One of the most memorable customers in my first job at the dry cleaners in college was a woman who came in and accused us (me) of ruining a very expensive scarf. She pointed to one tiny thread and insisted that we pay her for the scarf, which was several hundred dollars. It was one of those customer service interactions where you remember the person and hope that you don’t have to speak to them again.
Not two weeks later, this same woman came in and plopped what looked like a pile of knitted sweaters for mice on the counter. I stared at the pile for a moment too long and looked back up at her. She lifted one of the miniature knitted pieces and held it aloft, revealing that it was not actually a mouse sweater, but rather a pair of knitted brief underwear.
“I need your seamstress to sew new elastic into these.”
My first thought was to wonder what brings a person to a point where they bring their saggy unmentionables to a dry cleaner’s so a stranger can sew new elastic into the waistbands. Perhaps her grandmother knitted those. Maybe her lover had a sweater fetish. I don’t know her life, I guess, but it was a rather odd request.
I peeked at the pile again, now wishing they were actually mouse sweaters instead, and looked back up at her. “Let me go check with Betty.”
I picked up one of the sweater panties using the very tips of two fingers and carried them back to the hall closet we had converted into an alterations room. “Betty…”, I whispered. She turned and looked at me holding a pair of knitted briefs with a look of confusion on her face.
“I know, I know. Do you do this? Will you revive these old, knitted nether garments?” I asked her, trying to have a serious face. Betty turned the woman down, sending her on her way with her saggy, wooly drawers to the dry cleaners down the street and that’s the last I remember of her. Perhaps once you’ve asked a stranger to breathe new life into your old panties, you find another seamstress.
Now that I’m remembering this story, I’m feeling a little sympathy for the woman. I know what happened to her and her saggy underpants. I know because I am her.
I am at the point in my life now, where my college clothes are literally falling to pieces. Three different pairs of shoes have succumbed to decay in the past week alone- their soles just finally gave up hope.
My underwear drawer is a sad array of stretched out elastic. I place my current inventory of underwear in two categories. The larger category is my “pajama” underwear- the kind that isn’t so tight that it cuts off the blood supply to my legs while I sleep. The reason, friends, that pajama underwear is so comfortable is that the elastic is so old that age has rendered it almost useless. The smaller category are what I classify as “work” underwear. This underwear is tight enough that it won’t move around while I’m going on about my day but I also can’t eat a full lunch.
I keep these two categories in a very rigid rotation. Pajama underwear at night, work underwear during the day. Last week, I got busy one morning and forgot to put on my work underwear. I knew walking into the building that we were going to have a problem.
It’s the slow crawl that you feel inside your jeans. In a mere 20 minutes, my underwear had gone from fully on to hanging listlessly around the crotch of my jeans. It was as if my underwear had given up hope and needed to sprawl across the chaise lounge crotch of my jeans. Have you ever tried to teach the present continuous tense while your saggy, sad underwear hang out around your pelvic girdle? I highly doubt it, reader. It’s very uncomfortable. I kept having to run out of the classroom to the bathroom so I could hike my underwear back up to a reasonable altitude.
If I am being honest, saggy underwear seems to be a good representation of how I feel right now. I’m trying to get the job done, but I get tired and soon, I’m not able to get anything done at all.
After the tornados that tore through Dallas a few weeks ago, we awoke to no power and no school. Alex headed off to brave the post-storm DFW rush hour traffic and I schlepped the children over to Taco Cabana for a hot breakfast. I also charged my phone there, which deeply embarrassed my teenager because he was convinced that all the morning commuters grabbing their breakfast tacos thought we were homeless.
It was a stressful day, no doubt- an exclamation point to the end of a stressful week in which American Airlines canceled a fun weekend getaway trip for Alex and I and then the Baby had a regularly scheduled, not a big deal surgery, but still wasn’t feeling 100%. I spent the day wrangling a toddler who was indicating, in his private sign language, that he was hungry and thirsty but he wouldn’t eat or drink, responding to texts from friends and family checking in on us, rearranging doctor and therapy appointments, calling our home health agency because we had run out of oxygen, and moving all of The Baby’s medical equipment to my in-laws because Robo-baby needs power to sleep.
After nap time, I was feeling the stress get to me. To head it off at the pass, we went to a local park so The Kid could fish and The Baby could play on the playground. The Baby wasn’t in a playing mood. He was more in a lay-on-the-rubber-surface-and-swipe-the-ground-with-my-hand-and-occasionally-lick-it kind of mood so ‘playing’ lasted about seven minutes.
I decided to try feeding him again so we drove to the nearest chicken joint in the hopes that they would have grilled chicken (they didn’t), so I left with a tub of mashed potatoes, the only soft menu item The Baby would eat. We drove back to the park and parked in a parking place near where The Kid was contentedly fishing.
