In the mammoth auditorium–
chairs lined up in new territory–
we waited, restless,
infused with anticipation for
a long awaited event to unfold.
I sat alone, self firm with who I was and where.
Then the room spun, time accordioned,
chairs pulled about by tides as if on
a silvery ship into a sky-bound sea.
It was not expected nor desired
but what the moment offered, I well accepted.
Are we taking off I shouted to the captain
who looked like a musician or a man who knew God.
But others were not pleased; the vessel shook, skidded.
And then your beautiful head and vaporous body
glided toward the flowering horizon.
I fumbled toward you, touched your shoulder.
Are you getting off now I asked
You half turned, a fleeting smile, nodded,
were gone, never intending to wait for me.
I know you oh yes, good sister.
You came to check on this world’s conundrums,
the family’s status, to greet my soul,
warn perhaps but all that commotion did not
spoil your peace worn like a crown,
a sign, a promise of eternal life
you assured me would happen.
Your presence lingers, indelible
despite vagrant wants and needs,
a bold light firing up dim shards.
You let me find you in that milieu
then returned to a celestial beyond
until it is my turn to come, be done.
And that second of beauty reminds me:
may love lead and follow as I yet go on.
(for Marinell– and Roland; you know I know about angels)
Something is going to happen; I feel it. I can tell that even from the kitchen where I’m held hostage by Father and the crew. I want to know what it will be, the surprise, and keep taking a look. I stand on tiptoe to peer out a small foggy window in the swinging doors but can barely see. He nabs me now, says never mind, keep your nose out of other people’s business, we have many things to do in here. As if I can do much. I do know how to just stack up and put dishes in the dishwasher, he says, and carry things. That’s true. I’ve been doing it ever since I could walk, the carrying part, even if just a wooden spoon or egg beater. That’s the restaurant business, he says, cook, carry, wash, repeat. I don’t cook yet. I’m only eleven and you have to be over eighteen to be trusted with beef fillet and trout and new potatoes and french green beans. And certainly desserts. As if these are rare and fantastic things. The last, okay, yes.
I’d rather be out there. In the dining room where the band is playing, people eating and talking all at once. It’s not the usual crowd. It’s my sister’s graduation party. Father closed the restaurant to all outsiders for the night. He says, No one can get in except for showing their invitations, not tonight and he told Mother to stand guard at the reception area by the sign in and seating book we usually keep. This time it’s a special one for Heidi, my big sister. I don’t know why it’s all that important even is she is leaving high school. Don’t we want paying guests, too? We’re in this by ourselves, paying for flowers and special lights, not just food but music, too. You’d think she was being crowned Queen of Something Remarkable. Mother purses her lips at me when I bring any of this up and shakes her head as if I am asking too many questions again.
But it’s not like we’re super rich or she’s a debutante, exactly. You can’t be a debutante in Millside, PA. I know, I read the New York Times that Father gets first thing every morning. I wait until he’s done on the week-end to snatch the good parts he ignores. Like sometimes the society page because I am nosy, Father is correct, but also gardening and crossword pages.
“What do you know, anyway, this is as good as any New York ‘Deb Ball’,” Heidi said last week, laughing at me. “But you’re just my kid sister, you have no real rights yet and little understanding of the important things. Go play with dolls a couple more years, Lissa.”
Which gets me, as she knows. I don’t play with dolls anymore but she doesn’t care, she’s so busy with “important things.” I play chess when Father has time, and I play piano when I can’t get out of it. I take dance classes, of course; who doesn’t around here? It’s okay, so far, especially the tap dancing part. I swim a lot at the river in summer; that’s soon coming up. But mostly I read, take care of Duke our black standard poodle, go to school and study and help when I have to at our restaurant, Hearth and Vine.
Like tonight. I carry a huge chilled glass bowl of fruit compote to Fritz, the head waiter, then quite a few empty water pitchers to Ann, my second cousin who works here for special events, and then I slip out, supposedly to check on the state of the white linens on two small buffet tables.
