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When you tie-dye a t-shirt, they tell you to keep it in the plastic bag for at least 24 hours, or several days more, to allow the dye to soak into the fabric so the colors of your shirt will be vibrant. What they don’t tell you is that after those first several days have come and gone and you’ve more or less forgotten about the tie-dying because you’re home from family camp and fully transitioned into school year mode, your wet shirt, which has been scrunched or twisted up and secured with rubber bands and enclosed in a sealed ziploc bag, will become fertile ground for colonies of mold. Or possibly mildew. I am honestly not sure of the difference, when it comes to gross spots growing on something I was planning to put on my body. Either way, when you remember to take the shirts out of their bags and start the chiropractic appointment-inducing process of rinsing them out in the bathtub, and you see the grayish brownish spots clustered across the shirts, you make a face that indicates an unpleasant mixture of disappointment, frustration, and disgust.

Yuck.

Your research reveals that a possible remedy could be soaking the shirts in vinegar. Although in your gut you feel like they’re too far gone, you have to try. Surprisingly, three different stores you visit are completely out of white vinegar. Finally, you order some online from Target, in one of your midnight shopping sprees where you make other exciting purchases such as frozen burritos, saltines, maxi pads, paper towels, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. You are living the high life.

Because that’s the way you roll, it takes a few more weeks for you to actually soak the shirts, although they have been rinsed and are dryish and you are pretty sure no longer nurturing the fungus (if it even is fungus?) besmirching them. You’re just feeling kind of defeated by them. The giant jug of vinegar sits in the hallway, mocking your bad decision making and poor time management skills.

As time passes, you think a lot about preschool. One of the many mantras at your kids’ amazing cooperative preschool was “process, not product.” Emphasis on the kids doing whatever they wanted to do with the materials put in front of them — or that they unearthed while playing in the mud garden or tromping through the woods — rather than the ultimate creation of something recognizable or a specific end goal. This is a good rule of thumb for life with little ones, as products rarely–if ever–turn out as expected. Also a good thing for adults to remember, although we are usually held to the standard of producing some kind of acceptable end result. And process is how you learn. Process is the journey. Process is the sensory experience of getting your hands dirty–or stained with dye in the arts and crafts cabin at camp. You recall the peaceful hour spent with your nine-year-old carefully choosing tie-dye patterns, helping them rubber band the shirts, and finding exactly the right color combinations. You each made a shirt or two and a couple bandanas. The bandanas are easy but not quite as satisfying as a result.

If you’re being truthful, each of you already has several tie-dye shirts in your drawers, that you made at previous family camps or on summer vacations during the pandemic. So you’ve enjoyed the process many times before, and even managed to make some decent shirts.

Now that you have soaked the shirts (and stunk up the house with the aroma of vinegar) and washed the shirts and dried the shirts, you discover that three of the shirts still have enough remaining mold (or mildew!?) stains to make them unwearable. Somehow one shirt emerged unscathed, as well as two bandanas.

You wonder if there is anything useful to do with the rejected shirts. You already have enough dust rags for a squadron of Cinderellas. You fleetingly imagine cutting up sections of the shirts that aren’t stained and sewing them into something else. But what? A doll-sized blanket? Plus, you can’t sew. You think of your friend who can sew and wonder what she would do. In addition to sewing, she is an expert at tie-dying, and you’re certain she would never have made the mistake of allowing tie-dyed t-shirts to languish in their baggies until they grow things. But her kids attended that same preschool, and you know she would appreciate your “process not product” attempt at consolation.

Lately I’ve made a lot of mistakes. Somehow more than what I expect from myself, as if I am more than human. My new mantra, although I am many decades out of preschool, is process, not product. I am still learning.

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