Prepare Yourself


Two or three months ago a meme was making the rounds on Facebook. It is a block of text badly retyped in some kind of chancery font on a background that looked like faux parchment. The text is supposedly from a 1949 Singer Sewing Manual. In the post-war years, though, modern was king with American housewives and nothing so amateurish would have been produced by a company like Singer– here’s an ad from that period for comparison. As it turns out the text is really from page three  of the 1949 Singer Sewing Book by Mary Boone Picken (save your jokes) in a section called “To Sew Successfully.”

The text reads thusly:

Prepare yourself mentally for sewing. Think about what you are going to do. Never approach sewing with a sigh or lackadaisacally. Good results are difficult when indifference predominates.  

Never try to sew with a sink full of dirty dishes or beds unmade. When there are urgent housekeeping chores, do those first so your mind is free to enjoy your sewing. While you sew, make yourself as attractive as possible. Put on a clean dress. Keep a little bag full of French chalk near your sewing machine to dust your fingers at intervals. Have your hair in order, powder and lipstick put on. If you are constantly fearful that a visitor will drop in or your husband will come home and you will not look neatly put together, you will not enjoy your sewing.

For artists, writers, musicians– particularly those who are women, there is something familiar about this. If you don’t have your life in order, you can’t turn your full attention to that which deserves it, because those things left undone nag at  you and clutter up your mind. But even for people who aren’t “creative”, is there something so old-fashioned and out of step with current trends about having your house and self tidy?

What was truly shocking was not this bit of advice from a decades-old sewing manual, but the hoots of derision and ridicule with which it was met; not just on Facebook, but on sewing forums all over the internet. Women that I personally know to be intelligent and gracious seemed in a contest to outdo each other in their slovenly responses. They bragged about sewing in sweatpants and dirty t-shirts. (Sorry, but eww.)  They talked about how shocked their husbands would be if they came home to a nicely dressed wife in a house where the dishes were done and the beds were made. They thought it was hysterical that any of these preparations might somehow positively affect their lives and instead celebrated that “times had changed.”

As a culture we tend to borrow liberally a kind coffee-mug philosophy from the Buddhists. (You know, feel good themes that will fit on a ceramic cup or bumper sticker or sterling bracelet: It is better to travel well than to arrive. The way is not in the sky, the way is in the heart. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.) There’s considerable wisdom to be found in the writings of the Zen masters, but at its core is this: to have peace, you must have order. Nothing flourishes in chaos except chaos itself. Yes, we are all stimulated by the chaos of mounting a theatrical production, or throwing a great shindig, or the hubbub around the holidays. But those are supposed to be the exceptions in your life, not the rule. Trying to exist in chaos is exhausting, and depressing and finally it just sucks the life right out of you.

I don’t sew. I made a little rabbit once in Home Ec and a terrible lumpy skirt. I can mend a tear reasonably well, and can replace a button, but truly that’s extent of it. One of the reasons I don’t sew is because it does demand order and diligence and precision. I frankly don’t understand how people think that they can fully immerse themselves in the act of sewing if they never got any farther than sweat pants and a dirty t-shirt.

In the morning, when I get up, I have a series of ablutions. A shower, if one is necessary, followed by the usual stuff– teeth, deodorant, a little concealer, a bit of face powder– and if I’m expecting to go somewhere, a bit of eye makeup and a smear of lipstick. A thorough brushing of my hair with my wonderful French natural boar bristle hairbrush. I often think of that stanza from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” when I’m in the midst of this:

There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;         30
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

Nearly every day I wear a dress or a skirt and shirt, unless I am doing something that requires the wearing of pants. I suppose when I finish losing weight I may wear pants more often, or perhaps just smaller dresses.  Many dresses are just as comfortable as “sweats” but they sure look better. When you look better, you feel better.  When you feel better you get more done. (And on days when I’ve been too ill or too tired or (the worst) too busy to “prepare a face to meet the faces that I meet”, I am entirely out of sorts.)

I am not going to win any medals for housekeeping, and it embarrasses me to say that. Things pile up, stuff gets set aside, reserved for another day, another week, another month. When I sit at my untidy desk in my messy study, I find it hard to concentrate, as my attention is often drawn to other things that I remember I must do, should have done, or have to find time to get to. These things gnaw away at me. If I go to the special collections Library to read, everything there is in exquisite order, that’s the nature of the Library. I can sit there for hours, lost in manuscripts, or letters or newspapers. My mind is free to enjoy my research.