I see them again. Heidi and Rodney. He’s squeezing her awful tight and she giggles, her head back but then he steals a kiss on her neck and she pulls her chin down and looks to the side. She doesn’t see me. They’ve been going together for about eight months now. That’s just about how long she hasn’t much talked to me unless I distract her with a pinch on her forearm or a really smart question she wants to answer. I could get to know more about Rodney but the main thing is that he is an ace swimmer and he knows a lot about cards. And card tricks. He can entertain us for quite a while when he comes over. Then Heidi starts to tap her foot against the coffee table and Father says a lot of Hmmm and I need a smoke and then I almost gotthat one and then Rodney turns his attention to Mother but she just faintly smiles and shrugs and goes on with embroidery work and from time to time glancing at a gardening book open on a side table.
What the parents want to know is what is he going to do with his life? Besides go to Penn State and study political science. Is hegoing to make a decent living, I hear Father say to Heidi, as if she could even know. She’s not thinking about anyone making a living, she’s thinking about what dresses she’s going to design and sew before summer is gone. Heidi has a heap of fabric and scraps. She ought to make me a quilt out of but likely never will get to it. Shes got the touch with the Singer.
The one thing she did tell me around the time Rodney popped into sight was she doesn’t really want to teach English to “snotty nosed kids who just pick on each other and swap silly notes” even if she is going to have to get a practical teaching degree at Penn State.
“I wish I could start my own house of fashion,” she said, staring out her bedroom window at three colorful rugs airing on the clothes line.
“Are you kidding? Who’d buy those odd, sometimes boring dresses except people in Millside–because they know you and want to be nice?”
She fell silent for quite a while and I realized I shouldn’t have made fun of her. She was my annoying big sister and I didn’t think her dresses were awful, just not what I might wear, and she can be stuck up and has it out for me most of the time but this doesn’t mean she has no feelings.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled.
“If you had a dream, you’d get what I mean–but you’re too young to know very much. But the true fact is, I so want to be a designer!”
The force of her words got to me. “I do so have a dream. I want to be chess champion of the fifth and sixth graders this summer at camp.” I fiddled with a pencil I’d been using for homework and it tapped the paper a few times, hard.
“Stop, you’re such a nuisance! And you will be, I suspect.”
“Anyway, I think you should design your fashions if that’s what you really, honestly, truly want.”
She lay back on my bed beside me and looked over. “You think so? You think I’m good enough to do that?”
“Sure you are.” I rubbed out the math answer I’d put down without thinking and out a new one down. “Anyone can see that. I just like to bug you.”
“Rodney can’t see it.”
“Well, Rodney’s a dimwit sometimes. Why do you listen to him?”
She stretched her arms above her head of thick, fluffy blonde hair. “Because. He’s my boyfriend, I guess.”
“Uh, not a good reason.” I started on the next monotonous math problem. “These are boring.”
“That’s your favorite word.”
She laughed and ruffled my just cropped red hair. It felt comforting, good, but I didn’t say anything. She sat up straight, then pushed herself off.
“You might be right, Lissa. I’ll think on it.”
“A first! One point, my side.”
I eyed her as she left my room, her deep green skirt following her like swaying summer grass with feet. It surprised me that she had said that last part, and I wondered how much she did want to do something different, how Rodney felt about it. He seemed to think they were teammates in all things. I thought he was nice enough, a bit tiring except for the card stuff. But it wasn’t any of my business.
So now I slink around and watch the best dancers, peek at my sister and her boyfriend.
“Melissa Sue, back in the kitchen, I need you to help bring out more hard rolls and put them on the tables. Father is on a tear about the Bolognese sauce and the rest of us have to get ready to help serve.”
Mother is wide-eyed and flushed, typical at times like this. She yanks at my sweater sleeve. I pull it back but follow and steal another glance at the dancers. I’d like to join them. Heidi has her eyes closed. Rodney does, too, then opens them and glances at me and waves but I pretend I don’t notice, I don’t know why.
