I took a walk along the lake yesterday after getting my 11-year-old part way to school.
It was a drizzly fall morning and the sky was purple-hued and the water silent and still and while I “should have” just turned around and gone home and dusted or swept or baked, I didn’t; I walked on …
Here’s something I realised a couple of weeks ago: there are now days in which I don’t step foot out of my house.
I used to take twice daily walks in order to deliver and fetch my youngest from school, but our routine changed this September when I began providing some before- and after-school childcare for my son’s friend whose mother is a nurse. While it’s entirely debatable whether one 11-year-old boy would have needed a mother to walk him to school, it’s an absolute given that two 11-year-old boys don’t need a mother to walk them to school.
Nope. Now, most days I send the two of them on their way with a wave and a Have a good day!, and the door is shut, and it isn’t opened again until 3:30 when I greet them with Hi! How was your day?
And it didn’t occur to me until yesterday’s walk, when I felt myself breathing deeply for what felt like the first time in days, the air damp and sweet, the raindrops a gentle shiver on my umbrella, that I may have inadvertently made things harder for myself these past couple of months. Not only am I dealing with messy and depressing emotions, not the least of which is having children grow up and become old enough to go off to university (or to walk to school independently), but in the midst of all of it, I’ve allowed myself to forget something vital, something I’ve known for a long time: namely, that nature is healing.
I felt this healing power once before: a long-ago trip to the Rocky Mountains, post-miscarriage, somehow helped me to move past my grief. There’s something ineffable about perceiving your own insignificance while being surrounded by abundant life: walking along a trail and taking in the impossibility of tall spruce perching on craggy slopes; observing saplings taking root in infinitesimal nooks and crannies; feeling the surety that life will simply be — that the trees will continue on just fine without us, thankyouverymuch, that they will remain standing long after I — and any children I happen to be fortunate enough to bear — have passed from this existence. And equally important, or maybe even paramount: knowing just as surely that not all life can be, that seeds are spun that cannot take hold, that saplings wither before their time … and that this is not design or malice but simply chance, and that nature brooks no room for overwrought emotion when contemplating this. It simply is.
I’ve long felt I prefer my nature wild and untamed and — most importantly — out of the realm of personal responsibility. Nature is something that happens naturally, in wild spaces, and thus a backyard, a space which we in suburbia feel pressured to cultivate to Pinterest-worthy perfection, surely does not equal nature. Or if it does, then at the very least it must be well-behaved nature, nature that keeps to its boundaries, nature that’s always wearing its Sunday Best.
This is a notion I’ve long cultivated, and I’ve spun myself a narrative to illustrate my place in all this: I’ve told myself that I am not much of a gardener, that gardening is too much work, and that it’s work I don’t enjoy and don’t have time for. Indeed, I spent much of this past summer inside, shirking the outdoors, trying to escape the sweltering heat and humidity. What could have been medicinal doses of greenery were relegated to mere telescopic snatches through windows, and when I did step outside? It was overwhelming. Unchecked natural nature creeping over and displacing what was supposed to be well-behaved and cultivated nature: uninvited weeds; bullying perennials; a cacophony of overgrown shrubs; a blemished “lawn”; a neglected and accusatory vegetable patch.
But I’m now wondering: what if I tried to rid myself of the notion that yard work and vegetable gardening and perennial beds are only yet-more-work that isn’t-getting-done? What would happen if I led myself outside and let the wondrous living details of this abundant life embrace me? Perhaps I should be spinning the whole thing into a prescription of gardening-as-nature-cum-DIY-psychotherapy.
And maybe if I did that, if I took the time to care for — and heal — my own small plot of nature, maybe that small plot of nature might in turn heal me.
My gosh, it’s hard to begin again after a long silence …
I’ll start by saying I’m utterly relieved that autumn is upon us. It’s not only that September feels far more fresh-startish to me than January —
(unoriginal, I know; this feeling only applies to me and 87% of the rest of the internet)
— it’s the fact that after the blisteringly hot and humid summer we’ve had, the cooler weather is not merely nice, but rather is welcome in an OH-THANK-GOODNESS-you’re-finally-here!!! kind of way.
(If Cool Weather were a prospective houseguest, she’d be slowing backing away from my so-effusive-it-borders-on-scary greeting and muttering something about an appointment elsewhere.)
It was a not-altogether-fun summer. Against the backdrop of the stifling heat were two things:
First off, our daughter, who had just finished her second year of university, didn’t “come home” for the summer. We saw her, sure; but on visits. Having your child home to visit — even when you know she’s in the best place she can be — can be a poignant and bittersweet and disquieting thing to have to wrap your head and emotions around.
Secondly, there was the looming departure of our second-born — our 17-year-old son — to university this fall. He “eased” us into this, by being out nearly ALL the time and by begging off a family camping trip. (The trip did happen — just my husband and me and our youngest son — but it felt six ways from Sunday WRONG to be camping without our older two children. Truthfully, we all felt it, and were all relieved to get back home.)
I spent much of July and August feeling weighed down, unable to generate even the slightest interest in anything other than reading Harry Potter to my 11-year-old son. It was too hot to bake, I left my sewing in an existentialistic pique of this-isn’t-working-and-what-the-hell-am-I-even-doing-this-for, and I couldn’t even muster the energy to weed the vegetable garden that I had “planted”. (“Planted”, in quotation marks, because I literally threw the seeds onto the non-prepared soil, two weeks later than I was “supposed to”.)
And then, right around the time that Rita was shedding tears in her grocery store because it struck her that when her daughter went off to college she would have to buy fewer apples, I was coming to a parallel realization: with the departure of my 17-year-old bottomless pit son, I would have to bake fewer cookies.
And oh. my. gosh., that thought literally made me stop in my tracks. I stood there in the kitchen, eyes closed, mouth gaping, breath held, as the realization set in.
You see, dear reader, baking cookies* is not only what I DO, it’s tied inextricably with who I AM.
