To Know

Christmas 2017I want to know the value of thinking very carefully in a world that does not value thought.

I want to know the impact that an individual can have on a system that denies the individual right to exist.

I want to know if opening my own heart is good enough, when everything is so difficult for so many.

I want to know the exact price of change, so that we can gather together to pay it.

 

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What Is the Value of Individual Effort?

A friend of mine sent me this article yesterday, and it bothered me.

The gist of this article, and dozens of others like it on almost any topic, is that individual effort in environmental causes is misplaced. It doesn’t matter if we are careful shoppers, when most waste is created by industries. The money and intellectual energy we spend picking out the best XYZ for the environment would better be spent lobbying congress. The money we spend on greener household gadgets should be spent on charity. And so on.

I’m always a bit alarmed by articles like this, because individual praxis is what we have to hold on to. Lobbying Congress for better chemical standards or cleaner power is very, very abstract stuff compared to buying recycled toilet paper instead of the other kind. Unless you are a rare kind of person, pure abstraction doesn’t do much to warm your heart at night.

It’s a kind of pragmatism that easily turns in to fatalism. It doesn’t matter what I do, this logic suggests, because Dow Chemical and Exxon do all the real damage, and my ability to affect Dow or Exxon is very small indeed. Maybe that’s true. And, yet, what value to me is that truth?

Is my reusable cup or mended jeans going to change the world? Does it make a “real” difference for there to be one less cup or pair of jeans, out of billions? Maybe, maybe not.

But, it does matter what I do. It matters to me, because it is part of my ethical interaction with the world. If nothing else, it makes me feel better to make my own individual choices well. In this political moment, sometimes an easy win is the thing that keeps you from despair, and I’m thrilled to take it.

That is: one kind action is certainly better than one unkind action, whatever the net outcome for all of humanity is.

The point this article missed making, in favor of being self-aggrandizing and “provoking” is that we need to, in fact, live in a world where we do, with softness and compassion toward ourselves, both the large things and the small ones. Calling my senator (again, to leave one more voicemail) feels like a waste of my energy; skipping a plastic bag does not. The long scope of history will say which is right. In the meantime, I still do them both, as much as I can, because doing them both is the best thing to do.

 

 

Realizing

Brains are funny; you have to pay attention.

I’ve developed a set of less-shopping coping mechanisms over the years, and as I’ve gotten older I care less and less what anyone thinks of my clothes.

My wardrobe lives in two really distinct planes. I have a job that is about half a step away from requiring a business suit. (I buy most of my work clothes second hand.) The other is getting quirky these days, by local standards, although it’s pretty typical among my sustainable fashion folks: political themed T-shirts, State the Label Smocks, hand knit sweaters, tunic dresses, flat shoes, layers of things.

And then I got invited along on a business trip of my husband’s, and I was in a wardrobe panic. An actual panic. I almost bought things, just so that I would have “something to wear.”

My work clothes are Too Much, you see, and my weekend clothes are an entirely different Too Much.

Fortunately I snapped out of it before I went on some weird buying spree. (I did pick up a very justifiable new pair of shoes.)

I do not have to perform as the site of conspicuous consumption to impress my husband’s work peers.

It’s absolutely astonishing how fully we’ve inhabited those things, and how deeply they attach to our subconscious identities, no matter how fully we think we have evolved past them.

Outsourced

I listened this week to a lovely talk by the lovely, smart Rebecca Solnit. Rebecca Solnit loves maps, and as part of her talk she mentioned that we have outsourced our knowledge of our surroundings to our smart phones. People who do what Google Maps and Siri tell them to don’t learn to navigate, but people who look at paper maps do. By looking at maps, we become, she says, our own maps. By following a GPS, we merely learn to follow a GPS.

Christmas 2017

Tonight I went to a meditation class, where the Abbott mentioned Thich Nhat Hanh’s well known anecdote of washing dishes, the point of which is that our most mundane tasks are also some of our most profound vehicles for active meditation. That is, the mundane task allows us to both let our minds drift and to draw it back to the task at hand. Except, we’ve also outsourced most of those tasks, to machine or human domestic help, and when we can’t outsource them we do our best to distract ourselves from them.

What are we giving away, blindly, because it is inconvenient or time-consuming?

 

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.

 

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.