I was bold and tired (mostly tired) so I decided to feed The Baby the mashed potatoes in his car seat. This is a courageous move on my part, because my car is my inner sanctum and I rarely allow anything to sully it. At the beginning of our marriage, Alex spit in my cupholder once to prove a point and I started weeping.
Anyway, let me tell you. I scooped the first bite of mashed potatoes into The Baby’s mouth and this little twit scraped it off his tongue and flung it into the nether regions of my pristine vehicle. Who knows where it landed? I still can’t find it. It’s probably clinging to some interior crevice where I won’t know it until it wipes against me some night in the dark.
I tried giving him a couple more bites, getting more and more frustrated by this hungry toddler who was decorating my car with his dinner instead of eating it.
I’d had enough.
I shut the car door (with the Baby safely contained therein).
I walked 20 feet, sat on a bench facing a cemetery, and sobbed.
My secret inner emo kid, the one who loves to listen to sad music and have a good cry in the car while also pretending that it’s a first-person intro scene of a very good movie, was loving the whole sobbing on a bench near a cemetery thing.
During the day, I think I had pictured myself as the mouse in Fantasia, like a magical conductor of all things that needed to be conducted. Communicating with family! Logistics! Feeding everyone! Whilst I stood in the middle, the mops and brooms and buckets of soapy water beeped and booped in the air around me. I reveled in it. Or at least I pretended to.
Why do I think it’s cool when I’m having to juggle my whole life at once? Why do I overextend myself and, while I’m in the middle of being pulled in 3.5 million different directions, think that it’s somehow an accomplishment? Why? Why? Why? I had started the day, the week, the month, the year, my parenting journey, my marriage with such good intentions. Why was I now sobbing on a cemetery bench like the protagonist in an Edgar Allan Poe poem?
Truthfully, even five years ago, I thought that letting stress get to me was sinful. I might not have couched it in those terms, but having a meltdown was definitely an indication that I wasn’t trusting God enough. If a friend was feeling distressed, my goal was to get them to “give it to God” (as if they weren’t already doing so). If I was feeling distressed, then I prayed or read scripture about not worrying. I just wanted the stress to go away.
To prove this to you, I present an excerpt from an old prayer journal from middle school in which I said the following about myself:
I am lucky to say that I am abnormal. My abnormalness comes from my uncanny sense of happyness. Yes, that is right. I am labeled “abnormal” because I’m not the normal gross-minded, dirty-joke telling, cussing, melancholy, teenager. I am excessively happy.
To be fair, I didn’t have much to be sad about growing up. My life was pretty fantastic, but I’m not a robot. There were times where I was sad or angry or scared, but I felt a moral imperative to paper over those ‘negative’ emotions with a smile and a “God’s got me!”
That excessively happy paradigm no longer works for me. It feels too thin and I need something weightier to hold all my grief and stress now. I can’t just ignore racism and hope it goes away. As much as I wish I could, I can’t ignore the giant elephant in my face all day long that The Baby’s care might not ever get much easier. If I could learn to ignore hormonal teenage mood swings, then I would be a gazillionaire, but I haven’t got that figured out yet.
These things are too heavy to be papered over but I don’t know quite how to deal with all of them yet.
The day after my cemetery sob session, I was doing a morning meditation and the man with the accent I can’t quite place said, “Stress is what we feel when there is a gap between what we want to have happen and what’s really happening.”
It was like a lightbulb went off.
Something about that definition has helped me (at least a little). Last week, when I was driving somewhere and the traffic was unending, I felt my stress start to ramp up and I thought, “Hey Beth, I know that you don’t want to be sitting here in this traffic. It sucks. But you can’t do anything about it. It just is.” Slowly, I felt my body return to baseline as she realized that was true.
Maybe I like it because it acknowledges that things are hard first, whereas the small Beth just wanted to pretend like the hard things weren’t hard so God wouldn’t be mad at her. This definition says, “I know things are hard. I see that. I feel it. They aren’t as you would like them to be. But what can you do?”
I need that grace. Crave it, actually. If you really want to see my heart, you’ll ask me how *I’m* doing and you’ll let me be honest. Life is just really hard right now and if I lift my head up from the day-to-day grind to peek over the horizon, I don’t see much hope in it changing any time soon.
Life is not how I would script it if I had the divine pen. I’m coming to grips with just how little control I really have. I’m learning to ask for help. I’m trying to give myself grace.
And sometimes that looks like tending to my saggy underwear attitude by just letting it sag for a second longer- a saggy, sobbing mess in front of a cemetery.