Several months ago, I joked — prophetically — in the comments of my freezing food post, that if “I [didn’t] have a chest freezer … I would spiral down into existential crisis mode [because] … so much of what I do during my “working hours” involves filling that freezer!”
Clearly, if I was making light of a dark and cold cookie-less future, if I considered the ramifications of not having a freezer, but utterly failed to see that my very REASONS for filling that freezer would soon be leaving me, I had blinders on. The fact is, once 2/3rds of my kiddos were out of the house (although admittedly, with baking for the absent majority not completely non-existent but just severely limited to care packages (perhaps) every few weeks), I was going to find myself teetering on the cusp of becoming an underutilized, not-working-to-my-potential, verging-dangerously-on-redundant housewife/homemaker/SAHM** …
This has just now occurred to me: what if my 11-year-old-son simply picks up the slack and eats his siblings’ cookies as well as his own? He won’t mind, will he?
/ PUT DOWN THE SPATULA AND STEP AWAY FROM THE OVEN, MA’AM! YOUR COOKIE BAKING DAYS ARE OVER! /
Okay. Deep calming breath. Let’s not overreact. My cookie baking days aren’t actually OVER. But I do have to face the fact that they are numbered.
Serendipitously, just when I was quietly weeping mulling all of this over, I happened across this book in the library:
Now, I’ve mentioned before that although I don’t have a heckuva lot of patience for self-help books, I do have a weakness for books that deal with “stuff”. However, SHED, I’ve since learned, is not just about getting rid of your excess stuff; SHED is Morgenstern’s acronym for Separate the treasures, Heave the trash, Embrace your identity, Drive yourself forward. And as much as I hate to admit it (see first sentence above), it’s a book that makes quite a lot of sense. You see, when Morgenstern talks about treasures and trash, she’s not just talking about physical objects and how they can affect a person’s psyche; she’s also talking about time and habits. She advises her feeling-rather-stuck-ish readers to examine their endeavours, their pastimes, their hobbies, and their habits, and encourages them to tease out those which equate to time well spent, and those which are inadvertently damaging or derailing goals and dreams.
Time, and how best to spend it, has been a concept I’ve thought deeply about my entire life, ever since I was a child. And it was the very concept of “time well-spent” that led to me tossing my sewing aside this summer.
You see, I wasn’t just working on something from a pattern, something with “fresh” material, something that I absolutely knewknewknew would turn out well. No. I was trying to upcycle a shrunken t-shirt into a wearable top. And it just wasn’t working, no matter what I tried. But I had to keep going. You see, I had The True Cost documentary on my brain; I was thinking about the mountains and mountains of cast-off clothing that gets sent to developing nations; I was thinking about the fact that not only is it an environmental nightmare, but that it’s also putting local tailors and seamstresses out of work; I was thinking that I don’t want to contribute to that and so I MUST take responsibility for the things that are in my closet.
Now I know I said in my last post that I LOVE making things … but here’s the problem:
I love doing other things too. And if I have to rescue every bit of clothing I’ve ever bought, I will NEVER be done. And if I’ve put the weight of the world on my shoulders and feel a personal responsibility to fix this problem — and the myriad of other problems currently facing the world (for which I’ve watched every damn documentary and TED Talk) — I will be overwhelmed.
I say that like it’s a remote possibility.
The fact is, I AM overwhelmed.
I have fallen into a very dark and hopeless place, a place constructed of idealism and perfectionism and inhabited by grief and fear, frustration and anger. I’m pretty sure it’s existential depression. And I need to find a way to re-surface, to rekindle hope and positivity.
I’m not entirely sure how to do this.
I know that I need to figure out who I am if I’m not a cookie baker.
I’m hoping writing will help. But if I’m going to “allow” myself time for writing then I need to stop conflating “making things” with “being productive”, and “being productive” with “working hard”, and “working hard” with self-worth.
I’m also hoping — jokes about Sorting Hat quizzes and Myers-Briggs’ tests aside (“who needs self-awareness when there’s work to be done?” said I, in the comments of my last post) — that a little bit of self-awareness will uncover some coping strategies. I’ve been reading a bit about highly sensitive people and have just finished Paula Prober’s Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being Of Gifted Adults and Youth. (Although I would never claim to be gifted, many puzzle pieces do seem to be sliding into place.)
I’m going to keep knitting. (Because making warm and useful things for my children could never be a bad thing.)
I’m going to keep sewing, but only when needed and when I’m certain of success. (I whipped up a last-minute housecoat for my 17-year-old son at the end of the summer, as well as a pencil case. He was very appreciative and at no point along the way did I wonder wtf am I doing this for?)
I’m also going to keep up with my volunteer work at the school library. (We just wrapped up another crap-free book fair; the children were SO excited to see all those books and it made me feel like a superhero.)
And, to get back to Morgenstern’s book, I’m hoping that a good dose of mundane clearing-out and cleaning-up will work wonders: I’ve purged my spilling-out-of-its-designated-box fabric stash. (Because I’ve realized that the weight of all those potential projects and all that fabric that “I must not let go to waste” is not only paralyzing, it’s a never-ending make-work project and life is too short for that.) I’ve also managed to clear out some more baby/toddler/pre-school clothing, which was also spilling-out-of-its-dedicated-box. (Because keeping the amount that I’ve been keeping — for future grandchildren, to use for upcycling, because my kid(s) looked so cute in it I-just-can’t-let-go, because the world will fall apart tomorrow and there will be no sleepers left on the planet — is bordering on crazylady.)
I’m going to leave you with this song by Lord Huron. I’ve had their album Strange Trails on repeat ever since my 17-year-old son went off to school. Unlike my daughter, who played around with the radio dial whenever we went somewhere in the car, my son liked to put on his “own” music, and although I would never be so foolish as to tell him that his pushing-50-year-old mother liked his music, she/I really did. This is my favourite on the album, and although its lyrics are perhaps a bit dark, it’s also making me feel less alone somehow.
