Saturday, October 25, 2014

These Memories We Sew

I never really learned how to sew. Sure, I've taken some classes, and I know the basics of using a machine: I can thread a very ugly bobbin and sew a straight line. But start talking to me about selvage and darts and "the bias," and I get a stress pain in my right shoulder blade. It's there now, and I'm just writing about this stuff.

My mom, on the other hand, can sew really well. Once, when I was sixteen, I availed myself of her expertise and asked her for a lesson. But with my mom it's all pre-washing and pressing of fabric, cutting out a pattern, pinning, more cutting. The sewing takes an eternity to get to! Teenage me couldn't stand the wait. The session ended badly, with me giving up and my mom probably feeling mystified by a daughter who seemed to share none of her respect for mathematical precision. 

I would try today to learn to sew from my mom, but guess what: it would end badly all over again. I still can't stand the preparatory work, and the math of it all makes me seize up in fear. 

Enter this little fairy:

She's such a good kid, and when I happened to ask her what she wanted to be for Halloween at precisely the moment that a 10th-grade girl walked by us, all purple velvet and misunderstood in a goth-Wiccan hooded cape, and Vivian, enchanted, said, "I want to be Little Red Riding Hood," what else could I reply but, "Great! Would you like me to sew your costume?"

Thus committed, I found a free pattern at a site with the encouraging name of Fleece Fun. I am grateful to the woman whose site it is for sharing her work without charge and for walking newbies like me through each stage of the process, even if her tag-line, "Velvet is pretentious, but fleece is fun!" strikes a blow to Vivi's goth-Wiccan muse.

Last weekend I forced invited Vivian to accompany me to JoAnn Fabrics to find red fleece and to choose a color for the lining and ribbon. Being in that store and waiting for our number to be called transported me back to childhood. How many times had I waited in just such a store with my own mother as she sorted through McCall's catalogs? I had to share the experience with her:

Spirits were running high--in a good way. Energized, I assembled the pattern and laid it out on the coffee table. I shared a photo on Facebook of my domestic tableau. I shared, too, Vivian's prediction that I would utterly lose my shit before completing this project. "It's just who you are, Mama," she said.

This morning, a week later, I was back at it. At 7:00 a.m. I cut out the pattern and pinned it to the fabric.

See that purple and white thing in the background that looks like a brain? That's a finger labyrinth, one of the first things I cross-stitched when I took up the hobby, and, to date, the only thing I've cross-stitched for Vivian. You use finger labyrinths to calm you down when you're feeling stressed: you run your index finger back and forth through the maze, and when you're done, you've found peace. Standing by her prediction, Vivian handed this thing over to me a couple of days ago.

The pinning done, I began to cut. And now I treat you to the most boring 38 seconds of video on the Internet. You hear that sound? Not the high-pitched snip, snip but the lower sound of the blades cutting through fabric? That is a predominant sound of my early years. Takes me back to Saturdays a lot like this one.

Revery over, I stuck myself with a pin.

I don't want to make you pass out or anything, but that is real blood. Fortunately, I had some scraps of fleece around, so I was able to fashion a tourniquet out of those and a wooden spoon. I forged ahead.

I dusted off my sewing machine--nothing a little elbow grease can't handle--and threaded a bobbin and threaded the machine, too. I pinned pieces of fabric together according to the directions of my online guru, and I forgave myself for having pinned them facing the wrong direction and on the underside of my work. It was time to sew.

The hood was first and, no wuss, I opted to add lining in a contrasting color and fabric. Lodged deep within my cellular memory was the knowledge that stretch cotton is difficult to work with. It stretches! It might even slide. Good god, should I have cut it on the bias? Who knows. Ignoring the searing pain in my right shoulder, I continued. I even changed from red to blue thread while stitching the lining. Mom, I know you're not watching, but I feel like you are.

Note the pin placement: correct side, correct direction. I am getting this, people! Before I knew it--honestly, I think I blacked out for a bit--I had sewn a hood, a lined hood! I texted my mom.