It is getting late. I know this without looking at a clock. I’m tired and so are my parents but they smiled in the kitchen last time I checked. Everyone has eaten the main courses, at last. The waiters–some extra family members, too–have cleared things away, the band is starting up with some quiet pieces. In a little while there will be coffee and our amazing burnt almond torte, nothing like it for toppers.
There are sixty almost-grown-up-kids out there, many moving away from tables to the springy outdoors for fresh air. I slip away from Mother’s reach, pause beside the French doors. The sky has cleared up; stars wink away. Earlier it rained enough that Heidi was up in arms about how no one would be able to enjoy the night on the best part of our scrumptious Hearth and Vine restaurant: the wide terrace that wraps around three sides. I see her and Rodney wedged between three other couples, a laughing circle of fancy dresses and dark suits, the guys patting their stomachs as if proud of something great they’ve done, the girls pulling out little mirrors from clutches to perfect their hair or lipstick. They are all talking a lot.
One girl pulls in her stomach as I walk by, presses her shoulders back so her chest rises up and whispers loudly at me. Poor Leanne, always loud despite her trying not to be.
“Do I look five pounds fatter after your father’s meal? Gads. But it was so good, right? You look considerably prettier in that navy and polka dot dress, by the way.”
“You look… really okay. Yes, the food is always great here.” I grin at her, then hurry past.
“Oh, there’s Lissa.” My sister steps out of the circle. “Can you go get my purse? It’s at our table, by the stage.”
She frowns. I hesitate, thinking she might say more but she turns back. Everyone seems gleeful, chattering, laughing, looking out over the half-acre of lawn that was freshly mowed this morning. I think the flowers on the terrace are especially good and pat a bunch of white and yellow daisies in a big blue pot as I pass. Every now and then I think about what I would like to do different here. I enjoy cooking but what I like more is this old stately building and lawn. I guess I can’t be a Hearth and Vine gardener, that would be strange and silly. Especially for The Future Chess Champion of All Time. But I feel happy I helped pick out new potted flowers and then watered them early this morning.
It was for my sister this time. For Heidi, who’s leaving in three months. And it all looks and feels entirely delicious.
I race in undetected by Mother, who is talking to a real waiter in his tidy white and black uniform. There’s the purse, a blue shiny number with a rhinestone clasp, Heidi told me, but it looks like diamonds. I snatch it and place it under my arm, step toward the terrace.
“What are you up to, dear?”
“Nothing, Mother, taking this to Heidi.”
“Is she still with Rodney?”
I look up at her face, see the faintest lines of worry deepen around her taut mouth.
“Yeah. Of course.”
She nods and sends me off with a little pat on the back. I’m relieved she didn’t say anything about bedtime yet. There are the tortes, mainly, but also some speeches, Father said.
I hand off the purse to Heidi and she tucks it under her armpit, presses her hands together as if she’s a Chinese lady. This time her circle is talking about colleges close and far and who is leaving the state. I notice Rodney has his arm around Heidi and she looks down at his hand on her shoulder as if, well, she might want to flick it off. But won’t, due to excellent manners.
From the long stone balustrade, I can see the piercing stars above and clumps of teenagers who already act like they’re closer to my parents’ age than mine, and also the innards of the restaurant. It makes a good number of pictures when I frame them with my hands, ones I’d like to keep awhile. The music ripples outward with swift notes and the crowd starts to dance even on the terrace, some cheek to cheek, lips whispering things special and secret. I wonder what it’s like to be held that close and the thought makes me squirm. I notice Rodney is trying to kiss my sister again.
Once Heidi taught me how to dance a waltz to a scratchy record Father has; we broke down giggling often but I caught on. Then we swooped about, the easy-to-follow rhythm and silky classical notes making us glide about as if we were ladies-in-training from another time and place. Then I started to tap dance like a maniac and that got her going, too, so we tapped our way onto the porch and then down the sidewalk to the drugstore on Tenth and Hale. Just for the heck of it. Because it was summer and we liked it and why not? Old man Jenkins clapped for us; he was smoking his pipe as he whiled away the afternoon on a bench under the store’s white and blue striped awning. Everything was shining. It’s one of the best memories I have so far.
