big fart-filter anyway?  I continue humming blithely. But when I iron the seam in the back of the trousers an intense cloud of steam prompts me to peer more closely inside the crotch. Yep… You guessed it.  It must have dried out completely in the month it hung on the rack but the steam revived it instantly. I gag and put the trousers in a plastic bag and send them for cleaning before any more can be done to them. 

I, as used to dung as I am, used to be incredulous that a customer would bring them in, in that state, without laundering them first.  (Am I seriously the first person to realize there is a now steaming turd baked into this garment?) However, discovering excrement in garments happens with depressing regularity in a tailoring shop. I wonder sympathetically about what the story I will hear when I have to explain the cleaning sur-charge to the owner. I don't judge people on their shit. No Way!  I just think back to a time when my life was “unmanageable” and how the truth was that I actually thought, as this poor soul might, that I was managing.  It’s amazing how unaware of shit we can be.

My pack of rescued Jack Russells was forever dropping little doggie bombs on the carpets in the house.  Adopted as adults, they had never been properly housebroken, which probably explains why they were up for adoption in the first place! (I am not actually certain it is even possible to house break a Jack Russell.) Our carpets, darkly patterned, disguised these little landmines perfectly.  One trod barefoot at his or her own risk.  The children and I were watchful about checking for them and putting the dogs out regularly but if I left the house for any length of time, say to walk to the mailbox at the end of the driveway and back, an accident would happen.  Invariably, the one who stepped in it would be my former husband, who would erupt in total fury and threaten to make sporrans out of them all.  Nothing set him off like obliviously treading a footprint of shit all through the house like a foot-shaped rubber stamp, each impression getting smaller and fainter but no less fragrant.  Since I could neither train the dogs to do their business outside, nor train the husband to look where he stepped, I had become hyper vigilant about scanning for poop and disposing of it before anyone knew about it.  Denial meant Peace, when I could pull it off.  

One day, I spied a dried lump near the leg of a chair just as I heard him walking down the hall.  Any minute, he would enter the room, catch me cleaning up, and begin his manifesto on why all Jack Russells need to be exterminated.  I took a tissue from my sweater pocket, grabbed the tiny lump, swiftly tucked it back in the pocket, and strode quickly to the kitchen to dispose of it.  Unfortunately, when I got to the kitchen, given my severe Attention Deficit Disorder, I was immediately distracted by the resident eight-year-old trying to climb the counter to reach a glass off the highest shelf.   

I wore that cardigan for the next three days.  Occasionally, I would smell a waft of something questionable, that would send me carpet scanning and evicting all the dogs outside for a potty break, but I never found anything on shoe or carpet.  The vigilance was paying off, so I thought.

I don’t launder hand-knit, bulky wool jumpers very often, so it might have been months before I realized what was in that pocket. But a few days later, at swim team practice, a little four-year-old girl was running up the stairs and fell and put her tooth through her lip. As blood mixed with howls, all the mothers began searching their pockets for clean tissues.  I found mine immediately.  It was NOT clean.  As I stared in horror at what was in my hand, I could not believe that my life had devolved to a place of such distraction, dishonesty, and chaos that I could carry dog shite in my pocket for four days straight and have NO IDEA.

This is precisely what the daughter says when she comes to collect her elderly father’s trousers.  “I had no idea!” she sniffs sadly when we inform her of the extra charge for cleaning. “He has just been moved to a nursing home.  He has dementia and is losing track of things.”  (Yes, things like whether he has done his poopy on the potty or in his own pants.)  “I drove around with those pants in my car for a week. I had no idea…”  I do my best to reassure her. "Honey, you have no idea how much I get that!"

Recently, a friend said admiringly, “Nancy, you really turned your life around and got your shit together.” She wasn’t actually talking about real poo, but in my case the metaphor works either way. “Yes,” I admitted gratefully, “It might be together but it’s still just shit. We all have it, don't we?"  We laughed. Today, poo is more likely on my shoes than in my pockets and it’s not my own (yet). It’s a temporary victory but I’ll take it.   

Despite its hazards, I love my job.  Since Eve put apples on the menu, being a Seamstress has been the most Human of all occupations—to mask our shame through the labors of love and linen. There is something hilarious and tragic in the fact that No Other Species on the planet makes for itself a pair of fine, wool-polyester blend pants and then craps in them.  We may clothe our nakedness in all sorts of fabric and frippery but at the end of the day we are all very Natural Beings only temporarily in charge of our own poop.   May we be human and Humane.   Let those of us in clean pants lovingly assist those who aren’t!

Be well, my dear ones, and do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

The Work of Our Hands

Greetings Dear Ones!

I am in Ireland this week! On a brief holiday from stitching prom gowns and formal wear to attend an actual wedding myself,  in Connamara. For a change, I will be seeing a wedding gown from the outside, not the inside! As we drive up the coast, my breath escapes me over and over as I look at the miles of grey stone walls lacing the countryside, defining the ancient boundaries. I take any chance I get to get out and place my hands on them, feeling where other unseen hands once gripped them and placed them so long ago. All around, there is a Silent Testament, echoing beneath the constant wind, to countless generations of laborers who used a temporary strength of sinew to lift and shift these stones, before they themselves went to sleep in the ground from whence these very rocks came. I look at my hands, warm and living on the lichen, and think of the work of our hands...

