On Having a Body

My mother starved to death.

It was the side effect of a spreading abdominal cancer that closed her digestive tract, but, still, she starved to death.

Her 60th birthday would have been two days ago.

When she was diagnosed with cancer, she weighed about 230 pounds. For years I had listened to people say negative things about her body to her and I had listened to her say negative things about her own self.

She was beautiful. Everyone thinks their mother is beautiful, but mine really was. And she was strong.

She lost weight steadily throughout her treatments. Chemotherapy never made her violently sick, but she lived mostly on fruit and salads for her last two years.

The same people who had criticized her for gaining weight now praised her for losing it. Her doctors told her she “looked great,” even having seen the not-great scans of her abdomen. I was so incredibly angry. People were praising my mother for how wonderful she looked because she was dying.

Even she was happy about it, for a while–she called her weight loss the “silver lining” of her cancer diagnosis.

And then she kept drifting, smaller and smaller. 160 pounds made her happy, 140 terrified her and concerned her medical team. And then it was 130, and then it was less.

The last time she stepped on the scale, it registered 100 pounds, and I lied to her that it didn’t take.

After I came home from being her caretaker for that last six weeks, I casually stepped on my own scale, and it congratulated me for “my lowest weight ever.” I came very close to having a panic attack.

As a feminist, and as someone who has very little patience with what other people “expect” of me, (and, to be honest, as someone who is the kind of below-average weight that most people assume is average) I was never much for negative body talk, but these days it is an exposed nerve.

I try my best to opt out of diet talk and body talk whenever I can. I even find myself drifting toward the kind of clothes that de-emphasize the body, away from my ever-present “tailored basics” style. (This look of Elizabeth Suzann’s, for instance, or this one from State.) Not that women are ever allowed the kind of invisible body that men are, but I am not interested in clothes that I have to fill, or not-fill,  in exactly the right way.

But I know so well that opting out and de-emphasizing isn’t enough. If my mother had been able to see her 230 pound body as something other than an encumbrance, would she have sought medical treatment sooner? At a “medically approved” size, would she have been given adequate care earlier?

The war with the aesthetics of our flesh has, as its very real casualties, our physical, emotional, and spiritual health. I don’t want to step out of that war only on my own behalf–I want to bring everyone along.

 

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A Finished Sewing Project

sewingMy grandmother’s idea of getting Easter dresses for her three little girls was to take them downtown, have them try on the dresses, make a lot of notes, and then go home and copy them.

My mother sewed very well herself, but she did it strictly pragmatically. I remember a long string of chambray work shirts for my father, with pearl snaps and elaborate top-stitching. She sewed the dress I wore to the Junior Prom. She refused to pay for baby pants until she couldn’t sit at her machine anymore. They were $2.50 even at the thrift store, and she could beat that if she caught a deal on the fabric.

My grandmother taught us all to cross stitch and embroider and crochet, but I think she didn’t trust us with her precious machine. My mother didn’t have the patience to teach anyone else. So, eventually, just as sewing was making a “comeback” as a hobby, I learned from a stranger at a craft studio in Austin (long closed). I knew how, partly by osmosis, partly by being “allowed” to do the easy bits, but no one had ever “taught” me anything.

I find it frustrating, now, because my mind has such very real memories of how things work, but my hands do not.

Which brings me to my list of sewing issues:

  1. What the heck am I supposed to do with all these bits of thread? I cannot handle messes, and everything in a four foot radius of my machine is covered in tiny thread bits.
  2. Similarly, ironing. Is there some kind of ironing wizardry that I am not in on, or do you really spend this much time on it? I feel like sewing is an excuse to practice my new hobby, ironing.
  3. I know that textile waste is real, but please give me permission to throw away all these fabric scraps.
  4. Bias binding. Seriously? I remember now that my mother refused to buy patterns if they called for more than a certain amount, and I see why.
  5. Is there some quick and easy answer to why my fabric drifts gently to the left and makes my seams crooked, or do I just need to pay more attention?
  6. The posture police are going to come after me. I am a short person, and I still feel like I am constantly hunched to see my needle. What am I doing wrong?

