7 Years Later: Mommy Still Wears Prada

January 15th, 2015

(and thrift, and Loft, and H&M, and Old Navy…)



Since we were talking about capsule wardrobes the other day, it occurred to me that some who remember Mommy Wears Prada might wonder what’s become of the designer pieces I brought home in 2008 after Good Housekeeping magazine decided to let a regular mid-American mom like me put “essential” wardrobe lists to the reality test. One whirlwind shopping trip to New York later, I was the owner of nine designer classics, with a stack of receipts in the neighborhood of $5000–several months worth of mortgage payments.

For those who don’t remember, I had something of a conversion experience. I had pitched the idea out of skepticism, but came around to deciding, on the whole, a $5,000 investment in feeling fabulous might be worth it. 

Easy to say when it’s not your own $5,000, right?  True enough. Before then, I had never spent more than $50 on an article of clothing I wasn’t getting married in. Since then, I very rarely spend more, as I rarely have more to spend. We’ve got three growing boys to keep in denim and sneakers, and the orthodontist’s lifestyle to maintain. But I do shop differently.  I think about the value of well-made garments and accessories differently. And if I had $5000 to splurge all on myself today, beautiful, well-made clothes would be high on my list of ways to spend it.

So, have the so-called essentials held up to seven years of living life out here in the suburbs? Have they still got the power to make me feel fabulous? Well, some have and some haven’t. Let’s go down the list (prices are approximate, from memory).

Black pencil skirt, Prada, about $350:

I loved it the moment I put it on, and I love it now. This is one of the pieces that has absolutely proved practical for real life. The fabric is some kind of high-tech miracle blend that gets me through four seasons, size fluctuations, and every kind of occasion from hanging out to dressing up. I’ve rarely had to clean it beyond a wipe with a damp cloth, and I wear it at least once a month. We have many more happy years ahead of us.

Worth it? Definitely! I’m wearing it right now.

Black crepe trousers, Prada, about $350:

Those lightweight wool crepe pants made a big impression on me when I tried them on. They looked like a million bucks. But I haven’t worn them as much as I’d have thought. My lifestyle usually calls either for dressing up (church, social occasions) or dressing down (housework, errands, writing), and not much in between. The Prada trousers are perfect for wearing to the office I don’t work at.

Worth it? I don’t know. Probably not for my needs, but it comforts me to know I have a beautiful pair of dressy black trousers in my closet. Just in case.

Black Burberry trenchcoat, about $1200:

I’ll just cut to the chase on this one, and tell you yes, absolutely worth it. I can still throw it over pajamas in the morning, bedhead and raccoon eyes, and hold my head high in car pool. It goes everywhere with everything, and it will when it gets passed down the line to a daughter-in-law or granddaughter some day, along with the whole fantastic story.

Alas, I lost the belt while traveling a few years ago. I stopped into a Burberry shop in Toronto to inquire about replacing it, and am still waiting for the day I have $300 I have no other use for. Until then, I’m keeping my eyes open for a thrifted one, or even a close match.

Worth it? Hell, yes. But use those belt loops.

White cashmere sweater, Loro Piana, about $750:

This was the one item I really choked on signing the receipt for. As I wrote in the article, it was a step or two up from my Ann Taylor cashmere, but I had a hard time fathoming that it was seven times better. On a cost-per-wear basis, it’s been a total bust. I’ve worn it about half a dozen times in seven years. Because you know who thinks luxury cashmere is a hundred times better and tastier than Ann Taylor cashmere? 

Moths do. Look it up. Moths are almost impossible to keep out of the really good cashmere. Even people with walk-in, cedar-lined vaults can’t keep them away. I’ve paid twice to have a professional weaver mend the moth holes in that damn sweater. Right now, it’s in a ziptop bag inside my freezer while I decide whether I even want to save it a third time.

Worth it? Only to the moths.

Gucci sunglasses, about $375:

Another item that was hard to swallow. If there was a difference between Gucci sunglasses and a nice pair of department store sunnies–besides a logo–I can’t tell you what it is. 

Worth it? Not to me. I’m hell on sunglasses anyway, so I gave them to my sister. She can be the one to lose them, or maybe she already has. I don’t ask.

Red, white, and gold Hermes scarf, about $400:

This is another piece that I fell in love with immediately, but rarely wear. I’m afraid of getting it wet or stained or lost. I haven’t really figured out how to wear it in a way that doesn’t feel like I’m screaming LOOK AT MAH HERMEZ. It’s like a beloved set of china I use twice a year.

