April 25, 2017

Making it small

Now that I have a crawling, curious almost one year old, I feel myself wading more deeply in the muddy midst of parenting than I was in the first months after she was born. Some days it is a swamp of laundry piles, never ending food on the floor, and new messes sprouting up as quickly as I can contain the existing ones. Then there are moments of calm: sipping tea and chatting with Amos about where clementines come from and or watching Eowyn practice standing. More than ever in this journey I am being pushed, molded and changed as I learn how to be the best parent for my children. In the midst of all of this, my mind goes most quickly to the things I’m not doing or haven’t gotten to. But recently, when I’ve been able pause for a moment and really look around, I’ve realized that somehow I have managed to cobble together a fulfilling creative life.

Social media, the small creative business encouragers, the go-viral-and-make-your-fortune tellers, lead us to believe that you have to give everything you've got to achieve your dreams. I thought I had to be the woman who could spend all day with her kids and then spend all night working, but I just couldn’t do it. I need down time, I need sleep, and last year when I was pregnant with Eowyn, I mostly gave up on being productive. Some people can wrestle their dreams into submission and get exactly what they imagined, others watch them take a completely unexpected shape. There may have been a time when I hoped that I could make it big with my creative work but in a strange way, I am grateful that my kids have forced me to appreciate making it small instead.

When I pay attention, I notice all the little things that make my days worthwhile: baking bread, sewing a dress for my daughter, planting in our community garden, experimenting with natural fabric dyes. There are also the activities that are fulfilling in ways I couldn’t anticipate. On the first Sunday of the month I make my dream of owning a cafe come true when I cook a big brunch and bake yummy things to share with an appreciative group of friends. I make time to write as often as I can (usually not often enough) and occasionally I get paid to do this and, while I aspire to much more, this is also a dream come true.

Some of my skill and interests are not particularly marketable or meaningful on a resume but sharing them with other people is a reminder that money is not always the highest marker of value. Last week I put my master food preserver skills and title to use and taught a high school math class how to make blueberry jam. At least one kid said it was really fun so: success! A few weeks ago I lugged my sewing machine, thread, and pin cushion to a repair cafe. I was a bit in awe of people who had the motivation and desire to repair irons and umbrellas and happy to lend my skills patching up holes in pants, jackets, and aprons. How cool is it to get together with a bunch of people who are interested in and committed to repairing things? It was a fun way to connect with people and help them solve tiny, specific problems with needle and thread.

I know it is a privilege to be able to do the things I love without worrying about how I will pay rent or buy food. I am incredibly grateful to have help from family which gives me some of the time and resources I need to make and write and volunteer. Progress is so slow. Most what I do is squeezed into an hour here or there, prioritized because it matters to me to do creative work, to share food with friends, to make things for people I love. I have so much admiration for people who have created successful businesses and lives from their passions and hard work and compared to that I often feel like a flaky dabbler. You are incredibly lucky If you are able to support yourself or your family with work that you adore, but if that isn’t happening for you don’t give up on the things that you enjoy most. I think it is important to look beyond the idea that our passions and our income must be the same thing. We each need to discover our own definitions of success and be open to them evolving and changing over time.

I’d love to encourage you to find ways to make your dreams part of your every day reality or to know what you are doing to make it big or small.

March 22, 2017

Crunchy Vegetables and Bold Colors

At first it feels like gripping the textured plastic holds, twenty or thirty feet up in the air secured by a rope and a harness; unable to go any farther, readying to let go. That scary second of swinging free but no doubt that the rope will hold and you will be slowly let down until you touch the ground again. It's a feeling of jumping into the unknown when you really have nothing to lose. I can't remember a time when I didn't take as many liberties with a recipe as I needed but recently I have felt myself forging even farther ahead without holding on to a guideline to keep me safe.

The salad below is an example of something I threw together without hesitation or concern about the results. I was delighted enough to make it again a few days later and to want to share it here because the combination of crunchy vegetables, bold colors and tangy lime juice is a lovely antidote to the grey, mud, and dirty snow that surrounds us in these early days of spring.

