The Trouble With T-Shirts

T-shirts are fun, right? As spring arrives in Lucca more of these lightweight, happy clothes, used for relaxation and play are making their way out of the drawer. Someone wearing one cannot be taken too seriously and you’d never go to a job interview in one. However as a yoga teacher in my past life, they were part of professional attire. So how come I keep getting into trouble in them? 

The Gulf War, 1990

It was fall 1990, a few weeks after the stunning Iraqi invasion of Kuwait prompted American involvement in the Gulf War. Emotions were raw and Americans were in support of the effort. I was getting ready to teach and had put on my newly minted t-shirt, sent to me as a gift from an acquaintance who worked at a large yoga center in New York. It was an endearing surprise, a project he helped bring to fruition, and although we had never met, there it was one day when I opened the random package that arrived at my door. A crisp white t-shirt with a crisp black Om. This was before the symbol had become ubiquitous, before some crazies in the US tried to copyright it for their own gain, and before it was transformed into kitsch. And, it was beautiful.

There are numerous interpretations of the symbol; it’s the sonic representation of the divine; or, the spoken essence of the universe. It’s used at the beginning/end of prayer as an invocation, a sort of ‘make it so’ moment. Reciting it as a mantra is meant to bring peace, calmness and equanimity to the mind. It is written in Sanskrit and considered a sacred syllable. You could argue it shouldn’t be on a t-shirt. But, you could also argue that it should.

I now stood in the grocery store about 10 feet from a man whom I made nervous. This in turn made me nervous. His head had jerked back and his eyes were locked on the Om sign. I knew immediately I was a target. But he was confused. I wasn’t right for his hate, yet we were at war and the symbol seemed ‘wrong.’ In quick succession, his eyes darted up to my face and back down to the symbol of divine peace, trying to reconcile the familiar with the foreign. The sound went out of the room and time slowed. In the seconds that followed, that I looked familiar prevailed, and he backed away.

The irony that a symbol of peace almost resulted in an altercation is easy to see. But really, this wasn’t anything unusual on planet earth. It was simply new to me, living in liberal, coexist, Seattle Washington, and my lack of experience just got some. It sucks to grow up sometimes. 

Namaste, Bitches! 2013

Namaste Bitches!” it said on the t-shirt my friend April had given me for my birthday. I howled with laughter. The juxtaposition between the vastly different sentiment of the two words was to my liking. Somehow, my long standing irritation with Sanskrit words being casually tossed around without much knowledge of what they meant was assuaged by this joke. And to that  point, I was taught that to say ‘Namaste’ as a salutation, was like saying “handshake” to someone as a greeting. A common definition of the word is, ‘the divine in me recognizes the divine in you,’ and it’s an action: hands in what we call prayer position, often accompanied with a nod of the head downward. Consequently I never adopted the trend of using it verbally or writing it at the end of an email. Or wearing it on a t-shirt. Although now that I think about it it could be fun to start signing off emails with ‘Handshake you much, Theresa’

But now I had this awesome t-shirt with everything I loved to hate in one place. The slogan running across the center included an image of a woman bowing her head, depicting namaste. It seemed a bit in your face for yoga class, but not for errands, so one day I put it on for a Home Depot run. I found what I was looking for and made my way to the check-out. I stood in line, and when I got to the front looked up to see an elderly Indian man in a turban greeting me. His pleasant, English salutation of  “good day, how are you?” in a heavy Indian accent was about to be replied to with “Namaste, Bitches!”

I was holding my wallet in my left hand and only had a moment to raise it in a woeful attempt to cover ‘Bitches!’ I tried to assume a casual, natural posture of someone waiting to be rung-up. I hoped that between the size of the writing, which was small, and that it ran across my breasts, this modest Indian man would not see it. But men are men, and boobs know no boundaries, and my hopes were dashed when he said ‘It is a beautiful sentiment, isn’t it?’ bobbling his head side to side in the familiar, charming Indian mannerism.

It appeared I had been successful in my positioning and the offensive part of the shirt was hidden. I met his gaze in an effort to keep his eyes in check as I used my right hand to retrieve my credit card out of my wallet still held by my left, which simply could not be lowered lest the  ‘Bitches!’ cover be blown. ‘Yes it is’ I replied with a smile, and a bobble, hoping the verbal repartee would help with the camouflage. A few words later and a very sincere ‘have a nice day,’ I was out the door. 

Neither of us concluded with Namaste.

Walking with Bugs in Lucca, 2023

I put on my best Bugs Bunny t-shirt. The weather had turned favorable and it was a walk the wall in a t-shirt kind of day. It’s dark green and shows bugs eating a carrot. It’s cute.

I strolled out into the bright, mid-day sun, but as I ascended the steep ramp to the paved surface of le mura, I began to feel uneasy. The dim recesses of my mind were waking up, and the dimness was remembering, there is something else on this t-shirt, isn’t there? Oh yah. In bold white capitol letters is the word VEGETARIAN. I am an ex-pat in a pig passionate country, walking amongst my host countrymen announcing I’m a vegetarian. I may as well wave a red flag in front of a bull.

I pondered. Should I go back and change? Maybe I’m being silly? Five minutes later an old man carefully enunciated ‘vegetarian’ out loud as he passed me, letting me know he had gotten the message. Oy. I have another 40 minutes of walking but the kicker is, I’m not even a vegetarian. This t-shirt is a joke, and I used to teach yoga in it.  

I wore Bugs to class because I’m a born-again carnivore. I was meat-less for 10 years until I began having health issues, but was still working in a field where, especially as a teacher, it’s assumed you do not partake. So when a question or comment would come along about the shirt, and for some reason one always did, I’d respond, ‘I’m not a vegetarian. I just like to eat them.’ That was lots of good fun that was funny, but I didn’t perceive any chance of successfully landing that joke here. 

I walked on, waiting for the next comment, insult, or whatever, to come my way. 

I had planned a stop at the local market as part of my walk. I made a mental note to be sure and buy some prosciutto for plausible deniability. Along the way I came across the local pet store which was having an outdoor event with a kiosk, flyers and fresh faced, energetic Italian teens. Three of them began waving wildly at me, clapping their hands and yelling for me to join them. To my horror, I realized they were looking at my t-shirt and thinking I’m a vegetarian, as advertised! What was I going to say to them? I’m a forward thinking, planet saving, Francis Moore Lappe American acolyte, championing pig and bovine abstinence through Bugs Bunny? But actually no, just kidding, it’s a joke? Next thing you know in the confusion of languages a group selfie would get snapped and posted on their social media page, and I’d never, ever, be able to eat a burger in this town again. I waved back and pretended I couldn’t understand them.  

I came home, opened the prosciutto I bought at the market, took Bugs off and sat down to eat.   Back to Seattle for this t-shirt. As comfortable as I am wearing it in the US, joke or no joke, I can pull it off because I have standing in my country of origin. Here, I’m the new kid.

Are T-shirts really lightweight?

I’ve decided the T-shirt’s lowly ranking in the clothing leaderboard belies its importance as a walking billboard to express an opinion. How many other t-shirt bombs do I have in my closet? Maybe it’s time to retire the favorite T to the rag pile, the ‘washing the car’ stack, or to the Goodwill where it can live on as someone else’s Rubik’s cube.

©️Theresa Elliott, all rights reserved

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2 thoughts on “The Trouble With T-Shirts

  1. Love-love-love this Theresa!! Thanks for the smile on my face this morning. I don’t have any t-shirts here… I have to get me one!😉

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