Ants and Grasshoppers

“Being forced to work, and forced to do your best, will breed in you temperance and self-control, diligence and strength of will, cheerfulness and content, and a hundred virtues which the idle will never know.” Charles Kingsley 

Greetings Dear Ones!

Harvest time is drawing to a close.  The hay is in the shed, the firewood is getting stacked up close to the house—I am working like an ant but still wanting to party like a grasshopper. My Now has become all about The Future. A killing frost has silenced the cricket choir—a harsh lesson warning my inner Grasshopper to shape up and Prepare: With frigid, snow-furred claws and icicles for teeth, It cometh. We’ve had hail, heavy rain, a sun burn, a rainbow, and a light dusting of snow all in one week.  It’s New England—Winter could be any moment now. 

Even in the shop, we do our work with an eye to the future.  A woman brings in a pair of slacks for her son. I secretly put four inch hems on the boy’s suit pants.  I normally only turn up two inches on a hem but this mother is getting them hemmed “for no reason.” There is no upcoming “event”—she just wants to be “ready for anything.” (All Yankees are part Boy Scout.) I say, be ready for this kid to grow! If I know anything about teenage boys, it’s that they go through a phase when they will eat the contents of the fridge on a daily basis and grow an average of six inches a week. I think about how the future versions of this mother and son will thank the little ant-minded seamstress who thought to make room for another half a leg. 

There is a somewhat skewed Bell curve to the time management strategies of our customers.  At one end, there are the pure Ants and sweet, polite Mr. Brisk-Vigour who gets all his winter woolens and long-johns mended and dry-cleaned in August. In the middle, representing the bulk of people, are the ant-grasshopper blends ranging from cheerful workers to dour party-ers. Most of them manage to give us just enough time to accommodate their needs. At the far right of the spectrum is Ms. Breathless Grasshopper: “I know it’s Thursday after 5, but the wedding is this Saturday and well, I just got the dress in the mail and…” One look at her tells Prudence that she has been chosen as a bridesmaid for her Karaoke talents rather than her organizational skills. The waft of tequila in the dressing room is palpable.

These harried ones, the Grasshoppers rushing in with their hair or pants on fire, these are visions of myself I could do without.  They haunt me. I see how Inconvenient I must be to the truly Organized.  The furthest to the left of this Bell Curve—which moves in a continuum from “People on Time,” to “People with extra time,” all the way to “People who make Extraordinary Preparedness an art form”—these are exotic creatures to me.  I long to live among them and study their ways.  They don’t seem to have the same troubles I do.  But then, they don’t have some of the domestic companions I do.  Apart from a beloved son, an assortment of animal criminals and a Russian tortoise, I live daily with someone else who drives me Totally Bonkers…who makes my life more fraught than three incontinent Jack Russells put together.  Let’s call her Past Nancy.  She’s a warped Zen ideal of “burning in the Now,” who thinks never of past nor future.  She’s a menace. She never thinks to refill what she empties. She never empties what she fills. She never puts the caps back on anything. She makes my life a living hell sometimes—spending money we need for more important bills on fabric she already has, somewhere, but cannot find; forgetting to turn the water off when refilling the sheep’s trough so that their paddock turns into a marsh and her well runs dry and burns out the pump motor; leaving apple cakes and scones in the oven until they are cinders… She’s a mess.  She’s the worst roommate I have ever had. “Who left these dishes in the sink? Who forgot to lock the chickens up at night? Who let her car inspection sticker lapse four months?”  Present Nancy often cannot get ANYTHING done because she is like a dazed member of FEMA following in the aftermath of destruction left by hurricane Past Nancy.  

The once and future Nancys are always in some form of conflict over what needs to be done Now. Present Nancy lurches between damage control and forward planning that would make tomorrow less hellish.   Inevitably, Past Nancy has aimed too high or too low, perhaps just too chaotically (if at all), which keeps Present Nancy in a rut—a rut that seems occasionally to be on fire with emergencies.   When the ambient chaos level leads to unwarranted suffering, it’s time to pause and have a little meeting with my selves.  Prudence is always the first to show up.  She has a long list of complaints, observations, and grievances. She is like the woman, years ago at a Maynard town hall meeting, who got up and told everyone she checked the mileage on our town policeman’s cruiser every morning when he went into the Bean House to get coffee.  

“Excuse me,” I say to my selves, “Winter and worse yet, Tomorrow, are on their way, even as I speak. I am tired of coming home to a place that looks like it’s been the scene of an epic Struggle.  The mice, not generally known for being such great planners  yet who are clearly much better planners than we, have taken over the kitchen and are even now annexing the closet, as evidenced by the pile of dog food I found in my boot this morning. I’m sick of realizing I cannot wear half of my clothes because they need: a. a button, b. a patch, c. a hem.  I am a seamstress, for crying out loud! (or as a friend likes to put it, a “Seamster” which sounds infinitely tougher.)  We need to pull together and turn this ship around!

The ranting feels good while it lasts.  Prudence tries to take potshots when she can, but the rest of me feels defeated, sullen, and bored.  Only Prudence is smiling. She is a fine one for issuing demands to “shape up or ship out,” immediately demanding more, being punitive and caustic about what we DO manage to achieve—such as having clothing on that is not back to front or inside out, remembering underwear and such things... She is an obnoxious Ant lecturing Grasshoppers.

I change course. “Look,” I plead, “I know we hate making decisions and that our choosit muscles are generally fairly weak but the fact is that we make around seven hundred decisions a day whether we want to or not.  (Very Important Life-affecting decisions like deciding NOT to smack that certain customer who leans on the back doorbell like it’s a fire alarm until I am almost to the back door before she skitters round to the front door instead. I can’t afford any jail time because they don’t let you have knitting needles in jail—so this is a very Important Choice.)  Could we not aim one or two of these many other choices at a better result for tomorrow? I mean, I don’t expect to find my wallet, car keys and cell phone all in the same day—so let’s aim low, at something achievable, like being able to eat breakfast at home, not at ninety miles an hour on the way to work so that we show up, literally, with egg on our face or a lap full of oatmeal? How about, starting now, we think of a few LITTLE plans that could make life a tiny bit better before sundown tonight? I promise to notice. I promise to celebrate. There WILL be a reward—so long as it is not Swiss Cake Rolls or whisky… The Inner Child perks up but Grasshopper Nancy is pissed.  She was counting on some whisky and a few Swiss Cake Rolls.  She would happily fiddle while pretty much anything burned, including Rome or Ashburnham.

The truth is, dear readers, we all are somewhere on the spectrum between Grasshopper and Ant.  It’s necessary to plan for the future but it’s important to have fun too.  What good is securing a future that will not be any fun? I love it when I get my act together and leave gifts for my future self—like when I get into a clean, neatly made bed at night, a gift from Morning Nancy—with my nightie folded under my pillow like a love note, or when I get to work on Mondays and find I have already changed my needles and threads to the right colors and prepped my work station so that my first project will go smoothly, or when I think to  buy toilet paper before I have to shuffle through the house with my knees bound together by jeans half-way down, scrambling for any kind of substitute that will work, like junk mail or Jo Ann Fabric receipts.

I work really hard at Accepting What Is and trying to change what I can for the better but I also have to admit that sometimes it feels churlish and ungrateful to denigrate my current insufficient (to me) success in order to benefit from my imaginings of  improving the future.  It’s hard not to feel guilty when we in this country are all so blessed and prosperous beyond the wildest dreams of most of the world, where both ants and grasshoppers are starving.  I should stay put and be overjoyed with my lot. Why plan ahead for a “lack” when there is such bounty? And yet, I also can’t help thinking “here I am at point A and I can clearly see that at point B, just over there, everything will be so much More Organized, Peaceful, Prosperous and Serene—with more to share, beds I don’t have to vacuum, houseplants that live, and car keys whose whereabouts are not a total mystery—let’s pack up and move there at once!” All I have to do is stop slacking off and fiddling…A little earnest, persistent drudgery is all it takes. Every day I get up before dawn and announce to myself “Today is the day I am going to Get Organized. Life is not going to happen to me; I am going to happen to It.” And then…Then, I find out that Past Nancy, that blasted grasshopper, has left a load of wash wet in the washer for the last three days and it is starting to smell…

Be well, my dear ones!  Some days are not so much about the Harvest we reap as the seeds we sow. Do something now that your Future selves will thank you for!  Pay it forward to yourself, and when you receive your own gift one day, may you smile and thank your Past Ant self.

May you do Good Work AND be Merry!

Yours aye,

Nancy

P.S. If only Past Nancy had written this Blog sooner, damn her!

Chipmunk Heaven

Greetings Dear Ones!

Here in Ashburnham, the Giant Silent Requiem has begun, with the cricket chorus singing its last, hushed “Te Deums” from the grass.  We are having the kind of crisp yet warm and sharply focused Fall days that New England does best.  I look with glad and wistful eyes on the shameless glory of Death as it flutters in a thousand vibrant hues around me.  It is Magnificent.

It is time to dig a grave, though I know not for whom and I know not for when.  I am a shepherdess. All I know is that, come January, I cannot spend a FOURTH winter with a deceased sheep in my garage, wondering which Spring will thaw first, the ground or the smell? The old-time farmers around me say I must dig a hole now, before the frost, so that I will have a safe place to put a corpse, should the inevitable occur.  My sheep, though they think of themselves as house pets, are too small for the rendering plant and too large to flush down the toilet, so we have to be practical and prepared. It makes sense, though every year I think it Cannot happen again… can it? This year, I will dig the hole.

In the tailoring shop, a little boy needs to have his suit pants hemmed up for a funeral on Saturday.  He is too little to be much concerned about the reason he needs fancy pants—he is more interested in the pin cushion.  I smile at him fondly and think about how Children host the best funerals.  My mind wanders back to the day, a day just like today, when I learned that Heaven comes in every size:

……A soft breeze causes the oak leaves to etch the cobalt bowl of sky like green razor blades.  There is the occasional plop of an acorn hitting the sand in the playground.  I am monitoring the outdoor free play of cheerfully grubby Waldorf students aged 5 to 11.  I have been hired to lead arts, crafts, and story-telling sessions one day a week for a handful of after-school students who must remain until after five p.m. because both of their parents are busy working full-time jobs to afford the dizzying private tuition of this school. 

Suddenly, a group of excited children rush up to me with bright eyes and dirt-streaked faces.  “Miss Willow, Miss Willow!” they cry.  (I have told them I used to be a tree. I firmly believe in telling children outrageous possibilities before their minds harden and set like cement. Unable to disprove a negative, they cheerfully embraced the notion and took great delight in telling me what they used to be.  A charming little lass said she had been a beautiful sunset!)

“Look!!” they clamor, “We have found a past Chipmunk!”  A past chipmunk? I wonder.  What the hell is a past chipmunk?  I don’t understand.  All I can think of is Dicken’s “A Christmas Story” and the ghost of chipmunks past.  Then I notice that one of the children is proudly displaying in his bare hands the lifeless remains of a very stiff chipmunk. 

          “Oh,” I say, “a PASSED chipmunk. A DEAD chipmunk.” I notice that folks in New England say “passed,” as in “passed away,”   more often than they use the word dead.  And they tend to abandon the word “away.”  I have often been confused to hear someone say “My aunt passed last night.”  And I think, passed what? Gas? A Kidney stone? A driving test? What did your aunt pass? Only by observing the concerned and sympathetic responses from the other New Englanders do I surmise that the aunt in question actually passed AWAY.   Perhaps the notion of “away” frightens them at some level so they drop it. Most New Englanders never see any reason one should ever go away and, Heaven forbid, leave New England. (Unless it is to go to Florida, which to them is New England but with palm trees…) But why they don’t say “died” intrigues me.  This notion of passing over some sort of “Rainbow Bridge” or through some imaginary curtain or membrane between worlds seems pervasive in this land that birthed the Transcendentalist movement.  I remember my dear friend Margie saying to me with intense certainty and quiet excitement from her hospice bed in her living room, “Nancy! I know where the Kingdom of Heaven is!  It’s just right there!” she said, eyes shining, pointing to the kitchen.  Ever after, even now, I do believe that the Kingdom of Heaven IS in the kitchen.

So here Life presents us with a dead chipmunk.  Far from being afraid of death or even germs, they crowd round him, taking turns to study him up close and stroke his stripes with thin, gentle fingertips. Death has made him accessible to them in ways that Life never could.  He is perfect. We can perceive no clue as to why he died.  He did not seem a victim of foul play. He left no note disclosing his personal anguish.

“Where did you find him?” I ask.

“Under the trees, over there,” comes the chorus. 

“Probably he fell out of his home in the tree,” says one of the littlest.

“Don’t be silly,” corrects a bigger child, “chipmunks live underground!”

“Speaking of underground,” I say, “This guy needs to get there soon or he is going to smell very bad.  He needs to return to the earth and feed the tree that has been feeding him.”

“Yes!” they agree. “We need a funeral!”  And immediately, the older girls assume command of the situation.  They know exactly what must be done. Everyone springs into action.

 “We need flowers!” they bark over their shoulders as they dig.  The older boys, having had the fun of looking at the chipmunk quickly lose interest in being bossed around and head back to their former game of kickball, all except for a younger boy named Charlie, who has the velvet eyes of a poet and continues to hold and stroke the chipmunk as if he is made of spun glass. I love how gentle he is with Death in his grasp.

“We don’t know who you were,” he says softly to the chipmunk. “We can’t notify your family, or your synagogue, or your friends.  You are just an unknown chipmunk.  But we know you were here and we know you must have loved jumping around in the grass looking for all these acorns.  You must have loved the warm sun and the tickly grass. And acorns, of course.”  He keeps up a sad, steady, soothing (if somewhat repetitive) murmur to the clump of fur in his palm.

Meanwhile, the girls have transitioned with smooth efficiency from whatever momentary flicker of grief they might once have felt for the loss of an anonymous chipmunk to busily digging “the tomb of the unknown chipmunk” under the direction of the self-selected Planners.  They scoop the ground with sticks and dirt-darkened fingernails, clawing back a chipmunk-sized opening in the earth’s crust.  Some pick flowers from the nursery school garden next door and are yelled at immediately by their bosses, “Hey! We’re not allowed to pick those!” Shamed, the girls freeze and drop the crumpled flowers where they stand. Common, honest, law-abiding dandelions will have to do.  Finally, their preparations are done and they summon Charlie to lay his tiny burden to rest on a little golden bed.  The headstone is a scrap of board they found by the equipment shed and inscribed with colored chalk “R.I.P.”  The foot stone is a pine cone.  They fill the hole above him with flowers and layers of warm dry sand, jostling each other for position.  Eventually, dusty and satisfied, they stand up in a ring around the grave.

