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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sew, Sew, Sew Your Coat (May 20, 2012)

Coincidences make for such happy discoveries.

While at the library recently I glanced at the New Arrivals shelf. One book was displayed on a miniature easel and its cover caught my eye. On the cover was an animal with every color imaginable on it, and dozens of different buttons giving it a funky, textural look. The book’s title was Hoopla: the Art of Unexpected Embroidery. Clearly, this book had been placed there for me to discover! I bee lined for the checkout desk.

Hoopla appealed to me because one year ago I learned to sew with a machine and since then I’ve been fascinated by textiles, fiber arts, sewing and experimenting with material and mixed media. The timing of discovering this book was good. It’s not a book about traditional things women did hundreds of years ago when ladylike needle-and-thread activities were one of only a few pastimes women were allowed to do. No, this book is about artists today who have added their own twist onto a traditional art form. The effects are unique, sometimes subversive, and very 21st century. The book mentioned a male embroidery artist whose story made him stand out from the others profiled. I knew I had to read his story and I tracked down his autobiography through the library. Ray Materson’s book Sins and Needles really grabbed me. The subtitle is A Story of Spiritual Mending. It’s not a religious book but it does chronicle Ray’s emotional healing in jail after a stumbling journey through drug addiction. Ray shares the story of learning embroidery art as therapy, his parole, and national recognition as a talented artist. This book pulled me in and I finished it in two days. There is not one recipe for a good story but for me, a compelling story with ingredients like addiction, incarceration, creativity, hope and redemption is very likely to be a page-turner. 

Let’s talk coincidence. Chance led me to Hoopla, which led me to Sins and Needles. An unplanned moment is also what led to Ray Materson’s first embroidered piece. Ray was serving a long sentence in a Connecticut prison and like many inmates, television became one of his connections to the outside world. Ray had lived in Michigan as a child and he’d attended football games at The University of Michigan. On New Year’s Day 1989 Michigan was going to play USC at the Rose Bowl and Ray intended to watch the game on tv, cheering them on. Here is how he recounts the first time it occurred to him to try to embroider something:

I noticed a pair of socks hanging on the tier railing about two cells down. They were new-looking white tube socks with dark blue and yellow stripes…A pack of cigarettes…was a steep price to pay for a pair of socks, but I wanted them…The richly colored stripes on the socks had a sheen to them that reminded me of the jerseys and embroidered hats that were ubiquitous in Ann Arbor…(In my cell) my attention was inexplicably drawn to a plastic Rubbermaid bowl that I used for storing coffee…I noticed that the bowls’ circular mouth was roughly the size of the sewing hoop my grandmother used when she was doing embroidery…That’s when I made a decision: In my own way, I was going to Pasadena to attend the Rose Bowl and cheer the Wolverines on to victory…I emptied the remains of my coffee container…rinsed out the bowl and went to work cutting off its circular mouth…I cut another ring from the bowl’s snap-on lid to use as a fitted loop that would hold a piece of cloth tightly in place. Next I drew a simple block letter M on a torn-off scrap from the sheet on my bunk. After securing my design cloth onto the hoop, I set about pulling the thread from my maize-and-blue-striped socks…and wound it around the barrel of a pen…Sewing needles were made available to inmates for the purposes of mending (and)…they could be signed out routinely…An hour into the project I stopped counting the number of times I pricked my fingers. In the meantime, I had to interrupt my work frequently to untangle knots in the sock thread. It was a tedious learning process, but I persevered. I worked on my Michigan M for two days, during which I learned a great deal about handling a needle and experienced a deep sense of enjoyment in the process. I also felt something I hadn’t felt in a long time—pride in myself…I needed a hat, so, with blue shoelaces, scraps of cloth I collected from other inmates, and the elastic waistband from a pair of boxer shorts, I pieced and sewed together a simple visor cap…I used a yellow Hi-Liter pen to “dye” the elastic. The next step—cutting the M from my base cloth and attaching it to the cap’s bill—concerned me, because it requires a sharp tool. It was easy to dismantle a disposable razor and remove the blade, but I knew that if I were discovered with a loose razor blade in my possession, I could be in serious trouble…(So) I was extremely cautious about cutting out my embroidered handiwork, and after the razor blade had served its purpose, I flushed it down the toilet. With the M in place, my cap was completed…Come January first, I was going to be watching the Rose Bowl and cheering Michigan on to glorious victory. I was confident that my hat would successfully transport my spirit, if not my body, to Pasadena. I was happy. I had a dream!…A mystique immediately surrounded my handcrafted maize-and-blue headgear, which—I was proud to discover—my fellow inmates presumed to be store-bought. I was even more flattered when requests for embroidery work started coming in.