 

Craft/Luxury/Privilege

Making clothing by hand is indulgent: it’s all about taking time for yourself, learning new skills, and wearing the results proudly. By allowing ourselves this luxury, we knit more vividly and live more fully, embracing and discovering who we are in each stitch along the way–Hannah Thiessen, Slow Knitting

The conversation about craft as “indulgence” makes me really uncomfortable. Can I say that?

When I dusted the blog back off, it was to write about, among other things, how happy I was to see a new nexus of topics taking off, including quality of materials, fair trade, sustainability, and the deeper values of hand-made. I am absolutely on-board with these things.

When I wrote about mending, I mentioned that it has fallen out of favor because it is no longer economically efficient. I concluded there that the conversation about economic efficiency is (to most people who would be reading this blog) the wrong conversation to have. I don’t care that mending takes more of my hours than it would take of my working hours to re-buy the garment, because I am making a choice about how I interact with retail fashion.

The conversation that we having much less often, though, is how this is privilege.

Let’s be clear: Slow fashion is privilege. Mending is privilege. Knitting is privilege. And that is before you add the actual dollar cost of buying our beloved premium materials.

Leisure time is the ultimate privilege.

It’s easy to dismiss the ever-popular “I’d love to [insert hobby] but I just don’t have the time” as an excuse, and, to be fair, it often is. The average American 35-50 watches over 33 hours of TV in a week.

Many people who are consuming fast fashion have the means to do otherwise. Many people who throw away a shirt when it loses a button have the means to do otherwise. But the reality of 21st century economics is that many other people do not. Americans work more hours, for lower real wages, for more of our lives, than we did in the 1960s. More women are single parents. Communities are more dispersed, leaving each family to do a higher percentage of parenting without support. Fewer neighborhoods have a place to even buy a button and thread, let alone knitting needles and yarn.

We often write, myself included, as though we are persuading that group of people who could opt out of fast-fashion. Unless we are very careful, though, what we do is most likely to be deeply inconsiderate of people who can’t opt out, and overly precious and congratulatory about our own efforts.

I have the material resources to buy $90 of yarn and a $75 knitting bag, both of which I did this week. I have the resource of time in which to spend four+ hours mending a pair of pants. I can support a marketplace that I think is better, more useful, and more beautiful. I am absolutely in love with those ideas, and I enjoy celebrating them. But that doesn’t make me a better or more engaged person than someone who doesn’t have those means.

I don’t know what the balance is, or needs to be, between these two threads. It can be really awkward to admit privilege out loud, especially since we all occupy different points along that spectrum, but I also know that this community is capable of nuance and complexity.

 

Making Cornbread

Stand in your kitchen, and think of your ancestors. Remember women who went hungry to feed their children. Remember women who kept chickens when it wasn’t cute and had no qualms wringing their necks. Remember women who would have been equally mystified and fascinated by the life you live.

Put a stick of butter on the stove to melt. You have a special pot just for that, which your great-grandmother would have thought was the strangest thing she’d ever heard.

Put your iron skillet on the other eye, over a low flame. It doesn’t have to be the one that your aunts fought over last time someone in the family died. Recently store-bought is okay. Add some oil. A round cake pan is fine, I guess, but skip this step.

Preheat the oven to 375. Or 350. or 425. Something.

Good cornbread is a luxury invention, you know. You can make it with just cornmeal and water, like hungry people do. Everything else is inessential.

My mother learned to make cornbread from a boilermaker whose name was only initials, but I’ve forgotten them. His recipe called for that late 80s product, butter in a squeeze bottle like chocolate syrup. She said “your grandmother didn’t have squeeze butter.” He said “She would have used it if she did.” Fair enough; our grandmothers were pragmatists.

Find cornmeal, flour, salt, baking powder, buttermilk, and an egg.