          “Well,” announces one of the Queen Bees after a moment of quiet, “That’s all done! Thanks for coming, Chipmunk!” There are no tears.

          “Wait,” says Charlie plaintively, “we need to build him a stairway to heaven, like the ancient Egyptians.  How will he reach it without our help?”

          “Don’t be ridiculous Charlie,” snaps one of the girls, “recess is almost over.  We don’t have time for a project like that!” Her collaborators shake their heads and snort their unified mutual contempt of the idea.

          “Come on,” pleads Charlie, “It won’t take us all that long.  Chipmunk Heaven is really only about up to here.” He gestures to the side of his ribs.  The girls ignore him and run off to the swing-set tossing their pony tails like young horses galloping away.

          Charlie remains alone, slump-shouldered, staring at the grave—thoughts, neck, and head fully yet invisibly immersed in Chipmunk Heaven.  For this dreamy poet-child, a puddle is a galaxy, a bathtub is an ocean with an Antarctica of bubbles at one end—the whole of the universe merely a whisper in God’s ear. The dung beetle has a kingdom. The mouse has a commonwealth. A patch of grass is an ant safari. The sky is not some overturned bowl above us—it begins right at the moment his feet touch the earth, just like he has been taught in art class.  His own boy’s world is where this series of intertwined circles, spheres, and cosmoses overlap in magical, transcendental Venn diagrams of existence—with him at the very center. Suddenly his eyes light upon a stick nearby.  He grabs it and props it at an angle from the edge of the grave to reach the nearby fence.  He steps back and smiles.  His plan appears to be that the soul of the chipmunk will make its way up the stick, over to the fence, and thence up a steep climb the rest of the way to his Eternal Glory.

Moments later, the bell rings, and we are summoned inside to the humble human doings of snack, craft, bathroom breaks, and stories.  I follow the rushing bodies slowly, reluctant to part from the golden light shimmering on the oak tree, waist up in Chipmunk Heaven myself…

These Autumn days bring us graves to dig, and threats of cold and dark—yet they shine with the promise of Chipmunk Heaven too—in the lights of dusty smiles, in the warmth of noisy collaboration, and in shared beliefs that we were all Something Else once and something else to become again when we return to Mother Earth.  For now, we Live—in that sunlit space Between—in the games we play, the work we do, and the love we share.  And, unbeknownst to most of us, from the ankles up, we run and breathe and reside in a myriad of concentric Heavens for every living creature from wee tiny beetles to great mastodons.  The ancient poets and the earth-streaked seven-year-olds know it to be true. And so it is.

Be well, my darlings, and do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

 

I shall only learn this once

Greetings my Dearies!

For the most part, my work is fairly predictable and orderly.  I know what to do and I do it.  Currently, I have anywhere from six to eight men’s jackets hanging on my rack, waiting for me to shorten their sleeves.  That’s as many as 28 sleeves (see? I AM good at math...) I will shorten exactly the same way, using a tried-and-true sequence of steps.  Following the formula that has evolved over time ensures that nothing gets forgotten, everything is predictable, including the outcome. Doing what you expect to do and getting an expected result is a great comfort—though it has the potential to lead to complacency, boredom, or the urge to daydream about renovating the chicken coop.  In a life that is otherwise fraught with drama and dilemmas, I never tire of these small bursts of competency.  They are a welcome relief.

However, my brief yet blissful “competency” is interrupted today by the arrival of a pumpkin-colored frock, dragged here from the badlands of Chaos on the outskirts of Hell, by a frantic bridesmaid who needs this thing done in a hurry. “Of course she does,” snipes Prudence.  The wedding is this Saturday and it is imperative she matches precisely all the other pumpkin-frocked bridesmaids when I am through.  The shoulders of the gown need to come up around four and a half inches on each side and the waist let out as much as I can give her. Then it needs four layers of gauzy fluffy stuff hemmed, most of which is on the bias—which is technical seamstress parlance for “this baby is going to sag, drag, and look like total doo-doo if I cut it wrong.”  Sure, it’s a lot to pull off on short notice, but it’s all do-able—nothing I don’t already have secret formulas for… The only thing making the sweat trickle down my spine is that there is this sheer piece of fabric imbedded in the neckline that comes out in a drape-like covering over the whole bodice.  It covers the arms like a shawl, the illusion of sleeves.  It goes all the way around the back and is imbedded in the zipper too.  It might be helpful to imagine it as a giant “collar” that you can see through, that goes to the elbows. There is no seam in this sheer fabric.  It was cut as a circle with a hole in it from one piece of cloth. There is no way to take the shoulders up FOUR INCHES (ugh… shoot me now!) and have this piece look right.  Putting in a seam will ruin the effect.  She will not match the other pumpkin girls.  Taking it apart completely and cutting it will only make the surface area I need to contain even bigger. (Trust me on this…) What I need is for that hole to be smaller. WAY smaller.  I can’t gather it. I can’t seam it. I can’t cut it… And…worst of all… I can’t say I can’t do it.  I’m a professional.  I have to pretend I can do this.

I pause and think of the tools at my disposal.  The first, Most Essential thing I must do, is NOT run screaming for the liquor store in the middle of the day and put a big straw in a bottle of gin and drink until the lights go out. That’s step One.  Step two is to find a way to embrace this challenge.  Thomas Merton wrote, “Souls are like athletes that need opponents worthy of them, if they are to be tried and extended and pushed to the full use of their powers.”  It’s all well and good to sit here complacently chopping the wrists off of jackets belonging to our portly-short male patrons, but what am I Learning? How am I growing? “You are staying out of Trouble,” says Prudence. “And that’s a Good Thing.  This dress is going to wallop you. Watch out!”  Truly, I don’t feel worthy of this opponent, but I pluck up my courage and a blade and begin shredding the threads holding the seams together.

As I snip, and pretend I know what I am doing, I fight with Prudence (even she is beginning to suspect Gin might be our best bet. Or maybe Scotch). I try to see my life, and this work, as a Moral Adventure Story in pumpkin hues.  I don’t care what you do for a living—whether you engage in patient manual labor like I do, or you stroll Wall street in a natty suit (with appropriate-length sleeves, of course) your best work is always Internal. It doesn’t matter if you are at the top of the income scale or the bottom; there are heroes and schmucks, and your version of the pumpkin Bridesmaid dress from Hades everywhere you turn.  How do you respond?  Prudence pipes up primly, “this is a chance to Build Character…to take advantage of everyday occasions to strengthen Virtue and be of Service to the world.” I want to smack her.

Back to the dress… It’s not going well. The challenge is to take up the shoulders by four and a half inches and keep this collar thingy looking like something floaty and sensual and mysterious—the mystery NOT to be “what the hell happened to that woman’s arm?” I try gathering the extra inches and shoving them under the top layer of the bodice like I’m hiding something under a rug.  It looks lumpy. And sneaky.  I can’t get away with that. I try a dart.  It’s too sharp.  Her shoulders will look like they have thorns sticking out of them.  I redo each side at least fifteen times.  Each time I fail, I learn a new thing about what will not work. 

My colleague is working on curtains for a dance studio.  She has acres of cloth to measure, cut, hem, and iron.  She has been at this for six hours straight.  She looks at me and sags a little.  “It’s ok if we hate our jobs once in a while, right?” I giggle.  We are both engaged in a mighty struggle with cloth and with our inner ingenuity.  I say, “The trouble is, some things we only get to do once.”  She laughs.  She knows exactly what I am saying.

We will keep having the same trouble with these jobs until they come out right.  Once they are done, we will never have to do them again. They are one-offs. If I had to do another I would do such an amazing job. (Please GOD, no one else buy a dress like this! With any luck, the designer responsible for this mess will come to a rather sticky end before he or she can ever make another.)  But if so, I would now know at least fourteen things not to try and that alone is a giant time saver. So it is with so many of our troubles.  By the time they have taught us everything we need to know, we never get to do them again. 

Once we crack the code, then it becomes no big thing.  This Thing We Have Never Done Before becomes a thing we can do, if not easily, at least readily and willingly.  It’s like when you take that first baby home from the hospital with a glazed look in your eye and some vague understanding that if you don’t keep this tiny, bald creature alive, the authorities will throw you in jail.  I actually ran back into the hospital, deposited the loaded-with-fresh-baby car seat on the counter and asked them to “hold this and credit my account—I’d be back in two weeks after I have studied more.” That’s when I found out that Real Life differs considerably from school in that School gives you the lessons FIRST, then the test.   (Those darn nurses forced me to take my own child home!) In Life, the process is reversed: We don’t learn so we can get tested; we get tested so we can learn.  Once we learn, then we move on to other tests. (Lucky us…)

We learn, not by trying, but by Doing—sometimes doing again and again for years.  Just when the colicky baby is getting easy to deal with, you wake up one morning and it’s been switched for a toddler whose foods cannot touch each other on the plate. Graduate from toddler? Now you get a school-age child and all the complexities that brings. Just wait until you hand your own flesh and blood the keys to your car—it will make you long for the days of tap-dancing a colicky infant to sleep! Life was such a doddle then…

We only get one first love, one first kiss, one first heartbreak, one first born, one second born, one third, or fourth, or fifth-born… (Take this as far as you want, Catholic friends!) Each one is a first.  Each one is the product of your unskilled labor, as you fail and learn and try again. And so it goes with children, beach vacations, pets, and pumpkin dresses.

It’s a balancing act to embrace both the monotonous success of men’s sports coats as well as the terror of a gown with a gossamer shawl collar that goes to the elbow.  Good old Prudence, that battleaxe, reminds me that “Success leads to the greatest failure—which is Pride. Failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility and learning.”  Me? I love Pride.  It’s addictive when one is trying to do good work with good outcomes and happy customers.  But making friends with failure is getting easier than it used to be.  I’ve reached an age where my brain more readily goes from “You probably shouldn’t do that” to “what the hell, let’s see what happens.” That’s where some of the best learning comes.  And if we do it right, we only have to learn it once!

Be well my dearies, and do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Ah, when to the heart of man

Was it ever less than a treason

To go with the drift of things,

To yield with a grace to reason,

And bow and accept the end

Of a love or a season?

From “Reluctance” by Robert Frost

Greetings Dear Ones,

The leaves are beginning to turn just the slightest bit, here in New England.  We want the rain to end but we don’t want snow.  We are done with the heat but we still want the light.  It is a time of clinging and letting go—sometimes gratefully, sometimes with some other bargain in mind.  We swirl through the annual eddies of attachment, fear, release, surrender… My thoughts turn to hoarding firewood, and wondering who might be the grateful recipients of these freak vegetables I have produced and don’t have time to turn into soup.  In the shop, people are coming in with clothes they have not seen for months and wondering if they can be salvaged for yet another trip around the dark side of the sun.  

A young man, probably in his mid-thirties, hands me a coat and asks with a slight catch in his throat if there is anything that can be done to fix it.  A further sniff makes me pause and look at him closely.  Is he suffering from the cold/virus crud that has been going around? Almost everyone I know is battling some sort of “bug” these days.  No, the moisture in the corner of his eye is not viral—it’s emotional.  He is looking at the tattered husk as if it is an ailing Labrador puppy and he doesn’t want to find out it is terminal.  He doesn’t want me to say it is “too far gone” and needs to be put out of (what will be my) misery.  The cuffs and collar are shot. The elbows are worn thin.  The lining inside is frayed to slivers.  He looks at me with his red-rimmed eyes and I see a five-year-old boy clutching his blankie.  This coat is not just a coat to him.  This canvas pelt, this Velvateen Rabbit of a jacket , is so much a part of HIM, it has attained its own level of mute consciousness.  It’s been through so many things with him as silent witness and companion. “Apparently, it’s been to a hot-dog stand more than once, as well as a campfire or two,” notes Prudence with her eagle eye, “this man gets too familiar with mustard and sparks.” I sigh heavily, and agree to put his precious rag on life support.  

Another woman comes in with a pair of black pants she wants fixed.  “Please,” she insists dramatically, “You HAVE to fix them.  They are the only pants that have ever fit me just right.  I bought them twenty years ago and I am waiting for waistbands to come back up so I can buy something similar. So far, no luck.  You MUST resuscitate them one more time.”  After she leaves, I hold them up to my ears and I can hear them crying. “Please,” they wimper, “just let us die in peace!” They are exhausted. The fabric where the thighs rub together is so frail in places that you could read newsprint titles through it.

Saying goodbye to our clothing is hard.  We become emotionally attached and entangled (sometimes literally) with it.  I get it. It’s a complex love-affair. Sometimes, no matter how willing we are to be done with something, it’s still hard to let go. Recently, I had to write the following letter to a pair of my own jeans:

Dear Glitter-bum Blues,

We need to talk but I cannot even look at you without wanting to change my mind, hence, this letter. This is one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make.  After all, we’ve been together for many years now.  It started out as a bit of whimsical flirting.  You caught my eye on the sale rack of that up-scale department store when I was shopping with my sister.  She looks Adorable in jeans like you so I thought I could make this work even though you are not really my type.  I tried you on for size and thought you were just the tiniest bit tight but you looked like you might stretch. Granted, we should have had a longer courtship—perhaps I should have hung out with you first and gotten to know you better but I just couldn’t help it. I was smitten. To be fair, as with most infatuations, the one I was falling in love with was actually me. Suddenly, I felt glamorous in ways I never expected. This whirlwind romance made me feel impetuous and daring—bold and Free. We were destined for each other, or so I thought.  I should have looked more closely.

The giddy infatuation lasted until I got you home and noticed bits of doughy flesh hanging over the edge of your waistband. “Oh, that’s just a little muffin top—it’s cute,” you said, refusing to take any responsibility for it.  Well, muffin top IS cute until it starts to look like you have a bun in the oven, which was only a matter of time. “One should not wear garments that make one look as if one is running a bakery in her undergarments,” snorts Prudence with disdain. (She was against you from the start.)