*I bake more than just cookies. I also do more than just bake. The cookies are both literal and metaphorical.
**Housewife/homemaker/SAHM … I loathe the first term, and very-nearly loathe the last. If I were forced to pick one, I’d choose homemaker.
***There isn’t a place in the post with three asterisks. I just want to apologize for this slog of a dark and depressing post. And to thank you if you’ve read all the way through. I’ll do my best to be cheerier next time.
I am — once again — reading the Harry Potter series aloud to my youngest son.
This is his second read-aloud, and although I’m thinking this must be my fourth complete-series read-aloud, I may be mistaken; my older son claims I did not actually read the entire series aloud to him. Said older son is, in fact, extremely irritated with the fact that I am STILL reading books aloud to his 11 year-old brother: WHY are you reading to him?! He can read on his own! He’s like TWENTY!
Um … because my 11 year-old asked? Because I LOVE Harry Potter and am more than happy to re-visit the story?
I think the thing I love most about Harry Potter is the richness of the story. I’m one of those easily fascinated people, someone who positively craves details, and — curmudgeonly irritation over comma splices aside — Rowling’s vividly imagined and deeply nuanced world absolutely bewitched me 😉 when I first read Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone* years ago, before my kids were old enough for the books. As a knitter, one of the details which utterly charms me is the role knitting plays in the series: Hagrid knitting a large yellow something; Mrs. Weasley presenting knit jumpers* for Christmas; Fred and George fighting off hand-knit mittens; Hermione knitting hats for house-elves; Dumbledore wanting — above all else — thick woollen socks, and confessing a fascination with Muggle knitting patterns.
On the subject of knitting (and coincidentally continuing with the Harry Potter theme), I’m knitting yet another set of Hermione’s Everyday Socks (in what is not quite, but hints at, Gryffindor scarlet).
In January, I had set a goal of one pair of socks per month, and although swimming lessons and soccer practices have afforded me some extra knitting time this summer, and although I continue to slot in knitting whenever I’m able (in between pancake flips, for example) I’m still finding that goal to be a bit too ambitious. I am continually torn: how best to spend my free evening hours, when my youngest has gone to bed. Although I’d like to be reading more (I’m almost halfway through Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca), the fact is, I love making things. I cannot imagine a life in which I am NOT making things.
On the subject of making things, my sewing continues, albeit very slowly now that the kids are out of school. My 17 year-old son has cleared his schoolwork out of the dining room and I’ve moved my sewing machine and serger to the window end of the table and set up the ironing board in front of the window. The light is MUCH better and I love looking out, snatching glimpses of green and growing things as I work at sewing or ironing or mending.
And lastly, I deliberately used the term work in my last sentence, even though the flow would have been better had I just said, “…as I sew or iron or mend.” I’ve just hit a how-the-heck-did-this-happen anniversary: twenty years ago, mid-July 1996, I went on maternity leave from my job as a pharmacist. The very day I started my maternity leave was the day my husband told me he had gotten the position he had been hoping for — the one in another province which would necessitate a move; the one he had assured his pregnant wife he would *never* get — setting in motion a chain of events which resulted in me not returning to my career. Twenty years of stay-at-home-motherhood is a long time to ponder the meaning of work, and — cough*whatasurprise*cough — I have a LOT of thoughts on this subject. I could do a whole (meandering, semantical, over-thinking) post on work … you know, if I were actually brave enough to wade into this quagmire on the internet …
*Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone and sweaters (and a myriad of other changes) in the U.S. editions… The Americanization of these stories so got my detail-loving-goat that — even though we were living in the U.S. at the time — I bought our books on trips back to Canada.
So … as promised in my last post, I’m going to share with you what I’ve been sewing. First though, I’d like to talk about what I’ve learned over the last several weeks:
Sewing seems to have a muscular use-it-or-lose-it quality: I used to be a fairly fearless seamstress. I’d take in, let out, alter necklines — and all without hours of angst —- but my decade-and-a-half hiatus (during which I only sewed Halloween costumes and home decor) has cost me dearly in the confidence department. The mechanics of sewing seem to be the equivalent of riding a bicycle, but the leap-of-faith straying from what the pattern instructs is a whole ‘nuther ball game. (Am I allowed to mix that many metaphors?)
If I’m the sewer, I’m also the designer: Perhaps this is a no-brainer, but I still feel it’s worth pointing out that there are NO pattern police! Who’s to say how a piece is supposed to look? I’ve done a lot of googling these last few months, pulling up countless images of various clothing items. Noticing the endless “anything goes” variation in style has been incredibly freeing.
I need to keep my expectations reasonable: I’m a bit of a perfectionist, which can be problematic in the creativity department. But I’ve been taking a close look at manufactured garments and they’re not perfect either. The fact is, no one but me will ever scrutinize my lines of stitching for evenness. (Well, my seamstress mother might, but she lives clear across the country.) My new mental measuring guide is now the question, Is this better than an Aéropostale t-shirt? (Which is, admittedly, not an extremely high bar; however, this too has been incredibly freeing.)
The internet is a dream-come-true for this particular sewer: The fact that the internet is chockablock with techniques and inspiration is a given; however, there are other ways in which it’s a godsend, especially for those of us who are sartorially-challenged. Part way into this sewing adventure I did something I should have done right at the outset. I googled clothing to suit [insert problematic body parts] … and Oh. My. Gosh. the things I have learned … !
For instance, I now know that raglan or dolman sleeves are a good choice to minimize my broad shoulders. I also learned that boatneck styles will only further emphasize my shoulders, as will horizontal stripes. And, because dark colours recede, if I’m going to be doing colour blocking, I should choose a darker tone for the sleeves than for the body of the shirt.
Shoulders aside, I’ve learned that for my particular body type — small-busted and too slim — I should be wearing dark bottoms paired with lighter or patterned tops. Additionally, I should look for tops which have details around the bust, such as pleats or pockets or gathers. Shirts that are belted or which have an empire waistline are also on my “flattering list”.
