Monday, March 31, 2008

Sew Simple

Mama didn't teach me to cook. Whatever I know of following recipes, cleaning up as you go and seasoning to taste, I learned from other sources.

What she did teach me was to stitch a hem so delicate as to be invisible and so strong as to be unravelable, to set in a sleeve with no puckers and lay out a pattern with no waste of fabric. She taught me how to figure yardage, how to match thread, how to make a dart, a pleat and a tuck and how to put on a waistband.

By the time I took home ec in the eighth grade I was earning spending money by helping Mama who, as we used to say, took in sewing. I steam-pressed the seams and put in the hems of the dresses and coats and blouses she made for the ladies who, for some reason I could not fathom at the time, preferred homemade clothes to the ones hanging in the windows at Henry's and Tilli's and Belk.

I was, then, most resentful of Miss Williams's requirement that I use tracing paper to mark seam lines. Any idiot, it seemed to me, ought to be able to hold the fabric against the seam guide and stitch a straight line. I also couldn't understand why she would want me to make an apron when, heaven's to Betsy, I'd mastered that three years before in fifth grade 4-H.

I eventually won that battle and while everyone else was trying to figure out how to make their apron gathers uniform, I was obnoxiously trimming the facing on the neck of my dress and imagining how cool it was that my project was actually going to see use whereas my classmates' would most likely end up stuffed into their bottom dresser drawers.

Infinitely more satisfying, however, than being able to say, "I made it myself," is being able – as result of what my mother taught me – to recognize quality workmanship, an ability that transfers far beyond the walls of a clothing store and into more intangible endeavors. Unrolling a piece of fabric from a bolt and crushing a corner of it to test its hand is a good metaphor for determining the sincerity of a relationship. Matching plaids is akin to finding the right job or neighborhood or mate.

Even the terminology of sewing teaches lessons: Selvage and bias conjure up vivid images of the contrast between flexibility and rigidity. Seam allowance and presser foot and tension knob speak to the necessity, not just the unavoidability, of structure and rules.

All of which may be why no one learns to sew anymore. It requires time. It requires discipline. It requires stillness, quietness and concentration, all of which are commodities in short supply in a world where we drink instant coffee, send instant messages and long to be instant winners.

It's been a long time since I laid out my last pattern, pinned my last seam or threaded my last bobbin, but sometimes when I need to be reminded of the all I learned watching Mama hunched over a Singer sewing machine, its own peculiar song caught by the breeze through the open window and suffused into the summer night, I find my way to a store that still has an aisle marked notions. I take a deep breath and run my fingers over the rainbow of Coats and Clark spools, spin the button rack, flip through a few pages of the Simplicity pattern book and, in no longer than it takes to thread a needle, I am myself again.

Mama didn't teach me to cook, but what she did teach me was so much more important than that.

Copyright 2008

Monday, March 17, 2008

Unburied Treasure

The best gift is one that is unexpected or one that is particularly suited to the recipient. When a single gift is both it makes the heart sing.

This past Sunday I was walking with a friend down the long wide beach on Jekyll Island. There were few others out in the breezy afternoon – a handful of birdwatchers who, when asked what they were hoping to see, replied, "Anything that flies," and a middle-aged couple walking five lean and leggy greyhounds.

The sky was flat and the palest of blues. The tide had ebbed leaving an unusual number of horseshoe crab shells and the usual surfeit of trembling jellyfish scattered across the sand. Cumberland Island, just a few miles south, seemed almost touchable in the clear spring light.

We headed south intending to meet up with Judy, my friend's friend, a transplanted Californian with a specific passion for horses and a general appreciation of all things outdoors. As we walked, we talked of ordinary things – her cats, my dog, road trips we might take one day, the fact that I'd forgotten to put on sunscreen.

We caught up with Judy at the southernmost part of the island where a school of dolphins was churning up the water like an old-fashioned egg beater. Diving and rolling and circling each other like children playing chase, the dolphins moved as a group, with the current, oblivious to their role as entertainers to the people on shore.

"I found something for you," Judy told me and strode up the dunes where she had left the treasure. She came back with a perfect conch shell. Complete. Unbroken. I'd never seen one so unblemished, so whole. At least not outside a shell shop.

Sand clung to the winding spires of the ocean-scarred outside. Inside, the shell was glassy smooth and pink like lip gloss. It filled my hand exactly.

