Recently, I decided to conquer an inner anxiety and do something new. It wasn’t skydiving or anything dangerous. I was hoping to follow a pattern and sew myself some clothes. I write knitting patterns, so am very familiar with the notion of “winging it” and making my own design, but I needed to go back to the beginning with sewing.
As a teen, my mom insisted I take sewing lessons and my dad did them with me. (My dad was good at it and made himself a bathrobe and the upholstery for a convertible he restored!) The sewing assignment was to counteract my terrifying enthusiasm for my mom’s fabric and yarn stash. I’d dive into her stuff, grab scissors, cut fabric up and make things. For instance, I made myself shorts out of some old Winnie-the-Pooh curtains – and my mom was livid. Why? Well, she’d sewn those curtains for me as a kid in the first place. As a teenager, I couldn’t figure what she was saving them for, and I likely upset her by “taking her stuff” and hurting her feelings. She made something, and I remade it without asking. Worse than that, I didn’t use a pattern to do it!
My mom’s discipline as a seamstress came from required dressmaker/tailoring coursework she’d taken at Cornell University. When she was a student there, young women had to take home economics. My mom already could sew like nobody’s business, but she learned a lot from those required courses. It made her crazy to see me break all the rules.
Her reaction to my freeform creativity is probably what made me so anxious about my ability to follow a pattern as an adult. It was a mental block. Even though I am fully capable of it, I still feel anxiety when I face the tissue paper cutouts and instructions.
Now that I have sewn one dress, following a pattern exactly, I’ll let the truth out. I’m halfway through a second sort of vest/tunic based on the first dress pattern, and I’m already winging it. Once I started again from the beginning, I regained my crazy freeform gusto. I can’t hold back!
Each year, we, as a Jewish people, start something right from the beginning. We begin reading the Torah, starting with the creation of the world. We jump into B’reishit, Genesis, and we hear a familiar story. Some people roll their eyes, saying, I’ve heard this before. However, like learning anything new (sewing, for instance), the learning curve is steep. There is a lot in there.
As a sewer, I saw things I missed the first time I followed a pattern. I didn’t do something wrong, I was just less practised before; I was a beginner. Those of us who have been studying Jewish texts every year, reading the Torah portion or commentaries or Midrash – well, we all start out as beginners and eventually become more immersed in the material. There is always something rich, new and different to consider or pursue as we read it again.
It’s like rereading a favourite novel. Now that I know how it’s going to end, I don’t have to rush. I can enjoy all the twists, the foreshadowing, the way the writer uses the language in telling us the story. I see and understand things that I might have missed in a first reading.
I’m not going to lie. Just like sewing, knitting, cooking or building something you’ve made before, rereading the text can feel rote, like you are on autopilot. Sometimes reading a familiar text is actually an opportunity to meditate on something different altogether.
This morning, I dug into making that vest because I needed something with pockets to go with my Shabbat skirts or dress pants. I wanted to make something that would come out OK in a life or world that sometimes seems very unpredictable.
By the time you read this, Simchat Torah and the Canadian federal election will be weeks over, but our new year is really just beginning. It’s a time of great potential, even as the light fades earlier each day. We have so much good and creative work ahead of us. Rereading B’reishit gives a chance to relive something magical and important to our identity as Jewish people – an origin story. At the same time, the characters of Genesis offer us insights into today, into our lives, identities, families and communities.
It’s true that sewing is an old-fashioned skill that I’m getting a hold of again. However, like Genesis, we can say “Look! Everything old is new again!” and jump into learning with emotion – and enthusiasm.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.