As you can see, she was impressed. Then, because Bill was asleep, Vivian was at Alex's, and I was unshowered, I ran around the house looking for a model for my hood. I found a willing participant in this little lady right here:

I felt unstoppable. I had completed the most difficult part of the project, and it was only 9 a.m. Remember that old Army commercial, "We do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day?" Yes. I was an Army of One. I tightened the laces on my boots and for-ward HARCHed.

But wait! What's this?

I quite literally hit a snag. To repair this problem I had to go behind the bobbin holder doohickey and figure out how to raise the little treads that move your fabric along. How on earth did they fall down to begin with? It took a good ten minutes to puzzle through this situation, and in that time I moved so swiftly from Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman--"I ain't gonna quit! I ain't gonna quit!"--to Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad--"How do you work, BITCH?!"--that I surprised even me.

Having adjusted the doohickey and achieved inner peace, I assembled the rest of the riding hood: cape, shoulders, and, finally, ribbon.

And that was it. Behold: a little red riding hood!

 I've never asked my mom what it was like for her to sew costumes and clothes for my brother and me when we were young. She raised us on her own and worked full-time, so she would do her sewing at night. She'd stay up until 2 or 3 a.m., with old movies playing on channel 5 and her sewing machine whirring on the kitchen table. There'd be cigarette smoke and the steam of an iron. There'd be cold coffee--light, no sugar--in a cup that said "MOM." I can remember being in bed and hearing the sounds of her sewing downstairs, but mainly my brother and I would sleep through it; we'd wake in the morning to find her creations hanging from a drawer pull or a cabinet door. She'd be hard to rouse.

She had to have been so tired, but I think she also loved that work: the pressing, the cutting, the allowance of 1/2 an inch for every seam. I can see the appeal.

Hey, look! She just wrote me back:

Thanks, Mom.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

I've got your arm.

I work in a building next to the football practice field, and I've been looking at this figure for weeks. It's a padded dummy--humanoid--presumably for young men to run at and crash into as they make guttural sounds. But why would you want to crash into such a thing? Look at its form: crouched over, protecting itself, bracing itself, and made smaller for having to do so. It's a figure to inspire compassion, not aggression. I want a young man to stop mid-charge, approach gently, and put an arm around this guy, maybe even hug him. I want all the other players to do the same and then to walk off the field. That idea is not so ridiculous as it is to complain about violence in a society and then to celebrate a sport that requires men to punish, rather than embrace, vulnerability.

Yesterday the great Jami Geyer Cayo gave me a massage, and we talked about vulnerability, how crucial it is to getting any work done in her business and in mine and probably in yours. She can't release and realign a muscle, like my Serratus--isn't that a beautiful name?--if I don't let go, let my arm go limp and breathe through the pain because I trust that she won't injure me, that she will, in fact, support me. As we did this work together, I told her that this week four of my students spoke to me about how the reading had touched upon their own experiences, how it had made them see something or understand something or, in one case, remember something important to them. You might think that that kind of thing happens frequently in a literature classroom, but it doesn't, at least not to me. Students may (and probably do) relate to the material, but they rarely tell me about it. Yet in one week I had four of these moments of connection with students, moments of trust, really, theirs in me. Why four, and why this week? Jami and I concluded that I'm embracing my own vulnerability and so creating a space for them to, what? approach? connect? Something.

Where the catharsis happens

The word vulnerable makes me uncomfortable. It's a bit of whipping-boy (or, let's be honest, whipping-girl) in our culture: there's a woo-woo air to it and the taint of association with the feminine. And while I was growing up, my family didn't really do vulnerable because, it seems to me, vulnerability feels really, really bad if you don't have a Jami Cayo there with a firm hold on your arm when you let it go limp. But it has recently occurred to me that I was a kid who might have grown into a different kind of adult if I had been allowed and even encouraged to be vulnerable. (Note: This is not a criticism of you, Mom! I am speaking about any number of forces at play in my life and, really, anyone's life, including yours. Love you!)

