What Would You Do . . . ?

1458528_717942198258613_1716610046_nWhat would you do if money was no object and fear was just a word?

A little while ago, Pam, at the blog “The Muse,” asked this question of her readers.

I had a lot of fun thinking about the question, and reading the responses (some from folks who read this blog, too). So, in my exhausted, post-holiday-boutique state, I’m going to blatantly copy Pam’s idea and ask you the question.

If money was no object and fear was just a word, what would you do?

As for me, I’d make some charitable donations and help friends and family pursue their dreams. I’d buy the farm formerly owned by my family, currently abandoned, and fix it up so more generations of children could grow up knowing the joy of being a farm kid.

But the big thing I’d do is buy the building called the Old Stone Barracks, on the former strategic air command base in Plattsburgh, NY, and set up an arts and crafts cooperative.

I’d use my money and energy to restore this beautiful, huge building and preserve its history. The building was erected in 1838 and made of locally quarried limestone. It is currently empty and falling into increasing disrepair.

169817_158727830846722_7442467_oIf money were no object and I were a bold visionary, I’d fill the rooms of this 200-foot long structure with people making things. We’d have experts coming to teach fiber arts, and metalsmithing, and ceramics, and woodworking, and everything. We’d have studio spaces where artists could work and share equipment and ideas and support. We’d have open houses and bring school kids in, to learn about the power that comes from making something with your own hands. We’d bring history and tradition and vision and inspiration together, together!

It’s such fun to dream! What would your dream be, if money was no object and fear was just a word?

Starting 2014 By Finishing . . .

IMG_4454When we were kids, my sister and I lived by rules. My mother had her own version of the 10 Commandments and the greatest among them was this:

churchsignWe were not to boast, show off, or draw undue attention to ourselves. And Mom had a look that could stop us, not to mention rogue elephants, in our tracks if we showed even a hint of an intention of show-off behavior.

Well, Mom, I’m a big girl now and, while I try to live a circumspect, modest life, I am so happy to have finished a specific project, that I’m going to start the New Year by tooting my on horn, ringing my own bell, and just generally acting goofy.

It’s done. It’s done! IT’S DONE!!

What’s the big deal, you ask? People finish quilts every day.

Yes, well, so they may, but this quilt was started when my niece was an infant and she is now 17. This quilt took longer to finish than my doctoral dissertation and that is truly saying something.

I don’t know why it took so long. I’ve finished other quilts in a more reasonable amount of time. To my defense, almost every stitch in this quilt was done by hand—hand piecing and hand quilting. But that has been true of the other quilts I’ve made—I just really hate sewing machines.

I worked on it in fits and starts and got distracted along the way by work and other hobby obsessions. I took courses in jewelry making and then started with the candy making I’ve told you about. I stopped being a college prof and became an associate dean, which took a lot of attention. Then I retired and we moved and I started doing other things and, and, and  . . .

But this quilt called to me—all it has needed, really, for about the last 5 years, was to have the edges trimmed and the binding sewed on, maybe 4 days of work.

So, I finally did it. On one of the last warm days of fall, I dragged it out to our seawall and trimmed the edges. Then candy season hit and I stalled again but last week I took the time and finally finished the quilt.

And (here comes the really immodest part!), I love it! It’s a variation on an Ocean Waves pattern and I think I invented the setting. To my eye, it’s downright gorgeous and I’m going to hang it on the wall, in a place of honor, so I can be impressed with myself every single time I see it!

I might even start another quilt. I have dozens of little patches left over from piecing the top of this one and I have ideas. And working on a quilt is another great way to stay warm in the winter.

But, first, I have to do penance. Forgive me, Mother, for I have sinned—I showed off.

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Quilting Hands at Home: An Adirondack Quilt Show

A huge space, filled with of handmade quilts, on a brisk autumn day! When the biennial show of the Champlain Valley Quilters’ Guild of New York opened a couple of weeks ago, the colors inside the building rivaled those on the sugar maples outside. But the colors on the quilts will last long after the leaves have fallen!

I’ve said elsewhere that I think quilting is, just maybe, the quintessential expression of “loving hands at home.” It conjures images of regular people, using what they have on hand, to create a practical item that transcends the maker and the purpose. The time commitment in making a quilt is not undertaken lightly and the finished quilt envelops and warms the recipient, and brings beauty to any space. To see nearly 300 quilts and other textile projects on display is to see thousands of hours of work and love made tangible.