Still, when I went through my closet and culled the duds, I never parted with you.  I saw your sparkles, I sighed longingly and remembered how much I wanted us to fit together. Even when I popped the button off the front, I repaired it immediately. And HOW did you repay my devotion? With further denials, further constriction, no space anywhere for my spirit or my thighs to expand into their full potential. It was sad. I was bitter, naturally, but there was never anyone else who could make me feel as tall as you did, when I wore you with those clogs that hurt my knees. (Those traitorous co-conspirators!  They’re next…)

The last few months have been horrible. There are no bright spots to speak of…I guess we’ve each been secretly thinking that the other one was going to change.  I thought we had something, that we could turn this relationship around and start to be seen in public together again.  I’m weary of the struggle it takes to be what you need. It’s not exactly that you are breaking my heart.  To be fair, my heart just isn’t really in it anymore… as, obviously, neither is either buttock…well, not at the same time.  I wasn’t expecting big things—just a little progress would be nice.  Maybe you could try to accommodate me once in a while, instead of me being the one to look like a Cirque de Soleil acrobat on my closet floor.

Relationships are the crucibles in which we form ourselves.  Our relationship, especially given the way you treated me last Monday, is seriously impeding my ability to have a Serene Inner Character, a quiet but solid sense of Right and Wrong, and the ability to think Good Thoughts about myself and others.  I don’t just want to look Good, I want to BE Good.  I simply cannot manage this in a garment that is cutting off all circulation to my lower regions.  I simply don’t feel grounded when I can no longer feel the earth because my feet have gone numb. I want to return to my roots and savor the warmth of a family meal without thinking I shall have to digest the mashed potatoes with my eardrums.

Prudence warned me about you. She said you were not good for a girl like me—that you would lead me astray from my core values.  Let’s face it; Prudence can be a total crab apple at times. She took to heart everything the nuns in school ever said and she seems to have adopted their fashion sense as well.  By this, I don’t mean tasteful-but-repressive dark habits and wimples in fine woolens—I’m talking about the regrettable era after the Second Vatican Council gave young women in devotional orders permission to rummage through the bins at Good Will and wear anything the poor had rejected.  Prudence, that Queen of Frump, even she is right about you.  You appeal much more to my inner harlot who loves shoes that dislocate her knee sockets.

And Yes, I must also confess, there IS another.  I’ve given my heart (and bum) to a humble pair of barn jeans, what they call in New England “dungarees” perhaps for their associations with “dung.” Sure, they don’t have your flare, your sparkle, your decorative stitching or your style but I feel at home with them and they have made friends with all the holiday cookies I have been carrying around since last December and haven’t been able to shake. (Well, to be perfectly frank, they shake quite a lot…what I really mean is that they are like undergraduates you invite home for Thanksgiving who guzzle all your sherry and don’t know when to depart.)  These barn jeans…they stink a little up close, like some of the very best folk I know, but they accept me just as I am.  I don’t have to pretend to be someone I am not in order to be with them.  I am free to stretch and grow—in ways that feel good and natural to me.  I can eat lunch and laugh, all at the same time. They go well with my boots.  (Boots are like the best of friends—they never let you down; they never care if you gain or lose a little weight; they just keep helping you plod through crap with your feet dry.)

And so, my darling, we must now go our separate ways.  A part of me will always love you and want to be with you.  But our blighted romance was never meant to last long.  Please understand.  I hope you are able to move on and make some other skinny floozy very happy. Love, Me.”

I have a moody little sport jacket and some uppity church dresses that need a stern talking to as well but one goodbye is all I can take for today.  I shall give them some time to see the error of their ways before I top up my bag of clothing donations and evict them from the Enchanted Closet forever.    

So it goes with Fall in New England. It’s time to change our wardrobes and our minds—accepting both what Must be changed and what Cannot, with love for each and wisdom to know the difference. It’s all part of the cycle of Life. Some old things need to be cherished, others let go of in order to make room for new bargains, new britches, and new beginnings. It doesn’t make the Passings and Prunings we must endure any less painful, but it’s ok to let Hope fill the gaps they leave behind.  Take Heart! A new season is on its way! Dress up!

Be well, my Dearies, and do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

 

 

Olden Girls

Greetings My Dear Ones!

“Time is a dressmaker specializing in alterations.” –Faith Baldwin

I fell in love again this week.   A woman in her nineties came in, clapping her hands briskly and yelling “ok, ladies, who wants to get to work? I gotta lotta work for you! I’m ninety-six years old and I ain’t buyin’ no new clothes and I’m sinking faster than Venice…These pants is coming up!”  She rattled around the shop trying to whip us up, like she was hosting a pep rally.  Her voice sounded like a cross between a little bird and a cattle auctioneer.  I was smitten. I hadn’t seen anything so cute since eighty-year-old Herman Dinglehopper glued a tea-towel in his pants.

“This is my favorite suit,” she said, stripping down to her large, heavily padded, cotton underwear right in front of me, rather than going into the dressing room, “you gotta help me wear this suit.  I need it for a party coming up.  I had this suit fifty years.  It’s my best suit. I love this suit.”  She tried on seven suits.  She said that same thing about every single one.  “This one likes to party,” whispered Prudence, “in suits.”  The lady went through her bag of clothes—dresses, blouses, jackets, and skirts, shrieking with delight and greeting each one like it was a long-lost friend or relative.  “I can’t buy new clothes,” she said, clutching a blouse to her chest possessively, “what would I do with these poor things?” as if they would be orphans without her.  “Besides,” she continued with a sudden air of blithe indifference, “I’m ninety-six years old!  What the hell!  I don’t need to buy new clothes; I just need to borrow them.”

Like I said, I instantly loved her.  I have always loved what I formerly, when I was younger and the gap was bigger, called “old people.”  Now, these formerly “old” people seem younger to me with each passing year.  I cannot believe how much trouble I have keeping up with my friends in their seventies, or this ninety-six-year-old bird flitting about the shop in her underwear.  I wish I had half her energy!

When I was young, I adored my elders.  They had the most time for me and the best stories.  I loved spending time with my father’s mother, who taught me to knit, crochet, and sew.  She made all her own clothes and was just, well, Fabulous. I also knew my mother’s grandmother, Nana Emma, until I was nineteen. Her kitchen had a big, black, cast iron stove squatting in the middle of it, lord of all it surveyed, that belched out soft, chewy cookies with unfailing regularity. There was usually a box of kittens under it for warmth. Upstairs, was a claw-foot tub.  Her furniture was not antique when she bought it but it is now. It was an old-fashioned house and she was a truly Old-Fashioned Lady who always wore a girdle and was a good judge of horseflesh. She liked to hang around at the local track, betting on winners well into her early nineties.

I had only one regret, growing up: That was that I was not born “in the olden days.” I used to sit on the large, upholstered foot cushion that supported my grandfather’s crippled leg and listen to his stories of growing up during the time of the 1918 influenza pandemic.  His family ran the local grocery store and it was his job to take the horse, with all the boxes of groceries, deliver them to the houses, and pick up new lists of what folks wanted delivered next time.  The first time he did the route alone without his father, that horse knew the route better than he did.  She knew which houses to skip and which houses needed a stop.  If my young little grandfather walked on to the next house, from one doorway to another, the horse knew to move along to the next house and wait.  To protect her son from catching the flu that was claiming so many lives and decimating families, my great grandmother put some camphor on a cloth and tied it over his nose and mouth.  He never got sick.

I adored my grandfather and his stories.  His withered leg stuck out between us, a silent reminder that life in those times before penicillin was hard. He had shattered his leg at the age of 16, when a toboggan he was in veered off course and hit an iron fence. It was a compound fracture that took years to heal after infection set in. He lost so much bone from that accident that his leg was shorter than the other and his knee was fused straight, unable to bend. Despite this, he found a way to angle the leg out to the side so that he could kneel at church.  This always impressed me a great deal. In his walking gait, he always swung that leg as if he was constantly taking a step up.

I especially loved the story about the day his father went to town and bought one of the new motor cars that Ford was selling.  You did not need a driver’s test.  You just went in to the shop, paid some money and bought the thing and drove it home.  The whole family, all eight kids went out with their mother, to stand alongside the house and watch, beaming with pride as their daddy brought the very first car back to their neighborhood.  No one else had one.  But their smiles and eyes turned into horrified circles as they watched their patriarch stand up behind the steering wheel, pull on it for all his might, while yelling “whoa!!! Whoa!!” and then crash it into the side of their barn.  It seems I have inherited his facility with machines.  I am much better with horses than cars, cell phones—or even sewing machines.

If only I had been born in the time of horse-delivered groceries, I lamented over and over as I trudged with my siblings in our little plaid skirts the half mile up hill (Yes, of course, BOTH ways) to the tiny bus shelter at the end of our lane, where we would wait, with invisible ice monsters gnawing our bare knees with their teeth, until a big yellow school bus would take us on a lurching, one-hour ride to a school that was approximately seven miles from the house.  We went to a Parochial school that was serviced by the town buses but it had to collect all the heathen, agnostic, Protestant, and Jewish children and drop them off at the public school first. It was part of our penance to ricochet off the insides of that bus for an hour each way, to and from school.  I didn’t mind so much.  It gave me more time, knees braced against the seat ahead of me, to study the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder until bus fumes made me nauseous.

Once at school, we would form an orderly queue at the back of the classroom, where the lone pencil sharpener was anchored over a large, metal trash can, and sharpen two #2 pencils each for the day’s work ahead.  I can still smell the acrid scent of a freshly sharpened pencil. One was to use, the other was in case the tip of the first one broke, or to loan to a friend who needed one.  It was NOT to be the center of a paper pinwheel constructed by lining up all the holes in a piece of loose leaf paper and spinning it, no matter how irresistibly the holes matched the diameter of the pencil.  Sister would hand out smeared, purple, mimeographed worksheets to do, or make us practice the Palmer Method, while we passed notes to each other and poked each other with the pencils.  It was all so horrible and “Modern.” Why couldn’t we have slates, like Anne of Green Gables? Instead, we were on the leading edge of technology such as the world had never known. Our little nuclear drills proved it:  Once in a while, we would be required to crawl under our desks and tuck our heads between our knees, in calm preparation for the day we would kiss all those little plaid-clad asses goodbye.  We were only mere miles away from Three-Mile-Island during the crisis and this seemed like the most sensible protocol to implement.

I deeply resented being Modern.  I hated seeing the “Keep America Beautiful” ads on our enormous T.V. with its tiny screen that only got two channels without snow in them, seeing Iron Eyes Cody, the crying Native looking at how we had ruined his environment with our trash.  I wanted to go back in time, before such a thing as litter existed. When our home-Ec. Class got replaced with a thing called “computer class” in High School, I could not see the good of it.  To me, it was just math class in disguise—with rows and rows of mystifying code just so a stick figure could walk across the bottom of the screen and get stuck at the other side! I grew up hearing about “the good old days” before there was such a thing as a phone in the center hallway of every house.  Just my luck.  We moved to a house that had TWO phones! We got our first microwave in the eighties and with it, mullets and parachute pants.  Sure, there was a little backlash in the brief resurgence of calico and ruffles and outfits with bows that made women resemble enormous, out-of-scale toddlers but Modernity continued to be a mess.  I wanted to be OLDEN.

Now, today, I am officially fifty-one.  I am no longer just fifty; I am “IN my fifties,” which, in the Olden Days, was OLD.  But do I get to be “old fashioned?” Not yet. Just frazzled and clueless.  Technology and modernity still hound me as I peck at this keyboard and try to post this blog.  Ever so grudgingly, I manage to use a cell-phone—with constant tech support from those people I created in my old-fashioned womb just for this purpose. (It certainly doesn’t seem to be for keeping the lawn mown…)  I raise sheep, spin their wool, and drive a vehicle that still uses a key to start it, does that count? On the bright side, I am a seamstress—which I am told by nearly everyone who comes to the shop is VERY old fashioned indeed. “No One does this anymore,” they insist. Perhaps there is hope.

 Be well, my Dearies!  And do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

The Bobbin Goddess

Greeting Dear Ones,

“It’s all fun and games until the bobbin runs out…”

Each time I go to the henhouse, there are fewer eggs these days.  Even though it is warm and sunny—oppressively warm at times—the girls are shutting down their egg production for the season.   Chickens lay according to the light cycle. The Autumn Equinox is on its way and my little feathered friends are ending the tyranny of daily ovulation and just eating their Cheerios in peace (God Bless them!  Can you imagine anything worse?  Ovulating every day, that is, not so much the Cheerios…)  The harvest time has already begun. It’s time for drying the herbs from the garden, collecting the fruits and seeds, and burying treasures of bulbs.  I am like a jay hiding acorns or a mouse taking stock of the larder.  It is a time of hiding and tucking things away for later, hoping we can find them again. We are all preparing for the cold and darkness to come.  It is a busy time of finishing projects—the big Hurry in the hope of a long Rest. Though all of Nature will soon take its rest, in the shop, there is no such thing, as people shuffle in with sweaters to be mended and their fall wardrobes to be revamped.  The bridesmaids’ dresses are turning colors, like leaves, from shades of summer sherbet to pumpkin and cranberry.

On September 23rd, night hours will equal daylight—aequus (equal) + nox (night) and we begin the shift into dark times ahead.  Ancient stories swirl about Persephone’s return to the underworld. Naturally, my thoughts turn to witches, goblins, and bobbins.  What is a bobbin, you ask?  Webster’s dictionary defines it as: “a cylinder or spindle on which yarn or thread is wound (as in a sewing machine) b : any of various small round devices on which threads are wound for working handmade lace” but I know it as that little thing I scream at on a daily basis when it jams or runs out of thread. How does it work in a sewing machine? Well, I am told that as the upper needle shoves the thread through the cloth, a hook rotates, capturing the thread from above and looping it around another thread, this one reeling from the bobbin below. The two threads interlock around the layers of fabric, binding them to one another and a seam is formed.  But you and I know this is a lie.  Really, it’s Magic.  Little sylphs and pixies are in there, sorting things out—pretty much the same way there are tiny fiddlers having pints of Guinness in your CD player—until (play the scary theme music here) the Bobbin Goblins show up and ruin everything.  When the Bobbin Goddess is smiling, your seams turn out smooth and even.  You don’t turn the cloth over and discover that you have accidentally been manufacturing something with more loops than Turkish bath toweling. She is the angel of the underworld of sewing machines.