Back in the USA, Mother’s Day is coming up and I am thinking of growing out my claws and painting them red.  I almost never varnish my nails but when I think of all that my hands accomplish in a year—knitting, baking, sewing, building things on my little homestead, playing music, tending to my children and animals—I think about decorating these silent little servants, just for one day, and letting them rest.  Well, I think about it, anyway. The truth of it is that no amount of lacquer would survive a day of my life. But it's a great thought and every Mother's Day,  I think back to meeting a special stranger nearly ten years ago now, who gave me the idea:

We are somewhere in Georgia or Florida. I am taking a long bus journey on a grey-hound bus.  My seat companion is an elegant black woman, vibrantly dressed in bold colors, with stunningly beautiful locks of elaborately twisted hair piled on her head.  She is much larger, taller, and grander than I; in every way her Presence, like her luggage, takes up a lot more room than mine.  I slump next to her feeling like one of those pale vegetables in the grocery store in winter time—an insipid cucumber, perhaps, while she is a luscious, vine-ripened tomato with heavy eye liner.  Her glossy lips and long nails gleam blood red.  Her fragrance—a mix of perfume and Confidence—envelops our seat.  She is prosperous. Assured.  I rarely go anywhere without half a sock in my pocket so I get out my knitting, taking care not to bump the armrest, and begin to unravel the yarn.  As my fingers feel quietly for the points of the needles and begin stitching, I sneak a sideways glance at my companion’s hands. They are impressively beautiful, adorned by gold rings with gems exactly the right scale to show off her long, graceful fingers.

Hands fascinate me.  I can be very attracted to or utterly repelled someone just by the shape of his hands or how she uses them in conversation.  Are the fingers strong and graceful? Is he flapping them about like a baby penguin?  Are the nails long and dirty? Or bitten to nubs? While not a palmist in any way, hands tell me a lot about a person.  I watch how people touch things, how they absentmindedly stroke their own faces, how they gesture.  I see how they are ornamented with scars, tattoos, jewelry, or nail polish. I especially love to observe hands at play on a musical instrument, with lives of their own, momentarily freed from the conscious direction of a brain.  The condition and length of the nails tells me about how this person cares for himself.

She notices me looking at her hands and smiles. 

          “Your hands are like a work of art,” I say, before I can stop myself from uttering something so embarrassing.

          “Yes!” she nods affirmatively. “It is so. I do it on purpose. I never paint my nails any other color. Ever.” She is loudly emphatic, like it's a testimony.

          “Well, it’s a fabulous color on you,” I say.

          “I know,” she admits. “But that is not the reason I do it. I have my own reason.”  She smiles darkly.  It is a clear invitation I simply have to take.

          “Tell me more,” I say.  And as if she has been waiting dramatically in the wings for her cue to begin the performance, she sweeps forward in her seat and launches into the kind of monologue I live for on long bus rides: 

“Years ago, when my man left me with four babies to feed and no house, no money, no job, I started growing these nails and I painted them blood red.  I used to crawl into bed with my little babies and scratch them to sleep. Very gently, mind you! I whispered that their mama was secretly a tigress, not just a woman--being a woman was just my disguise and these were my claws to prove it.  ‘Do you see this red?’ I asked them, ‘do you SEE this red?’ This red is the blood of anyone who ever try to hurt you, ever.  I will LEAP on them and my tiger self will SLASH them to ribbons with these claws.” She clawed suddenly at the air with a savagery that startled me. Then, the hands fluttered in disguised meekness to rest in her lap again, like obedient house pets.   “It helped them feel safe.  It helped me feel safe too,” she continued, pleased to have seen the whites of my eyes.  “Every mother’s day, I make my children rub lotion into these hands.  I say ‘Children, these hands work all year for you! They scrape and clean, and work and cook, and do all sorts of things for you. Now you rub your Mama’s claws and thank them for keeping you safe and fed.’ And they do.  Every year, I sit in a chair and hold out these hands and make my children rub them.  It feels so good.  Someday, they gonna hold my hands as I die.  They’ll be different hands then—all small and wrinkled, no power left in the Claw—and I want them to remember my hands strong. I want them to see the changes year by year.  I want them to look at they own hands and think what they can DO in this world. Everybody gotta DO something in this world, to make it a better place.” She paused and looked over at my hands, which, of course, were knitting.  My pale, naked fingers with their short, unvarnished nails, were hopping deftly over the yarn like school girls playing Chinese jump rope at recess. She watched me in silence for a moment.  “My hands can’t do what yours are doing,” she said, flatly. She looked at me sideways, seeming to Decide something, and smirked, “but then, you ain’t no tigress neither!”  We both laughed. 