Every woman I grew up with bought cornmeal mix, flour and cornmeal already blended. If I blend them myself, is that more authentic, or less?

Get the speckled ceramic bowl from the top shelf of your cabinet. The one your mama bought for $0.25 at a garage sale when you moved out, and then wished she had kept for herself.

You didn’t brown the butter, did you? Pay attention. If it’s melted, set it aside to cool.

I have never seen a woman make cornbread with a measuring cup. My mother and my grandmother used a jelly jar. Add two parts of cornmeal to one part of flour. Let’s call one part 3/4 of a cup, remembering our jelly jar.

My other grandmother didn’t make cornbread, she made biscuits, and she didn’t measure a damned thing.

Add a teaspoon and a half of baking powder, and half a teaspoon of salt. Everyone used self-rising flour. I had to find the conversion table. It may be all wrong, but it works out fine in the end.

Add a little more salt, unless you used salted butter.

Mix your dry ingredients. Remember your meditation on authenticity.

Add the egg and the butter. Stir them in the best you can; this will be quite thick.

I called my mother from graduate school and made her give me this recipe over the phone. It was a difficult semester. She forgot to tell me about the egg, until years later. One day I mentioned that my cornbread was too crumbly, and she said, “Are you forgetting the egg?” and I said “what egg?”

Add buttermilk until it looks right. You either know, or you don’t. I’m sorry. Cornmeal is tricky and not every batch absorbs the same. When you put it in the pan it should spread smoothly to the edges without you having to help it. Not enough, and your bread will be dry and crumbly. Too much, and it will stay heavy and doughy.

Your iron skillet will be hot–don’t touch it while you pour the batter in. You want a nice quiet sizzle.

Bake for a while, until it’s done. My mama liked to flip hers out onto a plate, then slide it back into the skillet to brown on the top. Unless you have strong wrists and 100% confidence in your moisture content and the non-stick nature of well-seasoned iron, don’t try it.

Thank your ancestors for your cast iron and your cornmeal, your oven and your wrists.

 

 

 

 

Mending

Mending allows us to have a more nuanced relationship with capitalism.Mending

Our old clothes are a blight upon the earth, to overstate only slightly. Our new clothes are, too.

We can intervene in that cycle of consumption on both sides. We can buy new clothes less often and more thoughtfully. We can also keep our existing clothes in use, instead of in landfills/charity shops/third world countries.

Mending is a tricky conversation, though. First, many “fast fashion” clothes aren’t well-enough made to mend. You can’t always fix garments that become misshapen in the wash. Cheap fabrics disintegrate with their seams and buttons intact. Trendy clothes become desperately out of style.

More fundamentally than that, mending is a skill that we simply don’t have anymore. Fabric used to be valuable, and now it is cheap. Saving it at any cost no longer makes basic economic sense. Imagine yourself being paid the hourly rate for your job, times however long it takes you to mend an item, and you very quickly outpace the cost of the item. Once a skill becomes monetarily illogical, it tends to fall from the cultural Mendingrepertoire quite quickly. No one learns in American public schools how to sew or darn, even though these were basic curriculum for women, and in some cultures men, well into the 1970s.

Of course, many things that are “illogical” when considered merely as a dollar value have, in fact, tremendous real value of other kinds. There has been an intense re-evaluation of many kinds of handiwork, from knitting to farming, in the last 15 years, and our culture and lives are better for it. Still, for every one of those skills, we have needed to take them up one by one and relearn them.

I hope mending’s turn is upon us.

Resolute

Christmas 2017The day after Christmas, I retreated to the woods.

Further into the woods, that is. I’d already left my wi-fi, my cellphone reception, and anything explicitly resembling Christmas.

It was terrible weather for a vacation: unusually cold, with a heavy gray mist just above the ground. I took one bike ride, but finished six books in six days. That kind of weather.

The park ranger, either from habit or because she hadn’t left the ranger station all day, recommended a hike to the park’s highest point. “It’s the best view in town,” she said. I knew there was no way it could amount to much in the fog, but I needed to think and to stretch my legs, no matter the outcome.

