Still to be neat, still to be dressed,
As you were going to a feast;
Still to be powdered, still perfumed:
Lady, it is to be presumed,
Though art’s hid causes are not found,
All is not sweet, all is not sound.
Give me a look, give me a face
That makes simplicity a grace;
Robes loosely flowing, hair as free:
Such sweet neglect more taketh me
Than all the adulteries of art;
They strike mine eyes but not my heart. —Ben Jonson
Sometimes I need to be reminded of this. I’m not sure how it happens; it’s always very sneaky and insidious. It happens just a little bit here, and a little bit there, and one day you wake up and realize you keeping thinking about how to make your clothes look nice, how to make your house look nice, how to make you look nice—and that somewhere along the line, you forgotten or misplaced the fact that it isn’t those things that matter at all.
For me, it starts sneaking in when you supposedly see supposedly perfectly normal people who supposedly have it all together (sometimes you know better on at least one of those counts, if not all three, but that’s where it starts anyway). And for me, the place where it all comes crashing down as the nonsense it is is when I look through fashion magazines. Not that I have a lot—one time I got a one year’s subscription to Burda and one year I got a subscription to Vogue Knitting.
In some ways it is so fascinating to pick apart their sets. How do they get these garments to give the impression of the theme they want to give? Mostly, the garments don’t have much to do with it—it’s the accessories or the locations, or the way they painted the models. I can spend time wondering how and why they chose that accessory, or marvel at how they can make a perfectly plain sweater look amazing by wearing it over a breath-taking dress. But the more I look at them, the more it all crumbles away.
Have you ever looked at artwork from years past, or old photographs? And when you see a beautiful woman, what do you see? I can never remember their clothes—but their faces can make a huge impression on me. Their eyes and their lips, mostly, and they are alive. And you see the eyes and lips of the models, and—besides being covered in gobs of makeup—they look haggard, tired, sad, empty, dead.
They’re supposed to be the beautiful ones, but the more we look at the them, the more we pull back. When we look at pictures of someone who is really alive, like a young child having the time of their life, it’s different. The more we look at it, the more we are drawn in. The first has been carefully arranged to strike our eyes, and the other rings true in our hearts.
And there is another thing that makes me sad about looking through these magazines, every single time I do it. They assume your only goal is to catch the eyes of every and any man. Can that really have any appeal? No, wait—let me change that. It’s not what I meant. Can that bring any respect? Can they have any respect for one who presents themselves as so shallow, one who wants to take nothing but the eyes? Can they have any respect for someone who acts as though the ones they are trying to catch have nothing worth catching except the eyes? I don’t really need an answer to those questions, because I know the answer for myself.
The people that fill me with respect are the people who catch the hearts of all who see them. No one cares what they look like, but everyone wants to be with them. The writing that I enjoy is not the carefully-honed-for-public-presentation, not the songs that have been carefully formulated to become hits—but the ones from the heart. The ones that look at themselves and life without flinching, and are honest when they speak of it. The ones that don’t really care about the way they’re supposed to be, but who really care about the way things are.
And everyone admires these people, the ones who strike the heart, but most of us just don’t have the guts to do it. We admire the ones with character and love and life graven into their faces, and yet we pursue whatever means necessary to keep ours young and smooth and line-less. We love the houses full of warmth that doesn’t come from a heating system, houses with no pretension and no scorn—and yet find ourselves trying to mimic the ones that are neat and “just so” and void of life.
Like so many things in life, I think it comes back to the illusion of control that we all want to cling to. In our heart of hearts, we’d like to just be the way we are, and be loved anyway. But we’re pretty sure, if we open up our hearts like that, no one will like us and it’ll hurt an awful lot. At the same time, we somehow think that if we can make people like what they see, they’ll like us. Or approve of us. Or respect us. So we hide away the heart, which is too risky and too dangerous, and carefully present ourselves to the eyes. Then, we think, we can control what people think of us.
But it is only an illusion. We have no more control, no more safety. I know that lots of time people will tell you this–that beauty is only skin deep, and about truth being more important than appearances. But we just don’t have the guts to say “I don’t care what people think they see. I don’t care what people think about what they see. This is life.”