The photos sort of speak for themselves. Like every quilt show, this one was pure eye candy.

Many of the quilters had participated in a “mystery quilt” challenge, in which they were instructed to choose fabrics along certain guidelines and then follow instructions that were communicated periodically, so the beauty of each woman’s quilt (and, yes, they were all women—no men in this guild at all!) would be revealed slowly. These quilts were displayed together and the range of colors choices was fascinating!

Probably every quilt show has a regional angle or flavor. This one was no different. These quilters are based in the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain region of upstate New York so many of the quilt reflected the colors and subject matter of the area.

I am pretty bummed to say that I did not win the raffle quilt but I did pick up a copy of the Quilters’ Guild cookbook, which they compiled a few years ago. I love these community-based cookbooks for their old-fashioned, and often downright quirky, recipes.

This recipe book reflects the region just as the quilts themselves did. It has far more recipes for desserts and sweets than anything else, with an emphasis on apples and maple syrup, of course!

I’ll leave you with their “Recipe for Happiness This Year” (slightly edited to match my writing rules!)

Ingredients:

Water, Meals, Plants, 3 Es, Books, Exercise, Family and Friends, Excess

Directions:

Drink plenty of water. Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a beggar. Large meals earlier in the day are healthier for you. Eat more foods that grow as plants and eat less food that is manufactured in plants. Live with the 3 Es: energy, enthusiasm, and empathy. Read more books this year than you did last year. Take a 10-30 minute walk daily and, while you walk, smile.  Realize no one is in charge of your happiness except you. Call your friends and family often. Each day, give something good to others and get rid of anything that isn’t useful, beautiful, or joyful.

Taking Pains

quote-genius-is-an-infinite-capacity-for-taking-pains-thomas-carlyle-31782There are several ways to perform almost any act—an efficient, workable, artistic way and a careless, indifferent, sloppy way. Care and artistry are worth the trouble.― Helen Nearing

From my earliest memories, I can remember being urged to “take pains.” My paternal grandmother would say, “Kerry, you need to take pains to practice the piano” or “Take more pains with that embroidery.” I didn’t really understand this—did making something need to hurt?

As I grew older, I started to understand what it meant, really. I wanted to make things and I tended to rush, to get on to making the next thing. But my grandmother, and other family members and teachers, would tell me to slow down, do it well, take pains. It didn’t mean anything needed to hurt but I that I had to work against my impulse to rush, and that took control and self-discipline.

When I was studying jewelry making and metal smithing as an undergraduate, our teacher would assign grades based on both design and craftsmanship or, in other words, taking pains. I’ve never thought myself to be particularly creative, in terms of coming up with new designs or ideas. I could work to make my designs less predictable and derivative but other students had flashes of brilliance that escaped me.

But I could be the most painstaking. No file marks left on the metal for me! No globs of solder or poorly set stones.

Similarly, when I took up quiltmaking, I used time-tested, traditional patterns but learned to do the piecing and quilting by hand and tried to make the tiniest, most even stitches possible.

Now, none of this has come easy to me. I love marking things off my to-do list—finish the candy, put the binding on the quilt, post a blog entry, be productive. I need to fight my impulse to do things just to get them done. I cannot do quickly and do well; I know that about myself.

Taking pains, I think, is at the heart of craftsmanship. Thomas Carlyle said that, “Genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains” and, while I think there’s more to genius than being painstaking, taking pains is the part we really have control over.

This approach has served me well; what I lack in creative insight, I’ve found I can make up for in craftsmanship. I can pay attention to detail; I use a set of skills, which are available to all of us, but try to use them exceptionally well. I can take pains.

I’m not talking about perfection here. I am, after all, a human being and we are not meant for perfection. Tolstoy told us that, “If you look for perfection, you’ll never be content,” and contentment is very high on my list of achievable personal goals.

Rather, I’m saying that I work hard to do my best at the things that are meaningful to me and that I have control over. I want my work to reflect the human behind it but a human striving to do her best. And what I’ve realized is that we need to take pains with all kinds of human skills—writing, making, doing, thinking, and relating to others.

When I consider the people I admire most, they are the ones who take pains to be kind to others, to make relationships strong, to do their best work, whether that work is in the kitchen, the classroom, the boardroom, the workshop, the studio. These are the people who commit fully to whatever task they are engaged in and take pains to do it well.