Judy explained that she'd seen just a little of it sticking out of the sand and that, when she started digging and realized how deeply it was buried, she suspected it might be whole. "The further down in the sand it's buried," she told us, "the better chance there is that it's unbroken."

When I got home I put my shell up on the mantel at the foot of some candlesticks. There was a handful of other shells already there – a couple of palm-sized scallops, another conch, all of them half- or quarter-shells only, all of them missing parts of themselves. And I remembered what Judy had said about being buried.

Is it possible that the only way to stay whole is to stay buried? And is staying buried any way to live? The truth is that my conch shell – without any cracks, without any holes, without any absent pieces – was empty. The snail that had lived there had been washed out by the ocean's waves or eaten in somebody's fritter. The container was still beautiful, but the life was gone.

Last week the news was full of the senseless, heartbreaking deaths of two young women – popular college students, good citizens, well-loved daughters. In each case there was a question about what she was doing in a particular place at a particular time. A reasonable question. An unavoidable question. And, ultimately, probably an unanswerable question.

I have another question: Had either of the beautiful co-ed's been somewhere else, would she have been guaranteed another day? Had either spent all her days on a security-camera'ed, razor-wired, soldier-guarded campus would she have been protected from all the evil that resides in the world? Had either stayed buried in the sand she would have been just like my conch shell – beautiful, unbroken and empty.

Life is about opportunity and risk. Life is about the willingness to open the mind and the heart. Life is about being filled with generosity and curiosity and love. Life is not an empty shell.

Copyright 2008

Thursday, March 06, 2008

"And If That Mockingbird Don't Sing ..."

I have a new friend. A mockingbird has taken to arriving at Sandhill early every morning to perch on the empty shepherd’s crook standing at the edge of the deck. Balanced carefully on the cold curve of iron, beak tilted into the crisp morning air, he looks for all the world like a well-fed vassal surveying his fiefdom. Or better, with his pale gray feathers that end in a long square tail, like a British bridegroom in cutaway and ascot.

He is an attractive bird, but he seems to have frightened away all the wrens, the sparrows, the cardinals and the jays that normally flit and flutter from one bare branch to another, cheeping and chirping and singing the sun up.

Leaning against the sill, staring at the proud bird in his stillness and solitude, it is inevitable that I remember Harper Lee’s Scout Finch and her lawyer daddy whose plain goodness was one of the things that led me to my profession. When Atticus gives Scout an air-rifle it is with the admonition that "it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird." Scout takes her confusion about her father’s words to an older neighbor who explains: "Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."

Scout Finch lives in a world stained with hypocrisy and cruelty and selfishness. But she doesn’t know that. Not yet. Not until she sits in a courtroom balcony and watches her father confront, unsuccessfully it turns out, those marauders.

Wandering off into the woods of thought, I pick up the well-worn trail that leads me to my own courtroom balcony, the place where I first found myself wrestling with the intrusion of pain and disillusionment into a previously halcyon world. Things – I learned, we all learn eventually – are not as they should be.

Volcanos and wars erupt. Poverty and rumors spread. Children and dreams die. The best that even the wisest among us can offer is platitude, not explanation. Is it any wonder that a malignant heart so rarely raises us to righteous indignation anymore?

It is still a sin to kill a mockingbird, to harm the harmless, but unless it is our mockingbird in our backyard most of us are too jaded and resigned to care.

But back in the balcony in the Maycomb, Alabama, courthouse, as a defeated Atticus slowly gathers his things and turns to leave the courtroom, Rev. Sykes touches Scout’s shoulder and whispers, "Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’."

In that moment, Scout begins to see that the world in which she lives, the one stained with hypocrisy and cruelty and selfishness, is also colored with generosity and loyalty and love. She begins to understand that even as she must shield herself against evil, she must open herself to good.

I’ve noticed that my mockingbird doesn’t sing. He doesn’t chirp and cheep. He doesn’t imitate the songs of his cousins, loudly and repetitively. Not once has he parted his beak, puffed up his throat, expelled his breath and offered a song.

If I measured his worth on Miss Maudie’s scale, I guess I’d be justified in at least shooing, if not shooting, him.

I watch him a while longer, notice the way his wings unfold like a lady’s fan when he loops over to the lowest limb of the chinaberry tree, how the white tips reflect the sunlight like snow, and it occurs to me that maybe, just maybe, the greater sin, the transgression worse than killing a mockingbird, might be trying to make him something he isn’t, not loving him for what he is.

Copyright 2008