The bobbin factor is Huge: if things aren’t right below the surface, they won’t be right above. It’s a hell of a metaphor, eh? In modern times, we are not predisposed to see the world sacramentally—as outward signs of inward grace.  We talk more about how “our subconscious intentions are thwarting our ability to manifest prosperity…”  It’s all Bobbin Talk.  Unconscious manifestation, like a snaggled bobbin, often leaves us feeling frustrated. We think we want one thing, but may keep creating something entirely different. Until we understand what thoughts, beliefs and emotions are really running the show of our realized manifestations, we may keep creating what we don’t want. Take a look at the fabric of your life and the way things are coming together for you—how is your inner Bobbin Goddess doing?  What you have around you is what your secret intentions are calling forth. Is there Chaos or Order? Check your closet—does it look like a ship wreck? Mine does. Apparently, I also have an inner yearning for an inexhaustible supply of dog hair, house dust, and crispers full of limp vegetables ready for the compost heap.  So many of us with tangled bobbins are often frustrated that the “world is standing in the way” of us getting what we want or feel we deserve. This often results in a victim mentality. (Please note: I’m NOT a Victim.  There REALLY is a Committee established to thwart the forward momentum of Nancy Bell, whose honored members include every pet, vehicle, or machine I own, every red-light between here and where I need to be on time, and anyone I have given birth to.)  Maybe it’s time to pause, unwind, rewind, reflect.  It’s ok to seek help.

 The shop is a marvelous, often hilarious, intersection of all the forces of Upper and Lower, Darkness and Light, Yin and Yang, Outer clothing and Foundation Garments. We often think of Balance as that midpoint between two extremes. But if we replace our sense of “the edge” with “the Infinite,” then those extremes become meaningless. The “line” becomes a Circle.  We reconnect to Unity and it is then impossible to be Unbalanced. The pendulum swings and patterns complete themselves in time.

 A woman came into the shop several weeks ago with a sewing machine she has owned since the 1970’s.  “I really don’t sew very much,” she explained, “and I have just run out of bobbin thread and don’t know how to wind up more.”  As someone who, by necessity, finds herself winding bobbins on a daily basis, this woman was something of a wonder to me.  I very much admired her humility and courage in seeking help, as much as I marveled that she had made it all the way from Gerald Ford’s administration until now on the original bobbin! Listening from the corner was my beleaguered friend, busy sewing a football field’s worth of curtains for a ballet studio. She just sighed.  Her bobbin runs out every twenty minutes.

 The proper workings of the “surface world” very much depend on the smooth functioning of the hidden, under world.  Just ask anyone wearing Spanx.  There is an elderly man with a thick German accent in the shop.  His wife has MS.  He is trying to help her get dressed and he is having trouble sorting out her foundation garments and getting the tiny bra loops in the dress snapped so that her bra straps won’t show.  What is foundational must stay hidden.  I wonder idly how old he is and when he came here (to America, that is, not the shop—he’s only been in the dressing room about 20 minutes) and if he survived the aftermath of the Third Reich only to be stymied by complexity of his wife’s bra… Finally, muttering in German, he gets her sorted out and wheels her out of the shop. What meets our eyes as we pass each other on the street is only the shell—the barest skimming of the Real Story.

We’re all on this ride around the sun together.  As the darkness in the months ahead makes us seek the light and warmth of our hearths, may we have good work for our hands to do, and good friends to with whom to share our bounty.  May we seek out and cherish our inner Bobbin Goddesses, the mysterious, hidden, inward Feminine part that has such power to make us stop and curse or weep with sweet relief when things go well.  May it all go well! Never before was so much possible.

 Be well, my Dearies, and do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

People who ask us to ruin their clothes

Greetings my Dear Ones,

“Great calm, generous detachment, selfless love, disinterested effort: These are what make for success in life.  If you can find peace in yourself and can spread comfort around you, you will be happier than an empress.” –Rabindranath Tagore

It’s been quite a week, here at my little sewing table.  I am Not happier than an Empress at the moment... It seems like every second person through the door is asking me to ruin his or her clothes.  A mystery customer has come through the cleaners and wants all the flounces cut off her brand new dresses.  These are dresses whose main features are these gorgeous, flowing flounces. Once they are all cut off, these dresses look shorn, naked, embarrassed, like short haircuts that you hope will grow back quickly…What in Heaven’s name possessed this woman to buy four dresses, whose main selling point was a flounce, and then have all the flounces chopped off?  I don’t get it.

Next in is a young mother who wants to wear a dress she just bought to a church event this weekend. It has a flounce.  Guess what she wants chopped off? Yes. Clearly, people have not yet gotten the memo that flounces are “in” and are having them amputated with breathtaking speed, as if we can stamp out this trend quickly and go back to making everything too tight without skipping a beat and letting the fabric pendulum swing the other way. Without the flounce, this mother of four is planning to wear a dress now the size of a swimsuit. To a church function.  Prudence has her knickers in a twist over this one! Why do people ask us to ruin their clothes?  Shouldn’t seamstresses have some sort of Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm”? My co-workers shrug benignly and say “Give the people what they want!” Why is that so hard?

Don’t get me wrong—I am not in favor of flounces either—they don’t enhance femininity so much as they make one look vaguely matronly and old fashioned—rather like one has repurposed a Victorian table cloth into a garment.  My problem is with people who want to change something fundamental to the whole integrity of the item.  Why buy it in the first place? Certain things are not worth fighting in a piece of clothing.  Some things just need to be passed up on with a polite “no thank you,” not taken home and hacked to death with a kitchen knife—or brought in to me so I can do your dirty work! Fashion designers are serving a buffet—most of which they seem to have cooked up on a dare, or under the influence of Methamphetamines, but that’s beside the point—we get to pick and choose what suits us best from the selection.  We don’t have to take things we don’t like.  (Ladies, FYI, I’m pretty sure the “mermaid gown” was just a practical joke to play on brides: you cannot walk properly or sit down in them. You need to strip completely to toilet yourself.  And, you look NOTHING like a mermaid. Admit it!) Let’s just leave the skinny jeans, jeggings, and flounces where we found them and move on to the good stuff, like anything made of tartan or tweed.  

The next woman in the door is wearing a beautiful coat I secretly covet.  It is in shimmering shades of my favorite autumn colors.  She had asked me last week to hem the sleeves, which were way too long for her.  After she left, I looked more closely at the coat and realized that the sleeves had no lining near the cuffs and the fabric, a rich boiled wool, was bonded in such a way that we were actually meant to turn the cuffs up against the outside of the sleeve, as part of the design.  The edges fell open in a sweet little angle that was very flattering and went with the rest of the coat. I turned them to her length and then tacked them in place (with stitches, not actual tacks—for those who don’t sew).  She shuffles up to me holding both paws out and whining like a 5-year-old who has been persuaded to try “just one bite” of broccoli, “I don’t like it…I just don’t like it…” She wants me to turn all that loveliness UNDERNEATH, where it will make her wrists bulge oddly.  As she is saying this, an actual five-year-old, who is waiting for his mother in the dressing room, spits out a brightly colored plastic head from a pin and says to me, “I crunched this up in my mouth but it’s not candy.”  Real five-year-olds are apparently WAY more adventurous than this lady.  “I just want it PLAIN,” she says, with emphasis.  What I hear is “I need this to be ugly.”  I sigh, take her name and number and agree, with what cheer I can muster, to ruin her coat by Thursday at the latest.

As I sit back down to work, thinking that that coat is like a nice kitten going to a bad home, I think about the work of my hands leading me to the work of my soul.  I need to stop judging people’s choices.  This is not for me to decide.  They are entitled to the expression of their own free will and the consequences of their bad choices.  It’s not like I don’t also make terrible choices.  I would probably be just as crazy as some of these customers who come in here asking for nutty solutions to their fashion dilemmas.  The only difference is that I can sew.  I don’t have to reveal my insanity to anyone.  Moi? Have an item in my closet made from three kinds of plaid that still has no arms, three years later? No one ever has to know how many of my own clothes I destroy or how many of my little “creations” have made their way to the Salvation Army dumping grounds in the hopes that some visually impaired person might be searching for the perfect thing to wear to a train wreck… So, you see, I have NO leg to stand on.  Prudence Thimbleton and her smug judgments needs to have a moment in Prayer: God, grant me the Serenity to accept the customers who want me to ruin their clothes; the courage to remove flounces, reveal ankles, and to add another forty yards of tulle to a wedding gown that already resembles a Portuguese Man-O-war; and the wisdom to know that I am just as bad as the rest of them.

No matter who we are or what we do with our hands and hearts all day, we need to let ourselves off the hook for other people’s choices. (Well, most people, most choices…) We cannot make anyone, or their clothing, better than they choose to be.  If they want to stroll the streets wearing jeans like tourniquets and flounce-less costumes of their own wretched designs, who am I to judge? If it were up to me and Prudence, we would all be in pinafores and petticoats; aprons and mob caps would be all the rage.  But the Good News is that I DON’T get to decide.  (You can all breathe a huge sigh of relief!) I remain just a humble “mistress of the cloth,” making commentary on the rips in the fabric of society, which I see from hanging by my own thread.  The rips are not from what we wear, but from how we see ourselves.  When I focus on myself… oh, crap…I look down and notice that I just stitched ten yards with no thread what-so-ever in my machine.  I am so lucky to have this work that engenders so many wonderful opportunities to practice detached mindfulness!

Be well, my dearies, and do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

Happily Ever After is Cancelled

Greetings my Dear Ones!

It’s nearly five o’clock and a tiny bride is sobbing in the dressing room.  She arrived just moments ago, on the way to her rehearsal dinner, with her wedding gown, which she has just picked up this afternoon from a bridal shop which supposedly had alterations done.  Only, the gown does not fit.  She tried it on but there was no one there that could do further alterations for her.  They had farmed it out to another seamstress in another town who is now unavailable.  The frantic bride searched the tri-county area and we were the only thing that Siri could burp up.  We invite her in and agree to help in whatever way we can.  Her red-rimmed misty eyes make it clear that she has been weeping.

When the dressing room door opens, I can see a plain, strapless sheath of white hanging off of her.  Her delicate spinal bones protrude through the skin on her back like a whippet’s. She sniffs. “I guess all the stress I’ve been under has made me drop a few pounds…” she mutters.  I cannot help thinking that I have had pets larger than this woman.  The other ladies rush to pin her up and stuff foam rubber bust pads in the concave chest area of the gown, while speaking soothing and maternal words to her about how it will all be ok.  We all agree to stay late to help her. 

Just then, her phone rings.  It’s her bridal party.  They are lost.  They cannot find where they are supposed to meet for the rehearsal dinner because it is part of a Historic Site whose roads do not show up on the GPS.  The groom has the maps, but his phone does not seem to be working.  He cannot be reached. Her future Mother-in-law is trying to take charge of the situation but things are not going well.  The bride explains that she is going to be late.  “There has been a glitch with the dress, and I’m still waiting to hear…”she hiccups into the phone.  She blinks. She can say no more.  A flurry of phone calls ensues during which people check in with her and report their status.  We keep pinning and begin sewing as fast as we can.  The bride changes into her regular clothes and goes out to her car to wait. 

We finish doing what we can just around the time she comes back in. It’s clear that she has been crying harder than ever.  Her eyes are now swollen. “Take it easy,” we say, “everything is going to be fine.  Look, the dress is going to look great on you now—well, at least it will stay up and you won’t have to hold onto it for fear of walking right out of it anymore!”  She attempts a wan smile and puts the dress on again.  The phone keeps ringing and she keeps checking the numbers and ignoring the frantic pleas from her bridesmaids.  Finally, it rings again and she answers it. She goes even paler.  Meanwhile, Prudence and I are having a private chat about how Some Girls make too much of their weddings, how things like Dresses need to be kept in perspective (It’s just a dress, who really cares? It’s not like anyone is dying, right?), how Things Should Not Be Left To The Last Minute (I keep quiet on this one, since I leave pretty much everything to the last minute but Prudence rants on because such behavior drives her batty), and how grooms with dodgy cell-phones should never trusted with the maps.   The bride says a few words, choking back tears, and says “I’ll be right over.  Thank you so much…” She looks in the mirror, at the dress that now fits her, and slumps to the floor and sobs.  We stare at each other in confusion.  What is wrong?  The dress fits. Now what?

A boy with large, worried eyes comes in the back door and proceeds hesitantly to the sound of the crying.  “Aunty,” he says, “I think you need to come.  His breathing is changing.  I don’t think he is comfortable.” She looks up at him. “I just got the call. It is cancer after all. We have to have him put down tonight.  There is no way he can survive until we return from the honeymoon. We’re going back to the vet’s next. I guess I’m going to skip the rehearsal dinner and just show up at the wedding tomorrow instead…” It turns out that the girl had been crying over her dog, who was out dying in the back of her car this whole time!  We help her out of the dress and hug her while she sobs.  She turns to me and says, “Seriously, is THIS how Happily Ever After begins?  My dress has been a disaster, my guests are lost, my mother-in-law is a she-beast hounding my poor bridesmaids, we don’t know where the groom is and I have to skip all the evening festivities to go have my dog put to sleep! Please tell me my life will get better tomorrow! I wish I could just cancel everything but it’s all paid for…”  I have no idea what to say.  My entire mouth has turned to clay. All the usual cheery platitudes about Faith, Hope, and Love just seem tacky and plastic, even if I could spit them out. 

The truth is, none of us know what Tomorrow brings.  We can choose fancy spoons and forks and goblets, color-coordinated napkins and goofy things for our best friends to wear but what good is it if Fate throws a dead dog right in the middle of it?  The weather can change, cell-phones can fail, and I don’t have the heart to look this girl in her mascara streaked eyes and tell her the God’s Honest truth: “Happily Ever After” has been cancelled until further notice.  It never existed to begin with.  It’s been false advertising, Fake News, all along. Thinking that getting dressed up in expensive clothes that don’t fit you, so you can have some champagne with a big slice of dry, white cake while your friends, who are all dressed identically (and somewhat ridiculously), sing karaoke and get shit-faced is the ticket to Happily Ever After is a giant mistake.  She might as well know it as soon as she can. 