I strive to be one of them.

 

Battered Hands at Home Redux: The Readers Speak

file0001924831000Last week, I wrote about the battered hands of people who make things and I used my own poor hands as examples. I heard from lots of you about your hands (and feet, and shoulders, and knees!) It is clear that artists and crafters and antiquers are willing to go to heroic lengths in pursuit of their passion!

I can’t resist sharing my favorite comments with you (I edited some of them slightly, for consistency). If you’re not familiar with these wonderful bloggers and the things they make and sell, you should take a peek!

Yeah, I have sliced open my foot with a rotary cutter before  . . . Hello, emergency room! (http://papooseclothing.blogspot.com/)

Mine are minor, mostly hot glue gun burns . . . hammered my thumb more than a few times, and got my arm caught up in my rose bush. Nothing major thankfully! (http:/monpetitchateaudecor.wordpress.com)

As an antiques dealer, my scars don’t show but are definitely present in my everyday. My aching body reminds me of my passion more often than I prefer! (But I wouldn’t trade it for the world!) (homeologymodernvintage.com)

Scars from my life of antiquing are mainly a left shoulder that has a torn rotator cuff or tendons that I got trying to carry “my end” of a piece of furniture that outweighed me by a lot! My husband forgets that he is a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier than me and I get “my half”  . . . Craft scars . . . hmm. Lots of cuts, punctures, burns, a dining room carpet covered by a gallon bucket of gesso, bending over the sewing machine so close that I caught the thread feed in the forehead . . . I once was sprinting to the door to catch the (really cute) UPS man and tripped and tackled the portable ceramic heater. So he heard a big crash and I answered the door with bleeding kneecaps and hiding a burned arm! “Are you OK?” Oh yes . . . fine . . . yikes. (hopeandjoyhome.blogspot.com)

I don’t have scars from vintage hunts, but I do have a nice callus from my crochet hook and sometimes pricked fingers from cross-stitch and sewing!! Boy, it hurts when you get jabbed in the finger from a needle! (magnoliasattic.blogspot.com)

I’ve done the hot sugar thing too! Well, it was at a campfire, and someone’s marshmallow caught fire and they flung it onto my finger (ouch!) I still have the scar. In general though, I’m just a clumsy sewer. I’m always stabbing accidentally stabbing myself! (jessthetics.wordpress.com)

Yep, there are lots of scars. One time I put the drill bit of the Flex Shaft into the webbing of my thumb and first finger (yes I reversed and pulled it right back out). There are lots of cuts and you can tell I sew a lot! The one thing I always dreaded getting was “weaver’s bottom”. That is when you sit at the loom a lot, rocking back and forth and for some reason weavers tend to have a little more padding on their bottoms for cushioning!  (shuttlehookandneedle.blogspot.com)

I don’t consider a project finished until I’ve bled on it. Eww, I know. But that’s how I put my heart in my work. (creatingmiranda.wordpress.com)

I was heartened to know that we are a sisterhood (no men admitting scars so far!) of battered but brave, scarred but not scared, marred but marvelous makers!

And how about you? Have you marks from your making that you’ve yet to share?

 

The Maker’s Marks: Battered Hands at Home

The-Three-Spinning-Fairies-35Has your art or craft left its mark on you? Do you have calluses or scars that speak to the work your hands do?

I remember a fairy tale that fascinated me as a child. It was from the Grimm’s Fairy Tales and was called “The Three Spinning Fairies.” The three fairies all were physically marked by the work they did as spinners. One had a big, flat foot, from turning the wheel; one had a large underlip that hung over her chin, from wetting the thread; and the third had a very broad thumb, from twisting the thread.

The story gets me thinking about the ways our activities mark us. The musculature of the long-distance runner tells a tale of her hard work. The tanned and lined skin of the farmer speaks of a life working in the sun. I knew an elderly teacher who had develop a verbal tic of punctuating her every sentence with “shhh,” after years in the classroom.

The activities I engage in are easy by comparison yet even “loving hands at home” tell a tale. The work, and play, I do have left their marks. When I play the guitar regularly, I form calluses on my left hand (when I pick up the guitar irregularly, I just whine!) During gardening season, I perpetually have soil under my nails. I wake up every morning, and my joints are kind of creaky.