What’s really interesting to me is that much of this advice jives with what I have intuitively felt about particular items of clothing in the past. The light-washed denim jeans of the 90s always felt wrong, as have khakis. More recently, one of my special occasion outfits — a light blue top paired with a black skirt — felt “right”, whereas another very similar outfit, but which had the tones in reverse — a black top and sweater with a light grey skirt — felt “wrong”.
And now — finally — onto the clothing I’ve been sewing …
As I discussed previously, last year I tried to sew a couple of blouses, neither of which turned out well. Reflecting that what I wear most often, and really needed, was t-shirts, I decided to turn to knit fabric. I do have a serger, which is ideal for stretchy fabric, but it is entirely possible to sew knits using only a sewing machine, and the internet is full of techniques for doing just this.
I used this pattern:
… and bought several pieces of knit fabric from our city’s ONE fabric store (in other words, I cannot be overly choosey…).
I began with the piece I liked the least, one which had only enough fabric for the body of the shirt, and I cut up an existing t-shirt (one with a stretched-out neckline) for the sleeves. Being a Very Bad Blogger, I didn’t take a photo of this first t-shirt in its initial stage of hmm-Well Crap!-this-is-too-tight-around-the-bust-and-shoulders-and-doesn’t-look-very-good. Nope! Nothing to see here, folks; move along!
Because this was a trial piece, I proceeded with trying to see if I could salvage it by slitting the front partway down the middle and inserting a strip of fabric in order to add some ease in the bust and shoulder areas. I then proceeded to finish the neckline, using a self-bias binding technique (which had been my favourite neckline technique for woven fabrics when I sewed clothing for my kiddos, although I always do mine* in reverse of this tutorial, which I think results in a neater finish).
This is what it looked like at this stage:
I didn’t like how this neckline binding technique worked on the knit fabric, so I removed it and inserted a banded neckline, and then used a double needle, along with my walking foot, to topstitch the seam. This looked much better …
I had hoped, during this process, that I would end up with a top I actually liked. Unfortunately, after all that work, I didn’t. The less-than-expert insertion down the middle was just wonky and weird, and the white sleeves seemed to emphasize my wide shoulders, making me feel self-conscious.
(And here, of course, is where the internet came to the rescue — those white sleeves were, in fact, the equivalent of a neon billboard shouting out, Hey, look at these broad shoulders!)
This exercise did prove to be useful, however. I had figured out the fit of this particular pattern (and I now know that for those of us with wide shoulders a bust measurement isn’t necessarily going to be sufficient to ensure a proper fit when it comes to a raglan sleeve pattern). So, making a mental note to stay away from white sleeves, I sewed these three t-shirts:
I made them in a longer length than the pattern indicated, and I’m quite happy with how they turned out; however, there is one problem with them: except for the navy fabric harvested from my husband’s golf shirt (which was cotton), they’re all either polyester or an unknown “mixed fibre” blend. Ideally I would want cotton t-shirts, but cotton knit seems to be a rare beast at my local fabric store. Knowing I was going to require something cool for the summer (and quite frankly determined that my wardrobe should be more than just all-tees-all-the-time), I decided to re-visit the woven fabric blouse conundrum. I decided that this pattern —
— which I had purchased last year to make this trial shirt —
— was not necessarily a complete dud. I had chosen this pattern partly because raglan sleeves are easy to sew, but I now knew that they should be a good style to complement my square shoulders. Reasoning that the blouse might be flattering if there were some pleats or gathers around the neckline to soften the front, I simply moved the front pattern piece 4 cm away from the folded edge of my fabric, thus adding 8 cm to the width of the front of the shirt. (This 8 cm number was arrived at by pure guesswork.)
The first shirt required quite a lot of experimentation. I played around with pleats at the neckline, but didn’t like how they were looking, so then moved on to trying gathers … happy with that, but deciding that the extra volume through the front was causing the shirt to look slightly maternity-like, and knowing that an empire waist was supposed to be flattering for me, I proceeded to add some gathers part-way between the waist and the bust, covering up and securing my lines of gathered basting with a strip of fabric …
I was very happy with how this turned out, so I made another two tops from the same pattern, although with slight variations.
For top #2, I added ties to the sides which gather the front at the waist in a similar manner to the stitched-in gathers of the first top. I made this one in an even longer tunic length and left slits in the side seams:
And for the third top, I cut the front horizontally at an empire waist height, added gathers to the lower edge of the top part, and then removed the “excess” 8 cm from the bottom piece (by trimming 4 cm from each side). This is also tunic-length, with slits in the side seams.
So … I have to say I have LOVED wearing these tops, which is all fine and dandy … EXCEPT … I now have another problem: I don’t even want to THINK about wearing any of my old and ratty tops … meaning I’m now scrambling to whip up a few more blouses to round out my wardrobe.
I have yet another iteration of this same pattern on the go, and one would think, that by the FOURTH rendition, I would no longer need my seam ripper … but no … I’m not sure what’s going on with this one … maybe it’s the sleeves, maybe I didn’t get the position of the gathering correct, maybe it’s the wild floral pattern … but there’s just something about this top that isn’t yet working …
While I’m mulling over top #4, I’m also trying out something entirely different. This next one is inspired by this top, and I was hoping to use the fabric from this skirt, which has been in my wardrobe for at least 22 years:
I’m thinking that a bit of navy at the top, with the skirt fabric gathered just above the bust might work …
… but indecisiveness is causing me to hesitate: perhaps this isn’t the best use of this fabric (is the pattern too wild for a top?), and perhaps this style isn’t even going to suit me (in which case I will have wasted some perfectly good fabric which I love. Gasp!).
I am, now, in the process of making a trial piece of this style from some scrap fabric, and perhaps once I’ve finished I’ll have a clearer idea of what to do. Any thoughts or suggestions you might have would be most welcome!
*I wasn’t sure how much detail to put into this post … because I’m not a “sewing blog” I felt I should spare you from all of the nitty-gritty intricacies of construction, but if anyone does want clarification on anything I did (or would like to see my technique for self-bias binding), I’ll be glad to share.
