When the Shirt is too tight

My uncle died this past weekend. My mother’s brother.

I was in Virginia visiting my son when I got the word. My parents also live in Virginia, so after finishing my visit with my son, I cut across from Roanoke to Richmond to spend a few days with my mom, hopefully helping her out, and going to the funeral, which was Wednesday.

I had not packed for a funeral. I had packed to do things with a 14 year old boy, so I had jeans, T shirts and tennis shoes. I had a sport coat only because I habitually use a sport coat as a casual jacket. So the day before the funeral, I was off to WalMart to get some cheap dress clothes – a shirt, tie, dress slacks, dress socks and a pair of black shoes. An unexpected expense, but far cheaper than doing the 11 hour drive to Vermont, then driving back to Virginia to get something out of my closet.

I brought everything home, took the clothes out of their wrapper and ironed them. I laid them out on the chair in my bedroom and the morning of the funeral, I slipped on the shirt and it was too tight.

Not just a little tight. No, this was not a matter of having gained a few pounds and my old size no longer quite fitting right. This was inches too tight around the neck. I could button the lower four or five buttons (although they were crying for mercy, they were straining so bad.), And the upper few buttons were never going to happen.

I looked at the wrapper again. 16 ½” neck. 33”-34” arms. Same size I’ve worn for a couple of decades. Then I looked at the tag on the back of the shirt. Size 16. As in boy’s size 16.

Somehow the wrong shirt had gotten in the wrapper.

Thank goodness in the big city WalMarts are open 24 hours a day. I made an early morning run to WalMart and got the right sized shirt an hour before we were slated to leave for Franklin, Virginia, 2 hours away, for the funeral. This time I didn’t trust the package, I read the tag in the neck. The second shirt fit. I was able to be respectfully dressed for my uncle’s funeral.

Driving back to Vermont last night, I thought about that little adventure. And about how often, after we’ve lived in it a while, our lives no longer fit us.

At times, our lives no longer fit us because we have changed. It was entirely possible that I had put on so much weight that shirt didn’t fit. I don’t exactly pay a lot of attention to what I eat, after all.

And a lot of times we don’t pay much attention to our lives. We just skate through them and suddenly realize they don’t fit any more. We are uncomfortable in our own life, wondering…. “how did I get here.?”

At other times we buy into a life advertised as one thing, that turns out to be another, just like my first shirt. We gladly invest ourselves in our lives, thinking they will lead us to a certain place, but the packaging lied to us, and we find ourselves as uncomfortably crammed into a life that doesn’t fit as I felt in that boy’s size 16 shirt.

But trading in a life is not as easy as trading in a shirt. We can’t run down to WalMart at the 11th hour and pick out a new life.

We can, however do something about a life that doesn’t fit. In fact, we should.

Some people let their lives slowly get so out of whack that they end up feeling like hey are in an ever compressing straight jacket (much the way I felt in that first shirt!). Honestly, that’s how it happens to most of us.

Others realize quickly that they have bought into something terribly wrong, but don’t know what to do.

Because for many, the only way they see out of their ill fitting life is to either rip it up and start over, or resign themselves to it. Ripping it up generally means they rip the buttons and seams of their life, often terribly hurting and damaging the people around them. Resigning themselves is ever more painful and sad. We all know people in both situations. Many of us have lived one or the other ourselves.

I’ve learned that there is a third way, something in between the nuclear option and the do nothing option. That we can craft a new life in tiny steps. We can’t do that with a shirt. But we can with life.

Tiny steps may be frustrating, because most of us want to just do it, like I went and got a new shirt.  but if we have the discipline to keep at the tiny steps, they can be liberating.

And they have a lot of benefits. Tiny steps means, when we do go off track, it’s only a little off track and getting back on a good path is easier. Tiny steps take less effort. They give us lots of small things to celebrate and encourage us.

There is a magic in tiny steps too. We whittle away at things, and for a while it seems like we are making very little progress, but at some point, we stop and look back and we’ve resewn our life into something that does fit. It’s like somehow we miraculously restitched that boy’s 16 into the men’s size 16 ½” neck shirt we really wanted.

People don’t notice the tiny steps, but they do wake up one day and go “Oh!”. And so can we.

One last thing…. When I went back to WalMart for the second shirt, I was a little more careful. I read the package first, but then I looked at the label in the collar to make sure it matched the packaging.

That’s a wise thing to do in life too. Take time to pay more attention the second time around. We’ll make mistakes, but make them new ones, and leave the old ones behind. What you will find, like I found with the shirt, is that when you recraft a life that fits, you will revel in it’s comfort, and it will be something special to savor.

Take care, Journey Wisely.

Tom

Lesson 19

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