Suddenly the music stops. There’s an announcement over the microphone for all to come inside. I can see waiters and even Mother serving the torte and getting ready to pour steaming coffee from silver carafes but I don’t want to go in. I notice Heidi smooth the waist of her slim grey-blue dress with its unusual cuffs and collar–it’s unlike other girls’ attire but several have complimented her. She pushes her wavy bangs away from her eyes. Turns to study the glowing emerald yard, eyes not even registering me. She opens her purse and takes something small and white out but I’m too far away to make out what it is. She stares hard at it. Rodney has gone on, his arm linked in a buddy’s. Just as I’m about to run up to her, she moves through a terrace doorway and into the darkened room alone as others gather stage front.
Father is saying something about how lovely it is that all could come together for this celebration of one door closing but the next leads to others even better, exciting to enter. He thinks he’s a regular MC, and maybe he does have flare because everyone is rapt as he gestures, smiles and gabs. He invites the graduating class to come on up and say a few words if they want to, nothing formal, just what they think of graduating or where they’re headed now. A half-dozen do and I close my heavy eyelids, lean back in a chair against a wall. I so want my serving of burnt almond torte but maybe it can wait until tomorrow.
“Hi kids, so glad you’re here. I’d like to say a few things, too.”
My eyes pop open. I stand up.
Heidi clears her throat. “First off, Father, this was a wonderful way to close my senior year, thank you! I wasn’t so sure at first, I mean, having my own party in my family’s restaurant seemed…a little tacky! I was thinking a gala affair would be far more ‘gala’ elsewhere.” She laughed and others joined in but some called out It’s perfect, the food is great and Father bowed slightly and walked off the stage. “I’ve been so lucky. I see that now. I have far better than standard parents, that’s for sure. And such loyal friends. And a little sister who is smart, good-hearted and a tad wild–“she points at me but I hang my head low so no one finds me–“just how I like her.”
I am getting scared. This does not sound like my sister Heidi; it’s like another person crept into her skin. She isn’t this straight forward about things and she never praises me, certainly not in public. I want to shrink into a dusty corner. I wonder if she stole some wine or if she’s feeling crazed by all the celebrating and leaving for Penn State before too long.
“Anyway, I thought this was as good a time as any to share something amazing.”
She looks over the crowd, locating Mother and Father who are standing mid-way in the clots of partiers, fully attentive. I look for Rodney and see him to the left of stage steps, one foot on the top step, one foot getting ready to join it.
“I have here–” she shakily opens something up in her hands and it is a creased piece of paper, like typing paper–“I have here a letter. It’s from a place that means a lot to me. It holds information that will change my life. It’s an admission letter. And more.”
Rodney steps forward, strides right up to her. She sees him but ignores him as he puts his arm around her shoulders as if he owns her so it’s his news, too. I feel her stiffen and wonder if others do, too, as they whisper among themselves. Penn State is old news, what’s the fuss here?
But I take a deep breath. Something is going to happen; there should be a drum roll.
“It’s from Pratt Institute. To study art and fashion design in Brooklyn, New York! I am not going to study teaching at Penn State. I have this letter right here that says I’m being awarded a major scholarship from Pratt Institute!”
She holds out the letter to the crowd, proof of a miracle.
Rodney gapes at her, then falls away as if a gust of wind tore him away. Heidi is smiling hugely, for her rose red lips have told a beautiful story. Our parents start forward, hands to mouths. The crowd murmurs. Some mouthy guy shouts, “You can’t do that, don’t be a traitor to Penn!”
So I head toward my sister. She’s standing there, her small face falling, and I am pushing and prying my way though dense globs of kids, trying to get to her before our Father does or Rodney says something bad or stupid or my sister faints from nerves.
“Excuse me, excuse me please!” I plunge on until I get to the stage steps and gallop up to be with Heidi.
She looks down at me with surprise. Then takes my hand. Squeezes it three times for I love you. I stand on my tiptoes to the microphone and shout into it so my voice rings and echoes.