Rather than meeting the advice to sew successfully with contempt and self-satisfaction, perhaps it should be contemplated as if it were presented  by Lao-Tzu or the Dali Lama. There is more peace and satisfaction, room to ponder and create, when your life has a sense of order. After all, good results are difficult when indifference predominates.




6 thoughts on “Prepare Yourself

  1. I am an artist, though that is just degree, and in my experience, if I do all the prep first, I will never get to my artwork. The ego has a way of bringing up an endless list of things to do first before I am worthy of the great privilege of sitting down to do creative work of any kind. This I find to be the truth for me. So unless I can smile at or ignore chaos and, or move through it, and harvest it and it’s lessons and energy and turn it into order and art and beauty….where was I?….then I do not move forward. disorder stimulates it’s opposite. How many studios are neat? Not mine, when I had one. I could not create out of/ with neatness, order. I cannot cook without an orderly kitchen however. I clean and organize as I prep and cook…. but I’m not a very good cook either. 😀

    My conclusion here is that life in the physical dimension is chaos and order revolving like the yin /yang symbol which opposite energies do create action, evolution even, progress. Life. It’s a dance. I think we are in this mix to learn to create order out of it. Like dark and light, day and night they are intermixed. One does not exist without the other. This is my take on it all. I enjoy your writing, Larkin.

  2. My experience as a writer is nearly opposite. I have a real love/hate relationship with my work. Hate to start, hate to stop. Love it when it works, otherwise I struggle. Things do go better for me when my life is not such a mess. When I was somewhat younger I romanticized the chaos, much in the same was that I romanticized the drinking and other vices, as being part of the romantic life. And while you’re right that some people create despite the wreckage, if they could have a life without all the detritus and stress, would they create more or less? It’s an interesting question. I wonder if this isn’t part of the reason that people go to writer’s and artist’s workshops to spend time in more serene and orderly environments. 🙂

    • I am romanticizing a little maybe — habit of flying high in imagination, and looking down on life, in flight, escaping the details for an more soothing overall look at things. I am a recovered/ing alcoholic. Lately I think all humans are just addictive, period. But when my life is a mess,… in retro, those are the great lesson times, and the pain is a stimulant for new growth, new attitudes, usually a need for my surrender. And the same issues keep happening until I do. Though the ego usually has me by the t..oes until I have the courage to look at my part in causing it all. Meanwhile I lose hair and wear my body out in stress that I just can’t help.

      I imagine a nice home and simple orderly rooms — in fact I have a magazine picture tacked on the wall of a Greek type home of simple stone floor that I can always walk barefoot on — in long silky dresses, minimal furnishings, white washed walls that leads to the sand and calm blue sea, and not another person or dwelling in sight.. But in it I have absolutely nothing to do, but just BE. I desire that so strongly it brings tears to my eyes, but it will not be in this life time. I think it represents the hunger for a mental state of peace and beauty, the other side of chaos, something about the soul, like the lotus blossom growing out of the murky pond.

      I go to the rare workshop but I love group energy in them, and the encounters with like minds. Some people are addicted to them rather than the “getting down and doin.” But I would go to them a lot if I could. Like going to school. I would take only art courses, writing, sculpture, which I am best at. Not a drop of academics in me. The path of creating beauty out of chaos is to me, the Way.

      You’re probably thinking I should start my own blog for all this waffling.
      I wrote that ridiculous horse story with the sketch of the Paint, which you published in your horse issue way back when, in Livingston Weekly. I remember your painful journey with the local gendarmes.

  3. I too need to have order around me to unleash the creative… and I assure you it has nothing to do with being industrious really. I just feel and behave more creatively with there my surroundings are at peace… it opens me up like nothing can. Well surroundings at peace and trashy TV playing mindlessly in the background!

  4. I found your blog because I saw the sewing machine “pass along.” I found your comments on your reaction similar to mine. I live in ordered chaos (seemingly by choice) but do find that each day is better if I plan (make lists ),tackle myself,and clean work areas. It is like girding my loins for battle 🙂 My life is so eclectic that it is certainly never boring. I laughed at the 1949 article but it does make satirical sense. I think the article and your blog post should be a fun innteractive day in a family values class 🙂 Now I have to go change clothes, brush my hair, and clean the dining room so I can use the table to assist grandkids do their science fair boards. Thanks for the fun start to my day.

  5. I am a musician, poet & educator with a doorbell sign ‘A creative mess is better than tidy idleness’ (my neighbor Betty Pike’s sign). I can retrieve an item in clutter at will. I agree that a creative person should dress up & be at her best. (now typing in denim dungarees, tennis shoes & comfort clothes) I found this article to be highly amusing! ~ joye

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