Wednesday, July 28, 2010

She's crafty

"I've discovered many reasons why thrifting makes good sense: politics, nostalgia, economics, and perhaps most of all, the environment. More and more people are thrifting as a way to lessen their impact on the earth. And along the way, they're getting quality goods with a connection to the past."--Amanda Blake Soule, from Handmade Home: Simple Ways to Repurpose Old Materials into New Family Treasures

I was on Block Island with Mike this weekend. We were walking around, climbing up hills to look at the B&B's and grand hotels--places where F. Scott and Zelda would have felt quite at home. Mike was impressed by how old the buildings were: The Spring House, for instance, has been around for 156 years. Maybe the Fitzgeralds DID summer there.

Our own B&B I had found on the Internet. The Oak Room was perfectly fine except that it was the front most facing room, so we could hear everyone's conversations from the front porch. We had come here with a decadent wish: for peace and quiet. But now we knew the whole story of one of our fellow guests, some nasally-voiced woman who disagreed vehemently with her condo association.

To make it worse, maintenance set up a ladder right between our windows, and as I lay on the Queen-sized bed, trying to relax in the humidity, I saw the dirty soles of a man's shoes step up one rung after another and then plant themselves, spreading roots there.

Plus there was no clawfoot bathtub (not that I saw one on the website. I just wanted to be pleasantly surprised.)

Anyway, it was our first trip to Block Island and we loved the scenery. Surely there were better accommodations to reserve next year. As we were scouting out places and picking up brochures we came upon a brick walkway lined with colored bottles leading to a small ramshackle old house. The edges of each step had been turned into mosaics, with cracked china and pieces of sea glass sparkling like rock candy in the bright sun.

I wasn't sure if this was a private residence but I wanted to take a closer look. The pathway curved like a parenthesis, and near the front door there was an arrangement of yellow flowers, it's soil spiked with a metal ornament of an angel and the rim of the pot circled by small ceramic creatures you might see on your grandmother's mantel.

The place appeared to be an artist's studio. Through the window on the door I could see various crafts arrayed on shelves and hanging from the ceiling. I walked into the small entryway (outside Mike had found a "husband's chair" and was leaned back with his Tilly keeping the sun off his face.) To my left behind a glass cabinet there were maybe thirty different shadowboxes, each lined with a different old-time postcard like the kind your parents probably sent when they were kids on vacation in the 1950's. There were shells and sea glass arrayed in each box. I picked one up, not realizing that the shells were not fixed in place. The clatter surprised me, and I jerked my head around to see if anyone had noticed. But when no one came to investigate, I placed the box carefully back on the shelf and gave the cabinet door a gentle push to seal it shut.

Lining the windowsills were jars and jars of pretty sea detritus--dried starfish, sand dollars, shiny colored pebbles and sea glass formed from bottles seaman tossed overboard without a second thought. There were also jars of old buttons. I was reminded of when I was a kid and my mother would open a small wooden jewelry box, revealing heaps and heaps of assorted old buttons inside. I liked to shake some out and line them up, or just scoop my hand inside and pretend the buttons were a pirate's lost treasure. I had no particular use for the buttons--I didn't know how to sew or make jewelry. But I liked to look at all of them, the clear glass ones and the colored plastic ones, the old Victorian style ones and the ones shaped like Tweety Bird. I have always been easily entertained by shiny things.

There was a second room with brilliant colored cotton pillows and bags and long sundresses--all sewn patchwork-style from scraps of vintage materials. Looking around me, I felt connected to a past I had never known, one that my mother had shown me in old photographs and which I glimpsed in antique store windows. The clothing and bags reminded me of some of the projects in Patchwork Style, but without the wacky Japanese sensibility.

In the final room, a woman about my mother's age stood talking to another customer. I moved quietly about, not wanting to disturb their conversation or be asked if I needed help. There were more jars of seashells, more pretty fabrics hanging from wall posts. The room had a counter and sink, and looked to be the woman's workspace. I flipped through some old postcards of Block Island in a cardboard box and plucked a few to bring home with me. When the other customer left, I stepped forward with my modest purchase. I looked at the woman more closely. She had blunt-cut blond hair that reached just over her ears. Her face was pink and wrinkled from years of sun exposure, but I could see that she was pretty. She wore one of her long sleeveless sundresses. I wouldn't mind having her life when I'm sixty.