Worth it? Maybe as a very special gift for someone. I gave a soft grey one to my mom, and that felt wonderful.

Black Manalo pumps, about $600:

Slipping into my first pair of designer shoes was big conversion moment for me. On a cost-per-use basis, the Manalos are a bargain. Like the Burberry, they have magical bibbity-bobbity-boo properties. The patent leather is getting pretty scuffed on the heels, though. I need to take them to the cobbler before it’s too far gone. Did I mention I’m not very good about taking care of nice things? And did I also mention that nice things can be expensive to take care of?

Nevertheless, I’ll never judge another woman for what she pays for an exquisite pair of shoes. I hope I can bring home a pair of Laboutins someday.

Worth it? Yeah, baby.

Louis Vuitton bag, about $1500:

I still get a little woozy when I think about that price tag. Louie and I have come a long way, though. He’s scuffed up and a little worn around the edges. Been rode hard, and put up wet. He’s a thoroughbred sentenced to life as a pack mule. And frankly, he’s better for it. Life with me has given him character.

I was adverse to the idea of a major statement bag when I met Louie, and he still makes a pretty loud statement. I’ve gotten a lot less self-conscious about it, but there are times he just has to stay home. I think we’ll stay together for many more years, but I’d like to get another luxury leather bag that has less to advertise.

Worth it? The quality of the bag is outstanding. Cost-per-wear over decades, it’s arguably worth fifteen hundred bucks.

No, I take it back. Who are we kidding? It’s a purse, not a trip to Paris.

I’d drop up to $500 on a classic leather bag without regret. Maybe there’s one out there that I’d prefer to a week in Paris, or a Greek cruise, but I haven’t met it yet.

J. Brand skinny jeans, about $175?:

Like the Manalos, my first ever pair of premium jeans turned my head 180 degrees around. I wore those jeans for years until they were distressed in all the wrong places, and then I went out and bought my second-ever pair (Earnest Sewns) right away. If there’s one wardrobe item I consider essential, it’s a great pair of jeans. 

Worth it? Definitely. Premium denim has miracle properties. I didn’t believe it until I wore it. And you don’t have to spend $200. For the same $40 you’d spend on a new pair of Old Navy jeans, you can find a thrifted pair of J’s on a consignment site like Twice. 

That’s the whole haul. Of the nine items, five are still wardrobe staples, seven years later. Two are under-worn, but still loved. The sunglasses were fun for a while. The cashmere is my only real regret (unless you count my everlasting regret over the dress I left behind–the Ralph Lauren sheath in the photo above, which didn’t make the final editorial cut).

The real keeper, as I wrote seven years ago, was the experience. It’s worn very well.


Imagine No Religion

January 13th, 2015

tree on church grounds

Sometime back in my twenties, I had a bumper sticker on my car that declared, “Religion was invented to keep the poor from killing the rich.” I was being deliberately provocative (wake up, you Bible belt dupes), but I also believed it. I was a bright young thing, and organized religion was for people who couldn’t or wouldn’t think for themselves. Having grown up around some deeply screwed up religion, I assumed religion itself was screwed up (though I was much less hostile to those that weren’t Christian). “I’m spiritual, not religious,” was my standard disclaimer.

Fast forward through some dark, difficult, humbling years. Through a lot of growing up. Today the back of my car sports a magnet proclaiming my membership in the Episcopal church. A follower of religion. Life is strange.

I’m thinking about my ironic conversion a lot these days because I see glimpses of my former blanket contempt for religion in some reactions to the latest round of atrocities committed in its name. I see it mixed up with the horror, revulsion and despair that I also feel about these unholy wars. And I get it. When terrible deeds are committed in the name of a god, as they are and have been since humans began giving form to belief, the common denominator can seem obvious.  If hatred, ignorance, hypocrisy, and corruption are what you constantly see coming from religion, of course you’d conclude that a world without it would be an infinitely better place. Of course you’d imagine no religion.

And of course we’d be in an imaginary world where there is still war, famine, disease, unthinkable cruelty. Because human beings would still be in it. There would just be other excuses for the inexcusable. We are the lowest common denominator.

If I’ve become an apologist for organized religion, it’s even in more trouble than we knew. But there’s another side–many more sides–to religion and religious people that doesn’t often make news. Facets that reflect love and courage and healing–even through humanity’s many flaws and imperfections. People who turn to religion because they meet their best, highest self there. Because they can confront their worst darkness there. Because it helps them discover what they can do to make the world a better place for us all. Because it helps them think more, not less. For me, religion creates tenemous space, finite and familiar, where I can connect with the infinite and unknowable. It enfolds me in a community where I have to work on extending my sense of  “we” beyond myself and mine, into community, into humanity. God knows I need the practice.