So here's the thing: I glimpse my young self in Vivian. I mean, Vivian is Vivian. I understand that she is not me, and I am really into getting to know her as her. I like this kid very much. But in some ways she is so familiar, me but better than me. Could this be in some small part because Alex and Bill and I have allowed her to be vulnerable? Because she is, you know. There are no two ways about it. She has a thin rod attached to her spine by a few hooks and screws. She is shaping an identity out of experiences that include hospitalizations, casts, surgeries, and scars. We don't require her to be brave. Yet--or is it So?--she is brave.  While we were at the hospital, I would sometimes end my day by crying in my bed or in a chair next to her bed because, my god, it hurt to allow Vivian to cry, to tell me that she didn't like being in the halo, that she didn't want to have a crooked spine, that she didn't want to look out a window at a brown valley; she wanted gray water and dark green islands, she wanted our small back yard and our pets. There were other things, too, that jarred me, like seeing her take to a walker and a wheelchair and, after the surgery, preferring them to her own two feet because walking was painful and hard; or hurting her when we turned her over in bed; or worrying about her spinal cord because during surgery they found an abnormality in how it functions. I let all of this stuff and more wash over me, into me, through me--choose a preposition!--and, yeah, it was uncomfortable. But I did it. I really did it. When a person you love says, "I am scared," do you say, "Nah. There's nothing to be scared of!" or do you say, "What scares you?" My default is the former. It sounds reassuring, but actually it's not; it says, I don't want to let that in or, I don't think I'm strong enough to handle that or, If I don't acknowledge it, it's not there. I'm teaching myself to respond in the other way because that's where the connection lies. Right in there, that's where Vivian will get the message that she doesn't have to be hunched up like the figure on the practice field. Let her be upright, arms out.

Let me be, too.

Funny, right, that you can read that as "Let me be, too" or as "Let me be," as in, leave me to myself as I am. I think I've written here that while we were in the hospital my focus narrowed. All that existed was in that small room, and Vivian was at the center of it. I became afraid to leave the hospital and, more than that, Vivian's room. I was describing this response to my friend Arianna last night, and we agreed that it is at least part-biological, like when a cat or a dog hides when it's injured or about to have pups. I noticed it happening to me, and I just let it happen. Here was self-acceptance, and isn't that a kind of trust? I also wrote letters, 37 of them, and mailed them in batches and sometimes one by one. I told people what I was experiencing, authentically, no sugar-coating that I can recall. Letters I received in response were remarkable, quite different from any email I've received. Friends told me what they were worried about or what they were working on in themselves or what they might try.

My letter-writing has fallen off. We came back to Tacoma on September 7th. That night at 11pm, I sat upright in bed and said, "I forgot to write my letter!" Bill said, "Why don't you give yourself a break?" I said, "No," and I turned on the light and wrote a Bill. I wrote to him for the next few days in a row, too; they are short letters, lackluster, tired. And then I remembered what he said, "Why don't you give yourself a break?" and instead of saying, "No," I said--not aloud, but you get the point--"You know what? I think I will." So I did. I have not abandoned my hand-written letter project, but it's been about a month since I've written one a day. I am going to get back to it because I want to, but I needed the break. As I wrote (by hand, in a letter) to my friend Marla, this project was never about achieving perfection. It was about honoring connection.

On that note, I want to say thank you to the many people who reached out to Vivian and me while we were in the hospital. My hope is that this note finds its way to you. I had illusions of thanking each person individually for the cards and gifts they sent, and I kept records like this one, scrawled on the backs of envelopes and scraps of paper:

But I have not kept track of whom I've written to and emailed and texted and called, and I worry that I will inadvertently leave someone out. Thank you. You did a good thing, a kind thing, for a girl and her family, and my hope is that many good things come to you and yours in return.

I have one last thought on this Saturday morning. Is it a non sequitur, or does it follow? The word vulnerable, adj., used to mean "having power to wound; wounding," but that meaning is now obsolete.