I watch a lot of tv. And like many of you (be honest—basically all of you), I watched Downton Abbey. For both of you who HAVEN’T seen at least one season of this cultural phenomenon, here’s the story—
Yorkshire, 1912. Lord Grantham and his American wife Cora have three daughters who are about to come of age—Mary, a stuck-up brat; Edith, the forgettable one with a brain in her head; and Sybil, beautiful and idealistic and politically active. Like other members of the old-school gentry, the family lives a seemingly charmed life full of servants to wait on them literally hand and foot, lavish dinner parties, and nothing to do but dress up in Edwardian outfits. Mary the Bratty One is engaged to her second cousin who, because of something called an “entail”, will inherit her father’s title and princely estate, Downton Abbey. Unfortunately, her fiancée dies on the Titanic, and now there’s a new heir, the title-less and sort of handsome Matthew, a normal person who (spoiler alert) will eventually marry Lady Mary.
But of course it isn’t that simple—we’re treated to 45-minute segments full of swelling musical cues, evil footmen plotting for their advancement in the ranks, butlers and housekeepers fussing over the dinner bell and the propriety of letting housemaids serve at the table (gasp!), and Dame Maggie Smith’s hilariously mean commentary on people who don’t do what they’re supposed to do. The world of Downton Abbey is governed by a complicated code of behavior that we’re made to believe has been around forever, but might be (and by season 2 definitely is) changing. Post World War I England means the estate has less money to throw around, and fewer single young men who are cute enough to be footmen, and a disillusioned population who doesn’t care as much about who should walk into dinner with whom as they did in season 1. It may be time to downsize at Downton.
And at the beginning of season 3 (as we prepare for Matthew and Mary’s wedding, shortly after the death of his fiancée Lavinia from Spanish Flu…You should just watch it), the family is confronted with the possibility that they may have to SELL DOWNTON ABBEY! And everybody freaks out. Life without those beautiful potted ferns, those giant staircases, the huge lawn with the swaying trees…whatever shall we do? The house they plan to move into is also the size of the Richland Mall, but it just isn’t Downton Abbey. Luckily, it all gets put right…which is good, because they need to hear some good news when Edith is jilted at the altar by Sir Antony. Ugh, stupid Sir Antony…and after Mrs. Patmore went to all that trouble over the wedding dinner.
I know, I know…soap operas, right? Period pieces are fun, and I’ve always loved Jane Austen movies and Father Brown mysteries and old-fashioned things. It’s like walking through the halls of another life, where I wonder if I could cut it as a maid or a cook or a housekeeper…or if I would be as obnoxious as Mary if I had as much money as she does. And the sentiment they all express sounds so quaint and storybookish— “Times are changing! Perhaps we don’t NEED all the fuss and extravagance…there are more important things in life…” And as I sit there in my apartment, watching tv with a toddler who I didn’t bother to dress in more than shorts, I agree—yeah, y’all really don’t need all this. Sell the house, drive your own car, microwave some instant oatmeal, get a job, and quit going on and on about how people who aren’t as fancy as you are somehow inferior. So you’ll have to give a few things up! It’s not like you’ll die.
But in a weird way, I get it. I hate to lose the little things. I’m not good at giving things up. And maybe the reason I watch it is because I love the idea of having unlimited resources. I think about it a lot…and I fantasize about what I would do if I were disgustingly rich. Maybe I think about that TOO much. Not that I want expensive stuff, but…it’s still greed if you constantly want MORE simple things. Screwtape would agree.
I realized the extent of my sad materialism when I destroyed all my gray sweaters in the wash. I could never cut it as a lady’s maid at Downton Abbey…they’re in charge of keeping Her Ladyship’s clothes nice, and I couldn’t even keep red and gray stuff separate. And I couldn’t seem to get the pink stains out of my gray cardigans.
This may seem like no big deal, except that I wear mostly gray and black. I’m like a monochrome wonder. And I had come to rely on those sweaters more than I should—they were in weekly rotation among my boring pants and not-that-sophisticated shirts. And now they were blotchy and pink and unwearable in public. They looked like they had rashes.
So I’ve been on the hunt for more sweaters since then. Unfortunately, this is not simple. And like Carson the Butler, I found myself obsessed with stuff that might be kind of petty.