Not everyone needs a handrail to make it through this valley of the shadow, to stay on the path of love and hope through dark times. But some do.

I do. 

And I’m glad it’s there.




Capsule Wardrobes Are the New Kale

January 8th, 2015

Building a closet full of happy

2014-12-01 17.00.40


I’d never make it as a fashion blogger. For one thing, I don’t have a professional photographer boyfriend. Or a decent camera with a remote control. Or a selfie stick (or however it is those women are getting full-length, perfectly in-focus snapshots of themselves seemingly caught crossing the street, impeccably dressed. I don’t even own a full length mirror. I don’t know how my bottom half fits with the top until I see myself in the glass door at the supermarket.

But those are technical issues. My main disqualification for fashion blogging is that I lack the flair chromosome. Fashion is an inscrutable mystery to me, and always has been. It’s not a skill set I possess naturally, or will ever come by easily. Therefore it fascinates me. People who can coordinate complex layers of garments, patterns, textures, with multiple accessories–in other words, people who are put together–are another species. Like mantis shrimp, with eyes that have 12 types of color receptors to my paltry three.

I keep trying to crack the code. And just when I think I’ve figured some of it out (Eureka! I TIED my belt!), the mantis shrimp people go and change it.

It’s a fun puzzle. I’m an artist and a tinkerer, and I like learning the rules of things, so I can figure out how to break them. Ask any kid with a screwdriver in hand, and he’ll tell you: you’ve got to take stuff apart to know how to put it together.

I came across the concept of a capsule wardrobe last fall, and it must be in step with the 2015 zeitgeist, because suddenly it’s all over my social media feeds. Everybody’s doing the capsule wardrobe. Especially on Pinterest. It’s this year’s kale.

I think my original entry point was Project 333, but as I dug deeper down the rabbit hole, I swung more toward Unfancy, whose taste is closer to mine, and who is a little more elastic about the parameters. 

The parameters are what’s appealing. The basic concept is that you pare your wardrobe down to a set number of items per season. Some, like Project 333, include nearly everything in that number: jewelry, outerwear, shoes, etc. Others, like Unfancy, are more liberal in the interpretation. Either way, the idea is that by intentionally limiting the number of clothes you have, you’ll become more mindful and creative about what you wear. 

I fell in love with the notion right away, but when I posted about it on Facebook, I was surprised to get highly polarized reactions. Some (I’d venture to say they are mantis shrimp people) were baffled. What on earth could be the point of limiting one’s choices of what to wear? Others wryly responded that they’d have to expand their wardrobes to hit the maximum allowable number of garments–minimalists by necessity or nature. 

And then there were the people like me, who want to dress fashionably, but are generally overwhelmed by the scope of it all. Thirty three (or 37, or 30-ish) is a finite number, a fixed point in an ever-shifting sea of choices. Three months is a timeframe we can work with, without forcing an identity crisis. 

I decided to have a go at it, starting with the new year. Our mid-southern seasons are aligned a little differently than the standard fashion calendar year, so my winter capsule would go from December through February, rather than the suggested Jan-Mar span. And since December has come and gone, that means I only have to live with my choices for two months! However, I’d like credit for having purged several trash bags worth of clothes at the end of the year, in the course of trading my big bedroom closet for a much smaller one. 

(Note that ninety per cent of the purged items were party outfits, bought out of desperation at the eleventh hour, because I had “nothing to wear” to social events, where I spend ten percent of my time. Meanwhile, I was down to two pairs of jeans and a few shrunken t-shirts to get me through the other ninety percent I spend at home. Mantis shrimp people, don’t judge. Mere mortals like me need help.)

I’m developing this first capsule as I go, keeping a little journal of what I manage to pull together each day, what pieces are keepers, and what feels missing. A book of outfit recipes. 

2015-01-06 12.08.07

The goal is to have a closet that makes me smile instead of sigh when I open it each day. To get dressed on the first attempt, instead of the fourth or fifth, and to get on with things without all the negative self-image crap trailing behind me all day like toilet paper stuck to my shoe. The past few years have been the Second Coming of age thirteen in so many ways, and I’m so done with it.

So, what do you think? Does the capsule wardrobe sound like a useful strategy to you, or an instrument of oppression? What’s your relationship history with fashion? I’d love to know. 

Season Opener

January 6th, 2015

When a blogger has been absent from her blog as long as I have, you expect her to come back with a divorce announcement or rehab story–some kind of major plot twist. But I don’t have a big season opener, or even an explanation for the eight-week gap between posts, except that life has been full with sweet and ordinary things. 

