Stuff Part 2: The clothes

I’ve already written about the Worst Day of My Life, which was the day when I found out I needed brain surgery. That was the day when I went from “living with cancer” to “living with cancer,” if you know what I mean. It was the day when I started out thinking of myself as someone who was handling life’s challenges and living with cancer largely under control. But as the day progressed I realized that I was back at square one, knowing that the cancer was really in the driver’s seat and was likely to pop up at any part of my body and wave its restrictions into my life (no driving, immediate admission to hospital, prep for surgery ….) This is enough to turn your world upside down.

There were more issues than I knew how to deal with, and a raft of new questions appeared. If I could not call the shots in my life anymore, who was I? And what about my family, who surely had not signed up for this insanity? Honestly, for them especially I just wanted a ‘normal’ life. But no, now they eagerly offered me food and rides and company and moral support… it’s enough to make a girl teary, all the time.

Given that there were more concerns than I could possibly hold in my head at once, my first concern was, of course, did I have what I needed to wear for this new life of mine?  In fact, this was a small subset of the question, What is my life, now that cancer appears to have taken over the driver’s seat?  And just like that, rather than ruminate on the new state of my life, I dove into the literature of closet organization.

I peeked down the rabbit hole of minimalism, and it isn’t pretty. I’ve heard this is a common thing for people who are experiencing a health crisis, in which they get overwhelmed by the “stuff” that increasingly fills our lives. I came home from the hospital hopped up on steroids, mind warped by opioids, and could only think about how I needed to SIMPLIFY my life.

The promise is eternal – control your physical existence and you can control your life. The idea first took hold when I was introduced to Marie Kondo’s Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. You can reject things! it promised. You can say no the obligations that come with owning and caring for the material. Beyond the organization specialists like Kondo, minimalist blogs offered even a little more, as they held out the promise that you could create a sense of personal attainment through the critical editing of your very existence. Minimalism offers a route to reject consumerism, excess, capitalism, identities

I’ve long known and believed that clothing is important.  As one CBC host recently remarked, “Clothes are a passport to belonging.” Wearing appropriate clothing is how we present ourselves to the world. It’s how we express our desire to belong or to blend in or to stand out. Clothing is what we wrap our bodies in for our own protection and care. I need to wear clothes to signal that I love and care for my body, even when it’s in a state of weakness and need. I need to wear shoes that keep me feeling secure while relearning how to walk. I need clothes to signal that I am still a committed member of society, that I want to be approached, to engage, to connect.

[An aside: I’m not sure that I nailed that last one when I traipsed around University Hospital in a bloodied hospital gown, especially not after I made it all the way past the cafeteria, down to the first floor, and out the front door for a breath of fresh air, swaddled in two hospital gowns and a drooping pair of hospital pants.]

Obviously, this needed to start with my shoe collection. I came home and successfully sold 2 almost-new pairs of boots. I found minimalist blogs like Style Bee and Un-Fancy, both of which offered a way to a soothing palette of colorless clothes that promised to uncomplicate my life so that I could focus on What Really Matters. I took all my clothes out of my closet, piled them on my bed, and created a wardrobe capsule. Keeping busy took my mind off the pain and at least half-convinced myself that I was working towards becoming the self that I needed to be for the coming winter of my … what, exactly? Discontent? Infirmity? Convalescence? Healing? After a few weeks my friends Elaine and Hilary arrived and talked me out of the 2/3 of my wardrobe that no longer fit my daily activities. Some items went out for consignment, some to Goodwill, and some are languishing in storage until the appropriate season for sorting arrives. Hilary now sends me regular photos of herself wearing some of my cast-offs as part of her successful work-from-home lifestyle.

I’ve long sensed a shift coming in how I present myself to the world. When you go from being a young, fertile woman to being a middle-aged caretaker of oneself and others, something shifts. You are no longer in the world to add beauty and desirability, to be admired or pursued. (This was always a rough go for me, anyway.) In such circumstances, a woman may suddenly come to understand her role as one of action and subjective experience, rather than passivity.  This transition has the potential to be liberating and invigorating, or it could be disappointing and erasing, depending on how you happen to experience it.  Style icons can easily shift from Audrey Hepburn, to Iris Apfel and various of my dearest friends.

I guess that now it is time to make a shift, from presenting myself to the world as feminine, attractive, and pliant, to presenting myself as a being in need of self-care and ready for action. When I start asking, “How shall I present myself to the world?” what am I really asking is, “How do I feel about my body, and how do I want others to feel?” I’ve spent a lot of time lately sitting in hospital beds and doctor’s offices reading magazines, flipping through images of women and men dressed to present themselves in various states of action and desirability to the viewer.  #MeToo

  • How do you feel about your body?
  • How do you feel about your identity?
  • How do you feel about your status?
  • When you feel fabric coddling or constraining your stomach, breasts, hips, feet, butt, etc., do you feel comfortable/acceptable/in control/appropriate/participatory?

There is something about the act of choosing and putting on clothes that makes me wonder about how I desire to be seen. The clothing itself is a mediator between my body and the world. It shows me, for example, that time has passed, even if I’m not aware that it has. My brilliant husband observed, “This is you, dealing with your life, in your most you way.”