And it goes so much deeper than just the clothes we wear or how often we sweep the front steps and whether or not our drinking glasses have chips in the rim. People will give you the lip-service—they’ll tell you the best things in life are free, that no one ever wished they’d spent more time at the office. But no one really believes it. The things that cost money look good; the time in the office looks like the way to get ahead in life. The people who’ve had it all and done it all are the only ones who mean it. They took what looked good, and found it still left their heart empty. They try to tell the people who come behind them, but the people who come behind can’t quite bring themselves to say, “I don’t care if it looks like I’m wasting my life. That looks good from over here, but I know it’s just a painted face.”
Because the people who say the best things in life are free aren’t really quite right. It’s closer to the truth to say things like “freedom is never free.” You don’t get the good things in life without a cost. You can’t live the life you admire and respect without giving other things up. Maybe it is money, maybe it seems to be the admiration and respect of others, maybe it is giving up the illusion that you know what you’re doing and where you are going. But there is a cost for the things that are worthwhile, and you will have to pay it. There will be no defaulting on this bill; you’ll be looking it in the face every day of your life.
But people—they don’t make a conscious decision, usually, to follow the eyes and never mind the heart. It sneaks up on them, in some insidious sort of way. They kind of don’t realize it’s happening, until maybe one day they wake up and realize they wound up where they never thought they were going. We some how get it into our heads that the important choices will be huge and looming, and announced with sirens and bright lights: Here is your important decision. For the right way, go that way. For the easy way, go that way.
We never really suspect that it’s the little choices that matter. Are you going to eat the right thing, or the easy thing? After a hard day at work, are you going to treat your family the right way, or the easy way? Are you going to go to bed at the easy time or the right time? We can imagine the life we love, all right. But we tend to forget that it doesn’t just “happen someday”. How we live our todays is how our somedays happen. Our somedays can look pretty cool in our minds, but until we’re ready to pay the price, it never happens.
And we all like the picture in our heads of lives touched by our lives. Of people gathered on your funeral day, saying how you inspired them, you helped them, you changed them forever. Of people saying you didn’t play follow-the-leader, you always did what you thought was right. People saying you made them sit up and take notice when you showed them what life was really about. About you being a breath of fresh air, being vibrant and alive. Bringing a smile to people’s lives, having a spark dancing in your eyes. You took their breath away—you were so honest. You said the things they felt, but never had the courage to say. You meant the things you did, meant the help you gave.
Everyone wants to hear that spoken about them, but we don’t usually have the guts to pay the price. We don’t have the strength to rock the boat, so—we’ll just try to make it look like we know what we’re doing, make people like us or respect us or admire us—we’ll just try to keep things neat and under control. We’ll strike the eyes of those of us around us, because it seems so much easier than striking the hearts. But in our own lives, we tend to forget the charm of those that strike the eyes, and carry with us the impact of those that touched our hearts.
Yet in our own lives, we tend not to live it. Not because we don’t want it, but because it seems so much easier not to. It seems much too hard to look to where you want to be, and go where no one else goes. It’s just too easy to be swept away with the crowd. And then you look over your shoulder, and you see someone off to the side, away. And it looks really good over there, but you’d have to fight so hard to get there, and maybe someday you will. Maybe tomorrow. But tomorrow never comes, it’s always today, and today it’s easier not to think about it.
And that’s when you need a splash of cold water, whatever that means for you. Looking through a fashion magazine, or finding again a poem you knew spoke the truth, and realizing that what you live today is what you’ll live tomorrow. If you have a someday painted in your head, you have to start living it today. And if there is anything in life that you admire, you’ll have to pay a price for it. For me it is the reminder that if one wants to strike the heart, one must forfeit concerns of how one strikes the eyes.
(And that’s why I’ll never be a fashion designer. I’m too pig-headed about doing it the way I want to do it, and “never minding” how other people want it, how it would sell, and how it’s supposed to be. I know it seems really odd to write something like this on a sewing blog where I’m all about making clothes, but that’s kind of the point. As soon as I start compromising on how I think things should look, I start really not liking what I’m doing. I can’t do it the way it’s supposed to be. ‘Cause someday I’m going to be an eccentric old lady, and the “old” part is the only part that will take care of itself. If I don’t be my eccentric ol’ self right now, I’ll always be bending to how other people think I should do it. Me is me.)