Thanksgiving things.

Thanksgiving arrangement

Birthday things.

Birthday shoes

Crafty things.


Cozy things.

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Christmas things.

christmas2014moments 2014-12-14 12.10.35


 Church things.


And this sort of thing.

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Lots of that sort of thing.

It was lovely. 

And now it’s good to be back, fingertips tapping on keys. I like the sound of twenty-fifteen. The way the staccato syllables come off my tongue all crisp and new like cards dealt from a fresh deck.

I feel lucky.



Margins: Why I Take My Kids to Church

November 11th, 2014

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“Why do I have to go to church? I don’t want to.” My 13-year-old was bleary-eyed and cranky. Ten a.m. is far too early, by his reckoning, to be wrested from bed on a Sunday.

It was a rhetorical question–more protest than inquiry–and a moot point, since we were already on the road, but I responded anyway, in cheery dictator fashion.

“I know you don’t, and I respect that. I didn’t want to when I was your age either.” When I was in junior high, my best friend and I would sneak into the back of the Cathedral right before five o’clock Mass, grab the Sunday bulletin as evidence we been there, then split to go smoke cigarettes behind the mall. 

“You’ll be a grown-up person soon, and you won’t have to go to church if you don’t want to.”

“Good. I’m never going.”

If you want to amuse your mother, say never. 

“That’s alright. But someday you might need the church. Something might happen that’s too big for you to handle on your own. You’ll know it’s a place you can go, where you’ll feel at home.”

Maybe he pondered this, or more likely, he decided not to invite further edification with a rebuttal. We arrived late, as usual, and took our seats in a pew near the back.


Ours was a party of three–the oldest had spent the night at a friend’s, and Patrick, who doesn’t share my bone-deep love of ritual, can only be coaxed to endure high-church Anglican liturgical rites once a quarter. It was almost time for the sermon before we got settled.

Father Danny ascended the pulpit, and I sat up. I love when Father Danny has the sermon. He has the deep mind and the open heart I’ve come to expect from Episcopal priests, but his style has a touch of country tent preacher. He presses his palms on the pulpit rail, and rocks forward on his feet a little when he gets going. (If you’ve spent time in an Episcopal church, you know that’s a lot of spontaneous body language for an Anglican. They don’t call us the frozen chosen for nothing.) 

Sunday’s sermon was about preserving space around the busyness and business of life–leaving margins around our schedules, budgets, and relationships, instead of writing over them from the edge of one day to the next. Margins that leave room for breath, perspective, grace. A simple but illuminating metaphor that even a ten-year-old could follow (and did). And a perfect articulation of what I was trying to tell my teenager in the car.

I bring my kids to church to draw a margin around them. A space outside the bounded agenda of self and society, where something greater than the to-do list has a chance to enter. And I need the weight of the institution–that I once found so lumbering and oppressive–to frame it and protect it, when the craziness of the world presses in. I need people like Father Danny to remind me why it’s worth it–what meets us in the margins, in the small, still space.

How they honor that space when they are adults is up to them. What matters to me is that they know its outline.


During the announcements, I asked my son if he had listened to any of the sermon.

“Nah,” he said, “I spaced out.” I smiled. I demand very little of my boys at church–come along every few Sundays, don’t cause distractions, follow along in body if not in mind. Usually I let him bring a sketchbook, but he had been too sleepy to remember it. Instead, he had drawn in the margins of the service bulletin.

It was tempting to pick up where I’d left off earlier, summarize the sermon, point out the example of his creativity finding expression in the literal margins, tie it all together for him like a line of poetry diagrammed to death. 

I left it blank instead.




I carry your heart with me

October 3rd, 2014

I’m going on a cub scout campout this weekend, and there’s a million things to do before we can leave, so naturally I’ve been sitting at my desk in my nightgown all morning, going through old photos. 


Originally, I was going to pull a retrospective sample of snapshots from my improbable career as cub scout den mom. Since the Littlest Who crosses over to Boy Scouts in the new year, this is my last cub scout campout. I was looking for photos like this:



But then I got sidetracked by these:


They were taken in November 2007–only seven years ago, but an epoch in child years. The 15-year-old came with me a few weeks ago to pick up a mis-delivered parcel at our former address. He kept exclaiming how small everything was–the yard, the hedge where he and his brothers had a fort, the Japanese maple tree that was their ladder to the sky. He walked around like Gulliver in Lilliput.

