A snippet from a 1949 Singer sewing machine manual has been making the rounds among my friends, many who sew or have recently been involved in a sewing project. We all have had a good laugh at its dated preoccupations and sexist advice. It begins simply, however, with some universal wisdom:
Prepare yourself mentally for sewing. Think about what you are going to do. Never approach sewing with a sigh or lackadaisically. Good results are difficult when indifference predominates.
And then it continues:
Never try to sew with a sink full of dirty dishes or beds unmade. When there are urgent housekeeping chores, do these first so your mind is free to enjoy your sewing. When 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.
Lipsticks and husband-fear aside, this old-fashioned advice is strangely appealing and apt to my life today, especially for the time I spend in the kitchen. Its basic premise is that in order to be successful at our endeavors, we must align our physical world, reflected in both our personal presence and the things around us, with our internal intentions. There is a request here for focus, for a carefulness that is deeply respectful and which I find very calming and supportive.
In the kitchen, we approach this notion with mise-en-place, that super-specific way that chefs and crackerjack home cooks organize and prep their ingredients before beginning to cook. We understand that being tidy and organized is helpful. But the Singer sewing advice is also speaking to something more basic and foundational. It is asking us, through our deliberateness, to eschew indifference and to enter into intimacy, to bring presence and love to our activities. Good results are difficult when indifference predominates.
We are easily reminded to do such things in life's larger realms, in moments of great importance and relevance like a wedding or when working on a challenging or new project. Hopefully we understand this in our relationships with the living things around us: people, animals, plants, the natural world. But the truth is, everything we encounter deserves our carefulness and respect, every moment can be met with attention. Don't miss the simple act of measuring a teaspoon of salt or putting the lid back on the sugar, or forgo the pleasure in the way fresh mint leaves smell when you pluck them from their stalk.
Yes, the picture of the dutiful housewife worrying about her husband's arrival is dated and sexist and I won't be powdering my face (do I even own face powder?) or putting on a clean dress the next time I enter the kitchen. And I certainly won't consider the arrival of my neighbor as something to fear. But I will tidy up a bit, wash my hands, pull my hair back, put on an apron. I'll be sure the counter and sink are clear and that I have all my ingredients on hand. I'll sharpen my knife, plug in the food processor, and crack open my back door. I may even take a quick peek at the garden to see if there is anything there that needs harvesting.
But more than any of that, I'll try to remember that this is all in service of something more important. That it's about how much I care, and how close I get, and how much I notice. I'll try to remember that there's grace and wonder in the everyday, mundane activities of being alive, of picking up my knife and starting in on dinner. How can I possibly be careless to the smell of fresh mint rising from my cutting board on a cool, early summer's evening? How can I possibly be lackadaisical, how can I be indifferent, in the face of that?
(Image: Dana Velden)