An arborist in winter can’t hibernate, even though it won’t be time to plant or nurture trees until the ground thaws in March. An arborist has got to make a living. And that’s how I wound up as a seasonal sales associate in a Somewhat Fancy Ladies’ Clothing Store in the local mall. I don’t think you could be farther from a grove of cedars than abiding in the canned air, holiday muzak and piles of goods for sale where I find myself day after day.
The Zen concept of “beginner’s mind” applies here. If you approach everything with the earnestness of a novice, the world opens itself to you. I’m still so excited to put aside my decades long writerly habit, profession, vocation, avocation, love, and be out in the world. I’m thrilled to learn the proper way of folding a sweater (hint: there’s a special tool for the purpose). Weirdly, I feel that my long years speaking to groups about my books has prepared me to greet customers as they come in the door, looking for a different kind of knowledge, seeking to learn how they can look the best they can. A different kind of selling. What could be closer to the bone? It’s actually an honor to be consulted as I was today by a woman around my age about whether the lavender or grape turtleneck was a better complement to her features. These are the issues of my day, so simple.
Is there shame in it, embarrassment at having descended from the lofty heights of authordom to become a shopgirl — or a shopwoman, as you must say about one of my maturity. The truth is there is no shame in any employment, since there are so many lacking jobs. Many of the women I work with have teenaged kids and no men in their lives, an interesting hardscrabble milieu. I remember when I interviewed Navy jet jocks many years ago they all talked about how valuable it was to be humbled, say by the complexity of the F-14 they flew, and they were some of the most arrogant people in the world. So I guess I’ll take a leaf from them and say that treading the boutique floor is a healthy kind of normal for me, a down to earth slap upside the head for one who has spent a lot of time with that head in the clouds.
So the mannequins and the silk and the glitter of the Somewhat Fancy Ladies’ Clothing Store are my grove of trees for now. I go home more tired than I did after eight hours as an arborist, even though I’m working half days. My mind races when I try to sleep at night, seeing corduroy jeans and good wool jackets doing do-si-dos. It’s a form of truth worth being a part of, peoples’ desire to be beautiful. The leaves and branches and bark will be there in the springtime.