Five years ago, during our first summer living in Ontario, my husband said something that sent my mind spinning in a near panic: Marian, this year we’re going to the office Christmas party. No ifs, ands, or buts!
Now, perhaps this has you rolling your eyes and thinking, Panic?Puh-leaze!
Sadly, this is not an exaggeration.
Are you familiar with the saying, You can dress her up, but you can’t take her out? This is (was) me … in spades … except for the unfortunate fact that you couldn’t actually dress me up … because I had nothing to wear … and pessimistically believed I would never EVER be able to find something appropriate, because nothing EVER seems to fit me well …
When I voiced this lowly self-estimation to my husband, he (ever-supportive) vehemently disagreed that the taking-her-out part was a problem; however, he did recognize that the dressing-her-up part posed a bit of a conundrum. Alas, he wasn’t going to let me off the hook. Proverbially donning the pants in the relationship, he informed me that he was going to the Christmas party — with or without me — and that he sincerely hoped that by giving me enough lead time I would be able to find something appropriate to wear.
So, despite the fact that the prospect of a fitting room filled with “evening wear” inspires more dread than a root canal, I put on my big girl pants and went to the mall. And miracle of miracles, I DID manage to find something to wear for that first Christmas party.
Furthermore, reflecting that it felt really, really nice to be (for once in my life!) appropriately dressed, I’ve since made the effort to find other outfits, suitable for other special occasions.
But while I do now feel covered (pun intended) for dressier events, I’ve allowed my everyday wardrobe to sink to dismal levels of shabbiness, with nearly all my casual clothing hovering in some state of shrunken-ness, stretched-outed-ness, holey-ness, or — sigh — complete inappropriateness.
I was going to tell you a long-winded story about how wearing the Green Eggs and Ham t-shirt outside the house caused one of my children to have words with me, but I’ve decided to skirt that and keep it short. Suffice to say a nice little grey cardigan worn overtop didn’t fix the egregious faux pas, nor did the fact that I happened to end up at the library on the day in question.
(The LIBRARY! Surely that would have made it all—
No. Just No.)
Now, if it were only my children’s opinions of my wardrobe that had me worried, I’d perhaps not be writing this post.
The fact is, I (me, myself, completely independently) am tired of looking shabby. And not only that, but I am also tired of being the idealist who rails against the fact that appearances shouldn’t matter, that that’s all superficial trappings and that it’s what’s on the inside, and the inside only, dammit, that counts.
(Appearances SHOULDN’T matter. But I am raising the proverbial white flag and ceding the battle: Society 1: Marian 0)
Mixed up in all this though, is the acknowledgement that clothing possesses powers far beyond what “other people” think. I am just now coming to realize that my lack of effort in the clothing department has been affecting my state of well-being. If I am self-consciously tugging down a shrunken t-shirt, if I am wearing ill-fitting pants, if I look around and perceive that I am the least-well-dressed person in the room, this does nothing but erode my already shaky sense of self-confidence.
I’ve just turned 49. And I’ve set myself a goal: in this, the year before I turn 50, I would like to transform my wardrobe. I don’t need quantity, and I don’t need “perceived quality” (in other words, I don’t need designer labels). The only thing I want is to have a small range of well-fitting and flattering clothing, in a style that will go with my un-dyed and Egads!-it’s-positively-silvery-in-the-sunshine coif, something that fits with and says, I’m very close to 50 and I’m totally okay with that!
So what am I doing to further this goal?
I’m trying to get back to sewing.
You see, dear reader, I used to sew. I used to sew a LOT.
My mother was a seamstress extraordinaire, and although our relationship was such that I didn’t actually allow her to teach me much, I nevertheless grew up marinating in a can-do world of needles and pins and fabric and thread.
When I moved out, I inherited my mother’s old sewing machine, and a few years later, just before our daughter was born, my husband bought a serger for my birthday.
And Oh! how I loved that birthday present! The serger lit a creative fire under me, and I sewed my heart out: clothing for the kids, clothing for me, home decor items, cloth Christmas gift bags, aprons to give away as gifts …
At the time, we were living in Saskatchewan, in a house with a den on the main floor. My sewing machine and serger and ironing board were set up 24/7 and I was the queen of snatched-moment creativity, capitalizing on every spare five minutes I could find. And the thing is, I felt really good about this. Not only was sewing a creative endeavour, but equally important, it was a frugal endeavour: to me, sewing = saving money. As a newly minted SAHM who had been used to bringing in a paycheque, this was my way of contributing to the work of raising a family.
But when we moved to Minnesota in the fall of 1999 all of this suddenly shifted.
Now, there were a number of factors at play: not only had I lost my let’s-close-the-door-on-this-mess sewing room, but fashion was changing. Suddenly, my hitherto-pleasing (and easy-to-sew) 90s-styled tents shirts and dresses felt formless and tent-like huge.
BUT — I also lay part of the blame directly on Target and Kohl’s.
So, I’ve just gotta pause here, because:
Oh. my. word!
For a Canadian who had only ever been to the U.S. once before, there was something positively heady and swoon-worthy about this new-to-me over-the-top American* abundance on display in Kohl’s and Target!
But … there was also, I soon discovered, something very disheartening about it all: if I could buy a $5 Merona shirt then why the heck should I bother sewing it? For a seamstress whose love of sewing hinged on both creativity AND frugality, this nulling-and-voiding of one of the addends zeroed the entire equation. (Um, yes, mathematically speaking, adding a zero does not result in a sum of zero. This is purely metaphorical math I’m employing.)
And thus, just like that, I became a consumer of cheap fashion, and for the past 16 years my closet has more-or-less been a revolving door (albeit a very slow moving, somewhat minimalistic one) of buy, give to Goodwill, buy, give to Goodwill, buy, give to Goodwill, with my satisfaction in my wardrobe ebbing and flowing with the fickleness of fit and hemlines.
