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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Wednesday Festival: Should I Send My Wedding Dress to Kenya?

This week we share a provocative post by MaryAnn McKibben Dana, from her blog, The Blue Room. Feel free to leave a comment here or there.
Should I Send My Wedding Dress to Kenya?
Nicholas Kristof recently made this plea for wedding and bridesmaid dresses, which are used by a woman in Nairobi to make new children’s clothing. If you can get them to New York, there’s an organization there that will pay for the shipping to Kenya. (Something tells me this woman is going to be inundated with more satin and tulle than she’ll be able to use in a lifetime.)
The minute I read Kristof’s piece I knew that I wanted to send my wedding dress there. When I got married seventeen years ago, a lot of people were heirlooming their dresses. I didn’t have strong opinions about keeping my dress but ultimately went that route. I took it to the cleaners, where they did whatever voodoo they do, and now it’s sitting in a nice box up in James’s closet. It’s a pretty dress, in a “22 year old bride in the mid-’90s” kind of way.
That is, there’s a lot of fabric to work with, and some nice details.
Robert asked, “Are you sure you want to part with it? Is there a possibility that one of our daughters will want to wear it?” Leaning that way, and I doubt it—although he reminds me that Caroline is very tuned in to tradition and family artifacts and hates to part with stuff. So who knows?
Many folks place great value on things simply because they have sentimental value. My threshold is different. I like having a keepsake for major events and people in my life, but I don’t necessarily need every keepsake. If the dress were the only tangible connection to our wedding day I would want to keep it. But we have wedding gifts and photographs and gold bands on our left ring fingers and flower shops where we can get lilies whenever we want, and that’s a gracious plenty for me.
Still, the discussion we’re having about the fate of the dress has me thinking about the value of stuff. I follow a few simplicity and anti-clutter blogs that provide tips for paring down stuff. I think many of these blogs go too far—for example, this article, by a man whose mother died. He was getting ready to move her stuff to a storage facility when he found several boxes of his elementary school work under her bed. The fact that theses boxes were sealed, unexamined by his mother all these years, led to an epiphany:
I could hold on to her memories without her stuff, just as she had always remembered me and my childhood and all of our memories without ever accesses [sic] those sealed boxes under her bed. She didn’t need papers from twenty-five years ago to remember me, just as I didn’t need a storage locker filled with her stuff to remember her.
…Memories are within us, not within our things.
And this is where he loses me.
Memories are within us… AND within our things. It’s why I keep artifacts on my desk when I write: I treasure those reminders of juicy times in my life. And it’s why some of the kid artwork is going into a Rubbermaid tub rather than being scanned into Evernote: it is a precious thing to feel the paper that my kids held on their laps, to trace the brushstrokes.
It goes the other way too. We are fumigating our church right now, and folks are taking home all the dishes, pots and pans to be washed thoroughly since the church doesn’t have a dishwasher. Some of these kitchen items have psychic energy that is, in my opinion, not all that positive. (Old stained trays? 200 coffee cups in a church that now worships 50?)
Our stuff isn’t neutral.
I said recently that I’m done with the word “spiritual.” My main objection is that it implies a separation from the physical world. (Thank you Platonic dualism.) The realm of the spiritual is what’s in our brains and in our (figurative) hearts, and it is given higher status. The body is just the Rubbermaid tub.
Of course we can become obsessed with stuff, hoarding and clutching, or constantly upgrading and discarding. But I agree with Michael Lindvall (subscription required, sorry) when he wrote that the problem isn’t that we value our stuff too much. Our problem is that we don’t value it enough. It’s all disposable anymore, cheap and devoid of meaning. After all, memories are in our minds, right?
But my goodness, God loved stuff. God made stuff, and called it good and very good. And Christians go so far as to make the outrageous claim that God became flesh and lived among our stuff. He ate stuff and drank stuff and blessed stuff and told stories about stuff and even mixed stuff with his own spit and made mud on one bizarre occasion.
So if I value stuff so much, why am I thinking about sending my wedding dress to Kenya rather than keeping it? Not because the dress isn’t meaningful to me, but because it is meaningful. The day I wore it was a day of great beauty and hope and joy. It has the potential to bring beauty and hope and joy to people I don’t even know. Doesn’t that seem like a good way of honoring the love that was expressed on October 22, 1994? To let it have a new life, rather than sitting in my closet for another couple of decades on the off chance that my daughters will want to wear it?
One of the things I think about when making a decision is, where is the good story? And yes, Caroline or Margaret walking down the aisle wearing the dress I once wore is a good story. But it’s a story that I ultimately control and own. There’s something to be said for letting the story go, so it can take on a life of its own.
I’m still thinking. What do you say?
Photo: Jane Ngoiri of Nairobi.


