Lessons from a White T-Shirt
Hi, I’m Christine! I’m a full time social worker and a part time writer. I love to write about what affects our lives. Thoughts we have, questions we raise and the ways in which we can grow and, hopefully, come to know. To become better, so we can then do better. You can find the link to my blog at the bottom of this post.
When I sat down to sketch out this piece, I was thinking of my recent fortieth birthday and realized that many of my thoughts involved lessons around confirmation of things I love: balloons, flowers, champagne and anything in a rose gold hue. None of those things really seemed pressing to impart, unless anyone out there is still on the fence about their love for champagne or a rose gold hue. Seriously though, lessons about balloons, flowers, gifts of any kind, homemade and otherwise, were not really what I felt or wanted to say.
What it turns out I was really meditating on, and really wanting to write about, revolved around a white t-shirt. I guess you could call this my William Carlos Williams moment. So much depends upon a white t-shirt / not glazed with rain water / with nary a white chicken in sight.
This white t-shirt of mine is that thing in the closet that just fits and feels right. It hits all the right marks. It’s worn in but not worn out; it has long grown accustomed to my body and its varying shapes. It’s soft and cozy and made of the simplest cotton. It cost nothing from the GAP and is my go-to with ‘athleisure’ or with jeans and a good sweater and fancier shoes. It goes with jewelry and without jewelry, so all-season and functional it is. That t-shirt has been with me and on me at varying points in my life. I don’t usually remember specific moments when I have had that t-shirt on, nor do I typically ascribe meaning to my clothes but, this time, in this season, that is precisely what I have done. I guess so much does really depend on the perfect white t-shirt.
On my fortieth birthday, I had on my favourite white t-shirt. It was a crazy and ebullient day that had been kicked off perfectly and beautifully two nights earlier when my friends, my chosen family, had me over to their beautiful backyard and feted me for my birthday. It was magic. There were treats and cake and champagne (told you I love it!) and above all there was love. I was completely touched and blown away and moved. I thought that was it: peak birthday. And I was right, that was peak birthday, but what I didn’t know was that there were still even more peaks to come.
My family from London driving down to see me and spending an incredible day with me delivering an amazing and handmade “40+ Things We Love About Christine” poster that was contributed to by everyone I love. Another friend had a handmade quilt delivered. My chosen brother and sister and I popped more champagne over FaceTime. There were flowers, phone calls, texts, complete and extravagant and wildly abundant love.
A week later my other chosen family had me over for another COVID appropriate celebration that included handmade cards from my nieces and nephews along with more grownup treats like wine. I never expected any of it and would never expect it again, but it was all amazing. Given that we are living through COVID, it was all even more unexpected. Truth be told, I didn’t really expect anything and, kind of like most birthdays, I never even gave it too much thought. I just kind of figured, especially given the circumstances, it would be full of plotzes. Maybe a plateau here or there, but certainly no peaks.
Needless to say, I was wrong. There was peak after peak after peak as everyone I love conspired to make magic and carry on this COVID/milestone/birthday for over a week. In the process, as magic and magical people are wont to do, they also taught me powerful lessons.
At this point before delving into said lessons, it needs to be said: I am not usually one for celebrating my own birthday. I love, love, love celebrating other people’s birthdays (and to anyone I may have ever over-celebrated — Mom, etc., I’m sorrynotsorry!) but less so my own. There’s a lot of attention and feels and, yes, some rando members of the clan come out of the woodwork and it can just feel like a lot to a character such as mine. Just as an example, the thought of having a wedding gives me hives. Not for fear of marrying the wrong guy, but mostly the spotlight of it all. Birthdays have always seemed like a mini version of that wedding to me and I would shy away from it, until this year, when, to my great and happy surprise, I found myself leaning on in.
I thought about why I had leaned in and gotten into the whole birthday spirit of things and realized that it was because, at forty years old, I was surrounded by exactly the right people. Every single one of them great loves in my life, and I was carried into a new decade on an absolute tidal wave of their love and best wishes. It is an amazing thing and one for which I am deeply grateful. It is also a thing that required work, cultivation and growth. As Jen Hatmaker writes, “If you carefully and consistently build the right things into your life, into your soul, into your relationships, into your very character it will all hold when your life unravels. Every bit of it. Crisis doesn’t destroy it; it reveals it. The healthy relationships you nurtured will be your anchor. Your good character [will keep] you true to yourself. Build it all while you are in the good cheer of daylight. Tend it all well. You will face your test[s], and whatever you have built is what will show up.”.