But I've been feeling more than just improvisational moments in the kitchen. It is a letting go, uncertain of what will happen but knowing that I won't come crashing down. I don't know if it is mastery or foolishness, it feels a little wobbly and a bit rebellious but it comes down to trusting myself, at least when I am standing at the kitchen counter. Not sure how to make miso ginger dressing and no recipe seems quite right? A little of this and a bit of that shaken in a jar. A whim to make braided rolls but no bread cookbooks offer what I am looking for? Just go for it

This feeling of freedom and confidence in the kitchen is, perhaps, at odds with the uncertainty and challenges in so many aspects of life. But I feel bits of it leaking in here and there, beyond mixing bowls and sauté pans, a sense of freedom and acceptance in the rest of life. I am more concerned about the results than I am when I make a salad but sometimes I can trust myself.

Cabbage Carrot Cilantro Slaw 

I'm providing a recipe, though I encourage you to let go a bit and find creative freedom wherever you can. This colorful crunchy slaw is great on its own but we've been eating it with black beans and crepes or tortillas and whatever else you like on top. I use bottled lime juice because it is an easy way to have lime on hand but freshly squeezed lime would be great and you can adjust the amount you would like to your taste. 

2 scallions
1 large carrot, grated (about 1 1/2 cups)
3 cups of thinly sliced red cabbage (a mandoline is great for this)
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1-2 tablespoons lime juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt, to taste

Cut of the root ends of the scallions and thinly slice all the way to the end of the greens. Chop the sliced scallions into smaller pieces. Combine the chopped scallion with grated carrot, shredded cabbage, chopped cilantro, lime juice, olive oil and salt. Toss a few times until everything is mixed together.

February 16, 2017

A Practice of Warmth and Joy

I have always valued time to do nothing while I let my gaze and mind wander. I can think of many childhood moments watching rain drops slither across the car window or waking up and staring at a crack in the ceiling or the colored squares on a rug. Maybe you watch the clouds as they slowly morph from one shape to another or follow the patterns of the tiles on the bathroom floor. Our eyes and minds are always trying to find recognizable shapes and patterns, to make some sense of things. It's the patterns that aren’t quite symmetrical, that don’t repeat exactly the same way that really draw me in. Instead of letting my eyes and mind complete the sequence and move on, they keep me searching for connections and trying to understand. I recently checked out a book of quilts from the library full of many scrap quilts that begin with a pattern but veer off as colors and fabric run out. Or they go wild from the start when the quilter makes use of whatever fabric she has on hand or whims she chooses.

Seeing these joyous acts of sewing, of piecing together scraps and ideas, has reassured me that perfection does not have to be the aim of quilt making. When I make quilts, corners don’t always line up and the edges are not usually even. But the process of choosing colors and patterns from the stash of fabric on my shelf is an experience of joy. Quilting is one way to turn scraps into something beautiful and useful, an intersection of creativity and necessity. Saving scraps and repurposing fabric to make quilts was practiced most often by women in the twentieth century as an inexpensive way to keep their families warm. Often they didn’t have the time or fabric supply to be picky about patterns and colors. Instead they used scraps of fabric, pieces of old clothes and cuts of worn out denim to create quilts that were essential to their homes and their creative spirits.

Beyond using scraps for the top, thrifty quilters have used old clothes, tattered quilts and other materials instead of batting when it wasn’t available or affordable. But the need to cover big beds and keep little toes warm was also a chance to take a colorful break from work and chores and spend time creating. It reminds me of the saying that firewood warms you twice, but instead of the way splitting and stacking the wood warms you long before you burn it, the process of making a quilt is a practice of warmth and joy. When I am done playing with colors and patterns, I love the act of quilting as a way of binding things together. On a winter evening, I spread the quilt on my lap and use stitch after stitch to make three layers into one. All the cutting, piecing and stitching are as joyful as tucking under the quilt or giving it away.