Now, I had tried, last spring, to get myself out of this rut by sewing this:
And using a remnant to “try out” this pattern:
Unfortunately, neither top worked out very well. The first one was based on the blue special occasion top I had bought, and although I measured carefully and adjusted the Halloween pattern, my creation elicited comments of that looks like maternity wear from my two teenagers. As for the second top, it was so unflattering as to make the real thing not even worth trying.
So I gave up, and once again put my sewing machine and serger away. I’d occasionally wander into Winners (TJ Maxx) to see if they had anything in the way of casual clothing that worked. (Nope.) And I even, once, wandered into a small independent clothing store which I had heard advertised on the radio. I was the only customer in the store that morning and the owner was a very chatty woman who told me at length about her lines of Canadian-designed, responsibly-manufactured clothing … but as she left me to ponder hangers arrayed with a selection of that-won’t-suit-me, it’s-lovely-but-where-would-I-wear-it, that’s-too-expensive I literally began to sweat under the pressure of taking something off the rack and going to a fitting room in order to try it on. And when someone else mercifully came into the store I slipped out the door with a breezy, Thanks, I’ll be back!
I lied, dear reader; I haven’t been back.
And then, a couple of months ago, I watched The True Cost, a documentary about the societal and environmental problems of the “fast fashion” industry. A review of the documentary would be an entire post in-and-of itself, and because I know Rita has a post brewing about this issue I’m not going to dwell on the movie itself.
And besides — apart from the environmental impact of clothing (which, my goodness, WAS an eye-opener) — the fact is that unless you’ve been living under a rock, much of the movie isn’t actually news. It wasn’t to me, and I’m sure it wouldn’t be to you. I’ve known for a very long time that sweat shops were not something I should be supporting with my dollars. I’d heard about the factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013. I’d also heard that Joe Fresh labelled clothing, a brand which makes up at least 75% of my current casual wardrobe, was found in the debris.
So what this movie has been for me then, is a tipping point. If I don’t want to take part in this destructive system, then what are my alternatives?
I could start to scour thrift stores for quality used clothing.
I could attempt to source responsible clothing by returning to that small, independent clothing store, or by checking out one of the handful of others located in our very small city.
I could do my homework and take a weekend shopping junket to Toronto.
It’s absolutely not in me to sift through scads of stuff at Goodwill in order to unearth a treasure.
I don’t possess the self-esteem necessary to shop at a tiny store, one in which the mirrors might be outside the fitting rooms, or one in which a saleslady might make a tactless quip about my figure.
Toronto is too far/too busy/too hoity-toity.
“Responsible” clothing is expensive and unjustifiable for this SAHM who has no office to go to or meetings to attend.
And it’s this last point that has become the clincher: if responsible clothing (unless found at a thrift shop) necessarily translates into more expensive clothing, then once again:
Sewing = creativity + frugality
And that means this seamstress is back in business.
It’s been weeks of trial and error, but I’m absolutely determined to make this work. I’m happy to report that I have learned a tremendous amount, and more importantly, I’m finally starting to see some success. BUT, because I’ve once again been way too long-winded, I’m going to leave the “showing” for my next post.
* I must explain — lest you wonder, But are there no stores in Canada? — that my reaction to Kohl’s was coloured by two things:
Prior to moving to the U.S., I hadn’t been much of a shopper. It is entirely possible that our city in Saskatchewan had a huge variety of fantastic, bursting-at-the-seams-with-stock clothing shops, but because it was my habit to shop for clothing at the fabric store, I simply didn’t know about them.
I had just — a week or so before packing up the house — traipsed through the cavernous, nearly-empty, EVERYTHING-MUST-GO space that was the soon-to-be-closed Eaton’s store in our Saskatchewan city’s downtown core. Eaton’s was one of Canada’s flagship department stores, and it began devolving in the fall of ’99. If you’ve ever had occasion to walk through a closing-down department store, and then shortly afterwards visited a Kohl’s, I’m fairly certain the contrast would astound you as well!
… my ten year-old son and I did a KenKen together at breakfast.
And then, after school, we raided his older brother’s bookshelf and found some new-to-him books — The Dangerous Book for Boys and The Klutz Encyclopedia of Immaturity (volumes I and II; we seemingly really wanted to encourage immaturity in our older son) — which he pored over all afternoon, alternately rapt and giggling.
So, of course — needless to say — the i-Pad didn’t actually wander off to die.
I had hidden the damn thing.
And the reason I had hidden the damn thing was because I had decided, early that morning this past fall, that I had simply had enough.
Enough of time limits on devices which were constantly being stretched; enough of me nagging him over and over and over again to get off; enough of me wondering how the heck we had progressed from him being allowed to watch amazingly cool and creative videos on MinuteEarth or MinutePhysics or CGP Grey to him being immersed in — addicted to! — the utterly inane world inhabited by Minecraft YouTubers.
And perhaps, had I not been in such a foul and fragile mood that day, I would have simply ‘fessed up. I would have been, you know, an adult and told him I had taken it away. I would have told him that he was spending too much time on it, and that that time was pre-empting other more important things, things like reading books, or perusing Popular Science or National Geographic or Muse, or playing with Lego, or just plain conversing with me as I stood there in the kitchen making his lunch while he ate his breakfast.
But because it was last fall and I was neck-deep in an existentialistic grinchy funk and my husband was away yet again, for the whole freaking week, I took the easy way out.
I lied played dumb.
So when he asked, that morning, Hey, Mom, do you know where the i-Pad went? I simply said, Huh! Is it not on the couch? Well, then I dunno…
Remarkably, it took three days (three days of a wholehearted effort on my part to distract distract distract) before the truth came out.
We were walking home from school when he floated yet another query of Where the heck could that i-Pad have gone?!
Sighing internally, knowing I was going to have to tell him sooner or later that I had imperiously made up some new rules (no technology Monday through Friday afternoon), but suddenly inspired (and truth-be-told, desperately wanting to inject some humour into what I suspected would shortly be an angry situation), I said, “Hey, you know how old our i-Pad is, right?”