Soon Ray was creating embroidered art for other inmates, exchanging his work for cartons of cigarettes, the prison currency. He began doing small autobiographical pieces of art, too. Most of his pieces were only 2.25 x 3.25 inches in size, sometimes with as many as 1200 stitches per square inch! Embroidery became a way to turn his seemingly endless time in prison into something productive, emotionally satisfying, and in his own words, healing. Ray’s cell sales gave new meaning to the term “cottage industry!” With each autobiographical creation he was dealing with his past, surviving his present imprisonment and feeling more hopeful about his future.

Many inmates admired Ray’s work and it proved to be a good conversation-starter. In the rough, untrusting environment of prison, it brought people together. A few inmates found Ray’s interest in embroidery unmasculine, and one took to calling him Betsy Ross. But Ray shook it off. Unlike most inmates, he had something he really cared about, with which he could fill his days. Two crucial developments occurred with the help of the other: Ray’s recovery from addiction and his passion for art grew simultaneously.

Although I don’t know what it’s like to be in prison I do know that at times when I have felt unhappy, creativity has been therapeutic. For Ray, it seemed to become his lifeline. Ray was paroled in 1995, and started a new life with family, art and his long-lost freedom. The story was really gripping. For me it was a good reminder of how priceless freedom is.

The timing of reading Ray’s book feels relevant because just this week I finished an art piece which is comprised of many small works of art. We’ll see if it is chosen to be part of the juried art exhibit at the fair. I hope so, but even if it is not chosen, at least I finished a piece! I started this artwork exactly one year ago, after submitting a piece to the fair last year. Into my head popped the idea that I would do one small piece of art every day for a year. Each piece would be 2” x 2”, creations made of colorful paper, fabric, paint and found objects. When brought together these pieces would make a vibrant paper quilt chronicling my year.

I’m so glad about my serendipitous discovery of the book Hoopla, which led to my discovering Sins and Needles, which reminded me how glad I am to be able to create and to have the freedom to do what I want, when I want to. So thank you, librarians, for displaying books that grab readers and inspire us to think, discover, learn and dream.

Love Thy Library.

Go hug a librarian today!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Dot Calm, Cool and Creative! (May 14, 2012)

You know I love pattern in general, and polka dots especially. I adore color and personalizing my own nest, inside and out. So it comes as no surprise that I am loving this free spirited man’s choice about how to paint his house.

In Bismarck, North Dakota, Jim Deitz has made his apartment house truly one of a kind. Deitz came up with the polka dot scheme as a way to bring cheer and color to his neighborhood. (I have a feeling North Dakota gets quite gray in the winter months, so this idea seems reasonable to me. Actually, it’s inspired! Bold! Happy!)

One curmudgeonly city planner has grumbled publicly about the paint scheme, but many people in Bismarck like the playful exterior, which has dots in various sizes and a dozen different colors. I’m with those folks. The city planner clearly needs more fiber, and more fun.

Color is free, instant therapy. Polka dots are happy-looking. Cheering up your corner of the world with something playful is a gift to all who pass by. It’s a conversation starter with neighbors. You make people smile when you do something surprising and fun in their presence. For me, this house is all good.

Have a colorful day!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Island of Wonders (May 13, 2012)

In the middle of the city there is a secret oasis framed by palms, orange trees and tons of flowers. It’s my friend’s back yard. When you visit, it feels like you’ve left the city far behind. You’d never guess the freeway is only a minute away. The only sounds are the rustle of palm fronds, the chatter of birds, the buzz of bees and and the melodies of wind chimes. The scent of blooming roses drifts across the yard along with something else—an herb? Something I can’t place, but it’s good.

It’s spring and the garden is alive with color: red and yellow roses stand seven feet tall. The neighbor’s poinsettia and trumpet vine peek over the fence over a parade of calla lilies. Purple flowers and orange poppies sway in the breeze. A Camellia hedge quietly observes from her post near the wall. A volunteer avocado has begun to grow, just because. There are tangelos and oranges and a young apple tree. The neighbor’s palms and bird of paradise trees tower over this yard, creating patches of shade. Established fruit trees stand tall, like parents watching over the younger plants. In a few months the sturdy blackberry vines will produce heaps of berries. This garden seems to have every plant and color ever created, a rainbow of growth. It really feels like a paradise:

A few of us moms sat around an outdoor table at my friend’s garden get-away yesterday. I announced that I felt like I was on vacation, with the warm sun shining down and the palms murmuring overhead. Escaping to a beautiful place for a few hours, leaving the to do lists behind, gazing at flowers and trees growing—it is like sneaking away to an island where there are no stresses. It’s a break from the fast pace of life.