“Hooray for Heidi! She’s going to be a fashion designer! Come on, give my sister a round of applause, ladies and gents!”
For a full five seconds I think no one will do this small, very necessary and kind thing. That my sister will stand there forever frozen, feeling small and let down, embarrassed and sad she ever had the courage to reveal so publicly–her friends and classmates, boyfriend and family–her surprising news. That she will fear she disappoints our parents, too. But I know better. Our parents will be proud of her very soon if they aren’t quite yet. How can they not know her?
Then at last applause amps up, the hoots and hollers and cheers. The re-energized band strikes up a peppy tune. That’s when my parents join us. They take hold of our free hands and lift them up. We stand there together in victory. Look out at our wonderful place with lights and food and friends. When they start to hug her, though, I try to make a getaway.
And then Heidi does it.
“I just want to say here and now that if it wasn’t for my little sister, Melissa, I wouldn’t have even applied. I had this crazy dream but she just told me to go for it. So thank you, Lissa. You’re truly the best.”
I look at her sky-blue eyes filling up and that’s my cue. I can see the tortes sitting like regal sugar-stuffed creations on their white and silver plates and grab the mike and say with a flourish: “Guess what? It’s finally dessert time, a crowning achievement of our fab restaurant!”
Heidi bends down to me and says, “You should do PR work, Lissa.”
I don’t even know what she means, but I can tell it’s another compliment
Another cheer goes up and they chant my name along with Heidi’s. I have to say it’s a stupendous ending to one more successful night at Hearth and Vine. Rodney might not agree. But then, he left before the grand finale. He’ll never know the half of it, poor dope.
I know these who arrive in the night. They are as familiar to me as my own reflection, and yet I cannot identify their features as easily as their intentions and meaning. The are speaking to me in fluid tones, as if we are underwater or flying. This different communication requires heightened interpretation. I sense things, feel things richly, not like fleeting emotions but a deeper knowing. I think vaguely as I watch us all that it is like a telegraph system of glances, pulses of energy, knowledge sent and received in a transparent, efficient manner. Swift passages of understanding flow, heard by dreaming ears.
It is neither day or night here, and we have basic bodies that mean far less than thoughts. But they provide me with a tangible sense of happiness, a buoyancy in this hazy, opalescent place. It is clear I deeply love them and they, me. There is excitement, as though I am being cheered on, as if something wonderful is happening. I realize I am part of this forever even as I awaken from the sweetness of the dream.
There has been a crisis in my family involving a grandchild. I am filled with consternation and sadness as we problem solve. My dream reminds me not only of the strength of love in my daily life but also the love that is given us by our angels, passed relatives and allies, even God Almighty, those who tend our hearts and souls even as we slumber.
I have been in that Otherland we enter when crossing from the country of physical wakefulness into territories of dream life. We exist there for seven or so hours every twenty-four hours if we are fortunate. We sink into REM sleep state and dream. We recall it vividly or partially, or not at all. But life continues to be experienced despite our slumber. We gather information, bring it back and break the surface to wakefulness. Then we let go of dream gleanings or bring them closer for examination. We remember, we forget, but there is a difference made.
I remember. Not everything–how could I even capture all that is left behind once my body reclaims my attention? A dream might nag me yet remain ephemeral, unable to reconfigure fully in this consciousness. An identifiable sensation lingers for hours, days. Yet every night there arrive interesting scenarios, bits of ideas. Dreaming is a potent resource. Questions and answers arise from the journeying there.
It is an ancient idea. Dreaming has been valued throughout our human history and remains more important to some cultures than others. Dreams have been revered as oracular, providing wisdom. They are fables for greater living. They are sorters or filters of the ceaseless input we receive and discharge during all our human endeavors. Scientists study brain waves in an attempt to demystify the how, why and when of the subtle complexity of dreaming. Psychologists analyze, develop a guide of dream symbols; psychics advertise skill in personalized interpretation. We know that without sound sleep that supports dreaming the human mind becomes disordered, even disturbed.
