The spiritual discipline of Project Runway.

On childhood obsessions and reality tv and unlikely spiritual disciplines.

It started when my friend came over for coffee. While we chatted in the kitchen, and Sarah kept bringing in fashion sketches to show me. She’s obsessed with design: she’s filled all the pages of her fashion sketchpad, she’s practicing the concepts in her fashion design workshop, she’s refashioning my cast-offs into original outfits. This is nothing new.

But her fascination kicked into high gear when she read The Mother Daughter Book Club series this winter. One of the girls, Megan Wong, is an aspiring fashion designer. In Much Ado About Anne, 7th grade Megan stages her own runway show. In Pies and Prejudice, Megan starts a fashion blog. In Wish You Were Eyre, Megan goes to Fashion Week in Paris.

The series has captured Sarah’s imagination. After she brought us her third detailed dress design in an hour, my friend waited until she left the room and said, Tell me you’re watching Project Runway.

I’d never seen it, not even a clip.

She described it as American Idol for fashion. Every season a fresh group of designers compete; every episode brings an unusual challenge (like make a dress out of a parachute). The designers sketch their pieces, sew them up, dress their models, and send them down the runway.

dress form in the making

 making a dress form out of pink duct tape. nevermind the dirty mirror and the clothes on the bed

My kids are pretty sheltered. The older two only learned the bad f-word recently. At church. I wasn’t sure Project Runway was a good idea.

Despite my reservations, Sarah and I started watching season twelve together last week. Pretty soon all the kids were watching.

Sarah loves the fashion. Jack (age 12) is fascinated by the show’s social dynamics. Silas and Lucy just want to join in the fun.

There are drawbacks to watching a reality show with your kids: the harsh critique, the language, the drama. My kids have so many questions. 

There are surface-y ones: Why does she have so many tattoos? Why didn’t they bleep out that word? Am I allowed to say that word? Or that one? Or that one? (Some people do. They don’t have to but I wish they did. No. Nope. Yes, but not in front of Grandma.)

And deeper ones: Why is she mean? Why is he mad? Why is she acting like that?

That’s the big one: Why is she acting like that? This is the reason I’m still watching Project Runway with my kids, despite its drawbacks. Every episode we have rich discussions about why she’s acting like that.   

The first time my child asked why a contestant was freaking out—and I mean epically freaking out—I paused the show. We talked about mean people, and kind people, and people who are just plain crazy.

We talked about what it feels like when you don’t sleep well, when your brother messes with you, when you can’t make the long division work. That’s what Project Runway feels like to these designers, I explained, with their tough challenges, tight deadlines, and clashing personalities. They have a lot on the line, and it’s all on display on national tv.

We talked about how people act when they’re stressed out, and how it takes a lot of practice and self-discipline to remain levelheaded, kind, and gracious under that kind of stress.

I have a kid who tends to be anxious, who gets cranky when he’s nervous about stuff. He nodded and let out a big sigh. I get it, he said. Then: I’m never going on Project Runway.

I’d go, Sarah said. My designs would get to be so good. And besides, isn’t it like what we talked about at church last Sunday?

It took me a few minutes to figure out she was talking about the spiritual disciplines. Lent—the traditional season of self-examination and self-denial—is almost here. During the Lenten season, many Christians undertake specific actions and activities for the purpose of cultivating spiritual development. The usual suspects here are prayer, meditation, solitude, fasting, and the like. (I’d add to my list: long walks, sleep deprivation, parenting toddlers.)

Sarah’s argument boiled down to this: an experience like Project Runway shapes your inner being. Not because of the design. Because of the discipline it requires.

On childhood obsessions and reality tv and unlikely spiritual disciplines.

I don’t know about her theology, but she’s right about one thing: stress changes the way people act. Watching the show with my kids—and watching one or other of the designers lose their cool every week—has launched a hundred discussions.

And so when they ask their many, many questions, I resist the impulse to get all preachy, strong as it is. They want answers, but they shut down fast when I get didactic on them.

Sometimes I find myself explaining phrases, or social dynamics. But more often, I let them see my genuine emotions as we watch—the delight and the dismay–and I answer their questions with my own.

• Do YOU think that was a good apology? Why not? What would you have said?
• What do you think he should have said? What do you think she should have done?
• Why do you think she yelled at him? Do you ever feel like that? Did she feel better afterwards? What do you think she wished she’d done instead?

