When I was only 40, my favorite outfit was a t-shirt, a pair of worn-in jeans and white canvas tennis shoes, plain taste that puzzled my daughters who, at 4 and 6 years old, wanted to dress like celebrities. To keep pace with their fast-changing identities, I learned to sew—practicing on Snow White, Dorothy Gale, Red Riding Hood, and Tiger Lily costumes as I worked my way up to finer fabrics and more complicated designs. My most ambitious project was a shimmering pink organza princess gown that had to be finished by Catherine’s birthday. Because her older sister Alison was born on Halloween, Cat believed that everyone’s birthday was an occasion for masquerade.
Perhaps it should be. As I approach 50 in the same year my oldest child enters college, I feel the urge to shed the comfortable clothing I’ve spent half a lifetime trying to fit. Old habits—too much coffee, clock-watching, the idea that I can have it all—have served me so far, but I want to live differently for the rest of my life. I believe now, as I couldn’t in my twenties, in the virtue of patience. And though age has given me a better sense of my true talents and limitations, this wisdom has been delivered with its flip side: fearlessness. The old me wouldn’t try anything I wasn’t already good at. The new me was born a decade ago, at two o’clock in the morning, as I sewed an organza sleeve backwards and inside out, then struggled to be patient as I ripped out the errant seams and tried and tried again.
I should explain that I have no spatial skills—none!—and that up until then my life had been designed to let me sidestep my difficulty with maps and instructions for making sleeves. Writing isn’t easy; it can be lonely and frustrating and downright difficult. But at a certain point, I became a writer because for me not being a writer was the harder choice. Contrary to the notion of writers as crazy, I sit calmly at the keyboard and imagine my way through pages and chapters, following mysterious directions that aren’t nearly as clear as a Simplicity pattern.
Or, when my kids were little, as compelling. If I’d had an editor who was as eager as my children, calling over my shoulder every half-hour, “When is it going to be done?” I’d have completed ten novels by now. “Be patient,” I’d tell the girls, “I’m working.” But I liked the way their eagerness added urgency to the task.
In my twenties, I saw my life stretched out before me in a straight line, a series of promises waiting to be fulfilled: marriage, MFA, publication, fame and fortune, children (maybe). Now, nearly 50, I see how circuitous the path has been in reality, as pieced-together as the beautiful quilts, painstakingly stitched by my mother-in-law Marjorie, under which my daughters sleep. My destination keeps shifting; new passions (being a mother) move into the foreground and unexpected problems (finding time to write as a mother) sometimes block the path. And this, I’ve discovered, is how it should be. Though I teach my students that writing is process, not product, I haven’t always taken my own advice. But despite—because of—the obstacles, I keep at it because, ultimately, the goal is not to have written but to write.
The same, of course, could be said of life. The poet Rilke wrote to a friend, “In the difficult are the friendly forces, the hands that work on us.” When I was sewing, I was a student again, learning to quilt from my mother-in-law, asking questions of the clerk at the fabric store. I marveled at Marjorie’s skill and knowledge, and at the clerk’s patience as she folded miles of fabric corner to corner, taking her time. I like to think that my interest in sewing inspired them, the way my students’ interest in writing inspires me. After all, though the teacher brings her wisdom to the creative enterprise, the gift of the novice is faith.
Making costumes, I was trying to preserve—for my daughters, for myself—the belief that I could, at mid-life, still do anything. One of my proudest moments is when Alison selected the princess pattern for Catherine’s dress, with its impossible fitted bodice and three layers of skirt. “Mama, you could make this,” she said, within earshot of the experienced seamstresses. And so I found I could. On the morning of Catherine’s birthday, the princess dress was finished and hanging in her closet. In her excitement, she didn’t notice my sleepiness or the costume’s many imperfections, and—because I was still learning—neither did I.