As much as fifty percent of the marriages in this country end in divorce and I think the concept of “Happily Ever After" has a lot to do with it. Ask the people who have been married 25, 30, 50 years… Happily Ever after never came.  The magic comes from adapting, not arriving; from growing, not accumulating; from learning, not leaving.  The only option is Happily Ever Now-ing. Now.  Now, that is something we can really sink our teeth into, unlike the “jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today.” As the journey continues, they look back on a life of Happily Ever Now-ing that became the best years of their lives—dead pets, sick kids, crabby Mothers-in-law and all.

I am really looking forward to attending a friend’s wedding in Vermont this weekend.  I know she has put so much love and loving energy into choosing a great reception site and yummy food and brilliant music that will help us all celebrate with great Joy her union with her beloved.  She has done everything to anticipate our comfort and delight as we all eagerly and equally anticipate the merry-making around the love we all share for these two people.  This is a great couple, a great match.  They will make each other blossom and shine in ways that living separate lives from each other never could.   We gather to say we believe in them; we support them; we come to bear witness and to bless this union and all that it brings.  

But this Day…this “wedding” day is just a day, just One Day in their lives.  For a little while, it will be the “Now” that is happening—as it shifts from one horizon to another, slipping from Expectation to Realization, from Future to Past.  One version of Now will involve the dramas and cares of planning and preparing, one will involve Joyful dancing, one will involve the cleaning up, savoring the memories, and wondering just what did Uncle Larry do in the men’s room?

Being a Vermont wedding with super cool people, of course there is going to be a Barn Dance! There are no destinations at a dance—and this seems to be a better metaphor for marriage than any “happy after-ing” that never comes.  Rather than setting goals based on targets, why not set goals based on learning? Happily Ever Learning, Happily ever Growing, Happily ever Nurturing?  Being the guardians of each other’s spirits, each other’s creativity, and solitude. When we release ourselves from the idea that another person or situation will “make us happy,” we become open to the possibility that Happiness is not outside of ourselves.  Happiness is not something we receive, but something we share, from within.

We don’t choose a destiny.  We choose being open to Experience with another soul partner.  This person is going to dance the dance of Life with us.  Being a good dancer does not mean that you are there to carry your partner.  Having a strong partner does not mean he will carry you. Good partners know how to connect and also how to get out of each other’s way.  They support each other’s ability to shine. They tune into each other through their individual and separate, primary connection to the Beat, to the Music flowing through all of our individual movements.  How can we dance with another who does not hear the same Music?

There are divorced 57-year-olds still looking for “the one.”  As if a partner is a destination who will make all the difference, not one of multiple pathways to creative self-exploration.  There are young people who think having to communicate clearly is a “failure” to be understood magically and intuitively by a beloved. (How can she love me if I have to tell her what I want?) They want “Happily Ever After,” not this dance of Give and Receive, this endless exploration of “How can we dance better together?”  They want Ideal Partners. But we are not here to be the best partners.  That is not the goal. We are here to be the most connected to the Music.  We are here to help each other be the physical manifestation of our best Connection—to each other and to Spirit.  Sometimes it will be graceful, sometimes not. Whether we limp, hop, or waddle, we are here to become The Dance.  THAT is Happily ever Now-ing.

I salute the resilience of those who remain committed to their partners and the courage of those just beginning their journey. May you hold each other carefully—sometimes tightly, sometimes loosely, and Keep Dancing, always, in the Happily Ever Now, whatever that may bring.  

Dance well, my Dearies, and do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

Back to School

Greetings Dear Ones!

It’s that happy time of year when clothing everywhere is on sale and the children are being rounded up, put on buses, and taken off to government-sponsored institutions where they can’t annoy their parents for six hours a day.  A recent influx of school uniforms to hem has set off a wave of nostalgia in me. Prudence Thimbleton smooths a plaid skirt, sniffs, and notes with satisfaction that the Catholics of today are looking just as lumpy and awkward as they did a hundred years ago when she was in school.  And girls are still fighting with their mothers about how high the hem should be.  In the spirit of “Back to School,” having gotten stuck behind a big yellow bus trundling its shipment of little inmates to the local primary school during my morning commute, I decided it would be fun to stop everything and issue a pop quiz to you, dear readers, to see how well you have been paying attention.  Nothing strikes terror into the heart of one who has not studied like hearing that there is a pop quiz, eh? We are all life-long learners.  We should expect pop-quizzes:

1.       My goal in getting you to do this quiz is:

a.       To satisfy the whims of my inner “teacher” who traded her chalkboard for tailor’s chalk and really misses getting to be bossy

b.      To make you think seriously about the glamorously decadent life of a seamstress

c.       To distract you from rummaging through your closets, examining your Fall wardrobe for stuff to bring here for us to fix (Please, no!  We are swamped….)

d.      To help you squander just a little more time before you break down and start doing the thing you really SHOULD be doing right now, instead of taking mindless quizzes.

2.       This is a service industry.  As such, the Customer is always:

a.       Right

b.      Late

c.       Confused about whether or not she can enter by the back door and if it is open but there is no sign

d.      All of the above

3.       When people see the large sign out in front of our shop, indicating that there is parking in the rear, they typically:

a.       Park in the rear lot

b.      Park at the neighbor’s house (on private property)

c.       Park on the sidewalk

d.      Park right in the road, ignoring the honks and extended middle digits of passing local drivers

e.      All of the above, but mostly b, c, or d.

4.       When one delicately points out that a customer has chosen an unsanctioned and inconvenient (for others) parking spot he or she will:

a.       Immediately spring to park somewhere else, with gracious apologies and gratitude for the information

b.      Tell me “I’m only going to be a minute,” in a tone whose subtext is actually, “I don’t give a rip, the heck with other people…”

c.       Mumble that it is too far to walk from the back of the parking lot all the way to the door (these are usually people dressed in athletic gear)

d.      Just keep talking as if she/he has not heard

5.       The people most likely to park in the back of the building and make the “long walk” to the front entrance are:

a.       The elderly

b.      The infirm

c.       The disabled

d.      Anyone except the robust looking woman in a velour jumpsuit on her way to the gym.

6.       We inform every customer at least 14 times when he or she drops off clothing to be fixed that we “don’t take plastic” (i.e. we don’t take credit or debit cards for payment). To a man, woman, and child, they smile and nod and say things like “oh, right! Good to know!”  Upon pick-up, when it is time to pay for services rendered, they invariably:

a.       Whip out a credit card and act stunned/miffed/insulted that we cannot accept it

b.      Ask if we take Venmo or Paypal instead

c.       Inform us that no one uses money anymore

d.      All of the above

7.       We don’t take credit cards because:

a.       The surcharge on cards is too great—there is not a large profit margin on hemming a pair of pants and people would squeal if we raised the prices.

b.      We are hoarding suitcases of cash in unmarked bills so that we can all disappear to Argentina after next Prom season.

c.       It is God’s honest truth that we who are clever enough to put a new two-way waterproof zipper in your decrepit anorak are simply too stupid to figure out how to make that “square” thing work on a phone with a slow-speed internet service.  We’ve tried. Over and over. We are good at what we do.  Technology isn’t what we do.  (Remember, we are those loveable, anachronistic creatures who still remember how to sew.)

d.      All of the above

8.       We are all working with quiet industry on our various projects when out of the blue, one of the seamstresses will mention a customer we have not clapped eyes on for months.  That customer then:

a.       Is never seen again

b.      Appears within 90 minutes or less with a heap of pants he needs to have hemmed by the next day. He proceeds to prance about in the dressing room for the next 45 minutes, trying to decide if one of his legs is maybe a wee bit shorter than the other…or maybe it is longer?

9.       Having accidentally realized our incredible powers to “MAN-ifest,” we decide to “Woman-ifest” and summon a customer we REALLY want to see: namely, the Cookie Lady, who once brought us a plate of freshly baked cookies to thank us.  She only did this once but we have called her “The Cookie Lady” in hushed and reverent tones ever since.  We focus our intentions on her and her glorious oven and she:

a.       Is never seen again

b.      Comes in six months later with some sweaters she wants mended for her dog (and no cookies…)

10.   We handle several wedding parties every month, all year round.  Normal Bridal sadism includes but is not limited to:

a.       Insisting all her bridesmaids buy a $300 dress they will NEVER wear again that needs $90 worth of alterations and is a color that makes healthy twenty-somethings look like they are in liver failure.

b.      Insisting they all wear dumb shoes that match and hurt their feet

c.       Crash dieting and snapping at everyone because she is “Hangry”

d.      Dropping a dress size at every fitting and then complaining about the cost of alterations

11.   Normal Bridal Sadism should NOT include (but sometimes does)

a.       Forcing a pregnant or nursing bridesmaid to wear the same  dress as everyone else, regardless of what must be done to make it fit her—like buying a second dress and sewing two together (Don’t laugh—we do it!)

b.      Asking her not to bring her nursing infant to the wedding as “children aren’t included”

c.       Insisting the bridesmaids all learn a dance routine they will have to perform at the reception—hemlines have to be up so no one trips.

d.      Insisting that the bride’s mother come dressed as a punk rocker, despite said Mother’s weeping and protestations in the fitting room.

12.   A man comes in to have three pairs of pants hemmed.  He goes into the fitting room to change. When he opens the door, I discover:

a.       A man wearing pants that are too long for him

b.      A sheepish grin on his face

c.       A pile of mystery “powder” all over the floor

d.      All of the above

13.   The mystery “powder” is

a.       Gold Bond (Extra strong Mint) powder with which he has enthusiastically powdered his nether regions

b.      Foot powder that has fallen out of his shoes like snow

c.       God knows what else

d.      All of the above

14.   The pants he is trying on are black.  After we are done pinning the first pair, he agrees to try the grey pair.  When the door opens again,  I now discover:

a.       He has hung the Black pair neatly on a hanger

b.      He has thrown the black pair on the floor and stepped all over them, covering them with white powdery foot prints

c.       He wants to know how much it will be to dry-clean pants he has never worn yet

d.      All his clothing is now covered in powder

e.      B,C,and D, but not A

15.   It’s raining cats and dogs.  A customer leaves the shop and dashes out to her car.  She is back in moments, asking if she can use our phone because:

a.       She cannot get to her phone

b.      She is locked out of her car

c.       She needs to call her husband (who is asleep IN THE CAR)

d.      All of the Above

16.   Which of the following statements is NOT true?

a.       Tailors are called “Cutters” because the Latin root taliare means “to cut”

b.      Being a tailor is fabulously lucrative—a highly admired trade with enviable social standing

c.       Tailors have a bunion named after them

17.    From the corner of a tailoring shop, one can see:

a.       A drug deal going down outside

b.      That your pants desperately need to be taken in

c.       Little slivers of the whole wide world

d.      All of the above

18.   The more one gets into the details of a tiny task and focuses on perfection:

a.       The more one achieves Zen mastery

b.      The less the customer will notice

c.       The more likely one is to thirst for adult beverages

19.   The most important Lesson I have learned from working as a Seamstress so far is:

a.       That pretty much every problem can be solved

b.      If you keep cutting, it will still be too short

c.       I’m not very good but at least I’m slow!

d.      I REALLY need to remove all the pins I have poked into my heavily padded bra, the Victoria Secret Bombshell that, in haste, makes a perfect double-barreled pin cushion, before I go to the grocery store!

20.   From sewing, or from ANY job you do that involves people, problems, and solutions, it is possible to learn:

a.       That people are nuts and you’re one of them

b.      That you would prefer to be a Hermit

c.       Compassion and Commitment to Excellence (whether it is appreciated or not)

d.      All you ever need to know about love and life and Being Awake in this lifetime

e.      All of the above

 

Well, it’s time to tally your score.  Give yourselves a hundred points for every correct answer and then scale your grades in the following manner, according to this rather warped “Bell” (ha ha)(couldn’t resist) curve:

If you are a Baby Boomer:  Well, you’ve worked hard, as you have your whole life probably.  We have you to thank for so many things but we still haven’t forgiven you for being the generation that thought it was a good idea to put linoleum over hardwood floors… Stick to wearing pleats and give yourself a B-

Gen X: You didn’t do quite as well as you could have, or should have.  You never do. You tried, of course you did, but your cynical vigilance just didn’t pay off this time.  Born too late to have Real Character and too soon to have digital skills, you are just beepers in a cell-phone world.  You could take the test again but it wouldn’t do you any good. I have bad news for you: waistline heights are going back up and you get a C+

Millennials: Congratulations! You Showed up.  Give yourself full marks just for breathing.  You did great. You Are Great.  Your trophy is in the mail. Nothing more is expected of you today—relax and get back on Snap Chat.  Don’t even THINK about tapering your pants again. You’re Done! A+

Gen Z: Ok, Homeschooler—you’re too smart already. Hand the phone back to Mummy or Daddy—don’t forget to reprogram it first so he or she can use it again without having to summon a Millenial. Please spend some of your day learning to sew!!!

Be well, my Darlings, and do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

Some Random Thoughts on Chaos

Greetings Dear Ones!

You know when you look out the window and see not one but TWO of your customers attempting (simultaneously) to park on the sidewalk in front of the shop, despite a Large, Clearly-Printed Sign indicating that there is a parking lot in the rear of the building, that either a.) you now reside in Italy, or b.) a big load of Chaos is about to walk in the door. These are not people who follow The Rules. 

You might think anyone such as myself, who owns not one but THREE Jack Russells, is no stranger to Chaos.  And it is true.  Chaos and I have more than a passing acquaintance with one another.  I do all the chaos-inducing activities like work with animals and children and people who think they still have the same inseam they had when they were sixteen.   But the chaos in the shop is a whole new breed! 

I like Order.  Order is safe, predictable.  In the realm of Order, people behave, machines behave, and we are stable, calm, and competent.  Order is having a place for everything and everything in its proper place. We can find things like seam rippers, safety pins, and knitting needles without having to sit on them and be surprised. We don’t have to spend half an hour crawling on our hands and knees to find the female side of a snap that has vanished into thin air.  Order is good lighting, clean surfaces, and cheery civility with strangers who participate willingly in mutually-agreed social protocols.  It is wearing one’s undergarments as God intended them to be worn.