Every Mother’s Day, I think of that Magnificent stranger on that bus and I wonder if her children are still rubbing her claws.  I hope so! Since that bus ride, my own claws have built a split-rail fence for the sheep, built a small stone wall and two sheds, massaged an endless parade of aching backs, and earned me a living as a seamstress. They have knitted countless pairs of socks, made countless batches of scones and oatcakes, and scooped innumerable canine turds off carpets.  Since that bus ride, my claws have ceased to wear a wedding band and I have discovered my inner Tigress.  My hands are thicker now with age, and they ache a little some days but they are the part of my body I am most grateful for. 

Today, as I rest these hands on the ancient walls of my ancestors, I think of that Shaker phrase "Hands to work, hearts to God," and the psalm "Give us the work of our hands Lord, give us the work of our hands..." I send silent prayers out to all the dear Mothers--those giving their hands and hearts to nurturing, protecting, teaching and serving the young; those who get up, aching and weary, to Do What Must be Done for the innocent and dependent; who carry children in their hearts, whether they carried them in their bodies or not. I think about how scared we are at times and how only our own stories can console us, as we gently scratch small backs in the dark.   I think about my own mother's strong hands kneading our daily bread as I was growing up, and about how it felt to hold my grandmother's weakened, tiny bird claws the day she died. The stranger on the bus was right. Our hands and our powers change over time.  It is right for us to honor both the hands and those changes, which make the spaces necessary for us to step forward and offer our own hands in their place.  Our Mother's hands have shaped and placed the living stones that will continue to build the world in new and hopeful ways.  And whether we are ancient forgotten stone mason,  modern mother, or frazzled seamstress--when our weary rest comes at last, what do we leave to endure behind us, long after we are gone?  Where is our love made visible? In the work of our hands.

Be well, dear friends, and do good work! 

Yours aye, 

Nancy

 

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Fits for Toddlers

 

Hello my Dearies!

What is a fairytale wedding without a miniature prince and princess who have skipped their naps and are strung out on gummi bears? I’m not talking about the grandparents of the groom here. Toddlers posing as trolls in party-gear are all the rage this season.  Can’t afford your very own magical troll?  Why not ask your sister’s two-year-old to wear ten yards of tulle for a whole afternoon (and keep it clean for pictures) and see how that goes?

I love children.  I adore playing music with them and entertaining them with games and stories and nursery rhymes.  But given the choice between building a split-rail fence by hand in rock-studded New England soil and fitting someone under four for formal wear, I’d rather tackle the fence any day! Having done both, I know which one will have you crawling for the Advil faster. Now, before you start moistening your pens and iPads for retort, let me just state right from the beginning that this essay is about Other People’s Toddlers, not yours, bless their hearts.  Yours, it is universally acknowledged, are perfect little cherubs who would NEVER behave as the Purely Hypothetical toddlers in this story! 

You may not know this but a professional seamstress, when working with a toddler, follows very strict Industry Standards, which are adhered to at every fitting. The sequence goes something like this:

1.     First, the toddler flat out Refuses to try on the garment in question. 

2.     A wrestling match ensues, pitting several full-grown adults against a twenty to thirty-five pound being who smells vaguely of applesauce and urine.  The adults will be injured.

3.     At some point in the proceedings, someone naked notices the mirror and begins licking it and making funny faces.  This is usually the toddler, but not always.

4.     Having squeezed the Toddler into the clothing against his/her will, it is time to freak out about the pins.  Putting a pin in clothing while they are wearing it is very traumatic for some children who have been to a doctor and know what shots are all about.  There is no convincing them that the needles go in the clothes only and that they won’t hurt. They have been lied to before.

5.     There is much screeching, weeping, and beseeching. The ensuing Negotiations by all parties make the Treaty of Paris look like an afterthought.

6.     The now well-dressed child commences climbing from the parent’s hand to hand to hand like an enormous hamster, refusing to stay put until you threaten to brandish the pins again.

7.     At some point, the seamstress will thank her Higher Power that there is not a readily available fifth of gin on hand under her desk.

8.     Once everyone is thoroughly exhausted and you announce it is All Over, (whether you have achieved any measurements or not doesn’t matter anymore)—that is the toddler’s cue to flat out Refuse to take off the garment.

9.     Enormous grief ensues at the prospect of leaving behind this article of clothing so it may be fixed.  Neither the toddler nor the seamstress wants this to happen.

Do you think I am kidding?  Well, I will totally Make Up the following story, to go with the above Fun Facts in order to illustrate my point:

It’s Tuesday. I am working on a giant, tiny dress—probably about a size 4 but it needs to be remade into a size 2(ish).  I call it the giant tiny dress because it is for a toddler but it takes up the whole of my work station with its billowing skirts and underskirts and large rosettes made of fabric.  I have removed all the piping around the neck, resized the armpit and neck area, taken up the shoulders, and carefully reconstructed all the roses and piping again by hand.  It looks perfect.  It is white with silver accents and looks like a miniature bridal gown.   The little girl wearing it is going to be a flower girl in her aunt’s wedding.  This is her mother’s dress that she herself wore as a flower girl in a wedding twenty-five years ago.  Despite its vintage, it has been beautifully preserved and is still a pristine white.  A part of me has fallen in love with this dress—I often fall in love with clothing I am working on, especially older clothing that seems to have some sort of “soul” about it.   I have connected to this dress emotionally in a way that I cannot explain.  I cannot wait to see how it looks on the little girl when she comes in.  I was not present at the original fitting so I have no idea what she looks like.  I picture some sort of angelic being… (Looking just like YOUR favorite toddler, of course!)   