But some of the marks my hands bear deserve special recognition:

The most annoying

I don’t always choose to quilt but, when I do, I prefer handwork (I’m channeling that guy in the Dos Equis ad!). During the process of hand quilting, both hands are in action, the dominant hand on top, sort of rocking the needle through the layers of fabric, and the other hand under the quilt, deflecting the needle back up.

Each stitch pricks the top of the underside finger and, pretty soon, you have either a) a sore hole in your finger; b) a callus; or c) both.  I never have quite built up a fully protective callus, so this is a niggling injury. It completely stops progress because I cannot go on quilting until it heals.

I always thought I could incorporate this maker’s mark into a murder mystery. Someone is killed and the murder weapon reveals an odd pattern. The lack of a normal fingerprint on the third finger leads to a deranged quilt maker.

The most psychologically unsettling

I don’t have any actual scars from jewelry making, which is odd because I use more substantial and potentially damaging tools there than in any other hobby. But I have mental scars—I can feel, in my memories, the way the slender, sharp blade of the jeweler’s saw cuts into the side of my left index finger when I slip as I’m cutting the silver. It cuts right where the fingernail joins the skin at the side of your finger. And you know it’s going to happen. And you promise yourself it won’t, not this time. And then it does. Again. I wince just writing about it!

The most painful

The most painful injury I’ve had in pursuit of handmade heaven is a burn from hot sugar syrup. I regularly make caramels and toffee and, to do so, you need to cook sugar syrup to the “soft ball” stage—about 240 degrees. That’s hot. And sticky, so you can’t brush it off. The hot syrup sticks to your skin and stays hot and just . . . keeps . . . burning.

Last winter, during the height of candy-making season for my business, I flipped a big glob of hot syrup on my finger and it kind of wrapped around the base of the finger. I got it into cold water almost immediately but not soon enough to prevent huge blisters and scars. And, by the way, if you ever get hot food on your finger, do NOT stick your finger in your mouth! As much as it hurts to burn the skin on your hand, it’s worse on the tender skin inside your mouth. I’m just sayin’ . . .

The dumbest 

The dumbest injury I’ve sustained came when I was working in a gallery, as a picture framer. I was handling a big piece of glass to put in a frame over a poster—it was about 3 feet by 2 feet. I finally got the glass all clean and I picked it up to place it in the frame. But a scrap of paper had gotten stuck to the underside glass, with a little bit of masking tape. It was just a little bit stuck so I figured I could dislodge it, without putting the glass down.

I gave the huge sheet of glass a little shake, just to knock that tape off, and it pretty much exploded in my hands! Glass everywhere, including one big sharp dagger of a piece that embedded itself in my palm. The good news: it could’ve been so such worse! The bad news: the scar dissects the lifeline on my left palm, creating great confusion when I get my fortune told!

People think that crafting and cooking are delicate pastimes, for those with soft lady-like hands. You and I know different! Any beloved, repeated activity leaves its mark upon us, whether physical or psychological. I look at my hands, after a lifetime of using them to make all kinds of things, and they aren’t pretty.

They do, however, look capable and strong and agile. And I will take capable, strong, and agile over pretty any day!

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Do you have scars and calluses to show you’ve lived a busy life? What are your maker’s marks?

How Can I Keep from Singing?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve said elsewhere that the music I love best is folk music, music made by people like you and me. The music I love best is made and sung by everyday people in response to everyday events in their own lives. I can appreciate the glory of the highly-trained operatic voice and also love a song that has-a-good-beat-and-is-easy-to-dance-to but I come back, every time, to the grittier, more authentic sound of the folk.

I especially love the music of protest and resistance. I wrote a Master’s thesis on the spirituals sung by African-American slaves and published a book about the protest songs of the American Civil Rights Movement. I’ve also studied Irish songs of rebellion and the protest music of the American New Left and of the turbulent 1960s.

The best songs, to my way of thinking, are not sung by an individual performer while others sit and listen quietly. The best songs are shared in the fullest sense—shared words, shared voices, making together a sound and a covenant that could not be made by one person, alone. And the best songs transcend the moment in which they were created, to speak across generations, about the human condition.

This is all by way of providing you a preview of coming attractions! I just know I’ll be writing more about this music and the songs and singers/songleaders that have moved me most. I’ll start, in the next week or so, with my thoughts about what I would call the greatest folk song of all time, “We Shall Overcome.” I hope you’ll come back and follow along!

