Natalie Chanin: Give the Story Time to Unfold

ColumnNatalie Chanin’s bi-weekly column, Material Witness, offers a seasoned designer’s perspective on the fashion industry, textile history and what happens when love for community trumps all.

I found a letter that I wrote some years ago.  It starts like this:

First, I will start with my apology: I am really a terrible friend. I have been ‘absent.’ I have made many people feel as though I did not care. I am sorry; however, if I am really honest, it is not so much that I am sorry as much as I have missed you and missed so many important things in my life.
It has been FULL time. And it will be hard for me to begin to tell all of the laughter, tears, frustrations, joys, moments, days, weeks, years that have happened. I try to find the beginning and the only thing I find is my wish to have you here with me in this moment…

Isn’t that just how life is?  It gets all full and messy and good at the same time.
And isn’t that the story of a really good friend – one who is willing to wait for the story to unfold?

Southerners are renowned storytellers. I don’t know if that is because it gets so hot that we have to slow down and consequently hear more, or if the porch just provides the best venue for recounting tales. Perhaps we’ve just lived so close to the land for so many generations that the stories naturally grew. Whatever the reason, there are libraries filled with sections with titles that cover a “Southern Sense of Place,” “Southern Gothic,” and “Southern Short Story.”

And while many of us are born storytellers, our stories do take time to unfold. We are slow, methodical, practiced in our pace. My father and my son – following in his grandfather’s very slow footsteps – are masters in this art. They take the right breaths, they slowly move from one part of the room to the other. My father can take three days to answer a particular question. I will unexpectedly get a call and find my father simply replying to a question asked days earlier. Sometimes, I have to stop and think back to what actually prompted the question. This was infuriating as a child, “Daddy, can I go to the movie this afternoon with my friends?”

Silence.  It would be like he didn’t even hear me. Perhaps an hour later, he would call me in from outside, “Are you ready to go to the movie?” My heart would skip and it was like a present, wrapped up in a slowly unfolding package that had just been delivered. I would grab my things and go savor the movie.

The writer George Dawes Green provided the best storytelling platform EVER with the founding of The Moth. He started The Moth because he “wanted to recreate in New York the feeling of sultry summer evenings on his native St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, where he and a small circle of friends would gather to spin spellbinding tales on his friend Wanda’s porch.”

I once wrote a blog post about his story “The House that Sherman Didn’t Burn.” This is one of the best Southern Gothic tales I have ever heard. (Keep in mind that all the stories told at The Moth are true.)

My friend, writer, and folklorist, Fred Fussell loved this story but thinks that the audience laughs in all the wrong places – which made me laugh as well. But the thing about stories is this, they are personal: personal for the teller and personal for listener as we are constantly searching for our own humanity within the story. We need that connection from teller to self.  We need to FEEL our friend’s life in and around their words. The beauty of The Moth is that each storyteller feels like a friend once their story is told.  And in the telling, like my father, they take their time. Their stories are not told, they unfold. Yes, good stories – like good friends take time.

Shouldn’t this be the same with good design? In a world that seems to spin faster and faster out of control, shouldn’t we be looking for products that take time to unfold? Or products whose usefulness we savor? Shouldn’t we demand products that have stories to tell? Like good wine, a good design needs time to be a part of our lives, time to reach its full maturity. If we could stop the ever spinning merry-go-round of fashion to see the consequences of our fast fashion choices, we might begin to appreciate the tales that our garments tell. Some items would tell tales of sorrow; others would tell beautiful tales of how they found their way to the wearer. I think that we would start to breathe and listen to the stories of our clothes and their makers – because there are great people out there telling beautiful stories.

American designer Sister Parish said, “Even the simplest wicker basket can become priceless when it is loved and cared for through the generations of a family.” The next time we purchase a single item, perhaps we should exercise patience and think back to this idea. Can this product I am about to buy be cared for and loved through the generations? What story does this item tell? Isn’t buying a product with a long life the same as exercising patience for a good story?

Patience has never been at the top of my list of virtues. I have been told that I have a calm, patient appearance on the outside, but my inner life is much less composed. You might even go so far as to say that my inner life and outer life were disconnected in my youth. This was the cause of much consternation and drama in my earlier days. But what I understand today is that I needed time. I needed time to grow up and to grow into my own story. If I can give my daughter one piece of advice, I will tell her to slow down, be calm, and wait.

Good things – like good design – take time and good friends are worth waiting for.

Natalie Chanin is owner and designer of the American couture line Alabama Chanin and author of three books including Alabama Stitch Book  (2008), Alabama Studio Style (2010) and the upcoming Alabama Studio Sewing + Design which comes out spring 2012. Look for her bi-weekly column, Material Witness here and follow her on Facebook and her own blog at Alabama Chanin.

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3 thoughts on “Natalie Chanin: Give the Story Time to Unfold

  1. Pingback: Arrested Beauty + Human Kinds « Alabama Chanin

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  3. Pingback: Good Things Take Time « Alabama Chanin

 

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