(When we need a mood-lightener, there’s always one handy: Which is your favorite dress? Do you agree with the judges? Who do you think should have won?)

Thanks to Project Runway, we’ve had surprisingly good discussions about emotional intelligence and self-control. We talk about “soft skills” and deliberate practice. We talk about—and practice—the difference between helpful criticism and just being a jerk.

We see our fair share of drama and meltdowns (the real-life kind) around here, and the designers have given us a language to talk about anxiety and anger in a non-loaded way. It’s much easier for a kid to discuss the mean girl on tv than the one in her neighborhood, the designer’s epic meltdown instead of his own.

We’re only halfway through the season; maybe I’ll change my tune as we get further in. But at this moment, I’m happy to be watching reality tv with my kids.

I never thought I’d say that.

photo source

On showing up.

cold water

As a parent to young kids, talk of “rites of passage” brings a wistful smile.

I think of things like first smile, first tooth, first steps. The first time watching Anne of Green Gables or Star Wars, the first time making s’mores around a campfire, the first sleepover with the cousins.

(I’m living in fear of the “firsts” I know are coming: first crush, first kiss, first heartbreak. I don’t want to talk about it.)

But there’s another kind of rite of passage, the kind that comes when our bodies predictably begin to fail: the first time your parent is seriously ill, the first terrifying 4:00 a.m. phone call, the first hopeless prognosis.

We’ve been living through our own rite of passage around here. This is no happy “first.” This is the scary kind.

This weekend we took an impromptu road trip to visit a loved one who’s been ill. We almost didn’t go. Because we left in a mad rush, we weren’t prepared and didn’t have anything to offer: no food, no family photos, not even a bottle of wine.

We went anyway.

The kids and I hit the grocery store first, where we did their shopping (and I picked up that bottle of wine). Then we made lunch and tried our darnedest not to make a giant mess like we usually do. I changed over the laundry while the kids took down all the Halloween decorations, then we headed outside to cut back the spent mums and frostbitten hostas.

I was folding freshly-laundered pillowcases into a tidy stack when Anne Lamott’s words from six months ago popped into my head:

People don’t need as many casseroles as you think. 

When people are hurting, we need to be there for them, even if we can’t “fix” anything for them. (Because of course we can’t.)

But here’s what we can do: Take them cups of cold water. Sit and feel awful with people. Do their laundry.

And that’s what we did.

*****     *****     *****

We’re back in town now, back to our regular routine. Part of that routine is visiting my grandmother every week or so.

We go almost every week, the kids and I. The kids always make her cards and drawings and we take them with us. Sometimes we bake things and bring them along. We sit and we chat. Sometimes we do a few chores.

She has a hard time moving around on her own, so we quite literally bring cups of cold water.

I try to prevent the kids from wrestling on the floor, and we stay until I start losing that battle.

I’ve been meaning to take her photos for months. (I haven’t even brought her pictures of our new house. Yikes.) I’ve shown her pictures on my phone, but when you’re in your eighties, iPhone photos don’t count.

I was telling this to a friend the other day, saying I didn’t know if I could show up without those photos one more time. She said, “You know, I don’t think it’s the pictures your grandmother really wants to see.”

*****     *****     *****

When I go to visit others, I’m so concerned about what I have to bring, what I have to offer. And when I don’t have anything to offer, I’m tempted to stay home, because what’s the point?

(I’ve been on the receiving end of this, too, and let me tell you: I was grateful for every casserole brought to us by a kind-hearted soul. But I was even more grateful that the food-bearer would sit on our sofa for a bit and chat for a bit, because I needed that. And I wept tears of gratitude for anyone who shined my sink or folded my laundry.)

But I’m thinking that Lamott is on to something: people don’t need as many casseroles as you think, but they need you to be there.

I’ll need you to show up for me the next time we get hit by a bolt from the blue, and you’ll need me during your own depressing rite of passage.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about showing up, casseroles, and laundry in comments. 

What are you proud of?

What are you proud of? | Modern Mrs Darcy

A few months ago, I was a guest on the Brilliant Business Moms podcast.

Beth Anne and Sarah asked me a question that has been rattling around in my head ever since.

It’s a question they ask every guest: “When it comes to your business, what is the one accomplishment that you are the most proud of?”

Honestly, I was surprised they asked that question. That question is fraught with peril … if you’re a woman.

There are so many ways to blow a question like that.