2014-09-10 16.50.57

I thought I would feel more wistful about them growing up, leaving behind those little guys. But I love the big people they are growing up to be, too much to want to roll time back. And when I look at them, I see all their ages and stages, nested like matryoshka dolls. 

I look up at this man,


and I can still see this boy:

tree on north spruce

Nothing is left behind. I carry all the years with me.


[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]

by ee cummings

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
                                                      i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

The End of the Affair

September 26th, 2014

Processed with VSCOcam with m5 preset

My summer fling with the garden is thoroughly over. The last of the grape tomatoes drop to the ground and turn to raisins before I even notice them ripening. Cherry peppers wither on the stem. The cucumber vine is a pale wraith. 

faded corn stalks

The corn is dead to me.

dead flowers

My infatuation has faded to indifference. There’s a new season in town.


sewing with wine

cup of tea

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So long, my summer love. Maybe next year.


The Edge of Seventeen

September 18th, 2014
Rehearsing, circa 1977

Rehearsing, circa 1977


Tomorrow will be our seventeenth wedding anniversary. Which means I’ve now lived with my husband for more years than I lived with my parents. A span of time long enough to be halfway grownup. In Canada, our marriage is legal to consent to sex and drive a car. Which might suggest a fun anniversary date night theme.

We still weren’t all the way grown up when we met at 25 and 31. I look back at us then, eighteen years ago–even eight years ago–and marvel at how much we’ve changed. Then marvel more that our new selves have kept managing to find and fall in love with each other. It was a miracle it ever happened in the first place. That it endures seems more rare and wondrous every year.

Seventeen years is a long time to stay married these days. There’s plenty to celebrate, a lot to be proud of. But I’m wary of congratulating ourselves. As Mr. Cohen sang, “there’s many loved before us. I know that we are not new.” Lots of couples–some of them our good friends–have loved each other, then lost each other, who set out with hearts every bit as true. That we’ve arrived here, hand in hand on the edge of another year, feels less like something we’ve achieved and more like something we’ve been given. A chance, a wish, another year of grace. A fresh miracle.


The Runner

September 8th, 2014

I was a soccer mom for a couple of years, when my oldest son was playing. A very laid back soccer mom. I liked those fall mornings, standing around the field with the other parents, chatting with each other, cheerfully shouting out our kids’ names whenever it seemed like something might be happening out there between the nets. That lasted until my second child got old enough to join the league. One season of ferrying kids between different practice and game times, happening in two separate locations was enough. I bailed.  I’m the mom Olympic sponsors will never celebrate in commercials: half-assed, but whole-hearted.

That was seven years ago, and if I sometimes felt guilty for depriving the boys of one of the cornerstones of a suburban upbringing, I never missed it for myself. So I was surprised at how much I loved spending this past Saturday morning in a field, chatting with the other parents, eyes on the race course, ready to shout my kid’s name when he made the final sprint in his first 5K with his high school cross-country running team. 

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This guy loves to run. In middle school, he was crazy about parkour, but couldn’t find an organized training program. I encouraged him to try out for track, and we were both discouraged when he ran one of the fastest times, and didn’t make the team. I don’t know if the coach took one look and decided my punk kid wasn’t jock enough, or there was some technical reason he wasn’t picked, but I knew I’d have a hard time persuading him to put himself out there again. Parkour gave way to skateboarding, which has been his passion and focus the last couple of years, one I’ve supported and mostly delighted in (when I’m not covering my eyes with my hands).

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Then a few weeks ago, a friend happened to see him running to catch up to someone, and remarked on his natural gait, suggesting he’d make a good long distance runner. It was the nudge I needed to nudge my son one more time. I called up the coach of the cross country team, and sent a message telling my son to bring the forms home for me to sign, and expect to run after school the next day. Just to see.

He’s been at practice every afternoon, ever since, and comes home exhilarated by it every night.

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It’s always beautiful to see a person doing something they were born to do. For however long a season.

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It makes me think of that line in Chariots of Fire:

“I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”

My son doesn’t have to run like an Olympian, or even stay on the cross-country team, for God’s pleasure or for mine. But whenever he does anything with his whole heart, I hope he feels both.



September 1st, 2014


Sowing corn on May 25

May 25

Of all the sweet summer memories to be gathered in now, and put by, the days spent gardening with this boy are among the sweetest. 

planting corn May 25

May 25

watching corn sprout

May 31

Corn stalks June 17

June 17

Corn tassel July 9

July 9

Corn stalks July 13

July 13

Corn silks July 23

July 23

Corn harvest August 11

August 11

And they’ll keep a long, long time.