Her name was Jan and she owned the shop and was its sole designer, except for a few pieces of sea glass jewelry her daughter sold there. Jan had been coming to Block Island for decades, and like the idealized middle-aged women at the center of Luanne Rice novels, she had finally decided to stay. She told me that she was once a designer for large clothing manufacturers. Among other things, Jan had designed a popular men's shirt for Banana Republic.

But that was a long time ago, she said. She quit the business once all the sewing got shipped overseas. "Now it's all just replicas of the past, not the real thing," she said with a soft toss of her hair, "You have people coming in here touching the fabrics and taking notes just so they can replicate the item so their customers will THINK they're buying good quality. But it's not quality. And then they charge the same amount as the authentic product costs, and people pay it!" She rubbed the edge of a tablecloth between her fingers, "This is what real cotton feels like. It's light but not insubstantial. And the colors don't run like they do with synthetics. It's hard to find real fabric anymore."

Then she put two identical starfish in each of my hands. "Can you tell which one is real and which one is plastic?" I could, but only because I was holding them side by side and could feel the delicate outside structure of the real starfish. "People go to boutiques and buy these plastic imitations, when the real thing is right on our beach for the taking!"

I thought about someone buying this plastic replica of a natural thing and displaying it on a shelf. A year or so later, it would end up in a box in the basement, or in the garbage because of some chipped paint.

Why did we buy this crap anyway? Why, when we want to remember our blissful island weekend, do we buy a memento that was made in some Chinese factory by people who have probably never heard of Block Island? Why did I covet expensive designer bags made to look vintage when in reality these same bags were assembled for peanuts in some far-off Asian country? Why did I buy so many new things when I could make valuable treasures out of the pieces I already owned?

It made me want to take up sewing, to go venture into some antique stores, searching for the good stuff, the real deals, the authentic past. I told Jan as much. Problem was I didn't know how to sew or do anything else that was very crafty. Jan told me that many people stop by her shop and just drop off old but pretty things, just so they can see what she comes up with, how she arranges their castoffs into something new, unique, and lovely. I was intrigued. I wanted to go home and make something. At the very least I could collage.

It did occur to me (briefly) that this woman might be feeding me a sales pitch, perhaps hoping I'd add a $50.00 patchwork apron or pillow to my stack of postcards. But I dismissed the idea. Jan seemed genuinely pained at the thought of a future made of plastic and synthetics. I also didn't get the impression that this woman was hurting for customers in such a tony, leftist neighborhood, where people loved anything handmade as long as someone else was making it. These people would pay any price, but at least what they got was the real thing, something new from something old that might otherwise be stuffed in a box in the basement, forgotten.

If you're in Block Island, RI, anytime in May through October, visit:

Jan McKillip Designs
Lightburne Cottage
Spring Street
(401) 466-8894

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A life less ordinary

"We must be willing to be completely ordinary people, which means accepting ourselves as we are without trying to become greater, purer, more spiritual, more insightful. If we can accept our imperfections as they are, quite ordinarily, then we can use them as part of the path. But if we try to get rid of our imperfections, then they will be enemies, obstacles on the road to our 'self-improvement'."--Chogyam Trungpa, from Ocean of Dharma: 365 Teachings on Living Life with Courage and Compassion

I was in a marketing meeting this morning and the editors were discussing their Summer 2011 titles (yes, 2011. Publishing, like the fashion industry, dwells in the future. But what I hate about fashion is that they start selling fall clothes in August, so when you're looking for, say, a pair of shorts during a heat wave, all they have is wool pants, as if to say, duh--why didn't you shop for shorts in March?)

One of the Summer 2011 titles is by Jan Chozen Bays, the author of Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food. That book was well-received, and Jan has many followers who think she is the bee's knees when it comes to mindfulness meditation.

The new book, Adventures in Mindfulness, was described as "a guided program for bringing mindfulness and meditation into ordinary daily activities to reduce stress and enhance well-being." There will be an exercise a week for a year; one example: notice in your speech how many times you say "um, ah, like" etc. Then instead of using those words, try taking a few deep breaths, then resume what you were going to say. This would be a hard exercise for almost anyone, but especially for us girls from New Jersey who use the word "like" as a preposition.

But I've observed President Obama when he's giving a speech and how he pauses in between thoughts instead of "ahh-ing" or "umm-ing." Yes, every Toastmasters member knows this trick, but you don't have to be a great orator or the President to pay attention to your speech. Look how calm and collected Obama looks, even when he has something difficult to say (which is all the time.)