I have always believed in the value of dreams. It was my mother who taught me about them when I was a youth. Each morning she would ask how I slept. Then we would share our respective dreams over breakfast. I found her dreams intense, vivid, full of portents, sometimes fears, beautiful visions and tales of life. Even prayerful answers. Her dreams could foretell alarming events; she never discounted them and was often correct. I saw how dreams swirled about her otherwise well-organized, accomplished living. They moved her and impacted me as the receiver. Early on I acquired the habit of observing and keeping track of my own, sometimes in dream journals.
Perhaps this example of how dreaming seemed to save me will further clarify the heart of this essay.
During early adulthood I ended up in situations defined by economic instability, victimization and spiritual crisis. I utilized resources but still saw there was not enough headway made. I needed definitive answers, tending to discover external solutions as I examined internal issues. I clung to hope but self-esteem became fragile. I prayed yet it seemed both pleadings and praises were often placed on hold. I wasn’t sure what to feel grateful of: that I had housing but lived in uncertainty and fear? That although my children were cherished they inconsistently had bare necessities? I had barely begun college only to have to quit, had few wage earning skills. I daily ruminated over all that had brought me to that point. If God loved me well–I still believed it so–then why did I feel I was barely hanging on to the sides of a small boat rolling in treacherous waters?
My dreaming reflected the turmoil. For years, they included an emergency–a fire, dangerous intruder, the house on the verge of collapse, a tornado or other catastrophic natural event–and I would immediately seek help. In these situations a partner turned away, family and friends were otherwise engaged, were not to be found or did not know who I was. I dialed 911 repeatedly only to find the number was wrong, the phone was damaged or disconnected, had vanished at the last minute. I was hanging on to my children as I tried to find an escape route. Yet I could not get out or in any door or window I located. It doesn’t take a scholar to see these dreams mirrored my feelings. I awakened fighting off defeat, tired out by a relentless sense of futility that even permeated sleep.
But I kept praying to be heard and delivered. Gradually, I began to dream differently: during an emergency, I would secure the children with watchful, benign people and go in search of help, or strike out alone and stop passersby to ask for aid. There was friendliness and pleasing events at some junctures, danger at others. I had adventures that became frightening, tests of my resilience and wits but I managed to stay alive, to keep going. Ultimately, though, I found no lasting help. So I would return to the starting point. It seemed I could depend on no one. Yet I awakened thinking: This is different–I leave and go looking for help, take more risks. But there is still no constructive solution.
In time, I fell asleep and found myself wandering a college campus, exploring classrooms, navigating throngs, stumbling over books, finding rest under fairy-tale giant trees. Trying to find my way back home, feeling disoriented but unafraid. I discovered different houses, often oddly familiar, some marred by disarray but safer. I then travelled to places with commonalities such as sparkling expanses of water, in mountains, situated on verdant land, town centers astir with activity. In the mornings I thought: I must save myself, my family; I must take much greater chances. God will always be with me but I must take full responsibility. Take action soon. No one else will. This is my life.
The thoughts crystallized. One night I dreamed of trudging up a mountainous path, children in my arms, all of us sweating. So weary. The difficult path led to a huge, exquisite structure at the peak. I stood before heavy golden double doors and then turned the doorknobs. The doors sprung open. Before us was a gleaming white and black tiled floor which was part of an expansive reception area that seemed to not end. To my right and left were infinite numbers of doors. I stood before several. I did not want to open any of them, thinking then I would be ensnared in another room that was not my place of peace or freedom.
I stepped forward and kept walking when before me the wall melted away. There were white columns on either side of a vast veranda. Beyond shining steps was a paradisal garden, a scene of multiple wonders and beauties, sustenance awaiting us. A grand fountain burbled into a large pool. Sunlight warmed and energized. There were people moving among plants and walkways, engaged in discourse. At ease. I was overcome with relief. Happiness, even. We had made it. Strength and resolve welled up inside as I awakened.