Perhaps it is the uncertainty and chaos of world events, perhaps it is the uncertainty and chaos of parenting, but I am so drawn to creating order and chaos with colors and patterns and to stitching it all together by machine and hand. This quilt (with nine month old Eowyn for scale) is for our friends' baby due in the spring. I started by making flying geese triangles and then decided to make squares instead. I have more fabric and ideas waiting and I keep picturing a stack of little quilts, neatly folded and resting in our living room. That would last about a second before Amos would spread them all around and turned into imaginary boats, buses, or trash trucks. We all have our own ways of finding that joy in creating.

January 31, 2017

Letters and Numbers

It’s been a gray month. Many things have not gone as planned, many things have taken my mind far from the here and now and left my heart anxious. Though I wish I didn’t have reason to be marching and demonstrating twice in one week, I am truly heartened by the thousands and millions of people who are demonstrating, calling, organizing, giving, speaking out, reaching out in opposition to the new administration and in hopes that we can still make the world a better place. I am doing my best to settle in for the long haul of political action, creative work, and family life. Somehow, in the midst of the chaos of the first month of 2017, I have found into a semblance of a routine. Most evenings I work on projects for a couple of hours and then read a bit before I can no longer avoid sleep. These projects may never go farther than the computer screen and the rooms of my apartment but I am making gradual progress, which always feels good.

Amos and I have been reading a lot of Winnie-the-Pooh in the past few days. It is the closest we’ve come to reading a chapter book and it is nice to cuddle up together to read about the friends in the hundred acre wood. Amos has been more interested in numbers and letters lately as he continues the process of learning about the world around him. We count body parts and slices of cheese and he is quick to tell us that he will be ready to go in six or thirteen minutes. I recently saw a list of beautiful alphabet posters for kids and it occurred to me that this would be a fun way for him to explore letters. Then I realized that I could make something that would do the trick.

I’ve become more interested in letters lately, too. It started with the banner I made for the women’s march (or, rally as it was at the Maine state capital). Sewing fabric letters is time consuming and not as practical or interesting as calligraphy or type face, but it is most often the medium I choose for whatever I have to say. I am drawn to words, especially words of wisdom from others. When I was in high school I had a little notebook where I would jot down quotes that I liked. Words remind me of what I want to believe, know, or understand and I make things to deepen this understanding and to interact with the world in a meaningful way. Sewing words doesn’t come close to bringing them alive, but it is a way of bringing them to my attention, of giving them greater importance. I turn fabric into words and then, slowly work at turning this words again into actions

December 16, 2016

Of Tiny and Big Things

This is the season of tiny and big things. Each morning Amos pulls a card from the advent calendar and I read him the activity that we will do (note to self: include a picture next year so he can figure it out). Making a citrus garland, cutting out snowflakes, going to see the lights on the trees in the park. We are fortunate to have the time and space and resources to make these little activities happen. As the month goes on, we will try some activities that remind us that giving, to strangers and loved ones, is important, too (collecting warm clothes and food to donate, making gifts, doing kind things).

I’ve long thought that the best way that I can make a difference in the world is in small daily actions and choosing to live in a way that, ideally, does more good than harm. But the election has prodded me to see that there is so much more that needs to be done. I think more than ever about how to encourage my children to be people who care about others, understand and appreciate the things that make us so different and so much the same. I don’t have a solid plan for any of this. I’m trying to find that spot where I can stay informed and active and not be paralyzed by fear. It is truly a privilege to be able to even consider this balance and not be forced to fight every single day. So far, I am calling my senators and congresswoman as often as I can.

Our tree is up and the ornaments move around the from day to day with Amos' whims. The needles sprinkle on to the wood floor beneath the tree and clamor to get onto the rug. I am resisting the urge to redistribute the ornaments and adjust the lights which are bunched in some areas, leaving other spots bare. I tell myself to let that go and enjoy the amazing pine-y smell and the warmth of the twinkling lights.