Another exercise is keeping a gratitude journal. I have one that's published by Chronicle Books. It's got quotes and ideas in it to inspire you. The problem is I feel like I write the same thing over and over because my life is pretty staid.
  1. I'm grateful for my parents being alive and healthy.
  2. I'm grateful for my husband who loves me even when I'm sick or tired or bratty.
  3. I'm grateful for my job which I enjoy.
  4. I'm grateful that I HAVE a job (not a given these days.)
  5. I'm grateful I don't live in a war-torn country where "happiness" is defined as "not getting blown up or kidnapped or forcibly silenced."

These are all good things for me to remember when I'm feeling low, but I don't want to write the same thing every time. So I've branched out.
  1. I'm grateful for my ten purple-painted toes. All functioning.
  2. I'm grateful for my air conditioner (if you live anywhere in the Northeast right now, you know what I'm talking about.)
  3. I'm grateful for books. And eyes that can see because I'm not crazy about audiobooks.
  4. I'm grateful for my good taste. Yes, I can say that and not be snobby. Maybe.
  5. I'm grateful for black olives.

My mother is a big believer in finding happiness in small moments. I have to practice being mindful so I can do that.

But I don't like being ordinary, listing ordinary gratitudes. When you're young you feel like so much is possible. Living in New York City I experienced that feeling several times a week just being there, dwarfed by the skyscrapers and constantly stimulated with novelty. Now I feel like life is stalled. The possibilities look less abundant now, and I'm supposed to be happy about that? Is being mindful and accepting yourself as you are just an admission of your mediocrity? Is celebrating the small stuff just another way of giving up your big dreams?

Here's what Thoreau says: If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours ... In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.

Can we do both? Dream big and succeed, and have a simple life?

I'm thinking that when I can get a hold of Jan Chozen Bay's mindfulness manuscript, I'll try doing the exercise-a-week and writing about my experiences on here.

Maybe by then I'll have come closer to understanding my favorite Emily Dickinson poem:

I'm nobody, who are you?
Are you nobody too?
Then there's a pair of us
Don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Facing it

The 91-year-old widow lived by herself in a tumbledown house on a desolate country road. But she wasn't alone, not really, not as long as she could visit her husband and twin sister.

No matter they were already dead. Jean Stevens simply had their embalmed corpses dug up and stored them at her house _ in the case of her late husband, for more than a decade _ tending to the remains as best she could until police were finally tipped off last month.

Much to her dismay.

"Death is very hard for me to take," Stevens told an interviewer. --Associated Press

That which you avoid will confront you again and again, whether it's grief or love or fear of heights. That's what I'm learning. Avoidance doesn't make the emotions go away. It just makes fear stronger.

I'm also learning that the best way to conquer fear is when you have no choice. Give me the option, and I'll say, Nah, I can't do that. I don't want that. I can't deal with that. But what about when you have no options?

I stopped driving a car when I was nineteen and got into a fender-bender in the White Street parking lot in Red Bank, NJ. I had just been Christmas shopping and among my purchases was a little something for me from Jack's Music--a Ned's Atomic Dustbin CD with free t-shirt. I can space out pretty easily and as I backed out of my parking space thinking about my cool CD and tee, I saw another car behind me also backing out of his spot. I blanked for a second before placing my foot on the gas. I hit him, of course. When he came out of his car, I couldn't believe my bad luck. It was my assistant principle from Thorne.

I was sure he would recognize me. Despite my geek status in junior high or maybe because of it I had been asked to deliver a speech to my eighth grade class at our graduation. That same week my best friend Heather and I were the winners of the lip sync contest at our graduation party at the Tradewinds beach club in Sea Bright. While the pretty, popular girls phoned in their performance of The Go-Go's "Vacation" Heather and I appeared in our matching pink miniskirts and long faux pearl earrings and sang "You Keep Me Hangin' On" as if we were singing our broken hearts out thinking of all the boys we loved who never noticed us. Our dance moves were primitive--pantomime, really--but our enthusiasm was undeniable, our pain the pain of all young girls who never got to shine while they were in school. We took first place. The asst. principal congratulated us and said to me, Wow, you're everywhere. I guess he meant I was not even a dot on his graph until the last week of school.

Maybe he didn't want to embarrass me that day in the Red Bank parking lot. Or maybe he genuinely didn't remember me. How many kids does a junior high school assistant principal meet in a lifetime? He probably only remembered the bad kids, the truants and greaseballs, which seemed unfair but that's life.

It was my mother's Toyota I had been driving and when she decided to get a new car with some extra money she had just inherited, she wouldn't let me drive it. I worked part-time in a bookstore in the mall, so I had no chance of affording a car on my own. So I got rides. And eventually I moved closer to the city where a car was actually a liability.