I shared this with a Methodist minister who counseled me. He was so affected his hand flew to his mouth a moment, then said, “I believe God has shown you something powerful. You will make it out of your difficulties and be alright.” (Later I learned he shared my experience in a counseling workshop as an example of spiritual and emotional healing.)
So I left home. I gathered my children up, found a new spot to live, returned to college. For years I had delayed this–leaving that marriage felt cataclysmic after being in love and losing so much. The act felt defined by defeat. Yet it changed my course in many good ways. I am not telling you it was easy, that new problems didn’t arrive and need to be overcome. But opportunities also appeared. I began to trust that a better way of life was within my grasp. That I had what it took to succeed. Eventually a surprising career changed everything futher. And it had all started with a vision that came from dreaming, a choice that was spurred by night-time seeking.
Dreaming has assisted me in fine-tuning life, taught me how to resolve conflicts, become more creative, reach out to others. Even to forgive. Not every dream matters as much as others. But they each do their job of keeping mind, body and soul in running order.
Do you willingly enter the innermost place where dreams tell you a truth, even a difficult one? Have they helped save your life, too? Tonight, rest well; sleep an ancient slumber. Recharge your soul and mind. Expect to learn good things. You will find your way there and back again with more pieces of the puzzle put in place.
Before turning in each night, I used to spend time selecting and preparing my clothes for work the next day. The pants or skirt, shoes, shirts and jewelry didn’t need to match but they had to make sense in an attractive but calming manner. They needed a touch of verve–scarf, eye-catching necklace, pewter-metallic shoes. I could have dressed in jeans if I really wanted to. My “casual business” attired mental health agency serves everyone from white collar adults mandated to treatment for DUII to addicted younger adults who violated probation to homeless men and women trying to hang on, to change tough times into better ones. I didn’t want to dress too well or lackadaisically, as how I presented myself could be a boon or a barrier. But once I got to work, I forgot the external presentation. My work is from the inside out and my demeanor or facial expression is far more critical. So it was as much a habit to prepare my clothes carefully for thirty years as anything. But jeans didn’t seem best for work–it was stretch-cotton, ankle-length black slacks that suited me.
I started working in my thirties after my five children were ensconced in school. My first good job was assisting older adults who were disabled by such medical conditions as stroke and Parkinson’s’ disease. Soon I became manager of a large home care services department. I wore high heels and dresses or skirts and tops daily. Our budget was tight so I often shopped at Goodwill to supplement my newer clothes. It was not fashionable to buy second hand clothing but it worked out well. Dressing up for work was a joy after years of wearing jeans and t-shirts. They were both needed uniforms. I had a household to manage; my husband often travelled and I had my hands full.
(Painting, “Venetian Clothesline”, by Mindy Newman)
I don’t work for a paycheck, as I quit my job in November. (I write, which most people would say isn’t work, though it feels like it despite no monetary reward yet.) My counseling (or just employee) days may not be entirely over. Thus, work clothing still takes up the bulk of closet space. To be honest, two closets, large ones. I have accumulated a lot of variations of the themes of colors, styles, needs. There are shoes in stacked boxes and sweaters folded nicely in boxes. Off season clothing is in another room. I have more clothes than I know what to do with, yet I hold on.
I wear jeans daily now, with fleece when it is colder or knit tops when the breezes tease us with springy scents. No one see me for days except my husband or a family member who stops over. So I dress easy. My daughters have told me I have so many t-shirts (with long and short sleeves) I could dedicate a whole closet to them. On my feet, sippers, though I hate to admit it, shoe snob that I’ve been in the past. They do feel great schlepping around my place, writing for hours at the computer.
Today I spotted a pair of white flats at Macy’s as I was lugging a bag of sale towels. I tried to get to the exit–what did I need shoes for?–but they beckoned me. They were on sale. Up close, they appeared comfortable yet stylish, the perfect combination. They had a cut-out motif that made them look feminine without being girly. I tried them on. They looked lovely in the mirror; I could walk without wincing. In warm weather, when extravagant flowers decorated emerald lawns and I could walk to church or stores without needing hiking boots to stay dry and warm, they would look…enchanting. They were be pretty and sturdy at once, my thinking insisted. And if I worked again, they would accent my professional duds.
