Courage and the Cocktail Dress

My Nana is the toughest human being I know. She is not only a child of the Great Depression, but the only Yankee in my family. She is practical, unflappable, and unstoppable. She sent her man off to World War II. She raised three children while Granddad worked days, evenings, and weekends. She survived thyroid surgery as a young woman and, in retirement, did search and rescue as a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary.

She is also the classiest human being I know. In addition to her toughness, she is the consummate lady, with a classic sensibility in all things. She moves through life with a strength, dignity, and grace that I know I will never be able to emulate.

She has done many impressive things, but ever since I was a child, the Nana story that has awed me the most is the story of how she hacked up her wedding dress, because it’s the story that most perfectly exemplifies her alchemy of strength and class. When Nana was a young wife and mother, she needed a cocktail dress, because these were the Days of Cocktail Yore when everyone had a bar in the basement and people did wacky things like invite their bosses to socially awkward dinners. But there wasn’t money for a cocktail dress. Granddad was working weekdays as a pharmaceutical rep, traveling constantly, and coming home to work evenings and weekends at the family pharmacy. There were three young children. So Nana hacked up her wedding dress to make a cocktail dress.

I used to imagine her taking her shears to that thing and cringe as if I was watching open-heart surgery. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could be so brave, so supremely self- confident as to slice apart a gorgeous piece of clothing and believe she could make it into something that would a) look good and b) not fall apart in the middle of dinner with the boss.

I often think about this story. It’s not the most amazing thing she’s ever done, but it’s stuck with me. That kind of self-confidence is, for a writer, a holy grail.

As I was writing last week about the realization that I needed to annihilate the last third of my work in progress, I had a small epiphany. I felt like Nana hacking up that dress. I felt brave. I could take something I’d labored on for weeks and destroy it in order to make something better. But as I’ve percolated this over the past week, I’ve realized that what I did, and what Nana did, isn’t really bravery. Bravery is doing the thing that terrifies you. I doubt Nana was scared to dismember that wedding dress. And I wasn’t scared to cut the last third of my novel. These were both The Thing That Needed To Be Done. So we did those things.

Yes, my Nana is brave. I hope that I am but I’m pretty sure I’m not. But this isn’t about bravery. This is about just knowing what needs to be done, and committing to doing it. Knowing when something isn’t working, when something else is needed. So, while this doesn’t make me as brave as I’d hoped, it does mean that I know what I need to do, and that is a kind of confidence I want to cultivate. When I hit DELETE, it felt good. The dross was gone. Possibility opened up before me like the blank spaces on a map, the here be dragons spaces, the spaces for magic where anything is possible.

Have you ever dismantled something big? What was it like to stand on the precipice of that moment just before action?

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