The back door bangs open and a vividly tattooed woman in rolled up jeans and flip-flops begins dragging a screaming toddler down the aisle to the dressing room. “Sorry we are late!” she bellows, “NOT having an easy morning, are we my love,” she says, looking down at the grubbiest child I have ever seen.  Snot is running out of both nostrils and across her cheeks, making clean streaks through the veneer of dirt on her skin.  She is in a full diaper, sans shoes, and wearing a shirt she clearly uses primarily for straining food.  She is arching her back and alternately stamping and dangling from her mother’s arm like a baby chimpanzee.  The noises she is making are indistinguishable from those of a zoo animal as she bites her mother on the wrist.  Her hair, the most unlovely shade of “dirty blonde”, because it is literally SO dirty is standing up in a six inch mat all over her head.  I peer a little closer, expecting to see horns beneath the crusty curls.   Wearily, a grandmother trails in from the parking lot, limping.

“Come on, honey,” she says, “let’s try your pretty dress on so that we can see if it fits you. ” The child attempts to kick her.  They grab the girl and start trying to squeeze her into the dress I most reluctantly hand them.  She is behaving like a mean drunk on a Friday night, fighting with her feet because her arms are pinned by the grandmother.  They try to get her in from the top but her grubby feet are too fast and granny gets winded by a well-timed hip-check to the solar plexus.  They give up and try to pull the dress over her head, temporarily blinding her with clouds of fluffy tulle.  She emerges spitting, as if she has just been plunged through foam in a bubble bath.  Both women grunt heavily as they pin her to the floor to button her.  Finally, they release her and jump back, like wild-life scientists on a nature program who have just tagged a baby crocodile.  She staggers to her feet, momentarily stunned. She blinks.  She cocks her head, eyes wide, all rage instantly arrested, as she sees something in the mirror.  She edges towards herself, mirror hands reaching to touch real hands.  A soft coo escapes her spittled lips.  She is smitten.  She coos again. “Ahhhhhh….” She smiles.  The girl in the mirror smiles too.  All four hands leave each other’s touch to smooth their respective dresses. She turns a little, admiring every angle of herself.  She spins. She laughs.  Tantrum transformed.  Sometimes it’s just all about the Right Dress, eh? Proof that the right fit brings out the inner Princess in us all! 

(Let’s just leave the story right there, with the smiling angel in the mirror and not talk about what happened when we told her she had to take that pretty dress off…)

Not all toddler fittings are so dramatic, mind you. A three-year-old gentleman I have the pleasure of waiting on looks calmly down at me as I pin his trouser hem and announces, “You can come to my birthday party.”

           “Oh, why thank you!” I chirp. “How old will you be?”

           “I’m going to be four,” he says.  “Not today, but Someday.  And you can come.”

“That’s very kind of you,” I say, continuing to slip pins into his shirt without him noticing.  “I’d be delighted! But what if I don’t know anyone there? Who else are you inviting?”

“Oh,” he replies airily, “My brother will be there.  He’s called Daniel.  And my Grandpa will be there.  He’s called Grandpa.  He’s my favorite. And his favorite cake is cake.”

“Mine too,” I say. “I love any cake that is a cake.”

“Yes,” he nods seriously, “There is going to be cake because it is going to be a birthday. We could eat the cake in the tree-house.  I have a tree-house.  It’s an up house.  You need to climb a ladder to get to it.  It’s not a down house, like my real house, on the ground.  But…” he sighs heavily at this point, “it’s not up high because of alligators.  They have to live in the zoo. There are no alligators under the tree house.” He tries to disguise his disappointment.  “Only be-tend ones.”

It’s my own privately held opinion that toddlers should be allowed to be feral at weddings—free to run riot with their cousins, eating purloined olives off each fingertip, and hiding from Great Aunt Margaret’s whiskery smooches.  Their clothes should be the same color as the hill they will be rolling down all afternoon. But if you insist on dressing them up in party frocks and posing them for photos, well, I am here for you--pins, patience, and Advil in hand.  And I DO love them truly (the toddlers, that is),  especially yours.

Be Well and do good work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

In Danger of Being Magnificent

Hello my Dearies!

It's Wedding time. A gorgeous woman is standing in the dressing room.  From both mirrors and across her face beams a radiant energy that makes the very air buzz.  She is not just large, she is larger than life.  She is not just black—her polished ebony skin gleams darkly in the light.  Her head is piled with tiny glossy braids that sweep in circles like an upside-down basket on her head. Her laugh burbles easily from her open throat as she gazes joyfully at her wife-to-be.  I finish making a few adjustments to a dress that fits her like a second skin and step back.  We all agree.  She is Magnificent!