(Very, in case you’re wondering; he rattled off something about generation two.)
“And you know how it hasn’t been working properly recently?”
(He agreed. It was a very annoying i-Pad as of late; even I had noticed that.)
“And you know what some animals do when they get old and sick?”
(I didn’t give him time to answer, reflecting as soon as the words left my lips that it was his brother who had been animal-crazy, not him.)
“They wander off to die!” I announced.
(So, yes, I’ve since looked this up. Um, that’s right: specifically for this post. (Yes, I may be a bit of a nerd). And it turns out this wandering off to die thing may actually be a myth.)
My son looked at me funny and said, “The i-Pad did not wander off to die, Mom!”
(At this point — no word of a lie — I had a sudden vision of my son, as an adult, pushing his frail and elderly mother out onto an ice floe. And it occurred to me that I would perhaps one day sorely regret ever putting this nugget of an idea into his head.)
And then the jig was up.
“You took it, didn’t you?” he suddenly accused. “Where did you hide it?”
Ah … I tell ya, hardly a day goes by that I don’t feel slightly sorry for my kids, saddled as they are with me for a mother …
Because my son didn’t have a hope-in-hell of arguing me down from my position.
In the first place, I am, and always have been, a bit of a Luddite. When I was in university, I typed my term papers and essays on a manual typewriter, despite the fact that there was not only a perfectly good electric typewriter in the house, but also one of those early you-know-you’re-a-nerdy-geek-if-you-actually-have-one computers (complete with word processing capabilities and a dot matrix printer!), sitting there, waiting for use, in my father’s basement study.
Making matters worse for my son is the fact that his Luddite mother has an inherent, nearly supercilious, do-something-constructive-with-your-time!, distrust of video games. An attitude, I admit, that is borne of ignorance and compounded by idealism: I have never — not once — played Pac Man; I don’t get the point of Angry Birds or SimCity (even though I can appreciate the fact that my husband and son get a kick out of playing them together); the fact that tweens play Grand Theft Auto makes me despair for humanity; and I greet claims of superior hand-eye coordination, which are floated as an excuse for all of it, with a shake of the head and a heavy bit of eye-rolling. And while I know for a fact that there are indeed PLENTY of video-game-playing-kids who grow up to lead perfectly normal lives (cue the utterances of So then shut the hell up, mom who doesn’t know anything, yet somehow has a blog), that fact fails to change how I feel about them.
The second battle my ten year-old son faces has to do with his siblings. As you may have noticed, we have a rather wide age gap between our first two children (who are now 19 and 17 years of age) and our youngest, who is a month away from his eleventh birthday. This means we have a bit of a social science experiment going on in our household: because we didn’t buy into the need to get computer games for our older two kids, AND because we were late adopters of home internet service, our older two essentially passed the first decade or so of their lives computer and video game free. Our youngest, on the other hand, cannot remember a time when we didn’t have a computer or the internet.
And here’s the thing: I can tell the difference.
Although it’s not fair to compare children, it hasn’t escaped my notice that our youngest isn’t quite the reader that the older two were, both of whom became voracious readers with little to no prodding on my part. They read all the time — books, magazines, encyclopedias — anything they could get their hands on. And while their young lives weren’t technology-free — they watched plenty of children’s programming on TV — there seems to be something fundamentally different about TV-watching versus gaming, or even TV-watching versus what I’ll term I’m-just-going-to-click-one more-link internet browsing.
This past weekend I was listening to Spark, a program on CBC radio, and they had a really good segment on why your kid can’t turn off a game when you ask, and holy moly hello … this is finally addressing the refrain I hear constantly from friends who have kids the same age as my youngest. We’re all going through the same thing, and yet there still seems to be that myth out there, that subtle parental put-down that says you’re not doing your job as a parent if your child is hooked to a screen.
I ran up against this perception at a meeting last spring with the resource teacher, when upon discussing my youngest and listing off activities he enjoyed, I confessed that he was rather more fond of the i-Pad than I would have liked. Her response was a cut-and-dry, matter-of-fact “Set limits!”, to which I replied, rather testily, “I DO set limits! The problem is that it’s addictive. I can tell my son to get off and he’ll say just a sec. Two minutes later, I will tell him once again to get off and he’ll say just a sec. And on and on it goes, until 20 minutes half an hour 45 minutes later, I am having to physically wrench the device from his hands!”
(Thank goodness there was a younger teacher in the meeting with us. She chimed in at that point and said, “Devices ARE addictive; I’ve even noticed that with my own use.”)
So when I finally did have a proper I’m the adult and you’re the child and here’s what I’ve been observing conversation with my son, he — amazingly — understood my point. And we have managed to keep him technology-free Monday through Friday afternoon ever since. I’m happy to report he’s reading WAY more than he used to. He’s helped me on a few more KenKens. He’s been devouring the Popular Science magazines that we subscribe to. He’s even occasionally been dipping into the encyclopedias, just as his older brother used to do.
I should probably leave this story here, but it seems I’m utterly incapable of leaving out this truth-is-stranger-than-fiction twist at the end, despite the fact that it hints at just a bit of dysfunction in an otherwise strong 25 year-long marriage:
Here’s what happened when Friday rolled around after that first technology-free week, and my technology-loving-Angry Bird-appreciating-I-love-her-but-why-is-my-wife-such-a-Luddite husband came home from his business trip (to a province with a lower sales tax, I have to add (in an ominous foreshadowy sorta way 😉 )):
My husband (henceforth known as “my child’s father”) commiserated with our ten year-old son, who wasted no time in telling him what his mother had done, to which my child’s father replied, “Yes, I heard about that!”. And when my son turned to me and said, “Hey, Mom! It’s Friday evening! Where’s the i-Pad?”, my child’s father said, “No need…” and pulled out a brand new one.
