My dim closet swells with two rows of dresses, skirts, pants, and shirts. I stand before it all, neck craned and hands on my hips. Ive got wet hair and a towel wrapped around me with that one question swirling: “What is a girl to wear?”
The women at the Reformed church in town had called, wondering if I could speak to their group about my recent mission trip to Haiti. I said yes.
The church bulletins announced that I would present stories about “Our Haitian Sisters.” I had prepared my PowerPoint slides. And the photo-processor printed off 100 photographs of Haitian women, one for each person attending. Each woman would take a photo home and affix it to her refrigerator, a trigger to pray for a Haitian sister with no refrigerator, no cupboard, no certainty of food when their feet hit the floor of their tarp-sided hut each dawn of every. single. day.
And here I stood. My time to share has come. And I’m shuffling my feet along rows of clothes. I have choices. And maybe that’s why I’m paralyzed, because I can’t decide which one to choose. Black capris and a blingy purple shirt? The more formal gray dress? Choices, choices.
Right then, I remember Haitian sisters who have no choices. One outfit? If they’re lucky.
And I remember, too, how I wore second-hand outfits in Haiti, thinking smugly how frugal I was.
I had bought two skirts and two dresses at the consignment store in town. I laughed with the store owner, as I held a bright-blue dress on a hanger up to my frame, and spun around. It had a draw-string waist, and that silly dress landed funny on my midriff in a way that made me look a few months pregnant. The dress itself was a bit misshapen, with dangling threads at the hem.
But it would only cost me $2. I bought it.
I wore the dress on my third day in Haiti, when the hot morning spilled in through the sliding-glass door of my room. I remember poking fun at my reflection in the door, smoothing that horrific blue dress down over my tummy. And my roommate and I just laughed at how silly I looked.
We met our Haitian sisters a few hours later, hunched over their bead-work. I walked in the room with my awful bag of a dress hanging on my frame.
And my Haitian sister Judith raised her eyebrows, motioning at me, and whispering to her friends. Adeline and Anoise nodded in agreement, and then all of them said it over and over again: Ou bèl. Ou bèl. This was something about my dress, I was sure of it. I tried out a half-smile.
I turned to the translator to ask what they were saying, and she told me: “They say you’re beautiful. And they like your dress so much. They think it’s pretty with the bright color.”
I swallowed down the homeliness of my pride, and felt my cheeks flush. I lowered my eyes, and scuffed a foot on the floor. I replayed the moment in the consignment shop, and at the sliding-glass door. I thought of my own closet back home, crammed with choices on hangers. It felt revolting, how I had treated a perfectly fine dress like a joke.
I told them thank you — mèsi — and made a little twirl and curtsied, with that half-smile, ashamed. They clapped. Ou bèl. But on the inside, I wore my shame. I was horrified — a ball of tight anger over my sickening pride.
I’m remembering all of that here, when I’m trying to find a nice outfit to wear to a women’s church gathering. I’ve got choices, I tell you. I realize it now: I’ve got a lot of really great choices here in the US of A. Haiti will do that to a woman who spent years chasing after the American dream, and in fact, found the dream in three-car garages, nice pay raises, good performance reviews and plush news assignments.
Yes, we all have choices in this life. So I make mine. I make my choice.
On this night, when I’m asked to stand before 100 women in my community, I walk over to the end of the row, and find it there, hanging on the last hanger pressed against the wall. I slip it off the hanger, pull it over my head, and that’s what I will choose to wear at the podium: a $2 misshapen blue dress with a draw-string around the middle.
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