Order is also about having time. It is NOT someone arriving unannounced at five minutes to five with a full bridal party for a gown fitting, or insisting that you need your new jeans to cleave to your bum like a second skin by Friday. “There’s more to life than fitting in your jeans,” croons pop singer Ed Sheeran but some of these folks aren’t buying it.  Fitting in their jeans is Very Important to them.  They want it to happen NOW.  So is having their Harley Davidson patches sewn on their leather jackets while they wait.  People are constantly and randomly dashing in to stop us from The Thing We Are Doing and diverting our course to Something Else.  We try to stick to a plan but we know what happens when mice and men plan… Mainly that neither has a suit ready for the weekend! Chaos is the journey to the underworld, where bobbin goblins live. It’s the tragedy that strikes suddenly that means a bride no longer needs her wedding gown after all.  It’s the man who forgets he has a screwdriver in his pocket and sits down. It’s the black gunk shooting out of the iron all over the hundred-year-old christening gown you just restored.

The phone is ringing off the hook today.  A lady calls.  She cannot find her shoes.  She leaves an extended message on the answering machine about all the places her shoes might be, one of which might be our shop.  The next beep is her saying that she checked her own closet and they were there. (Unexpected Order. Which is another name for Chaos, really.) The cleaners call us. They have lost a purple dress.  We do have a purple dress that we cannot determine an owner for but alas, it is not the purple dress they seek.  It seems that there are two rogue purple dresses at large in the universe, perhaps many more.  We have been trying for the past two weeks to determine the owner of our mystery dress.  Few things are more mortifying than phoning a series of previous customers who have already picked up their orders, asking them if they are missing a purple dress.  It smacks of something slipshod, a lack of Order.

The interruptions don’t stop. A girl comes in the door.  My friend, who has spent a portion of her morning receiving hacked emails from a person who died three years ago, looks at the appointment book and asks “Are you a Bride named Bethany?” “No,” she says, “I’m a Maid called Melanie,” and we all burst out laughing as if we are part of a “Who’s on First” skit. We no sooner get her shuffled off to the fitting room with her gown, when a woman comes in and wants her blouse altered.  “I really like this blouse,” she says wistfully, “but not enough to stop eating.”

I survey the devolving organization of our time and work space and decide to learn what I can about Chaos theory.   To my utter dismay, it has something to do with Math.  Ever since Sr. Davidica’s reign of terror in eighth grade, I have thought I cannot “do math.”  The truth is, I “do” math every damn day.  We all do.  Math is one of the representations of Order throughout our world.  It provides the foundation for Geometry, Physics, and how to make correct change for customers who pay cash.  Apparently, it also says that things can change unpredictably, without warning.  It turns out that Chaos theory “is a branch of mathematics focusing on the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions.”  I think this means that we need to start, not only at the exact same starting point, but in the identical conditions for an action to be predictable and even then, it isn’t.  In real life, this seems nearly impossible. Take leaving for work:

The Same thing happens every day, in that I leave my humble homestead in a 2006 Subaru (I know, I wish it could be a horse and carriage too… or an ox-cart!) and head to my place of employment.  I am that theoretical pendulum heading out to work and back.  However, the infinite variety of initial conditions changes the potential outcome and determines whether or not I drive with one hand on the wheel, one hand on the accelerator, with both feet flying out behind me or have the leisure time to put my lipstick on at red lights, like sane people. The initial variables include anything from not finding my car keys, the level of caffeine in my bloodstream, or discovering a dead sheep just before it is time to leave.

Having made it to work, somehow, by the stroke of nine, we show up each day, not just to hem men’s trousers and discuss ladies’ undergarments. (Not with the men who are there to have trousers hemmed! “Heaven forbid,” says Prudence!) We are there save Humanity, one pair of pants at a time, and to be a force for Good in this world.  We are here to Love and Serve. To listen, comprehend, then transform your personal Chaos manifesting as a broken zipper. Working with us and against us are the forces of Order and Chaos themselves.

Order is using a machine, exactly as you have always used it, expecting the same result.  Chaos is finding out that you have just stitched approximately ten miles with no bobbin thread. And removed all the pins as you went.  For those of you unfamiliar with what a bobbin is, it is a tiny spool of thread that operates underneath the needle, unseen, in synchrony with the upper, visible needle. What it does for real, besides snaggle and rip itself out is anybody’s guess.  I leave the rest to your imagination.  All you really need to understand (all anyone does, really) is that not having one is a Bad Thing.  Bobbins are part of the underworld of sewing.  They work in darkness and they sometimes do good things—like magically making nice stitches underneath the fabric.  But mostly, they are just the Devil’s dice.  Having one last around an entire hem is like a benediction from the sewing angels.  It’s like finding a lucky penny.  It’s a Sign from Heaven that you are Loved and that All is Well.

All day long, we tread the borderland between Order and Chaos.  We have all the thread in color-coded racks on the wall—hundreds of spools.  Instantly find the right shade and this is Order.  Forget to put it back, Chaos.   Our attempts to straddle this fundamental duality is what Balance is all about.

I wake each morning striving for Balance; I let the dogs out to empty themselves in the garden (Order) so they don’t do it on the rug (Chaos).  I feed the sheep and chickens in their pens—fences are the Order containing Chaos.  I attempt to connect equally with the Yin and the Yang nature of existence.  However, when I have one foot on a clean carpet and one foot in Dog poop, I do not feel balanced. Life suddenly reveals itself as intense, gripping, yet ultimately meaningless.   I want to scream.  I feel like smearing their little hairy bodies in gravy and leaving them outside for the Natural Order to reassert itself in the form of a hungry bobcat or coyote.  Who are we to allow these canine fugitives from the Natural Law to soil our carpets? But I digress…

We are always in the known territory, surrounded by the unknown.  And the Chaos, like junk mail on your kitchen counter, encroaches with every breath.  I remember helping my father mending fences on the family farm.  He once paused from wrestling with a particularly thick bittersweet vine, sweat dripping from his brow, and surveyed his land.  His shoulders sagged a little as he said, “In ten years, left alone, no one would ever even know this farm was here.  The vines would eat it all away.  There would be nothing left.”  It’s hard to believe that Chaos won’t eventually win.  I feel the same way about dirty laundry.  And so it is in the shop.  Entropy is at work every day.  We think we are there to patch holes and tailor designer fashions. No.  We are there to labor against Chaos and Entropy and jab at it with our little pins, one pair of jeans at a time, until it is finally five o’clock and it is time to go home and find that the lawn has eaten the house, the dogs have eaten the garbage, and more junk mail has arrived in our absence.  

But…. SOMETIMES….When time passes, and all the right tools are at hand, and the phone is not ringing, and we find ourselves at one with the needle and thread thimble-driven through the silk, when we get so engrossed in what we are doing that we no longer notice we are doing it—it is there and then that we are located precisely between the Order and the Chaos.  We are in the zone.  We are the embodiment of Zen, of Tao, of Beingless Being.  And then, from these tiniest of views, we may absorb the biggest pictures.

Order and Chaos are the two most basic, binary subdivisions of Being.  No matter what you do, if you love and serve your fellow men and women, you are battling the forces of Chaos, for the Chaos is within them, as well as you.  The tide is against Order.  You have your own bobbin goblins aplenty.  And yet, despite relentless and overwhelming Chaos, we all continue to strive in hope for Order, for Serenity.  It is what the multi-billion dollar industry in self-help books and clean closets is all about.  There is something Holy and sanctifying in this struggle.  All of us, attempting to build, help, or heal; nourish or nurture; patch or tuck—when  we call forth Order from the Chaos that surrounds us, when we use our words to create actions, and actions to create results, we are not only as deeply human as we can get, we are also participating in the Divine.  We revisit Genesis.  We are co-Creators.

Be well, my dearies! And do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

Who Buys Your Clothes?

Greetings Dear Ones!

“I’m having second thoughts about this outfit,” says a middle-aged, frumpy woman who has squeezed herself into a skin-tight neon pink and orange neoprene dress adorned with gigantic zippers that look like barracuda teeth.  “It’s for my son’s wedding in two weeks’ time and I just don’t know…”  Her shoulders slump as she turns to consider herself in the mirror.  “I just don’t know why I bought this… What do you think?  Does this even look Ok?”

“Is your son getting married in a tank?” I want to know.  Prudence Thimbleton shuffles up to the nearest eyeball to look out, aghast.  From the neck down, this woman looks like she should be feeding dolphins at Sea World.   On her feet, we expect to see flippers, instead of bargain pumps from Payless Shoes.  From the neck up, she looks like any other dowdy citizen of Frazzletown, with mouse grey hair parted in the middle and hanging lankly to her damp neck.  Her lips purse, her forehead wrinkles delicately.   She is confused but I know exactly what happened:  She fell asleep at the wheel and let her inner Party Goblin go shopping without her.   Some voice in her head told her she needed to make a Big Splash at her son’s wedding—or at least masquerade as if one was imminent.  Hence the dress tighter than scuba gear and made of the same material.  We have been seeing a lot of neoprene dresses lately.  They are oddly popular, out here in the wretched provinces, so many miles from the coast.  Perhaps people are taking the rise in sea levels a bit too seriously… perhaps fashion designers just decided to make the whole outfit into a version of Spanx.  In any case, I have yet to see a woman look like she is actually enjoying the physical sensation of wearing a wetsuit in high heels.  Many women, in dressing for their offspring’s wedding, panic and try their hand at wearing some sort of “power” outfit that is outside their normal scope.  (Ladies, is this really the time for that?) Perhaps this woman feels that the other females attending the wedding—her ex-husband’s new wife, the mother of the Bride, and crabby Aunt Sue are gnarly mermaids she must subdue?  Maybe, subconsciously she wants this vaguely dominatrix outfit to convey a message that she raised a son, so nothing scares her, not even cake…

“Is there anything you can do to this dress to make it look more feminine?” she wants to know.  “All these nickel zippers… in the light of day, it looks…well, a little aggressive…”  Yes.  Yes, it does.  It looks like a shark has gnawed on her, lost most of its teeth, then burped her forcibly back onto shore, hitting a sherbet truck.  Her inner dolphin trainer, who chose this outfit, is probably off water-skiing, or sleeping off an overindulgence of pineapple-infused rum and left her inner Little Old Lady to pick up the pieces.  The bewildered person standing in the dressing room is not familiar with briny buckets of smelt; she is a baker of bread, a church-goer, a respectable citizen who wears sensible shoes and never gets library book fines.  She does not understand why she bought this dress.  None of us do.

Many’s the time Prudence Thimbleton  has wanted to ask a customer, “Pardon me, Madam, I’m just curious…exactly what part of that little ensemble you have put together made you look in the mirror, sigh with satisfaction, and say YES… This is how I choose to represent myself today?”  Or, in this case, “is this how you wish to be commemorated for all time in the wedding album?  Did you not get the memo that the Mother of the Groom is supposed to shut up and wear beige?”

But I get it.  Truly, I do.  I feel for this woman who let her inner Party Goblin and inner Dolphin Trainer get together over a few too many pina coladas and make this choice she now regrets.  We all have rogue inner ingénues who show up and toss crap into the cart at TJ Maxx, or late-night click on items from Nordstrom’s that we would never dream of purchasing in the light of day when our more sensible monitors are in charge. Nothing makes me thirstier for adult beverages than taking all my clothes, one by one, throwing them on the floor and realizing that I have Nothing to Wear.    Well, nothing that the “me” who has shown up that day really likes.   Nor is that “me” entranced by the idea of running naked for the rest of the day.  (These are the days I not only hate all my clothes, but the body that goes into them too.)   You may not know this about me, but I have a team of personal shoppers whose job it is to squander my money filling my closet with crap I do not like that does not fit.

Ralph Lauren is quoted as saying “Fashion is about something that comes from within you.”  Well, what if what you have “within” is a cast of sadistic demons and giddy trollops?    Perhaps you have a few of these characters too? There’s the inner anorexic  all hopped up on Dexatrim who convinced you that you would actually be a size six by June (she lied) and told you that you would need that full-price silk skirt you will never wear but can’t get rid of.  (That is not a garment as much as it is a monument to hope and disillusionment.) She also begs you not to discard those slacks that have not fit you since the eighth grade.  She is a skinny little hoarder.  Getting even with her is the chubby girl who retaliates by buying an assortment of maxi-dresses that might as well be burlap sacks.   Then, there is your inner Grandmother knitting you wooly confections out of homespun yarn—capes and shawls and woolen slip-covers as if you live on the Nebraska Prairie in 1850. (Wait, maybe that’s just me?)  The inner hippie just adores all those one-size-fits-most (most what? Animals? Vegetables? Minerals?) Indonesian batik dresses—the scraps of which are turned into table cloths for Pottery Barn.  And who bought all these suits? Were you ever in business? Are you secretly a corporate lawyer in your spare time?  I don’t think so.  Tiny little Exercise outfits?  Why so many of these with tags still on?  Why the mounds of tattered, paint- stained, sit-on-the-couch-binge-watching-Netflix-and-eating-Swiss-Cake-Rolls clothes in every size?  Church clothes, 18th Century Clothes, 1940’s dresses, Vintage Velvet Hippie dresses--WHAT are we supposed to wear to work Today?  You’ve got everything from “Geriatric Cave-dweller” to “Pole Dancer”--Why do none of your fashion “statements” say “Competent, Highly-trained, and Capable Professional”?  You are letting the wrong goblins shop for you.   

When we say “I have nothing to wear,” what we really mean is that “there is nothing here for who I am supposed to be today.” I might have to masquerade as a Responsible Guardian at a parent-teacher conference; or as a person who does NOT deserve that speeding ticket, or someone who turned down a movie deal on the way to her son’s soccer practice.  (You can take that last one as anything on the spectrum from “getting the starring role as an actress in a movie to deciding not to buy one of the discounted DVD’s in the bargain bucket at Wal-Mart.)  I might just need to be a Matriarchal Tree Sprite, or an innocent Five-year-old who likes any color as long as it’s purple, or some unfortunate throw-back to the Eighties, with shoulder pads that would be the envy of any linebacker.  I have no idea who I am going to show up as…

When I was growing up, my options were more limited.  I had three choices:  school uniform, church dress, or barn clothes for doing chores on the family farm.  I could only be three people—student, sinner, or serf.   My mother bought all our clothes.  She was a savvy bargain hunter who bought things “big” so they would last longer before they were handed down. I went off to college and had no idea how to wear anything that wasn’t plaid.  It’s been a problem ever since.  The people in my head are not always the people who want to wear what is in my closet.   The people I have to show up as, as a Responsible Adult, are not always the people who run amok in a thrift store with my credit card.  Consequently, I have plenty of options for the inner Tree Sprite to wear while she fiddles on a tree stump but few of these attires could be worn in public.  (She is a close cousin of the inner Trollop who likes shoes that are bad for the knees.)  Crabbit Prudence Thimbleton watches all this with a wary eye—the inner Church Lady on alert for dubious hemlines and sensual impulses.  

