Monday, August 15, 2011

What Sarong With This Picture?

In my 49th year, I took to wearing sarongs. It was not just that they are cool in the hot California summer, nor exactly that they have no waistband, although admittedly, it was a time in my life when even elastic waistbands had come to seem cruel. Rather, my gravitation to this simple  garment--a couple of brightly decorated, intricately bordered yards of Indonesian rayon--was in the nature of a revolution.

I was in revolt against everything that modernism and the patriarchy were dishing out to women as their new and "liberated" roles: the well-tailored power suit, the plugged-in electronic life, the frantic pace needed to encompass "it all" (which is what we are expected to want and strive towards), and gym memberships in perpetuity in order to maintain flat abs and a girlish waist.

Everything about the sarong symbolized revolution to me: its unstructured grace (a wrap and a half around the body and three turns at the waist--et voilĂ !); the fluidity with which the fabric falls reminding me to move fluidly as well; the erotic hint that it might easily come unwrapped. I lost mine on the edge of the Rio Grande river gorge outside of Taos, once, in a high wind. I took it in both hands as it slipped from my hips and flung it over my head like a battle banner or the sail of a proud ship, and laughed gleefully.

But the revolt went deeper: white as snow, myself, it yet connected me to women of color; having had the many opportunities the West affords laid at my feet from childhood, the sarong linked me to the multitudes of the earth's women who will never own a power suit, nor set foot in a department store where one is available, nor have the money to buy one, should they somehow manage to get there. This is where the real revolt took place: I was realigned in my psyche. No longer identifying myself as a middle-class white American, I wanted to be simply one thing: Woman.

The sarong was the symbol of that desire. It made further statements: I did not value the place in which American women had arrived (or been lured)--I would never find my true womanhood in a corporate boardroom. Limited as the options are for Third World women, horrifying as their lot in life frequently is, still I felt they had retained something we in the West had lost, a part of ourselves we have neglected unmercifully, like a dog on a chain  left out in the backyard in the rain. Something about living on the earth rooted. It had nothing to do with the nobility of suffering, but much to do with how women are capable of suffering nobly. It was not a romanticizing of Third World women, nor a desire to throw off Western civilization and run away, nor a colonization of Otherness. Rather, it partook of a sisterhood of simplicity.

Further, my sarongs are decorated with creatures: the green one has sea turtles, the yellow one, butterflies, and the red one, salamanders. And flowers abound on the orange, turquoise and indigo ones. So when I wear them, I feel linked to the Earth and all her creatures. And the colors--sumptuous amethyst, rich terra cotta, heart-lifting cerulean--are so dramatic, so flauntingly un-conservative, so not-fashionable. This, too, became a part of the revolution--to wear the fantastic hues which civilization has edited out; to stop living in black and white; to reclaim the rainbow.

I made a political statement of wearing these long skirts (for that is really all they are) out in public--to the supermarket, or the chiropractor, to fine restaurants with heels and amber jewelry. I was fascinated by the response: in some cases, people refused to look me in the eye. I found I was causing acute embarrassment: I was different. It amazed me that something as innocent as two yards of lovely fabric could stand between me and public acceptability.

I have seen this same averted glance accorded to people of color, to young people dressed, tattooed and pierced flamboyantly, to the aged, the disabled, the mentally challenged, to gay couples holding hands in public. It was one of the ways I came to understand what a truly hothouse environment of fear we have created for ourselves as homogenized communal beings--how delicate are our tolerances for temperature, light and moisture--like hybrid plants that have shallow roots and no staying power.

Sarongs have become one of my banners. When it’s too cold to wear them as skirts, I use them for shawls and scarves. Snug in a sarong, I feel embraced by a sisterhood that lives simply on the earth, asks little and gives much, and that honors the beauty and diversity of Earth’s creatures and colors.

 And besides that, the waistband is infinitely adjustable!


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