I was in Topeka, Kansas leading a two day workshop for pastors a few weeks ago. My Monday session ended at 4 pm. My Tuesday session began at 9 am. I didn’t know anyone in Topeka. I didn’t feel like going back to my Hampton Inn and working out and it was too early to go to the Cracker Barrel next to it and order my supper. If I were a more profound person, I would have gone to the Kansas Museum of History or stayed to pray in the sanctuary of the Methodist Church where my seminar was held. Instead, I went to the mall down the street from my hotel. And that was how I found myself at Dillard’s department store at 4:30 on a Monday afternoon in May. They were advertising “Not your daughter’s jeans” on the loud speaker, and I was trying on clothes I didn’t need. Like many women, I was engaging in negative self talk as I tried on the clothes because things seldom look as good as we would like them to, when we compare ourselves with the 5’11” 115 pound 16 year old models in fashion magazines. I had left the dressing room to seek more clothes and was returning to it, my arms laden with slacks and dresses, when a woman emerged from one of the stalls. “What do you think of this?” she asked. She was referring to the green and yellow frothy dress she was wearing. “It’s awful, isn’t it?” I am trained in tact as a teacher of preaching who gives people constructive, sometimes critical feedback on their sermons for a living. I said, “Well, I don’t think it does you justice.”
“I am so angry with myself!” she went on. “I have gained so much weight lately and my daughter is graduating Saturday. I have to find something that doesn’t make me look like a cow. Can you please help me?”
She had evidently mistaken me for a salesperson. Well, I do like clothes, probably a little bit too much. And I had nothing else to do until 9 am the next morning. So I said, “Sure. I’d be happy to.”
Being a preacher, albeit incognito, I had to give her a little sermon first. “But let’s not be negative about ourselves,” I said. “You have very nice skin tone and lovely blue eyes. Why don’t you try looking in the mirror every morning and saying something positive to yourself about yourself?” Since I had just, 5 minutes before, been berating myself in the mirror in the dressing room across the aisle, I felt the irony (or do I just mean hypocrisy?) of my advice to her. But never mind. I tell my preaching students that they should preach to themselves as they are preaching to others. That was all I was doing.
I proceeded to spend the next hour bringing her options. We moved away from frothy and frilly. We gave up on big flowers. We said no to horizontal stripes. We rejected entering into relationships with dresses that were too clingy. I brought cardigans, scarves, and pashmina shawls (a term I recently learned just means an extra big scarf you can wear like a blanket and not look like Whistler’s Mother wrapped in her afghan rocking in her chair) and wraps. We discussed the relative merits of sling back shoes versus peep toes. Until finally, searching the sale rack, I found a lovely rose and deep blue dress, colorful but not too loud, lively, but not busy, well cut, flattering to the figure, and….. it came with its own cardigan.
All I found out about her was her first name. All she found out about me was mine. We were completely focused on our fashion mission.
Once I had found her a dress, she was ready to move on. “Thank you so much for your help,” she said, with a polite smile as she gathered up her things to head for the cash register. You would think she might have wondered why I wasn’t the one ringing her up, but was heading toward the door instead. The real clerk winked at me on my way out and gave me thumbs up.
I felt somewhat dismissed, but my work there was done. I know that this blog recounts something nice I did for someone. And you’re not supposed to tell stories all the time that make you look like a hero or heroine. So I should say that this good deed wasn’t one of cosmic significance. (It did enable one person feeling bad about herself to gain confidence in facing a social situation. And that is something.)
The other thing I should point out is that I really had no business being in the Dillards in the first place. I have more than enough clothes in my closet at home. I was simply there engaging in mindless, self- indulgent, consumerist behavior. Of course, it I hadn’t been, I wouldn’t have been able to be the fashion angel this woman needed in that moment.
As we all know, life is complex. I walked out of the store toward my car with somewhat of a sense of satisfaction at a job well done. But it was time for me to move on as well. It was time to head to the Cracker Barrel and order my grilled catfish with two sides and a biscuit and, while I waited for it, to browse in the gift shop for a potholder with an inspirational saying on it.