The path was a treacherous mix of wet, slick, granite and loose chunks of limestone. I’d planned a biking vacation, not a hiking trip, so I was left to pick my way carefully in my summer canvas shoes.

Christmas 2017

This was the “spectacular” view that waited for me at the top; the reward for a quite brisk mile uphill.

As I very gently navigated my way back down the hill, I found myself thinking of a phrase Joan Halifax uses: the path is the temple.

I didn’t have the luxury of ignoring the walk and focusing on the view. The view had all-but disappeared, and a moment’s inattention to the ground would have splayed me flat. Instead, I was compelled to be exactly and totally in the present moment, and the present moment was a profound place to be.

Christmas 2017

2018 is beginning in a very uncertain place. Too much is up in the air for me to make plans and draw maps. Instead, I will be focusing on this little place, this bit of the path right before my feet.

The path is the temple.

Distraction from Distractions

In Madness, Rack, and Honey, Mary Ruefle writes that “distraction is distracting us from distraction.” That is, unproductive and perhaps even harmful “distractions” are keeping us from the necessary poetic work of being bored, of having time to look around. Tellingly, the lecture with this quote appears to date from the 1990s, when that most insidious enabler of distractions, the smart phone, had yet to enter every American pocket.

I was reminded of Manoush Zomorodi’s book, and, before that, podcast series, Bored and Brilliant, whose central premise is that our minds need downtime in order to forge connections. Without boredom, brilliance is harder, too. This is why we come up with great ideas in the shower or as we drift off to sleep. The natural breaks in a day that used to allow these gaps are increasingly fillable, and filled, with a never-ending stream of (mostly) inanity. We don’t even wait at red lights without checking our phones.

Arnold Bennett, rather smugly, told his late-Victorian readers to use their commute to meditate on the writings of Marcus Aurelius, rather than giving in to the lure of the newspaper. By 2001, David Allen’s Getting Things Done was suggesting that we use the time to get a head start on our office e-mail.

The difficulty is two-fold. Firstly, in a culture that fetishizes productivity without a clear sense of what that means as a holistic concept, our office jobs are increasingly difficult to corral into office hours. It was suggested by my boss that I link my work e-mail to my personal smart phone, despite the absolute non-urgency of any messages I receive. A high-powered female executive recently told me the story a of getting a call about a difficult accounting problem, while she was in the labor and delivery ward giving birth. Books and blogs now sometimes recommend not trying to answer every e-mail as soon as it comes in, as though this is is a secret and controversial wisdom.

The social is following suit. If having “nothing to do” is something of a sin (see, above, fetishization of productivity), having no place to talk about it, or, heaven forbid, no “likes”, is even worse. Facebook thrives on comments on every birthday and life event, even for casual acquaintances. Text messaging allows asynchronous and amorphous conversations that have neither beginning nor end.

The other expectation is perhaps more pernicious. That is, we expect, and desire, the jolt of connection that comes from social media, or even the illusion of importance that comes from “needing” to answer work e-mail at home. And, especially for social media, software and website developers are quick to exploit that need. Facebook, for an easy example, quite rapidly dispensed with the chronological news feed. You can no longer ever be sure that scrolling just a bit further won’t reveal something “important” that you almost missed. Just when you are, an automatic refresh scrambles everything again.

Being aware of the situation does not offer an apparent solution. Our most meaningful social interactions have been displaced onto electronic entities that want us to want them. It isn’t a healthy human behavior to opt out of meaningful social interaction, but it is increasingly harder to find that in an offline setting. In the sense of being in charge of our own time, of allowing space in our lives to think, instead of allowing a digital environment to curate our thinking on our behalf, a firm “no, thanks” makes the most sense. But part of the reason social media is so pervasive is that it is, truly, a medium that integrates perfectly with our geographically disparate modern condition.

That is, it is a site for both very real meaning and very disruptive non-meaning. What do borders around that look like, and how can we draw them?