Happiness and material life

IMG_9288Another Tuesday on the couch with Winston the Dog, this time it’s morning.

On his blog the other night, Lee asked, “When things are fine, who cares about writing?” The question surprised me because, from his daily diary on Grammar Piano, I took him to have an enjoyable life almost every day, and not just this one day. Enjoyable = fine.

Is this true, when life is enjoyable, no writing? And the inverse, when life is not fine, lots of writing?

I think it was Amy Bloom who once said, in an essay she wrote for the New York Times Magazine, that being unhappy is not a required condition for good writing. She called herself happy in this essay, as I recall. (This is another one of those memories where I may have actually invented it. I sort of remember this but it’s not like I have the article in front of me, either on paper or digital.)

The timer is now on, 20 minutes, so this post will be a freewrite. I really don’t know what I want to write or what end I’ll get to. It’s more about noticing Lee’s question and wanting to start with it.

Sometimes when I’m worried and can’t write, I think of the Russians who wrote even while in prison – to me, that must be the ultimate in unhappy conditions – and I wonder what’s wrong with me. I suppose a prison cell is a room of one’s own, and maybe that’s really what’s needed: your own room, whether happy or not.

I’m sitting on the couch. I don’t have my own room (or office or study), and I don’t necessarily believe the solitary room is necessary.

I also read somewhere that Brice Marden has, like, seven houses around the U.S. or around the world and each of them is set up with a studio. The light is different in each place, and he accomplishes different art works in the different conditions. Whoever wrote this profile — probably also in the New York Times Magazine which I read pretty faithfully though I also despise it for the high-net-worth advertising alongside stories about, oh, post-partum depression or refugees or educational inequity — didn’t comment on his wealth as ridiculous. Really?? I wondered. I suppose I do expect some kind of struggle and even privation for art to be authentic. Not that you have to be Tillie Olsen, but you can’t make your life too comfortable. Don’t you need to find out something to make art? Not: which of my seven houses should I fly to today and make a painting in the utterly perfect conditions.

You might think I am jealous. Continue reading

One dollar thrift shop dress

dress_hem_JaneMy three children, who are no longer actually children, like to shop in thrift stores: Boomerangs, Goodwill, and Savers in particular. They have led me down this path, too. I like a good price and the thrill of out-smarting mainstream retail. (Take that, Gap!) Until I wore them out, one of my favorite pairs of pants was a pre-worn, five-dollar tan pair with an Ann Taylor label bought at Savers.

Inevitably, one of the kids’ purchases of used clothing requires some mending or tailoring by the only person in our house who has practiced sewing skills. That person is me. Sometimes a button is needed, sometimes a new zipper. I have yet to take anything apart and put it back together again — although I do have an Eileen Fisher black silk sleeveless dress in my closet bought for $20 that needs the shoulder straps and armholes raised — but some repairs have been more complex.

A few days before she headed off to college, Lydia brought home a long, granny-like dress from Boomerangs in Jamaica Plain (the best of the four locations, according to Eli) in her staple black & white. She asked me to hem it, and I promised I would before she left. Of course, we waited and waited and waited, as if that day of leaving would never come. Finally, with the prick of a deadline* to motivate me, I got out the sewing machine, pins, measuring tape, steam iron, and a makeshift ironing board (i.e. clean towel on the kitchen counter).


The price tag showed a markdown from $8 to $1, and surely the low price gave me permission to do a rush job: cut the extra length, fold the cut edge, avoid pins and hold it in place, and sew a quick row of fastening stitches. But why not do these things with care, if I’m going to do them at all? So I measured, cut, sewed on a length of hem tape to the cut edge, measured the hem and ironed and pinned it, and sewed the hem by hand using a hemstitch.

As I was sewing, I was thinking, and not just about the task. I recognized the ultimate inefficiency, really, of buying an inexpensive, pre-owned, not-quite-right piece of clothing and then getting someone (i.e., your mother) to spend 90 minutes of labor improving it. True, I volunteered for the task, but I can still put a price on my labor, which is worth more probably than the original price of the dress when new. Even if Lydia had hired the seamstress at the dry cleaner’s to do it, the fee would have boosted the net price of the dress to $21.

As I sewed, I mused longer on how this intimate labor is an act of love and therefore without cost or price. And, if my labor is an act of love, then that dress carries my love with it as it hangs now in Lydia’s closet or is worn by her.


At least a year ago, I bought a pre-worn Banana Republic sweater from an on-line consignment store. I loved the sweater on the website, and I loved it when it came out of the package, not only for how it looked but for its smell: there was a whiff, which stayed until I first dry-cleaned the sweater, of the perfume or deoderant or detergent used by the woman who previously owned it. As I wore this lovely cardigan, I smelled this other person and imagined her: my physical size, having a different life somewhere else, and yet transferring some trace of her in the anonymous selling of her sweater. We endow these objects with ourselves when we wear them.

So, too, I endow the thrift-shop clothing my children buy when I alter or repair it. There’s some essence of me in Lydia’s dress, Eli’s shirt, or Grace’s jacket. (And I suppose the previous owners of the clothing are with them too.)

dress_LydiaThis may be the detail that I have imaginatively focused on the most in helping Lydia prepare for school and getting her there. We did a lot of shopping, and new clothes and bedding and supplies were purchased. We packed. We tidied. All of this getting ready is so quotidian — the sheets, new towels, a box of pencils, extension cord, under-the-bed storage bin — to the point of boredom, really, and not narratable.