I had some photos printed last week and I updated the wall where I stick (literally, with masking tape) some of the photos that I love. Photos never capture the whole picture, the before or after, the mess in the background or the long journey to that quick moment. But when I look at this assortment of photos from the last several years I can see beyond the ups and downs of life with a three and a half year old, the disturbing news of the world, and the challenges of every day. These smiles, hugs, moments of sweetness really do happen every day and when I look at them I see how lucky we are that all our moments, good and hard, are held together, not by masking tape but by lots and lots of love.

October 20, 2016

Here and Now

After months of simply imagining it could happen, we seem to have settled into a daily rhythm. We’re in a tiny sweet spot when things run smoothly, as smoothly as the rattling emotional roller coaster that is life with a three year old and five month old.

Amos is learning and reaching so many new things. He is fast and steady on his balance bike but also capable of loud and dramatic melt downs. He refuses to help just as often as he eagerly pulls his chair up to the counter so he can mix, chop, or wash. When he is at his best: engaged, excited, curious, competent he often asks, “Can I give you a hug?” I try to stop what I am doing immediately at this request. I don’t respond to everything so patiently or generously. But here we are, still learning, still trying to figure it all out, but appreciating what is here and now.  

These days, rest time is actually happening, thanks to Sparkle Stories which keeps Amos in his room for about an hour after lunch. After rest time, we do a project. I loosely participated in Tinker Lab’s Art Start Challenge which gave me some new ideas for process based art. After a couple of days Amos ended rest time by asking for a project. It has helped to give our days a stronger more consistent rhythm and makes a nice transition from rest time to play time. Although I hope he will soon be more self motivated in his creativity, we usually do the project together, which is fun for me, too. Some of his favorites are watercolor crayons, painting with balls, and mono prints. 

Eowyn thinks Amos is the best and funniest thing in existence. I ask her where he is and she looks around until she sees him. Often she starts giggling at the sight of him and whatever silly or annoying thing he does. Thankfully, Amos is now finding greater delight in playing with his sister than he does in hitting her. I am appreciating this lull before she is mobile and we have new levels of sharing and playing together to negotiate. 

October 5, 2016

The Value is in Making

I am finally wearing the barn sweater which I cast on last October. I am not a fast knitter and sometimes I stall when I have to learn or figure out a new technique. I finally blocked, seamed and added buttons to it in September. Now that the days are cool and and an extra layer is welcome, I get to cover myself with a cozy, very imperfect hug that I know I will wear all the time. With something that has taken so much time and effort, it is tempting to keep it precious and protected but despite the slow work and many stitches, I want to use it, wear it, care for it, when needed, repair it.

I’m finding more time in the evenings to create, which feels so good. Last night while sewing, I listened to an episode of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lessons Podcast. Nearly every episode reveals something invaluable to me about the creative process and creative living and I kept pausing to jot down thoughts from episode 204. She talks with a poet about the value of participating in something ancient, like writing poetry as people have done for thousands of years. Clothing ourselves must be as ancient as humanity and I often think of the generations of women who spent hours weaving, stitching, gathering scraps, repurposing, remaking and patching. Crisscrossing the line between necessity and art form, they had an intimate connection to the seams that covered them in comfort, durability and beauty. It is easy to romanticize the hard work of making clothing before machinery and mass production and hard to forget the slavery and oppression that is also part of the history (and present) of garment production. I am lucky that I can choose to make clothes for myself and be part of every seam.

In the same episode, Liz Gilbert talks to the poet Mark Nepo and one of the things he says that has stayed with me is, “The vitality of life is staying a verb.” It doesn’t mean anything to be a writer or maker, the value is in writing and making. For me, the value in knitting or sewing things to wear is as much in the creative process as the final wearable garment. Fashion isn’t really something that I think about much but this month is Slow Fashion October and I have been, again, pondering why I revel in slow processes and in making everyday things. It is a practice and connection that I engage in wholeheartedly without any concern for perfection. I still have a lot to learn about knitting and this cozy gray cardigan is riddled with mistakes, but it fits well enough and looks good enough for me. We scrutinize ourselves and our creations far more closely and critically than any outside observer while we each need to find and make what brings us joy, perfect or not.