So I bought them and took them home, put them on the closet shelf for a spring day. Maybe Easter.
I mused further. I had gotten a new pair of white shoes each Easter as a child. With white gloves, shiny Mary Janes and a pretty dress my mother made, I was all set for church, followed by the family playing music and a roast beef dinner. Memories of that Sunday table came alive, from the crystal water goblets to the lilac tablecloth. I could nearly smell the steaming biscuits and taste the fruit salad with poppy seed dressing.
Had that been what stopped me as I had made my way out of the store earlier? With spring not far off, a longing for another time and place? My mother dressed beautifully, mostly due to her own creative skills. It was she who taught me appreciation of fine fabrics and elegant lines, how a good seam looked and held, how shorter or longer hems made a difference per eye and each occasion. She would have loved ogling the shoe racks with me; her high-heeled feet looked beautiful into her eighties.
I thought more about the sale shoes. I don’t need them, as I have a pair of white ones. Unless I get another job I will likely be barefoot when the buds unfurl and sunshine makes me want to dance. Or I will be wearing my Teva sandals when I hike in earnest. What makes me want to adorn myself with something I do not need besides our insistent culture of acquisition? When has the way I dressed made such a crucial difference? There are times I have needed to be “appropriate” or even “impressive”, but only in the eyes of this world. I love color and design, yes, but I can make art if that is so necessary to my peace of mind. Clothes are a very small part of everything.
In fact, who I am is not very present in what I put on my body. It is a simple truth, but hits me soundly. I may be missing my work a bit– the camaraderie of working with others toward a common goal–or fancying the past. But who I am and will be is right here within me. The whole me, who does not have daily, professional support or even criticism. I long ago discovered I am not dependent on others for a secure sense of self, my “identity”. Who I have been, as a seven year old excited for Easter, a young adult struggling with challenges or a counselor who leans toward my client as his suffering is laid bare in exchange for a little peace–it all has origins here, within the invisible. My soul. We all have one, and no clothes or other accoutrements are needed to alter, hide or even adorn it.
I had a dream last night, a strange one wherein I was surrounded by people who were more like beings of another sort, without recognizable feature or form, yet full of vibrant, clear energy. No one spoke or said they loved me but I knew it by the way I felt as I floated among them. It was so powerfully magnetic that it pervaded every inch of me. One of them communicated without spoken words: “You are very pretty”, and I put my hands to my face and loudly protested. I knew better. But they smiled at me, and the realization came that they might see me differently. And if here, in this dream place, I looked even a little as they did to me, I truly lived in beauty. How did these beings see me? I thought to educate them, and explained that my life wasn’t like theirs, it had been hard and not without significant failures. No one cared much. The love actually felt stronger; everyone shared it. When I finally heard “We have to leave you now”, I was terribly sad. I wanted that love to never end. But I awakened, deeply rested and at ease, and the awareness of whoever/whatever they were is with me still. We all need reminding of Divine Love. Everlasting love.
So maybe that is what the shoes are about, odd as it sounds. I remembered my childhood at the store, and Easter coming. I love shoes, it is true. But at the center of all this is the knowledge that I inhabit not just flesh and bones, but a soul. In fact, I am certain I was first and will last be that, alone. Everything in between is just filler. Tasks and travels. A chance to make good on the love we are given. Grace makes the difference. The grace of God, and also the grace we can cultivate in our daily lives with others: fluency in our conversations, finesse in our diplomacy, benevolence in interactions with those we do not understand, forgiveness of those who mean harm. We can train ourselves in discernment and decorum. We can live in graciousness, which becomes us all. The perfect raiment for this world, as well.
Still…I know you may be wondering about those sale shoes, which is where this piece began. One thing has led to another, and I’m thinking it over. There is a decent chance I’ll keep them for Easter and beyond. They look fun to wear, which matters, too, as long as I live in this body.
(Photo of the gorgeous iris–“A Graceful Dancer”–is attributed to Dorothy Mae.)