Simply Human—We Don’t Have to Be Perfect!

quilting_amish_diamond_centerWhen I was more actively involved in quilt making, I remember reading that Amish women, the makers of some of the most fabulous quilts ever (if you ask me!), always made sure to include a misplaced patch of fabric or a few incorrect stitches in any quilt they made. The thinking was that only God was perfect and that it was arrogant for a human to attempt perfection. Including an intentional mistake was acknowledgement of human fallibility and humility.

In the “loving hands at home” world, mistakes and missteps abound—and the mistakes remind us that we are real and our products aren’t going to be perfect, and it’s okay to say, “Hey, at least I tried!”

In the world of Pinterest, where all the homes are beautiful and all the handmade projects above average, some people are celebrating their imperfection, and maybe, just maybe, creating imperfection for its own sake. Just type “craft fail” in the search bar and look at some of the boards with that title!

I love finding the imperfections that come, it seems, from busy, distracted hands at home. These vintage towels I saw for sale on eBay crack me up.

Firday towelback Thursday towelI can understand the accidental misspelling of “Friday” but how did the word Thursday get stitched backwards? Either the maker a) was majorly distracted, b) was sampling the dandelion wine, or c) had a wicked sense of humor!

I try to be pretty relaxed when I make something that doesn’t turn out exactly as I planned. I want it to be structurally sound (or edible, when it’s food). I want it to be worthy of the time I put into it. But if I make a mistake, I don’t quit the whole thing and throw it away and I usually don’t start over. I try to find a way to incorporate the mistake and move on. After all, I’m only human!

How about you? Are you a perfectionist? I hope you can laugh and accept the missed stitch, the runny frosting, and the little quirks that prove your items weren’t made by a machine!

How Crocheting Saved My Life

IMG_1773Okay, so that title is an example of hyperbole. Crocheting didn’t save my life but it certainly saved my sanity during a really trying period of my life!

All of you with a creative outlet know how important that outlet can be in times of trouble. When you’re under stress and your brain is working overtime and imagining the worst, having busy hands and a project that needs concentration can distract and calm you.

And that’s what crocheting did for me. I didn’t crochet before and I don’t crochet anymore. I honestly don’t really enjoy crocheting (sorry to all who love it!). But I needed it.

Here’s my story: My husband and I had just moved to a home on Lake Champlain in upstate New York. Three weeks after we moved in, Lake Champlain reached record high-water levels and our house was surrounded by water. We had to leave and leave pretty fast.

The lake isn't supposed to be on this side of the house!

The lake isn’t supposed to be on this side of the house!

We spent 6 weeks in a tatty motel. Our cats spent 6 weeks in cages at the vet’s. It rained relentlessly and the flood waters kept inching up and we didn’t know if the whole house would flood but we knew the basement and garage were full of water. We could get to the house but only in hip waders.

Yes, a boat in the driveway.

Yes, a boat in the driveway.

One of the worst aspects of this was that we had nothing to do. We don’t really care about TV or movies or shopping. There are only so many walks a person can take in a day. So we sat around the motel and worried ourselves sick.

And that’s where crocheting came in. I needed something to distract me and crocheting seemed to be the simplest solution—after all the supply list is truly minimal. All I needed was one crochet hook and a ball of yarn and my trusty iPad, for instruction.

I spent 6 weeks obsessively learning one crochet pattern. I found a pretty picture of a 16-circles square on the Internet and set out to learn it.

This was the picture that inspired me. From http://undisthreadness.blogspot.com/

This was the picture that inspired me. From http://undisthreadness.blogspot.com/

Because I had no background in crochet or reading the language of the patterns, my progress was really slow and really painful. BUT it took my mind off all the other painful worries and focused me. And I finally learned to make the squares and made enough of them to out together a decent-sized throw.

And this is what mine looked like.

And this is what mine looked like.

And I’m happy to report that by the time I had enough squares to stitch together, we were back in our house! We didn’t have running water for weeks, because the well and the septic system were completely compromised, and pretty much every shrub and perennial in our yard died a horrible death. We had scum all over the garage and black mold growing up the walls, but the flood waters had not made it into the main part of the house.

Now, two years later, everything is groovy. The house and gardens look great again and we love living on this beautiful lake, when it behaves!

I tried to keep crocheting but, somehow, I just can’t get into it. It’s as if it served its purpose and now I can move on. But I’m keeping my crochet hook . . . just in case. Has your form of creative expression helped you through a difficult time? I’d love to hear about it!

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