I, along with these loves in my life, have built it and it always, always shows up. Always. Which leads me back to the white t-shirt on which so much depends. As I said before, I have worn that t-shirt on hundreds of occasions which I do not remember and only two which have stayed in my mind. The first being the night my father died after a brutal fifteen months with pancreatic cancer. I was by his bedside, in his bedroom, at our family home, touching his hand and wearing that t-shirt. I feel as though I can remember every single thing about those moments. It’s as though there is a film reel in my head that I can call up and replay those scenes. The peace of it, the terror of it; the tears and me sitting there in that white t-shirt watching my Dad slip the surly bonds of earth.
The next time I remember wearing that white t-shirt, though I know I had worn it since, was on my actual fortieth birthday. My friends swung by, there were packages being delivered, toasts being made. It was a balmy day on Thanksgiving weekend and there was certainly a lot to be thankful for. And I was there, in my white t-shirt, laughing, celebrating, toasting; taking it all in settled and content as a new decade was being ushered in. It was when I went to change that night that I looked at that t-shirt and thought how I had worn it in such a happy time and also such a sorrowful one. I know there’s no meaning to an outfit and I was probably wearing it both times because it’s an obvious go to for me. Still though, I couldn’t help but see myself wearing it the night my Dad’s life was truncated, as well as, on the day when my life was carrying on and carrying on well.
So, that white t-shirt didn’t make me happy or sad - it was just something I noted as I went to put the t-shirt in with the wash on my birthday and continued getting ready for bed. The biggest thing I did note though was that, in both of those moments, what had been built had shown up in a big way. In sorrow and in joy, in crisis and in celebration what was built had held and it had help up beautifully and extraordinarily allowing me to be both held and free. A Course In Miracles says that “to give and to receive are one in truth”. The giving part has come easily to me but, until recently, the receiving part…..not so much. I don’t know all the whys and wherefores of it. Maybe it’s feelings of unworthiness, not wanting to ‘bother’ others. I don’t know, and another joy of getting older is I no longer really care about that which doesn’t really and truly matter. Yahoo forty!
What I really know now, and what I really care about and was just starting to see and to know when my Dad died, is that it all holds. Every right and true and good thing that you build in your life will hold and it will show up. And, if that means giving a celebration to someone you want to celebrate, then that’s what it means. If that means receiving celebration from those that want to celebrate you, then that’s what it means. If it means holding or being held, then that’s what it means. To give and to receive are one and that’s a lesson I am leaning in to, learning and plan to keep on learning.
My life has carried on well since my Dad died, and not just on a milestone birthday. It carries on well in the presence of his absence and it will continue to do so. Milestones will go on without him until my milestones are no more and that’s all okay. It has to be, and it really is. I read this quote from Elias Cannetti about ten years ago and loved it, but feel as though I am really beginning to live it now. Canetti wrote, “I would like to become tolerant without overlooking anything, become better without noticing it; become sadder, but enjoy living; become more serene, be happy in others; belong to no one, grow in everyone; love the best, comfort the worst.”.
It’s hard to hold all that confluence until you realize you don’t have to. It all just is. While walking with my Mom and Charlie the dog, in a beautiful park, on an amazing Fall day, I said out loud and almost involuntarily, “I love everything”. It was so shocking I had to ask my Mom if I’d just said it and she confirmed that I had. At first, I thought that was the stupidest and flakiest thing I have ever said (and I have said many a stupid and flaky thing), but I realized I meant it. I love everything, even the things that I hate, or, at the very least, really intensely dislike; the things I don’t want to happen or want to avoid or change. I love the people and the places and the things I really love and never want to end, but that end any way. I love the things I give and the things that I receive. I am learning to love all of it, and I can now because I know I can’t hold on to any of it as everything passes away.
As my friend says, everything ends, even the best things - but we still have to do them and enjoy them and live them fully while we can. Well, my birthday is over now, the white t-shirt is folded and put away until the next time I wear it. But the things that matter, the ineffable things: the love, the truth, the people who embody that love and that truth and make our lives richer, better and more substantial for it; the lessons that hold when everything else falls away, those things remain. The greatest gifts of all always do. Birthday or not, they are always ever-unwrapping, ever-present and maybe, just maybe, ever-echoing into eternity.
For more from Christine Quaglia, visit her blog on Medium.