They leave the shop together, smiling, and suddenly everything seems a little dimmer.  I slip on my thimble and pick up a threaded needle and wonder what it takes to be Magnificent like that.  For a moment, I think "If only I was black,  and curvy, and a lesbian.  Those lucky big, black, lesbians! Magnificence comes so easily for them.  Having what the Scots call “peely-wally” sallow skin and frizzy red hair that refuses to behave—that’s got to be what’s holding me back."  

The bell on the door rings and a white woman in her mid-seventies comes in.  Her grey hair is shaved closed to her head and her ears bob with multiple earrings.  She is tall, with large, expressive hands that flutter over her boldly-colored flowing clothes as she describes how she wants her Grandmother-of-the-Groom gown to fit.  She is comfortable.  She moves gracefully, laughs easily.  The deep lines around her kind eyes make it look like she is smiling all the time.  When she leaves the shop, I slump back in my chair.  Maybe I don’t have to be black or lesbian to be Magnificent after all!  I just have to wait until I am seventy and then shave my head.  (That certainly will solve the frizzy red hair situation.)

My favorite crabby person comes in.  She is in her mid-sixties and Jewish, with grown children who never call her.  She too is Magnificent.  I see right through her fabulous crabbiness in an instant.  She is just extremely knowledgeable and unappreciated, perhaps even misunderstood, and sometimes her crankiness intimidates people.  She leaves and I think if I had been born Jewish I might have a shot at being Magnificent (I am already frequently misunderstood and well on my way to being crabby).   

What it is that makes three such completely different people be so Magnificent?  You might think I am an indiscriminate person--that I just think every person I meet is Magnificent.  Not so. I try not to judge, but when I do, I judge very stringently.  Every person is Loveable, to be sure, but very few people earn my designation of Magnificent.   Most of us are just merely in Danger of being Magnificent.  But just when we are about to risk something big, we lower the hemline, raise the neckline, wear something prudent and cautious and beige and then shuffle anonymously to a seat in the shadows at the back of the room. (Not that I am anti-modesty, mind you!  Ironically, modest clothing is often the most alluring. Here in New England, during the three months a year we don’t wear parkas, it’s best to keep things covered anyway, or at least disguised with some well-placed shrubbery!)  In danger of being Magnificent,  we stay quiet.  We stay neutral.  We don’t want to cause a ruckus or a fuss. We don’t embody Joy.  Our clothes are the food-smeared caves where we hide, as we roam Wallmart in slippers, looking for snacks.

These women I call Magnificent are not so because they don’t have problems.  EVERY customer has a problem—that’s how I come to meet them in the first place.   Sometimes the problem is with an article of clothing that is not behaving.  Sometimes the problem is with him or herself.  Sometimes it is with the fashion industry and its cock-a-mamie attempts to get us all to resemble trout.  For these women, the problem is definitely NOT them. They blame the clothes, not themselves.  And they know how to ask for help. Once the alterations are finished, they don’t just wear their garments—they Present them.  Their "outfits" represent "inner-fits" and are simply the costumes required for dramas in which they are not afraid to star.

Some women just don’t get this.  They look in the mirror with defeated sighs and say “I really need to lose some weight.  I really want to wear this (skirt, dress, hideous lemon leotard) for some occasion (wedding, funeral, family reunion where weird Uncle Larry is going to eat all the cheese balls again).  I always protest and say “Change the clothes, dear heart, not you!"  Like a dog-trainer, I show the customer how to take control of the situation by shaking her pants and saying “you naughty pants!  Shame on you!  How dare you make this woman’s bum look big!”  (Sometimes, the pants snarl back “hey!  It’s not MY fault that cow likes pumpkin lattes! Don’t blame me!” Pants are vicious creatures sometimes, especially when they use the voice of our own savage inner critics.)  Fine if you want to lose weight for health reasons or to feel more energetic, just don't let that uppity blouse from Ralph Lauren try to be the boss of You. But really, it’s not about the actual size of your bum at all.  It’s about the size of the woman inside that bum that counts. I can tell by how these women enter the shop that they are terrified of being Magnificent.  They approach timidly, apologetically.  They are sorry they have this dress, sorry they aren’t the right size, sorry to bother us, sorry for living.  They meekly follow me to the dressing room, where their shoulders sag like bent hangers and their clothes dangle forlornly, like laundry left on the clothesline after a rain.  

Being Magnificent is totally dangerous.  It carries us to the edge of our discomfort.  It exposes. It risks.  The easiest thing to do is to stay home dressed as an amorphous blob under a fluffy bathrobe and a pair of sweat pants.  (Sweat pants—ew! Even then very name tells you they are NOT magnificent.   Though if your wear them to a gym, where they belong, and actually sweat in them on a regular basis, well, you will become very strong, which is a good piece of being Magnificent.)  The much harder thing is to claim your own femininity or masculinity and dress yourself in a way that defines not just who you are right now but who you want to be, moving forward, as your roles evolve.  What is fun for you to wear? What colors do you love? What makes you feel comfortable, vibrant, ready to Live? Do you really want to wear four-inch stilletoes to the prom? Or would you be happier in some blinged-out keds?