A sweater is not just a shirt that’s softer and made to be worn half open…it’s a whole statement of a personality. Wear it buttoned almost all the way up with a collared shirt underneath, and you’re telling the world how professional you are. Wear it unbuttoned and the sweater will flap in the breeze, announcing to the world how busy you are. Wear a flowy, draping sweater without buttons, and you’re announcing that you have everything so under control, you don’t even need buttons. Wear it buttoned all the way up, and you’re Napoleon Dynamite’s brother. Wear it buttoned all the way up AND wear cool pants, and you’re one of those influential Instagram personalities. You see what I’m saying? You don’t just BUY a sweater any more than the family from Downton Abbey just THROWS a party. There are many things that have to be taken into account.
Yeah, I know how silly and petty this sounds, and it gets worse.
I spent literally HOURS on clothing sites looking for the perfect sweater. When I ruined my treasured trio of gray cardigans in the crimson- pocolypse of 2018, a new gray sweater became my chief motivation to continue couponing. I may or may not have eaten oatmeal for lunch for a week as a cost-saving measure to keep the sweater fund going.
And then one night my iPad ran out of charge while I was scrolling past pictures of sweaters, and I was staring at a black screen, surrounded by the silence of the late night hours. I realized how many chores I’d left undone that evening so I could …what? Look at pictures of gray sweaters? It was funny…but not as funny as it was sad.
What was I supposed to wear? Nothing looked right. The colors were too bright, or too young. And everything felt uncomfortable. Was I supposed to wear a jacket made of rayon? No, this would not stand. It had to be fixed, at once. Or I would be walking around looking like NOT ME.
I had to accept that a GRAY SWEATER—A nondescript afterthought of the fashion world—had come to symbolize the way I thought of myself. If I wasn’t gray-sweater-Lindsay, who was I?
I’m sure everyone has their secret sweater…you know, the little thing you don’t want to give up? No? Just me? Yeah right. It CAN’T just be me.
I imagine doing grand deeds and making heroic sacrifices. I wonder if God will require me to give up everything and follow him. And all the while I have this nagging thought…if he asked me for that one little, insignificant thing that nevertheless means a LOT to me—that represents comfort and security and ease—would I give it up? Not everything, but just one thing. Because God took my sweaters, and I somehow couldn’t function.
I’m impoverished. My thinking is wrong and my spirit is stupid. My home remained unvacuumed, night after night, while I chased a sweater through cyberspace. It occupied my thoughts more than it should have. Maybe I did that on purpose? Maybe it was easier to chase a sweater than to pray? There are real problems in the world, both far from me and near. I guess it was more fun to think about a sweater—and about myself—than to spend the limited hours I’m given doing something meaningful.
The thing about shows like Downton Abbey is that there is a certain amount of dramatic irony. We all know that the family cannot continue in their present way of life. We don’t see what happens to Downton during the Depression or World War II. Technology will make lots of the staff obsolete. Unless they want to become the setting for the great British Bake Off, they’ll need to adapt to the modern world. The demand for the perfect valet, ladies’ maid, and scullery maid (sorry, assistant cook), will dry up in the later decades. (Or maybe it won’t, I don’t know their life.) But they all better learn to adapt to having less, and I probably should too.
Last year I read the book of Jonah with a bunch of kids. They were surprised at the way the book ends—on kind of an anticlimactic note. Jonah has just preached destruction to an entire city, and everyone responds with breathtaking speed and intensity—the entire population begs God’s forgiveness, in literal sackcloth and ashes. But Jonah, waiting on a cliff to watch the mushroom cloud, decides to throw a tantrum because his shade plant died. God asks him, “seriously?” (Not in those words, but that’s the spirit of it.)
There are more important things on earth than the things I just CAN’T DEAL WITH LOSING.
It’s pathetic and embarrassing to admit how I feel about sweaters—but Jonah makes me feel better. Not because he was such a jerk about Nineveh, but because God clearly had enough mercy to go around. And enough patience to deal with the repentance of a whole city and the character flaw of one guy.
One of these days, I will shuffle of this mortal coil, and all my sweaters will remain here without me. Whatever sweaters mean to me, whether it’s identity, or just the promise of comfortable clothes, I can’t take it with me to heaven. And comfort is a dangerous thing to chase.
thanks, team 😉