My birthday present was beautiful. It was an olive-green, herringbone-patterned jacket, a blend of wool, silk and cashmere, with leather-lined collar and cuffs, from Bullock & Jones, San Francisco. A custom-made dress shirt, of Egyptian cotton so fine it felt like silk, white with narrow blue stripes, made in London by Turnbull and Asser, accompanied the jacket.
They were beautiful. They suited me well.
Immediately, I tried them on. I loved them. They were a perfect fit, although I certainly couldn’t wear the shirt, which was long in the torso, without tucking its tails into my waistband.
They were from a second-hand shop. I had never before received used clothing as birthday presents.
We were both pleased. We “got” each other. We had dinner.
In my office I have an old, slightly faded, picture of myself — one of those small, square Kodak photos with the scalloped edges — standing in the school yard on graduation day with my classmates at Bakersville Grammar School in Manchester.
I see myself standing proudly, on that sunny June day, crew-cut hair newly shaped by my father, wearing a suit that weeks before had belonged to a much older brother. Today, I can see in the photo that the fabric is too heavy for summer, the shoulders are a bit too broad and the lapels a bit too wide for my adolescent figure. I’m sure I didn’t think of those details so many years ago, but I remember getting the suit.
What I clearly remember are the hours my mother, and Sittoo, my grandmother, spent cutting it down and fitting it to me.
Unfortunately, just as vividly, I remember my resentment during those fittings, as I fidgeted and whined, that I wasn’t able to get a new suit or sports jacket to commemorate the day like most of my fellow graduates.
Growing up, I was the third of four boys. New clothes came primarily at Christmas and Easter. Occasionally my younger brother and I wore what our brothers had worn. It wasn’t always our taste, but when money was tight we all made things work.
That graduation suit looked great. My family was proud and graduation was a great day. Summer quickly passed, and in the fall I began at Central High School, entering into a challenging new world of imagination and ideas that I never imagined existed. It was an exciting time. It set me on a path that would inspire me to travel across conflicts and continents in the coming decades; a path that eventually would lead me to visit my parents’ and grandparents’ villages in Lebanon, and where I would come to more fully understand the distances they had travelled to make that graduation, and that suit, possible.
I had forgotten that suit until this birthday. I never got a chance to apologize for that whining, fidgeting and ingratitude. I never got to say, “Thank you, I love this suit.”
It’s taken many false starts and struggles with ignorance and wrongly conceived preconceptions to fully recognize that beauty emanates, not from objects, but from acts of mindfulness, love, inspiration and creation. Synergistically, it’s ideas, loving hands and laughter and sacrifice that add depth and meaning to our lives. Not things. Not suits.
I have now de-accessioned a lot of what I had previously owned. There is much more yet to give away. I have donated clothes bought in New York, London, Paris and Beirut and I have replaced them with clothes, Levis, North Face, Timberland that I have bought at local thrift and second-hand shops. While I do draw the line at used socks and underwear, I can now go days at a time without wearing something for which I had paid retail. My kitchen is outfitted with new tools, flatware and dishes bought locally, Dansk, Braun, Oxo, all used, sometimes matched, sometimes not.
They are all beautiful.
I love the idea of finding utility and beauty in things that are used.
Certainly there is a “green” interest in recycling materials and products and I support that, but to me it’s also about finding ways to weave history, beauty and mystery into our lives. I wonder, for example, about the man who ordered these beautiful, barely worn clothes and abandoned them.
He was taller than I. His arms were the same length as mine. He had a 15½-inch neck. He had great taste. I wonder what happened to him.
I love the idea of someone who “gets” me well enough to feel free to give me second-hand clothes without caveats or justification. I love the ceremony of lovingly wrapping a used shirt without apology. The mindfulness of acts of loving, of giving, is itself the gift of beauty to which we must all be receptive.
There was a third gift on my birthday: playing cards. After dinner, I was taught a new card game, “Spite and Malice,” and we played long into the evening. It’s a cutthroat card game and it quickly degenerated into a no-holds-barred competition between two people who may know how to love but don’t know how to lose. We’re both very competitive, and my mentor gave no quarter to the fact that it was my birthday.
As we played, I flashed back decades, to weekends when my father and his friends played “Bosra,” a card game I’ve never learned, long into the night. The women served Turkish coffee and chatted while the men played, sometimes cursing, sometimes muttering, sometimes slamming fists down on the kitchen table. These men worked hard. They also played hard, to win. At the end of a hand there were always triumphant roars of laughter. Always the laughter.
On my birthday we played to win. We laughed as the evening ended.
In “The Alphabet of Grace,” Frederick Buechner writes that after confession and tears, there will be healing that includes “Great Laughter.”
I love the idea of that.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.