  1. wow. Just, wow. Songbird, thank you so much for this, it is going to require multiple readings.

    And not just because I am dealing with my own "stuff" at the moment, mountains of liquor boxes full of books, and papers -- but also "archived garments".

    I must make a point to read The Blue Room regularly.

    Wow, again.

  2. Songbird, that's a tough one; to keep or to give away your wedding dress. Even if one of her daughters wanted to wear the dress, they might want it altered to freshen it up for the time they are living in.
    I find it interesting that this organization would use polyester and such type of material from wedding and bridesmaid dresses to make dresses for the hot climate of Kenya when cotton and linen would be much cooler, more practical, and easier to launder.
    I do understand that recycling wedding and bridesmaid dresses is a good idea, I just sort of wonder at the choice of fabric for such a region of the world.
    I am sure whatever decision she makes is one she can live with and not regret.
    I have kept my wedding dress, also heirloomed in a box, sealed 24 years ago. But, my mom and I designed it with three separate patterns and she made it. We have no children, a niece and nephew though. I simply can't part with it, for my mom is in every stitch and her gift of love to me is a part of that dress.

  3. What evocative writing, Mary Ann. I cut up my wedding dress for a christening gown, and folded the rest of the fabric to make ring pillows and prayerbook covers for the imagined weddings of future children, and then some pieces turned into doll clothes and high school art projects (and one MFA project), and I think we're down to enough for one pillow and one book cover to be used by all prospective family brides.

    In my own experience, "stuff" has a natural cycle. I couldn't have taken the scissors to my wedding dress before I had children. For years, I kept their blocks and wagons in the attic, but eventually they lost much of their emotional weight and I could pass the toys to other children. I admit I don't know where my wedding album is, although as of this morning I hadn't misplaced the husband.

    Suzy from Collegeville

  4. I saw a documentary (can't think of the title or any identifying details right now, sorry!) about how the discarded clothing - t-shirts, esp. - that find their way to Africa make it very very difficult for people there to maintain their own clothing folk-ways, and people who make clothes there are driven out of business. The skills they used to make appropriate clothing are lost, etc.
    So I don't take "give away" t shirts at charity events, or buy them for souvenirs anymore. And when I wear one out, I use it for rags rather than stick it in the "donate" box.
    I vote you keep your wedding dress, or give it to someone local, (although I do LOVE your thought about the best story being the dress going to Africa.)

  5. I'm with Suzy on the recycling wedding dress project!!!

  6. Mary Ann, I'll put my dress in with yours if/when you decide to ship it. My dress is cotton with a lot of ribbon detail. We had it out this summer, I don't think either of my daughters will wear it. I might just go put it on later this afternoon, for one last time. ~ Ruth

  7. considering the vast numbers of wedding/maids gowns available at thrift and charity shops, there are no end of donations to be had. why debate unnecessarily over a family heirloom possibility which you may regret should the girls be attached to that idea even later...
    find some gowns and donate from the charities - you're helping the charities and kenya!

  8. I am with Cindy on this one. I have been a missionary in a foreign land and I saw how Western style was taking over indigenous cultures. It always bothered me. I would never want the American ideal of a wedding to be exported.

    Now I admit, I never married. So the whole thing of wedding dresses, bridesmaides, etc gives me heartburn. I would often see families put so much money they didn't have into weddings that they lost the meaning of the love they were celebrating. I am not saying that has happened here. But I would hate to see that mentality exported to cultures that have wonderful customs of their own.


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