It’s Mothers’ Day (hi, Mom!). I’m appreciative of my mom, for many reasons. She and I share a love of plants and flowers. She and I celebrated Mothers’ Day last weekend and I gave her a plant. It’s a Wandering Jew, which is native to the Gulf Coast of Eastern Mexico. I’d never seen one before and when I decided to get one for my mom, I also decided that I should take a cutting from it for my own garden! The leaves were so striking—magenta underside! The hardy leaves have a thicker, slightly waxy texture that reminds me of succulents I love so much. I thought it was one of the most beautiful plants I’d ever seen:

Mom gave me a huge, potted red geranium (one of my favorite types of flower). They’re so cheerful and full of life. Not everyone wants to spend free time working with plants. But for those of us who do, it feels really good to grow things. Nurturing plants is a happy pastime, one that gives back to you, and beautifies the world. Since it’s Mothers’ Day I think I’ll thank Mother Nature for all her pretty flowers and plants! Mama Nature, how do you do it all? You grow things 365 days a year. You work hard 24/7 and you still look amazing. What’s your secret?!   

Friday, May 11, 2012

Reconvening (May 11, 2012)

It’s late Friday afternoon and I feel the effects of a very full week. I’m tired but I have a lot for which to be grateful, so I’m not really complaining. Just a little.

Last week I wrote in an attempt to sift through my thoughts on Junior Seau’s suicide. I was saddened by that news, and had mixed feelings about a former friend, too.

It’s been nine days since the news of his suicide. Today was the family’s memorial service and in an hour a public celebration of life will be held at the stadium. Why do I feel compelled to write something about this? My feet want me to lie down and recuperate after a week of running around. Last weekend was extra tiring as it was my 20th high school reunion. The reunion was good but I talked more than usual (which is saying a lot since I’m a chatty person) and I think I’m still tired from it, six days later!

The timing of the reunion felt a bit uncomfortable for me. I was leaving behind my adopted hometown, which was shrouded in sadness over a local hero’s death, and I was returning to the place where I grew up, in order to reconnect with people from the past. The combination caught my notice. It was a week of contrasts. I was returning home, but I feel more at home where I live now. I was celebrating the past with former classmates, at the same time that many in my community were in mourning and remembering a glorious past of a local football star. I wondered if it would feel uncomfortable to celebrate with classmates while so many were in mourning over the end of Seau’s life. I was commemorating an end of high school and others were mourning the end of a life ended too soon. With old friends I was laughing almost to the point of tears, while others were crying over a man they knew and loved, or had never met but admired from a distance.

Actually, the timing turned out to be a gift in disguise. The sadness over Seau’s death was so palpable here, near his home. Leaving town for two days allowed me to see beyond the sadness shrouding this county. It didn’t completely leave my mind, but the physical distance gave me a chance to absorb the news a little bit.

Reconnecting with classmates was meaningful. Some of them I hadn’t seen in twenty years, but I’d seen a few ten years ago at our last reunion. High school is a pivotal time, a sometimes rickety bridge between childhood and adulthood, and it felt significant to come together with people who were on their own similar journeys at the same time. Such a small fraction of graduates go to reunions. But some of us did opt to go, deciding to take a chance that the possible rewards outweighed the fears reunions bring to the surface. I reconnected with people who were part of my daily life and we forged new friendships.

As I type, tens of thousands of people are uniting to remember a man they admired. Some of them were part of his daily life due to family ties, neighborhood links or football connections. They are convening to remember the past. It’s different from my reunion last week but there are common threads. Remembering the past is part of knowing who you are in the present, and part of deciding where you want to go in the future. It’s important to remember the good about the past, or the best parts about someone who is gone. It’s part of what humans need to do. To my friends from twenty years ago: thanks for appreciating me as I was then. To Junior Seau: rest in peace.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Everyone's Human (May 3, 2012)

Yesterday was a day of disbelief in San Diego. A hero fell and the sound echoed throughout the county.

I’ve never been a big sports fan, but I’m a little bit interested in almost everything, sports included. I’d heard of Junior Seau, and I’d been to his restaurant once. While I was not an ardent fan the way some San Diegans are, with yesterday’s news of his suicide, I felt sad.

The tv stations covered it for hours. Hundreds of fans gathered outside his home, some in jerseys, some with flowers. One person carved the shape of a cross in the sand nearby.

I’m not even sure what I want to write, exactly. There is a lot of speculation about why this happened, but I don’t feel like part of that group. Some people can’t understand why someone rich and famous would not have enough to live for. I say that if he had depression, that’s not something that wealth or fame prevents. If you have it, you don’t reason it away by counting your gold coins.

Who knows whether he suffered concussions as an NFL player, which may have led to brain injury and depression? Or if he had depression, perhaps it was unrelated to football tackles and head injury.