Being Magnificent has nothing to do with what size, shape, or color you are.  Trust me, I study this species close up during my daily dressing room safaris.  Right now, it’s also Prom Season and there is an endless parade of physical youth and perfection in the dressing room. I have seen elegant creatures with long, sylph-like limbs, pert noses, and hair tumbling in silky waterfalls down their backs who look hollow, somehow uninhabited—as if they are less than the sum of the parts they have assembled under all that chiffon.  They are tightly furled, un-bloomed. The runways are full of these long-legged things held up as the icons of beauty on every magazine cover.  Well, they ARE beautiful.  They are just not Magnificent.  Not yet.  There is a difference.

Women who are truly Magnificent are not born that way.  It takes a while, and some significant suffering, like the growth of a pearl in an oyster. (Young people can be Magnificent too, but it's rare--and  only if they have overcome something big.)  A woman over seventy has had to live through a thing or two, not the least of which are multiple eras of bell-bottomed pants and line-backer shoulder pads.  These women have stopped accepting the dictates of arbitrary fashion designers who think we need to consign ourselves to a lifetime of lean cuisine and stevia to conform and have begun to exercise their own free will. Which is pretty much how this whole “wearing clothes” thing got started, if you will recall! How much more dangerous can you get?

There is a price to pay for being Magnificent.  No doubt about it.  People will notice you.  People will talk about you.  People will listen to you.   Frizzy red-haired people might seriously be tempted to shave their heads upon meeting you.  Some people will admire you and some people definitely will not like you. That’s a frightful amount of responsibility, to be sure.  Most of the time, my own personal fashion focus consists of making sure there is no animal dung on my shoes, no hay in my pockets, and that the hem of my skirt is not inadvertently tucked into my waistband—like that time I unwittingly mooned half of High Street before a polite stranger clued me in.  Still, I admire these Mavens of Magnificence who have the courage to inhabit their whole selves, who understand that sheer radiance will triumph over any kind of genetics, race, or creed, who know that Happiness is the best make-up ever.  Too many of us come into the dressing room and fuss and pick over the tiniest details without actually looking at the bigger picture in the mirror.  Expecting to be a beacon of light without a shadow of a doubt is expecting Perfection.   It’s impossible.  So why strive for Perfect, when Magnificent will do?

Be well and do good work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

Seamstress Math

Hello my lovelies!

A seamstress I know hangs up the phone and sighs with exasperation.  A newly engaged bride named Melody has called to find out how much it will cost to alter a wedding gown.  She does not know what kinds of alterations it needs, how many layers it has to hem, or if it needs a bustle. A bustle is a technical term for something in a hedge row… Just kidding. It’s when you button up the train of a gown so it hangs even with the rest of the dress. A train is something that people take to get somewhere else. It’s also the long part of the gown that all the drunk people at the wedding are going to step on after a bride drags it down the aisle. This bride on the phone does not have her shoes yet and she has no idea when she can bring the dress in for a fitting.  But she wants a price.   How much?  My friend wiggles her fingers in a mystical way at the phone, now back in its cradle, as if she is clairvoyant.  Hmmm… she muses… somewhere between $80-120? $400? $50? Who the hell knows…

          “Don’t people GET it? Has NO ONE ever gone to a math class??” she asks for the thousandth time this month, “We need all the variables before we can do the problem!” 

As a person who calls a ruler a “stick with numbers,” I confess that Math has never been my strong suite.  In fact, if I had ever suspected how much math I would wind up having to use on a daily basis, I would have tried to pay more attention to things like compound fractions and inverted denominations while the teachers were droning on about them.  I just snuck storybooks of myths and legends under my desk and assumed that in my future life I would never need to find a coefficient—which I assume is something efficient—though I probably need one now!  Alas, math is everywhere. It sneaks up on you.  I said this once to my friend Steve, who is a math teacher in western Massachusetts, and he said “Please come into my class and tell my students that!!  Please!  They have no idea!”

I remember back to fifth grade, when we were asked to calculate how far Mr. Smith would drive if he was traveling East on a Tuesday at 55 miles per hour and drove for two and a half hours, I was always less interested in the pertinent information—( 55 x 2.5) and much more intrigued by the impertinent.  Why was he traveling East? Why Tuesday? Did Mrs. Smith pack him a lunch—like grandma’s basket of pepper and egg sandwiches—so that he would not have to stop at some revolting fast-food place? Did he really have some place important to go to or was he just doing this to drive us fifth graders mad?  I never got the hang of word problems and I’m not even all that good at the most basic calculations.  In college, when I was working at a fabric store called Piece Goods, I actually concluded that a customer would need about 76 yards of fabric to make a set of kitchen curtains.  She believed me without question, even though the average window is not more than one yard wide and two yards long.   We started wondering how many bolts, at ten yards a bolt, we would have to order.  Luckily, a co-worker named Georgia with a rich, mahogany laugh, interrupted us with the shout, “Girl!  That’s exactly the right amount of fabric…if-ing you planning to slipcover Rhode Island with the leftovers!”