But the hemming of the dress… that felt to me almost epic, even if another person, looking at me from the outside, would have seen only a woman in her reading glasses bent over a piece of black and white checked fabric, crumpled in her hand, being pricked with yellow-headed pins. This moment, this dress and its hem: every moment I have ever loved my daughter, which is all moments that have passed and all of them that will come, I felt them with every stitch my hand and needle and thread made, piercing layers of fabric as delicately as I could, over and over and over until where I ended met the place where I started.

*Note: The phrase “prick of a deadline” is one I picked up from my friend Lisette Bordes, who once admitted how useful a deadline is to writing. It is a prick, an act of piercing something with a fine, sharp point, according to the dictionary.

Cinderella goes to the ball

Cinderella is Grace, and the ball is a Bat Mitzvah.

Today our house was a scene of cottage industry. I altered the dress I bought for Grace in the women’s department. The style and fabric were exactly what she wanted, but it was too drop-waisted, too long for a 5′ 1″ girl. Out came the sewing machine and ironing board.

sew dress 500

Meanwhile, Jimmy drove Cinderella to Target to buy some tights. He was shooed away by his daughter from the Intimates section of the store. I asked him where he lingered while waiting.  “Electronics,” he replied, with a tone that conveyed, “Where else?”

Later, I assisted with nail polish and jewelry selection and fastening. The black cardigan sweater, bunched up since the last occasion, needed some sprucing up with a damp cloth.

A check was written and greeting card found. Cinderella did her own makeup, and she is good at it.

wear dress 500

Purse, phone, hairbrush, and coat were gathered. Black slippers were slipped on.

I took some pictures.

Her carriage arrived. She went.

The ball, at a hotel in the adjacent town, ends at 11:30pm. Cinderella will be home around the stroke of midnight, in her customized dress, not-glass slippers, and pink tights from Target.

Speak, Memory, about a dress

On the road from World’s End to the harbor, we drove through Hingham center slowly enough that I could look at store windows as we passed. In one, I saw a dress that turned my head. The image of it hovered in my imagination as we walked through the farmer’s market, bought homemade cider donuts, and sat on the strip of sand, ate donuts, and looked out at the boats and one swimmer.

I wanted the dress that I was remembering.

In my mind, I saw dark wool knit more charcoal than black, trumpet sleeves wrist length, and the only ornament a double row of appliquéd rings the color of coffee ice cream on the bell of each sleeve.

my dress, from memory

I told Grace and Jimmy about the dress and said I wanted to stop and look at it again on our way back to the highway.

It’s funny how memory works: when we got back to the store and I was standing on the sidewalk and taking pictures of the dress, I could see how my version of the dress was both like and unlike the original. Already, my imagination had refashioned the dress into what I wanted it to be. Continue reading

Old broads in sequins and rouge

I’ve heard it said that if you want to talk to your kids, give them a ride somewhere. I’d like to offer a modification to this advice — if you want to talk to your daughter, take her shopping and haunt the dressing room.

Lydia needed shorts for an upcoming trip with her chorus. Having recently been at Old Navy with Grace and seen mountains of them, we headed there. Lydia filled her arms with what I think of as disposable clothes. (If anyone wants to view the dysfunctional relationship between the U.S. and the developing world, walk into your local ON, head to the clearance section, and see tables piled with t-shirts made in Bangladesh marked down to $3.)

I browsed, too, and met Lydia in the dressing room. “What do you think of this?” I asked her. She may not need my style sanctions, but I need hers.

“Mom, no,” she replied. I love her eyeroll.

“Why not? I love this gray color.”

“Mom. Sequins.”

“But, Lydia,” I implored her, “It’s a peace sign. I’m for peace.”

“Yeah, but you don’t have to wear it on a t-shirt. In sequins. Plus, you’re old.”

“I might buy it.”


I didn’t.

And yet I’m still tempted. Something draws me to this t-shirt, and it takes willpower to keep Lydia’s advice in mind.

Not all women resist the call of the sequin, however. This morning Lydia and I stopped in the bagel shop on the way downtown, where I was dropping her off to meet the bus that will take her chorus on the trip that necessitated the purchase of shorts. Most of the people getting bagels at 9:30am in the morning are old-timers. As I waited in line, my eyes were drawn to a woman whose back faced me: curly yellow-blond hair askew, wedgie flip-flops, cropped stretch pants, lumpy purse, and a droopy Pepto-pink sweatshirt decorated with an oversized sequined and plastic-jeweled heart. Continue reading

– Presidential dress code

Grace watched me get dressed.  It was a skirt day, and I was yanking on some tights.

“I don’t understand why people like tights,” she said. “Uncomfortable.”

“They’re okay.” I shrugged.

Her face was scrunched with doubt.

“I could never be president,” Grace declared, almost as if someone had just that moment asked her to seek her party’s nomination.

“Uh, sure you could.”

“No, I couldn’t.  Because I hate tights.”

I gave her my best what-are-you-talking-about look.

“And women presidents have to wear skirts,” she retorted.

I protested.  “You could wear pants!”

Grace, only eight years old, had the last word: “No, only skirts.”

(Ah, the power of the image, and unwritten rules.)


P.S.  Go, Obama! You have my vote. Still, I miss you, Hillary. You would have worn pants, as Ms. President. I’m sure of it.