My point is this: even those idolized by society are human, susceptible to a universe of feelings (both good and bad) that are part of the human experience. Maybe the higher your highs are, the lower your lows may be. The kind of success famous athletes have—is it a high they still crave but can’t find, years after retirement? Perhaps it’s harder to find happiness with the small things in life when your career was about big things—breaking records, winning bowl games, doing the nearly impossible.

Heroes are human. But does our society not condone human vulnerability from people so much larger than life? Men are raised not to express emotions the way women do and perhaps our societal expectation is that the tougher and bigger you are, the more you must project emotional strength. And that’s not right. Everyone feels vulnerable at times, and should not be looked down upon for experiencing a range of human emotion. Did Seau not feel he could get off that pedestal and be human? We may never know.

Suicide makes most of us at least somewhat uncomfortable. It’s very sad when someone dies in a car crash or of an accidental overdose or a terminal illness. But with those kinds of death, those left behind can be angry at a disease, or at an addiction. When suicide is the cause of death, we are confronted with the additional element of trying to accept/ understand someone’s decision to end his or her own life.

I never knew this man. I don’t claim to know what he dealt with, but I feel entitled to my view as someone also dealing with life. Life is complex and sometimes really frustrating, and this is true for you, for me, and for famous people, too. I often forget that, or focus too much on others’ success and assume they don’t struggle. As one friend of a friend put it so eloquently, I compare the best of someone else to the worst of myself. Seau has reminded us that every human faces challenges. Perhaps it’s part of the human experience to want someone to idolize. Do people need heroes, those who inspire us to be the best we can be? But do we inadvertently expect them not to be human as well?

These days there have been a lot of drug overdoses in the news, especially by famous people. We can be mad at an addiction or chalk it up to an accidental overdose of prescribed medicine. With unwanted or accidental deaths we don’t have to try to understand a person’s desperation. That’s hard for many people to understand.

One reason yesterday’s news was upsetting is because I really feel part of my adopted home-town. Although I didn’t spend my childhood here, I’ve spent the second half of my life here, and I love this county. I feel so much a part of it. When something tragic happens here, I mourn for our county, even if it doesn’t affect my daily life. The wild fires that seem to plague us every few years—they affect our county, our people, and I mourn with them. When yesterday’s news hit, I felt sad for the people of this county, who feel the loss of their hero.  It wasn’t just about sports records, either. Seau raised millions of dollars for underprivileged kids, and he gave back to the community where he had grown up. That kind of impact is felt throughout a county.

For me, yesterday started like a lot of other days. Two things were a little different. I knew it was an old friend’s fortieth birthday. She and I parted ways a few years back. But when you’ve been friends with someone that long you don’t forget her birthday. We reached an impasse and could not figure out a way to continue the friendship. Sometimes I’ve felt mad about it, but I dream about her at times and in my dreams there’s a lot of harmony. There’s some nostalgia there. I thought a lot about her in the last week, knowing yesterday was her milestone, but not one in which I’d partake. Yesterday was also the day my next-door neighbor was having two big pepper trees taken out of her yard. They are right over our mutual fence line, and I had mixed feelings about seeing them go. They put up shoots in our yard, and they were raising her driveway, so to an extent I understand her choice. She plans to put in fruit trees and so there will be new life, new color, and a new look around here. Change can be good. But it takes some getting used-to. I liked those trees. Our front and back yards look very different with those trees gone. I felt the loss as soon as the chain saws started up yesterday morning.

Losing trees isn’t as traumatic as losing a parent or a child—not even close. I don’t mean to suggest that. I feel for his kids and family. I hope they’ll find a degree of peace someday. The only reason to mention the trees in this article is because the timing caught my attention. Yesterday there were three losses on my mind. Not all equal, but felt on the same day. There are all kinds of losses in life. Loss of a friendship. Loss of a tree you liked. Loss of a public figure, and for some, loss of a family member or friend. We can’t avoid loss or change. It’s not easy to accept, and we need to acknowledge it. For some, that means bringing flowers to leave outside their idol’s house. For me, my dream life is where my brain tries to reconcile the end of a 21-year friendship. I hope she had a great birthday.

Other trees will grow next door. Other friendships will form. Other public figures will inspire admiration in their fans. But you can’t replace a family member.

Maybe there will be more talk about suicide prevention in the wake of this tragedy. Maybe people will come together in unexpected ways. It’s too soon to say. This San Diegan is still in shock and taking to her blog to try to sift through thoughts and emotions. This was a much-needed reminder for me that others struggle, too. I need to keep making a point to reach out to those who live alone or feel alone, even if they share their home with someone. We aren’t alone. Humans aren’t meant to be like planets, orbiting one another without joining. We need others. All of us do.