“How much?” is the question we are asked over and over again.  Often the answers are arbitrary, based on a strange alchemy between how much effort something requires and how much we think the customer is willing to value that effort in actual dollars.  The use of money as a translation for talent, time, and energy is imperfect.  When I hear from mathematician friends that numbers get very flexible the more sophisticated the equations get, I feel confused.  Numbers are numbers. Facts are facts.  Well, apparently not at the highest levels—which includes Advanced Number Theory, the United States Government, and certain tailoring shops, where something called "a skinch" (a skinny inch) is an accepted measurement.

We use basic math, particularly geometry, for an average of nine hours a day.  The life of a seamstress consists mostly of word problems such as:

1.     “Ruthie Chooch sees a blouse on sale at T.J. Maxx for $12 and decides to buy it, regardless of the fact that it is a size 2 and she is a most curvatious and voluptuous  size 18. She loves the design so much—she decides to buy two blouses in the hopes that a local seamstress can sew them together somehow.   How many blouses, at 12 dollars a pop, will it take to slipcover Ms. Chooch’s bazoombas?  Keep in mind, she is planning to wear this garment to church.   And how much will this project cost in the end, after the frazzled seamstress spends four days on it?

a.      The GDP of a tiny country

b.     Think of a number, any number

c.      Nothing, as Ms. Chooch will never come pick it up.

2.     Given that this shop pays ( x in rent + y in utilities +z in employee salaries), how much should we charge to hem a pair of pants?

a.      $500

b.     $10

c.      We should do them for free, like granny did.

3.     Mrs. Joysmacker swoops into the shop and slaps twenty beautiful shawls down on the table.  They are hand-crocheted cotton triangles in vibrant organic dyes from some third-world country where people still know how to make such loveliness.  Mrs. Joysmacker wants them hacked into pieces and reassembled as a kind of sweater/coat for herself that is fringed all over.   How many triangles will be destroyed to make a large rectangle to cover her back, two thinner rectangles to cover her front, and two cylinders for arms? 

a.      19.5

b.     47

c.      We could not bear to count

4.     Mrs. Muffincrusher has purchased some curtains on sale.  In her eagerness to save herself a buck, she neglects to realize that these panels were 84” long.  She now needs them shortened to 64.”  The clever seamstress now

a.      Chops twenty inches off the bottom of each panel and calls it a day

b.     Chops anything from 19-22 inches off each panel, none of which turn out to be 84” to begin with

c.      Sweats the details VERY carefully, knowing that the dim eyesight that overlooked the numeral 84 on the package will not fail to notice a hairs’ breath of  difference from ten yards away and that Mrs. Muffincrusher will be back to plague her at least sixteen times until she gets it right.

5.     Bertha Birkenstock’s son Bobby is a very busy boy scout.  He has earned quite a few patches recently and needs twelve new ones stitched onto his sash.  If we normally charge between 2-4 dollars a patch (depending on size and whether or not there are pockets involved), how much will Bobby’s achievements in knot-tying and whittling cost Bertha Birkenstock?

a.      $24-48 because each patch will be a different color and we will have to change threads at least 47 times and break three needles in the process

b.     $12 because Bertha  Birkenstock will moan and groan otherwise

c.      Why the hell don’t boy scouts get a patch for learning how to sew on their own damn patches?

These are just a few of the problems that we run into on a daily basis.  Let’s not even get into the kind of geometry it takes to fit a man with no bum who wants to wear his pants tight! As a carpenter in cloth, I’ve come a long way in my math skills.  “A long way,” I said, not “far.”  The two are very different things, as I hope you have learned by now.  Most days, I remember to make sure the tape is starting with the numeral “1” when I take someone’s measurements. And I always measure more than once.  I hate it when I cut something three times and then it’s still too short!

Be well, be kind, and do good work!

Nancy

The Gift of Being a Misfit

Hello my lovelies!

A handsome, blue-eyed, off-the-rack sort of guy, meeting me for the first time said “what is it you do, exactly? What is altering clothing?”  (the altered universe) He was a writer, so I said “I edit clothing. I take out what isn’t needed here and add more there.” He nodded in a bemused way. “Is there enough work in that? How many people have clothes that don’t fit?”  I peered at him incredulously.  At 6’1” with a slim, athletic build, he might have never once in his life have had the experience of things not fitting.  Not for him the anxious bargaining, writhing and twisting while lying down to get a pair of jeans over his hips.  Hmmm...  It might never have occurred to him that modern mass-produced clothing does not actually fit the masses.  I literally, had never met anyone like him before.   “I don’t mean to be rude,” he said, which is something I notice people saying just before they are about to say something rude, “but what is it you do all day?”  The answer is something I have been considering ever since.  