I learn a lot from the customers who come in with their own struggles, whether they are frumpy, frazzled mothers of grooms or trendy young men exercising their God-given right to look dapper.  I am delighted to see the number of youthful souls coming into the shop to revise their “look” and fit and to create a wardrobe that reflects their individual sensibilities, however odd they may seem to those over the age of forty.  The cleverest among them are up-cycling clothing from second-hand shops and bringing it to us to refine, revive, or revise according to their needs.  It’s refreshing to see that our clothing chooses us just as much as we choose it. People simply glow when an outfit is “Them.”

From my standpoint as witness in the fitting room, I realize that these aspects of our Being are not just roles we are playing.  Our clothes are not simply costumes that help portray us as hero, clown, martyr, or lost child.  They are part of the complexity of us as humans—part of why we frustrate ourselves so much and potentially a source of delight too.   We LOVE it when we get to wear the thing that sings “ME.”   Self-awareness is the antidote to self-obsession.  Who are we? What do we really need? How do we want others to see us? Do we really want to wear something that gives us more opportunities for penance than a medieval hair shirt? We have to work today with today’s best answers to today’s questions.  The answers might change for us tomorrow.  That does not matter. 

When we are triggered to abandon some part of ourselves—to condemn the Inner Trollop, Pixie, Sinner, or Saint—it is a form of self-mutilation.   When we have no idea who is buying our clothes—we have lost touch with all the vibrant, creative, eccentric, insecure, reckless and bizarre parts of ourselves who are calling us to see them, to welcome them home.  We all have these fabulous  fashion archetypes lurking in our minds and closets—from tweedy professors to harlots.  And we are Bigger Yet, far bigger than the sum of all of them. We cannot abandon these selves to wordless fears and judgments—“did I do something wrong by being authentically who I am? Does this dress make me unlovable ? Will I be fired if I wear comfortable shoes to a board meeting?” These questions are not based in Love.  If we begin to live just one day at a time, with our most heart-centered wisdom in This moment, we can trust that the best learning will come to us from whatever decisions we make.  When we know and LOVE  All of who we are, we will know exactly what to wear.  And whoever shops for us will be Ok.

Rock on, Inner Dolphin Trainers!

Be well, my darlings, and do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

It's the little things...

Greetings Dear Ones!

I am beginning to think I was not meant to be a saint by doing little things.  “BIG things, done with Great Flourishes…things that can be done quickly and impressively, with the stroke of a magic wand, or a sword…things that involve galloping horses or fire...these seem like they would suit me better,” I think sourly, as I round hour thirty-nine of what will become a forty-five hour job to remove all the lace from the bottom of the scalloped hem of a wedding gown, only so I can slash six inches off the bottom and start sewing all that lace back on.  I look intently at the seam ripper I am using and wonder if it is strong enough to open a radial artery.  I simply cannot go on… The sun spins by the window and the colors of the days shift like a kaleidoscope.  And yet this chore drags...  I have no memory of breakfast, no plans for lunch, no memory of my former life.  I have no children, no pets, no houseplants gasping for water on my windowsills…All I have ever done and all I shall ever do forevermore is remove the lace from this damn gown.

The lace has been stitched on with a clear strand of a filament, like finest fishing line, in dizzying circles, over and over and over itself, anchoring five yards of this frilly ornament to a piece of fragile tulle as if it must one day withstand the force of the Apocalypse. The shop feels like it is 105 degrees Fahrenheit and I am trying not to get my sweat or blood (from jabbed fingers) on material that shreds if I pull on it too hard.  Each stitch must be picked out carefully with tweezers—and the only way I can see it properly is to have magnifying glasses and a hot white light held inches above it. A subtle variation in sheen is my only clue that a thread is there.

The other ladies are working briskly—machines are whirring, steam from the iron punctuates their progress with pronounced hisses.  Hangers click on the racks as they finish mending one item after another.  The shop hums with productivity and progress. Except in my corner.  Hidden behind this frothy mountain, I think about the stories I read as a child—about how bags of millet were mixed with bags of sand and friendly ants helped the kindly heroine (who had saved them all just that morning) sort it all before the witch came back.  I could use some helpful ants now!  These stitches are just the right size for ants.  I pick away steadily, bitterly, knowing that there is no way out but Through.  The only witch here is me.

 Growing up, I remember hiding out in the bathroom during afternoon chores at the barn with a book my sister had received as a prize for winning her class spelling bee.  It was called The Lives of the Saints and it was filled with thrilling tales of martyrdom and valor, courage and bravery—all the goriest details of their triumphs over worldly temptations and devils in the form of misguided town magistrates. There was not a single mention of achieving glory via lace removal. The closest saint was St. Therese of Lisieux, “The Little Flower,” who, like Mother Theresa, understood the importance of doing “little things with great love.”

Ah… Love!  That’s what I am missing!  I have no love for this lace, this gown, nor the modern Fairytale tradition of dressing women up in fabric mountains worth thousands of dollars so that they can pretend to be a Princess for a day. 

When my children were little, I read to them every night before bed.  One night, I read my son a classic fairy tale about three sons who went out to seek their fortunes in the big bad world.  The first two sons quite predictably squander their fortunes and imperil their lives by attempting to win the hand of a Princess, whose evil father puts them under an enchantment when they fail.  It falls to the youngest brother to survive the tasks set before him and to free his enchanted brothers.  He is a good and wise son and is probably doing this just to make his mother happy, since it does not seem that these older brothers were all that nice to him and he is the only one to leave the cottage with his mother’s blessing. Though he is younger and smaller and weaker, he is clearly her favorite.  Now that I think of it, this is probably the sort of story told in days of yore to mollify bullied younger brothers… but I digress.  We read pages and pages about the youngest brother’s courage and wit and cleverness and in the end he triumphs, mostly due to his strong Moral Character.  I read with rising and falling drama in my voice as we near the conclusion.  When I get to the end, where I say “and so the wicked King could do no more.  He gave the Princess’s hand in marriage to the youngest brother and they all lived happily ever after.”   My son five-year-old son is scowling.  He had been all in during the deeds of valor, cheering for the youngest brother all the way as he rode horses of various colors up glass mountains and whatnot, but now his eyes are hot and dark and he looks scornful. Something about the ending has greatly displeased him. I am curious.  Is it that women should Not be given as prizes? (No, they should NOT)  Is it that no one could hope to live happily ever after with a father-in-law like that? Is it that the older brothers don’t say thank you?  I ask him what bothers him about the story. He pauses, shakes his head, and says “that poor boy…that poor, poor boy.”

I pry a little more. After all, the boy marries the princess and becomes a prince. He wins! What’s the problem? Finally, my son looks at me with his clear, blue eyes, and begins to explain: “He won a princess.  Princesses are a lot of work.  They need princess shoes, a princess dress, a fancy bed with lots of mattresses and no peas—not just a regular bed.  They need all the princess versions of everything.  This is going to cost him a lot of money.  He’s going to be poor again in no time.  I wish the prize was just a bag of money he could share with his mother so they would not be poor.  Now they have to take care of a whole Princess and princesses cost a lot of money.” He shakes his head sadly and sighs. Needless to say, I nearly wet my pants at the notion that my frugal five-year-old is an authority on the fiduciary constraints of royalty.  

So I read the same story to my seven-year-old daughter and she has no problem with it.  She loves to talk about princesses and to dress like one as often as she can from the overflowing trunk of dress-up outfits I have made for her and her neighborhood ladies-in-waiting.  She smiles. Princesses are supposed to be expensive and beautiful and glamorous.  Who wants to be a pre-pumpkin Cinderella? No One. For her, the Moral Character is not as important as the glass slippers and the glittering gown, the bigger and more sparkly the better! 

Remembering how these separate genders responded to fairytales as children makes me smile as I sit picking lace.   What are weddings anyway but an excuse to spend a whole lot of money so that a girl can be a Princess for a day?  A castle, or something vaguely resembling a castle, must be rented; court musicians must be hired; linens for two-hundred and fifty guests must coordinate within two Sherwin-Williams paint shades of the bridal bouquet; and a Royal Banquet with an open bar must be served.  All because two people love each other and need to share a Health-Care Policy. Does the groom want all this?  I suspect he would rather have a pony. Or a small sack of gold.  Probably the sack of gold. But no, everyone pretends for a day that they now have a kingdom.  The rival Kings and Queens and their significant others are summoned by royal proclamations printed on hand-stamped parchment and encouraged to part with many sacks of gold.  Guests are encouraged to purchase items for the palace from a Registry—so as not to let their own lack of taste interfere with the required furnishings of the royal household. The female inner seven-year-old is saying Finally, I get to stuff my little piggies into some itty-bitty shoes and wear the BIGGEST damn glittering gown I can find, while every inner five-year-old man within reach of his wallet is groaning and saying “I wish I had just ridden away on that golden horse while I had the chance! Why did I do all those feats of valor?”   

For whatever reason, we as a species need to convince ourselves that Magic really happens, that champagne is as good as derma-bond at sealing two souls together for life, and that if a girl gets to have a good party dress for a day, she won’t really notice that she will have to spend the next sixteen years of her life as the grubby version of Cinderella, driving her bickering brats to soccer practice in a minivan that smells vaguely of dried ketchup and dead hermit crabs.

I sigh and look down at the gown all over my table and lap and legs.  This particular Princess has no idea how long this is taking.  She has no idea how much work this is.  Her mother has been in twice already to complain about how much the rest of the wedding is costing, delivering the not-so-subtle subtext that we are the serfs who should not expect to get paid much for this, this little “hem”—the napkin rental alone has already cost her plenty. I think seriously about the energy I am putting into this gown and realize that it is full of grumbles, not good wishes.  I need to restore my own faith in magic, in the Fairy Tale of “Happily Ever After,” not “Grudgingly Ever After, Until Debt Do Us Part.”  

I know that our energy inhabits our work, long after it is finished—that everything we do receives our blessing or our curse, whether we want it to or not.   We can taste the love in food others cook especially for us.  We can feel the love in hand-knit socks hugging our feet. We can see the love in a neatly made bed with the pillows fluffed just so, or a love note packed in with our lunch.  We know that little things done with Great Love bring the most happiness to our aching lives.  It is good for our own souls to do this, no matter how tedious the task, no matter it may be received by others, or not noticed at all. We are, every one of us, magical creatures.

I DO want this dress to be a blessing—since I am not allowed to set fire to it—so I settle my mind around an old rallying cry of “if you can’t get out of it, get into it.”  I learned this many times, growing up, having been discovered in the bathroom with The Lives of the Saints while the barn chores weren’t getting done.  I surrender and give myself The Speech: The work does not do itself, Nancy.  It must be done and it must be done by YOU.  NOW.  So just do it.  With all the love you can muster.  If you can’t love the work, try to love the person you for whom you are doing it.  If you can’t do that; at least love yourself enough to do your best.  Take pride in your work, no matter how trivial or cosmically and existentially Absurd it may be.  One stitch or pitchfork at a time. Sometimes, Good People have to do Stupid Tasks and do them Well because it’s not about the work—it’s about the test of our spirits. At least that much of any fairytale is True!

Be well my Dearies! And do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

All Buttoned Up

Greetings my Dearies!

One of the biggest sources of shame I witness on a daily basis, besides the basic, garden variety forms of body shame, is around buttons. Why don’t people learn to sew on a button? I have yet to see a person come in to the shop to have a button re-sewn and plunk it down on the counter with an air of blithe confidence and cheery, self-respecting expectation.  No, they cringe, they apologize, they confess, they twist in torment that they did not think to swipe a hotel sewing kit when they had the chance in Rio…  (Whatever happened to having sewing kits at home?)  Why don’t people know how to do this?  They act like they should.  (“I agree, they Should,” rants crabby inner Prudence Thimbleton.  “What kind of Wasteful Slackers drive across town and pay the likes of you a whole Dollar to sew a button on? It’s disgraceful! No proper education is complete without knowledge of how to change a tire, how to make a simple meal, and how to sew on a button!)

I have told you not to expect any practical sewing information from this blog—as there are others out there who can do that so much better than I.  However, in this case, for the sake of alleviating Shame from my fellow men and women, I will offer a brief tutorial:  Firstly, a button needs to be what we call “shanked” if the button if it is to be used to actually close something.  It needs to accommodate the buttonhole. If you sew it flat up against your pants, there will be no room for anything to go under it and the strain on the thread will just make it pop off again. All you do to shank a button is hold it away from the fabric as you sew it on—hold at a distance that equals the thickness of the fabric to go under it.  For example, on a shirt, you might only hold it away the thickness of two pennies, for jeans, it might be as much as a quarter inch.  It’s a little bit of a balancing act to hold the button away as you sew it but if you can drive a motor vehicle and operate a microwave (not at the same time, of course!), you’ve done harder things. Stop whining. If you really want training wheels for this part, you can simply place a toothpick or match-stick over or under the button then stitch down over it into an adjacent hole, but who has time for that? A button usually has two or four holes; stitch until each pair of holes has been bound five or six times. A little trick—use three pieces of thread at one time in your needle. Then only stitch twice. Or use six threads and only stitch once.  (The math part of this is so fun.) However, a needle eye that can accommodate that number of threads at once is probably too big for your fabric.  You should use smaller needles and lighter threads on lighter fabrics. Six threads per hole should be plenty to hold a button securely. To make the shank, hold the needle and thread between the fabric and the button, remove the toothpick, if you used one, lift up the button, and wrap the thread tightly around the exposed threads between the button and the fabric several times until the button is standing up on a perky little “stalk” or shank. Tie off the thread under the button. I don’t actually tie a knot—I just use my needle to make the thread disappear off into the fabric and cut it.  There! Spread the word.  I don’t regret the loss of income one damn bit!

I spend an inordinate amount of my time sewing buttons on things.  Most of them, going four at a time on the outer sleeves of men’s sport coats, serve no purpose whatsoever, which vexes me.  Life is short.  What am I doing squandering my dwindling youth and strength and eyesight on vestigial buttons? In biological terms, their function has dwindled and been rendered meaningless by the evolution of the coat over time.  They remain as useless decoration only.