Well, *there’s* a sentence I never thought I’d write…
So, technically my husband is not actually a vegan (he has yet to give up butter or the occasional pizza), and perhaps activist is a bit hyperbolic (although his co-workers might disagree) …
But before I explain what’s happened with my husband, I think a little background is in order:
Our 19 year-old daughter has been a vegetarian — off and on — for about eight years now. She declared her vegetarianism — without preamble, without any hint of a warning — just before her twelfth birthday. We were camping and my husband had just set a barbecued pork chop onto her plate when she suddenly pushed the plate away and said, “I don’t want to eat this; I want to be a vegetarian.”
So, of course — as any parents would do — my husband and I questioned her on it. Isn’t this rather out of the blue? we asked.
But no, apparently not. Apparently, it was something she had been thinking of for quite some time*, and because of that it didn’t even occur to us that it was something we could, or should, be talking her out of.
(I do confess that when, a few short months later, our daughter’s politically- and socially-active social studies teacher showed her class the documentary Food, Inc (much to the chagrin of many parents) and one of her best friends went home and told her parents that she too wanted to become a vegetarian, and her parents simply said, Oh no, you’re NOT! … I felt slightly duped. Did YOU know, I asked my husband, that we could simply have said “No”?!?!)
Has this last paragraph left you with the impression that I was less-than-happy with her supposedly well-thought-out stance?
Yes, I admit to a fair amount of grumbling:
What’s she going to eat when we have chicken?! What about the pasta sauce?! And why am I the one now stuck cooking (cough*heating*cough) TWO meals?!
But, ah … the beauty that occasionally comes with hindsight … ! Looking back on it now, I’m extraordinarily glad that we didn’t talk her out of it, because although our daughter’s position was tempered by a short period during which she acquiesced slightly and ate organic, free-range meat and chicken, her vegetarianism has meant several things to our family:
It forced me to become a better cook (although I confess to a fair amount of *heating* until the year I gave up processed food):
Her stance influenced her younger brother, who also turned vegetarian for a time, and who, to this day, remains very thoughtful about the food he eats.
Our youngest son has — from a very young age — been exposed to (and eats!) a wide variety of foods which he claims his friends’ parents would never dream of setting on the table**.
It further heightened my already-strong interest in reading about nutrition and health, which has resulted in a healthier and more varied diet than we would have had otherwise, and we have all slowly moved along with her to what has become, in the last couple of years, a nearly-completely vegetarian diet.
It has likely halted what we’ve always imagined to be my husband’s genetic “fate”: a predisposition that would lead inexorably towards weight gain and chronic disease.
And this is where we return to my husband and the whole vegan-esque activist thing …
My husband has recently done two things (and by that, I mean he has done them independently; he has not just watched me do them and then listened to my take on things):
He’s read How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease, by Dr. Michael Greger, the medical doctor who runs the website nutritionfacts.org. This is a two-part book which deals with both the scientific evidence which lies behind the top fifteen causes of death in the U.S., as well as the foods*** which have been shown to prevent these diseases. It’s well-written and very accessible; my husband, who has a strong technical background, but is completely unversed in biological matters, has found it to be a fascinating read.
He’s watched the documentary Cowspiracy. This is an eye-opening movie which does two things: firstly, it illustrates the enormous and wide-ranging effects animal agriculture has on the Earth, from deforestation to toxic run-off to dead zones in oceans to methane production to the mis-use of antibiotics to climate change; and secondly, it highlights the failure of environmental organizations to acknowledge the elephant in the room that is agribusiness.
Now, although my husband has compelling personal reasons to be galvanized by what he’s read and watched, it’s struck me that this book and this film provide a powerful wake-up call even to those without those compelling personal reasons; that if ever there were reasons to experiment with Meatless Mondays, to become a weekday vegetarian, or to *gasp* go whole hog (pun intended) and do one’s darnedest to become a vegan, well, these two things in concert would be IT, because the evidence is powerful: what’s good for our health is also good for the planet’s health.
*“…quite some time…” Ha! Our daughter recently confessed that it actually wasn’t something she had thought about prior to that fateful supper; she just figured we would be less likely to talk her out of it if we felt it was a decision she had conscientiously arrived at. What a stinker….
**Does it sound like our ten year-old son is ecstatic about this arrangement? He’s not. If he had his way I would be serving Kraft Dinner (macaroni and cheese) every. single. meal. But hey, we’re not zealots! He had a hot dog just last week when we went to a hockey game.
***Greger’s book promotes a whole food plant-based diet: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and nuts and seeds, with little to no ultra-processed foods.
These are scenes from yesterday morning’s walk. A fresh snowfall, crisp air, and heavy boots to work up a sweat … what a lovely way to start the day .
I’ve never been much of an “exerciser”. My pre-children attempts at exercise were sporadic, at best, and my post-children years have been even more dismal. I’ve watched as others (my husband and my sister-in-law, for example) have consistently managed to find the time for regular exercise, but I’ve always put other obligations (children and home) first, completely discounting and disregarding — disdaining even! — the whole don-your-own-oxygen-mask-first-before-attempting-to-help-others approach to self-care and health.
So after a lifetime of neglect, it shouldn’t really have come as any surprise when, about three years ago, I began feeling distinctly creaky in the hip area.
Slightly panicked and knowing I had to finally do something, but reluctant to be spending an hour in the basement on the treadmill, I decided to try going for a long walk after dropping our youngest off at school in the morning. But while I managed some mornings, it was still sporadic; I was letting the day and its obligations dictate the exercise, rather than scheduling the day around the walking. I was still letting myself be somewhat of a martyr to my family and my home. I was still putting my physical and mental health in the backseat, and it wasn’t until Deborah advised that I should view my walking as a prescription for health that I managed to completely turn my way-of-thinking around.
Our daughter sent us this very funny (and OH, SO TRUE!) video a few days ago, which completely fits with the theme of this post. If you haven’t already seen it, I hope you enjoy it as much as we did (but FYI, there is one partially beeped out f-word):