This blog is an attempt to figure out exactly what it is I do all day, while other people are saving the rainforest, researching climate change, curing cancer, feeding the hungry…. Me? I’m just trying to make your damn pants fit so they don’t ride up your ass and make you grumpy. It’s not really as noble as rescuing puppies from a burning building but there you go.  There’s still a need for it.  I never set out to fix the world one pair of pants at a time or be, like Saint Therese, a “saint in little ways.”  No, I had grander plans for myself, though I have since forgotten what they were. I think I wanted to be a veterinarian or maybe  a professional roller-skater. At fifty, I have been through a thing or two and I have reached what Plato called the “Philosopher’s Age.”  I see now that someone whose pants are not bunching up and chafing his or her butt cheeks might actually be a kinder, more enlightened human being--one who might support Heifer International or donate to public radio during one of their pledge drives.   And perhaps it is up to that kinder, more pleasant, less chafed individual to save the world, not me.  Such is my gift to humanity. 

Like Eve, I went into clothing design for moral reasons.  At nine years of age, I inherited a box of Barbie dolls from a neighbor. I didn’t need to eat any apples to observe they were naked.  Seriously dismayed to learn that Mattel did not sell pious garments for these hard-boiled hussies, I began to fashion little nun habits for them out of toilet paper.  In no time at all, they were the Sisters of the Immaculate Septic System, complete with rosaries made out of dental floss and my sisters and I could play “the Sound of Music to our heart’s content.   In fifth grade, I learned I could escape my mother’s horrible healthy lunches (peanut butter and bean sprout sandwiches on homemade wheat bread strong enough to shingle houses) by trading homemade doll clothes for junk food.  I once commanded the exorbitant fee of a whole bag of cheetos for a carefully tailored blue doll coat that took me three days to make. In High School, I took to sewing in self-defense when I realized my bum was not respecting the narrow imaginations of 1980’s clothing designers.  I had to figure out how to tailor my clothes so it would not look like I was shoplifting seat cushions.  When others found out I could do this, word spread to the anguished and my ministry began.

Here I am today, more than 30 years later: Still clothing the naked, disguising the buttocks, and sewing for food--though now I really LIKE bean sprouts! For an average of forty to sixty hours a week, people present me with their problems and I attempt to fix them.  Doctors hear stories of pain; Lawyers hear stories of personal injury; I get to hear about how gremlins snuck into your closet at night and shrunk all your clothes.   Time and time again, I am told that being a seamstress is “old-fashioned” that I am part of a dying breed.  That may be so but it’s not because our clothes are fitting any better.  And since most of us still wear clothes, there is an overwhelming need for people to take up this craft.  Thanks to my work, I get to see close up how most of us are not a perfect fit.  Having felt like a misfit in one way or another for most of my life, this is tremendously healing.  I am not alone. You, dear reader, aren’t either.  None of us are.  We are each slightly different, as unique as snowflakes--flakes with one leg longer, one shoulder higher, a bum with enough mass to have its own planetary magnetism,  or no bum at all, we are all in danger of being Magnificent when our clothes and lives begin to fit us better. 

It’s a gift to be a misfit.  I see it time and time again in the fitting room.  Being a misfit helps create mindfulness.  A person’s “flaw” becomes her beauty when put in the right setting.  Attention must be paid, accommodations made, reality faced.  These are good things for us humans to do.  They are the gateways to humility, compassion, and gratitude.  And Laughter, which makes everything fit better! It sometimes takes a bit of work to make things fit. That’s ok.  We deserve it.  

Be well, and do good work.

Yours aye,

Nancy

Prayer of a Seamstress

Dear Lord,

We dedicate this work to you. 

We ask you to bless our hands and use them as your own, even as they ache from heavy scissors and sting from needles and pins.

May our presence at work today be a blessing on others and ourselves, though disagreeable customers may fret or nag, and leave our tiny dressing room with choking clouds of perfume, coffee breath, or last night’s bean burrito.

Teach us to forgive those who give us half a day to redesign an entire wedding dress that they knew four months ago did not fit.

Grant us your patience, Lord, when people grumble at how much we charge and blithely inform us that their dead grandmother used to do it for nothing.

We surrender to you our striving to make both sleeves come out even, asking only that the bobbin not run out two inches from the end of the seam.

Save us, we pray, from the drudgery of dungarees that need to be hemmed a quarter of an inch and deliver us from the evils of hemming the same damn leg twice and neglecting to do the other one.

Protect us from the Dance Mothers, Mothers of the Brides, or any other imposing female who needs to give us the full, entire, exhaustive, repetitive history of the provenance of her daughter’s gown. 

May we measure as many times as it takes but cut only once.  May we trust our eyes, not our ears, when someone insists he still has the 29 inch waist he had twenty years ago.  May we hem and taper, taper and hem, until every young, male, bald ankle reveals its glory to the world yet may we encourage anyone over fifty to stick to cuffs.

Thank you for your faith in us that such a glorious mission—that men no more may roam your creation with broken zippers and missing buttons, nor any woman  wear jeans that refuse to accommodate her entire ass—has been placed in our hands.  We are humbly grateful for our many blessings.               Amen