The Germanic hordes that brought the Roman Empire to its knees, eventually became so civilized that by the 13th century, they were the first to use buttons to keep their clothes on. Those clever Germans!  The idea gradually swept Europe and everyone has been buttoned up ever since.  Sleeve buttons became a thing in the 18th century, when sleeves were tighter than they are now—supposedly buttons helped one pass his hand through the sleeve.  Suit jackets followed masculine swagger of military uniform designs.

 I’m not sure this story is true—I defer to my friends who are actual fashion historians to corroborate or deny this tale.  If it is not true, at least it is a fun story—which is about all you can hope for in this wicked world. Supposedly a General—I’ve heard it was Frederick the Great, ruler of Prussia from 1740-1786; I’ve also heard it was Napoleon, liked nothing better than to ride out and survey his troops arranged in rows and neatly turned out in spotless uniforms. Marring the scene were these grubby soldiers who insisted on sweating, getting dirty, bleeding profusely, and—worst of all, in the days before Kleenex—wiping their snotty noses on their sleeves.  In order to keep the lads looking snappy, he ordered buttons sewn in rows on the bottoms of their sleeves so as to scratch them when they tried to mop the blood, sweat, or snot off their faces, in the hopes that the threat of minor physical pain could supply what basic public decency could not. More likely, buttoned sleeves may have enabled surgeons to give urgent treatments to injuries near the hands during battles.

In any case, until recently, men’s suit coats all came with working buttons and button holes on their sleeves. Not that long ago, in the days before casual or “button-down Fridays” turned into “no buttons, ever, everyday” and swiftly devolved into the current garb of the modern Wallmart Shopper, men wore jackets all the time, not just for business. A man’s shirt was considered his underwear.  Even farmers and day laborers and shopkeepers (ancestors of Wallmart employees) wore suit jackets. When exerting himself and getting hampered by his clothing, a man would roll up his sleeves, rather than remove his jacket. Taking off his jacket would be akin to stripping to his underwear—or a somewhat deranged 21st century woman painting the exterior of a three-storey house in her bikini (wait, that’s another story…)

Clothing was serious body protection from the elements and people, even men, wore aprons while working to protect it. Clothing represented a much higher percentage of a person’s personal budget and was highly valued. One of my favorite pastimes (right up there with eating homemade peach ice cream from Rota Spring Farm) is trolling the Old Bailey accounts online to read stories of “criminals” accused of stealing clothing in the 18th century. Fascinating stuff!  This is a great way to learn about what people were wearing and how it was valued in society and in the courts—the descriptions are sometimes hilarious.

All this to say that the buttonholes were cut (that means they worked—they weren’t pretend), the suits were individually made to spec and the sleeves could be rolled up.  Form followed function.  Modern bespoke and high-end (i.e. expensive) suit buttons still work. This is a chance for dapper dudes to wear one button undone so they can show off that it is a really good quality suit.  But most jackets today are not bespoke (made to order).  Off the rack jackets no longer have functional buttons or buttonholes—this is to facilitate tailoring them, i.e. make my job that much easier, so that I can cut the buttons off and lengthen or shorten the sleeves to suit either a man with the wing-span of a T-rex or a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal. Manufacturers, in trying to accommodate everyone, have designed suits that fit no one. Buttons on those suits are purely decorative.

One can only surmise that these conspicuously useless (often made of plastic, yuck) buttons stay there for the same reason men wear ties--#1 it’s always been like that, #2 it looks vaguely natty, #3 most men are so baffled by matters sartorial that it never dawns on them to agitate for change, #4 they are too busy tapering their trousers into tourniquets from the knee down to notice.

In college, I used to eat lunch occasionally with one of my favorite philosophy professors. She was about 8 years older than my roommate and I, which seemed like a lot back then, but she seemed to enjoy our company.  I asked her what made her want to study philosophy. She said that she started graduate school as a biochemistry student but when she found herself on a research project that involved stroking the backs of centipedes until they peed into little vials, she knew that she needed to find something less pointless to do, hence Nietzsche and Goethe. Personally, I saw her life up close and I am not certain that lecturing to hung-over undergraduates about the contributions of Heraclitis and Aristotle to western thought was any less pointless. I observed her youth and idealism and how it was being squandered on exhausted people more interested in discovering the ancient Greek principles of Brotherhood out behind Lambda Chi Alpha and I thought there must be much more exciting things to do in this world. 

Um, yeah… like sewing on buttons.  Thirty years later, here I sit, on my buttons, sewing...  Buttons that don’t even close anything.  I might as well be stroking centipedes. 

We all have these meaningless little tasks involved in our work.  Sometimes the work is exciting—you get a big project, like your version of a wedding gown, and there is all this drama and pressure…  You spend four whole days removing lace that has been attached microscopically with fishing line and you are over budget before you even begin to hem the gown…  The mother of the Bride comes in, glaring at the bride and bellowing about how she has just been charged $600 for the rental of linens for the reception, and it’s not a good time to mention that the gown is taking a lot more time than anticipated… And time is money… well, not in this case, since no one will have the courage to tell this Mother of the Bride, so we will do the rest of the work for free… So Time is just time in this case… Time you now spend thinking about buttons and how sometimes having little boring things to do, mundane and simple chores with some anecdotal link back to the snot of Prussian soldiers, is not so bad.   

Be Well, my dearies, and do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

 

 

Does this need to be said?

 

Greetings my Dearies!

No joke, countless versions of this phone call actually happen on a regular basis:

The phone rings.

I say:  “Good [morning/afternoon], Nancy speaking, how may I help?”

“Yeah…uh, hi…” a young man’s voice falters.  Having just dialed the phone and waited patiently for someone to connect, still, he seems disoriented to be talking to another human being and needs to collect his thoughts.   “I uh, have a question…  I’m trying to buy some pants off the internet.  They’re work pants and they don’t make them anymore.  The smallest size I can find is a 40 but I am a 34.  How hard is it for you to make them smaller? Is that something you even do?”

 I want to say: “Well, DUH!!! You just called a tailoring shop, buddy. Do you know what that means? It means we take your clothes, cut them up and sew them back together—usually, but not always, in ways that make them fit you better.”

I actually say:  “Well, sir, yes, we do indeed take in men’s trousers.  We are a tailoring shop.  That is exactly what we do.” I add briskly, “however, to take a waist in as much as six inches is going to alter the basic geometry of the pants so much that they won’t look right.  We can take them all apart and remake them, but that won’t be the twelve-dollar fix you are hoping for…”

What he says: “Really? What do you mean? Do you think it would make them look bad?”

What I want to say: “Dude!  Do you even know how much of a goober you would look like if we did that for you? Seriously?  It would look like your bum ate your pockets.”

What I actually say: “Well, men’s pants are designed to be taken in at the back.  When you take six inches off the back, first of all, the pockets get too close together.  Look at the pockets now—they are not separated by six inches to spare.  You will also have to have a lot of fabric taken out of the crotch. If we take it only from the back, the side seams will no longer be at your sides.  The front will look weird.”

What he says: “Ohhh… gee… I hadn’t thought of that. Well, I don’t know what to do.  40 is the smallest size I can get.”

What I want to say: “What kind of work is this you do, that you are the tiniest man wearing these pants?  How come all the pants for this kind of work only come in larger sizes?  Should you consider changing jobs? Maybe you could eat more at lunch…”

What I actually say: “Well, if you bring them in, we can remake them to the best of our ability, but that means taking them all apart and basically starting over.  They might not look the same when we are done.”

What I also want to say: “Honestly, just forget it. They will look like dog poop. And furthermore, it will be a complete pain in the arse to do all this; work pants are triple-stitched, you’ll crab about the price and it won’t even be worth it to us in the long run because we will lose all the profit each time we have to redo something you are unhappy with, and you will never be happy with the result.”

What he says: “well, I haven’t even bought them yet.  I’m just trolling around on the internet looking for them.  I don’t even know if it’s something I’m going to do.  I was just calling to find out if you did that sort of thing.”

What I say: “Yes, sir, we do.  We do alter pants.  But there are limits to how much we can alter them that are still economical and effective for you.  There are men who drop a lot of weight and want their favorite pants altered to fit them but at a certain point, it’s just better to buy a more appropriate size.”

What he says: “Gotcha.”

I say: “Thank you for calling, have a nice day!”

 

Saying what we think, saying what is true, and being able to communicate clearly without hurting someone’s feelings takes all the verbal ingenuity and discretion of a foreign diplomat.  When a bride with an ill-fitting gown asks us why the zipper is rippling so much and doing a snake dance up her back—“Does the gown need to be taken in? There seems to be too much zipper.”  We cannot proclaim, ‘Dear God, Woman, are you out of your mind?! That zip ripples because it is lodged on a roll above your hips.  We need to let that out two dress sizes.  No amount of gut-B-gone underwear is going to save you now…”  Instead, we shrug diplomatically and say, “Maybe we could do that…We can also make some adjustments in the hips—we know how to fix it. Don’t worry.”   The customer never knows if we have let things out or taken them in.  All they need to know is that it fits better in the end.  The less we say the better.

In today’s political climate, it is trendy to “say what one thinks” no matter how rude it is by old-fashioned standards of polite convention.  However, I happen to think Eric Hoffer was right when he said “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.” I am a huge fan of honesty in general but I question how baldly it should appear in the work place.  Honesty need not be painful. My genuine fondness for people means I usually have to struggle through some verbal calisthenics to say what I mean.  Do I really want to tell a dear old lady that the reason her collar won’t button is because her dowager’s hump, which rivals that of the famed resident of Notre Dame, has pulled up all the extra fabric?  Do I want to tell a man that his cuffs were full of body dander or that I know what it is he really “spilled” on his crotch?  As seamstresses, we know things about people that they might rather we not know and we need to be somewhat careful how we let them know we know, in ways that protect their dignity. Because, after all is said and done, we ARE HERE TO SERVE. Or we try to be. Sometimes, we have to fake this a little too.

I’m not saying we should ever be untruthful, don’t get me wrong! Flattering inaccuracies are like cute little Jack Russells that will come back to bite you in the buttocks.  In his book The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz talks about being “impeccable with our words.”  Impeccable means “flawless, faultless, without stain”—literally, it means “without sin,” since its Latin root is peccare, or “sin.” I like to think of it like a verbal Hippocratic Oath for seamstresses, or anyone who wants to flourish in life or business, to “do no harm.”  Or, in Recovery circles it’s known as “Say what you mean; mean what you say; don’t be mean when you say it.” This goes a long way in the dressing room when one is faced with a myriad of unfortunate fashion decisions.

Good language is the knife with which we carve truth from fiction—it can be a weapon or a useful tool.  Just this past prom season, we had a girl come in at the last minute with an “emergency”—a beautiful but complicated gown that we had to alter in a day because she refused to wear her first gown, which she had purchased months before and had altered at a rival shop in town.   The seamstress in that shop had made unkind comments about the girl’s weight and the girl had collapsed in grief and self pity and didn’t want to attend her prom at all after that.  Her mother, in desperation, had found this other gown at the last minute and wondered if we could change it quickly enough—but even more important than that, could we make her daughter feel good about herself in it?  Stories like that break my heart.  Yes, of course we could. And we did.  She looked like a radiant princess.   

When we choose our words carefully, we build bridges for our spirits to find one another and guide each other to better places.  We build collusion, cooperation, and trust.  We are able to be on the same team.  I can jump into your boat and say “where do you want to go? I will help you row.” Using language that cuts these ties and alienates us may feel satisfying in the moment but it does not serve a greater good.   Ultimately, it sets us adrift, going nowhere.

This little shop in a tiny corner of the great big world contains every element of that world as much as a cup of sea water contains the sea. Our pool of customers represents each economic and political stratum from poor day laborers, who will not pick up their work until pay-day, to the heiress who has brought ten silk blouses back from her latest jaunt to Italy. We are “Sew-cialists” who sew for everyone.  We service the mayors and selectmen of three towns as well as the local cat shelter, which needs custom slip-covers for its cages so the cats won’t fight. We work equally for male-strippers, people needing fetish costumes, and children receiving their first communions.  We do all the tailoring for a reputable men’s store, as well as all the fire fighters and police uniforms. In winter, we patch sweatshirts “while-they-wait” for migrants who have no coats and repair ice booties for dog paws who ride to the groomer’s in forty-thousand-dollar SUVs.  In summer, we create clothing that can be slipped easily over someone in a wheel chair and swimwear for the handicapped.  We do custom alterations for every kind of amputee, spinal scoliosis, or physical departure from “the norm” that you can imagine. We make eye patches for a man who has lost an eye and soft head scarves for cancer patients who have lost their hair.  These are deeply precious souls from every slide and margin of the political spectrum and I hate how they sometimes talk about each other.

I feel deep dismay around the plummeting level of discourse in our country today. Sure, some of it feels good.   Some of it feels like cleaning a wound that has festered too long. I too fantasize about what I wish I could say to people who irritate me.  But there is a difference between cleansing and carving out fresh injuries. I have an acquaintance who rails against “PC” (politically correct) language.  She does not think we need to be inclusive or thoughtful of other people’s feelings.  This makes me crazy, like she’s saying let’s just slaughter all the polar bears.  I say please, for the love of Civility, bring it back, not just to the work place but to every place.  Let’s make P.C. stand for all sorts of things like Polite Civility, Protecting Customers, Pain-free Clients, Personal Contact, Perfect Compassion, Professional Courtesy, Peaceful Co-Existence and of course, Pin Cushions! (Feel free to send me your ideas—this could be a great list!)

The other day, I drove home in the darkness and saw that I had left a light on in my home.  I had departed in the daylight and could not see that light glowing when I left.  But as darkness descended, the light became visible.  In its way, the Darkness was showing where the light was.  We can be that too.  As others descend into their darkly “honest” rages, we can be beacons of bright yet equally honest Politeness that used to be so ubiquitous we were unaware of it. We can preserve this endangered language of Helpfulness, of compassion and friendship, of building tribal bonds and community—Old Fashioned and formal and stuffy as it may be—it might just help us find our way Home where we remember we are all Family.

Be well, my Dear Ones! And do Good Work!

Yours aye,

Nancy

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

P.S. If you have read more than three of these blogs and liked them, please consider subscribing!  Thanks! I promise not to sell your email to a tartan lingerie company!

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