There are the obvious ways: you can outright brag, which is bad, or humble brag, which is worse.

Or you can sabotage yourself in a more subtle way. Unfortunately, for women, talking about your business successes undermines your likability. It’s much safer to defer, claiming luck or circumstance as the cause of our success, rather than anything we did. Naming a professional success we’re proud of is dangerous.

Maybe the question intrigues me not in spite of, but because of, these dangers. Maybe that’s why I keep coming back to it.

What are you proud of?

I felt conflicted when Beth Anne and Sarah asked me that question, but I can tell you exactly why I’m proud of my kids, my husband, my girlfriends, without the tiniest bit of hesitation.

But when it comes to myself, I’m stumped.

On the podcast, I hemmed and hawed and deferred a bit. I cited luck, time, and circumstance as a key factors, as women typically do. (In my defense: I believe it. I think Malcolm Gladwell’s on my side.)

I did make myself give a real answer to their question. It wasn’t easy, and I hope my likability index didn’t plummet because of it.

What are you proud of?

I can easily identify and articulate the things about myself that frustrate me, the areas where I fall short, the items that remain perpetually uncrossed on my to-do list. It’s much harder for me to even notice the times when I—in Webster’s words—”take pride in a job well done.”

But Sarah and Beth Anne’s question has made me think I need to pay more attention to the things I’m doing right.

What are you proud of?

I’m proud of myself for sitting my butt down in the chair to do the work and WRITE every single day, even though it doesn’t come easy to this INFP.

I’m proud that sometimes I write things you think are worth reading. 

I’m proud that in my personal life, I can point to times when I did not give up, even though it was really tempting, and I can see now that it was worth sticking it through.

I’m proud that just two days ago I bought a silly tray at the antique shop because I liked it. I am deeply satisfied that I conquered the perfectionistic impulses that too often paralyze me and bought it even though I didn’t have a master plan for it. 

What are you proud of? 

If you have no clue what you might possibly be proud of in yourself, come at it through the side door. Think about your friends, your family, your kids. Why are YOU proud of THEM? Easy enough, right?

Then turn the lens back to yourself. It’s easier that way.

So tell me: what are you proud of? (Anonymous comments welcome.)

Pets, personality, and the faces we deserve.


Last week we took our dog to church.

The Episcopal church follows the lectionary, and the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost belongs to St. Francis of Assisi. Though best known for his solidarity with the poor, legend has it that Francis could also talk to animals. In honor of St. Francis, everyone got to bring their dogs and cats, bunnies and hamsters, turtles and guinea pigs to church last week.

We’d been to this particular service, held annually, once before. Oddly, it was the first service we attended at what was to become our church: we showed up on a Sunday morning to find the service was in the gym, and everyone had their pets with them. It was unexpected and a little nuts and a very fun and unthreatening way to ease in to a new community.

Now that we knew what to expect from this special service, we were looking forward to it. What I didn’t expect, now that we know people a little better, was how interesting it would be to see everyone with their pets.

Do you remember that scene in 101 Dalmations when Pongo stares out the window and watches the dog-walkers go by, all of whom bear an eery resemblance to their owners?

That’s exactly what it felt like at church. The Great Dane owners looked like they belonged with their noble, elegant Great Danes. The collie owners looked like they belonged with their fluffy, loyal collies. The Scotty dog owners looked like they had the Scotty dog personality, even if I hadn’t recognized it before I’d seen them with their dogs.

We have a chocolate lab named Harriet. she’s placid, companionable, and loves retrieving tennis balls more than life itself. Now, of course, I’m now wondering what our choice of Harriet says about our family. Did we choose a pet that reflects our own selves back to us?

George Orwell said that by age 50, everyone has the face he deserves. Our faces are the windows to our souls, and with every day we live, we choose—with every thought we think, every decision we make—what they reveal about our innermost selves.

(For years, I inadvertently attributed this quote to Oscar Wilde—it seems like the sort of thing he would say, doesn’t it?—and pegged the year as 40. I thought about this quote a lot as I edged closer to the imagined milestone. Now I’m relieved to discover I’m not so close after all.)

In a decade and a half or so, I’ll have the face I deserve, and my personality will ostensibly be on display for all to see. In the meantime, my chocolate lab is doing the job for me.

Does your pet reflect your personality? Have you noticed that other people’s pets accurately reflect THEIR personalities?

P.S. Musings on personality, from the archives.