There’s a shirt I wear that I adore. Navy blue. Woven embroidery of triangles, flowers on a vine. Light it floats before tying at the waist.
It’s a shirt others see. They say their oohs and ahs. I say my thank-yous and smile. I tell them it’s my Scotland shirt. Somehow that’s more exotic, worthy of more praise.
My heart swells. What they don’t know is I bought this shirt when I had an earache. I took an hour long train ride to Glasgow, saw a doctor, wandered. I had never felt so independent, so adult-like. The shirt was an early birthday present to me from my mother, my father.
It’s a shirt that connected me home. It’s a shirt of me learning to walk on my own. It’s a shirt I’ve worn now in four countries. It’s seen trees of incredible width. It’s brushed the Berlin Wall, caught the stains of Thai soup and the fallen tears I shed in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
It’s a pretty shirt, for sure. But it holds pieces of me, of places that have touched my soul, worn next to people I’ll never forget.
And now, this shirt, so dear to me and my heart, is causing me great pain. The rope around my belly is tightening, leaving its indentation.
This week we talked about stuff. But not just any old stuff. We talked about our stuff. The stuff we collect, the stuff we wear. We looked at the tags on our backs. Mine said El Salvador. There was Honduras and Haiti sitting next to me, too.
We watched The True Cost, a documentary showing where our clothes really come from. Too often, I’m quick to say the easy answer—H&M, American Eagle, Marshalls, and so on. And sure, it’s true.
But, maybe we’ve been asking the wrong question. Maybe I’ve been giving the wrong answer. Perhaps, the question is, where did that shirt you wear, you adore, you’ve traveled around the world inside, begin?
Unsettled, I look at the tag in my adored shirt. And to my surprise, what I find isn’t so grim. It says “UK- Euro- US”. But something tells me to keep looking. Something tells me that’s still not the answer. And so I dig a little deeper. I take the brand to my good friend, Google.
“Interestingly, French Connection are among the worst offenders on the list, ranking badly under the environmental report and human rights.”
How is it that even if I cared to check the tag, had that thought back in Glasgow when my ear hurt, that I’d think I was in the clear? It’d be easy to believe clothes born in their native lands were grown rightly. I could buy under a conscience at ease. But that’s not usually the case. It’s murky, it’s hidden in language too vague to grasp. It’s brushed aside to a place where we are asked not to go. Where we don’t ask, don’t know, and thus, can’t care.
What if, though, we broke the silence? What if we asked the question, the one that probes beyond what is given, into what it hidden? What if we began to see the face of the threads that brought my clothes to life? How she has two children she cannot be at home to care for, and so she sends them away. How she earns no more than $2 a day in the heat, the sweat, the dirt. How she lost her best friend in the fire, the one that burned the building to ashes, because the working conditions are brutal. Because the owners do not have the finances for safety. How could they? When they face the pressure to meet the corporation’s demands to lower prices or else strip them of business and move on to the next country, their factory another expendable pawn in the game of consumerism.
If I’m honest, truly within the core of myself, I must say, I’m afraid. Because if I ask, what will I learn? Will it be too big to escape? Too heavy to hold? Is there no escape, no solution, no way to break the cycle, rip the system to shreds and build one of health, of peace, of love? What if I ask and the answer is a name. Her name. The one who took a needle and stitched flowers around the V-neck collar. What if I discover I paid more for the shirt than she made the entire month?
You see, this shirt, I love it. It holds me, the story of where it entered my hands. It ties me to my past and sits on me in my present. There’s pain there; there’s joy, too. But it’s bigger than that, bigger than me. It’s her name, her story of tears and laughter, her life, too. As I let it cover me, I don’t want to forget her.