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:
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.