I decided I liked being carless. It was a convenient way to excuse myself from learning how to read a map or having to take over the wheel on a long car trip or navigate roads filled with everyone's rage. There were times I missed that brief window when I did drive, and I'd blast 106.3FM (once a great alternative station when the word "alternative" actually meant something, back when Matt Pinfield was a DJ not an MTV/VH1 talking head.) But who wanted car payments when I had restaurant meals with friends, unlimited boutiques and bargains, and a student loan to pay off? I was a city girl--no car required.

Which takes us to the present. I had talked for a long time about learning to drive again, but I had no real intention of following through. It sounded like the good, responsible thing to say, but inside the thought terrified me. I feared dying in a fiery car accident because I was, say, daydreaming about ice cream cake. Or worse, I'd survive a crash but my face would melt off. I had seen a woman on TV once who had her face melted off in a car fire and I thought, if that were me I wouldn't be appearing on TV. No way. I'd probably spend the rest of my life indoors, getting fatter and fatter from all the shut-in, emotional eating and I'd eventually die of heart failure.

The first time I realized I had no choice and had to re-learn to drive was when my husband was in a bike accident. He was riding his bike to work as he always does, but this time he was going down a hill too fast and he flew off the bike and onto a grassy patch of sidewalk. Among other things he had a broken pelvis and was taken to a hospital in Newton, many towns away from me. I didn't drive so in order to get to the hospital I had to be picked up by my brother-in-law who lives AN HOUR AWAY.

What would I do if another emergency like this occurred? Could I always rely on public transportation? And what about all the car trips my husband and I take? Mike ends up doing all the driving, and I get to do all the snoozing. Yes, it's an excellent deal for me, but hardly equitable.

The first step to re-entering the driving world was renewing my expired New Jersey license and get a new one for Massachusetts. Because my license had been expired for several years, I had to take the written driver's test again. I beamed with pride when I got a perfect score. I was disappointed that my 100 wasn't noted on my new license, but still it was a confidence-booster that I knew what the penalty was for a teen with two offenses and what to do if confronted by a large animal crossing the road (try as much as possible to avoid the animal without causing a serious accident.)

But even after I had my valid license and Mike had put me on the insurance, I still wasn't driving. Maybe a spin in the country now and then, one-lane roads where a car passed about once an hour. But no more than that.

Until the night when we were driving to Vermont for the weekend and Mike, behind the wheel, suddenly doubled over in pain. We pulled into a rest stop and he turned off the ignition to take a break and wait it out. But the pain was only getting worse. He feared he had a kidney stone. He had one once before and the feeling could only be described as labor pains (except other people get a baby for their troubles but all you get is a rock.)

I had no choice but to drive us the rest of the way to the motel. Once he was able to diagnose himself and knew that no ER visit was necessary, we switched places and suddenly I was in the driver's seat. I steered white-knuckled down the dark roads to Manchester, my hands firmly at 10 and 3 o'clock. When we arrived in one piece an hour later, my anxiety slowly turned to pride. I had driven us here! I had saved our trip! That feeling was way better than dozing.

Recently I was given another test I could not avoid. Once again, we were driving back from a weekend trip when Mike's mild headache morphed into a blinding migraine. It was eleven at night and we still had a ways to go to get back to Brookline--including the stretch over the Zakim bridge and through the tunnels of Boston. I didn't want to drive. I had avoided any major highways thusfar and never had to cross a bridge. I was terrified. But what other option did we have? We had brought one of the cats with us so we couldn't exactly check into a motel for the night. Plus we both had to work in the morning. Someone had to drive us home and it wasn't going to be the person with his eyes squeezed tight, moaning.

So there I was again, a reluctant driver about to face one of my worst fears. Yet by virtue of the fact that I had no choice I suddenly felt more focused, more confident, calmer. I would get this done. I had to.

And I did. Except for that one incident when I almost crashed into a truck cutting into my lane, I drove competently, if not smoothly. I pretended I was in a dream, but not the kind where you stop paying attention because you're thinking of eating ice cream cake. The one where you aren't scared because it all seems surreal and nothing can touch you.

It's sometimes a gift when we are faced with just one choice--to move forward. Last example: If you're afraid of heights and find yourself climbing a church tower with your Swedish relatives, you can't just disappoint them and scurry down to safety like a mouse. You must move forward, forward, each step in darkness bringing you closer to your goal. Your eyes are focused and your mind suspends fear until you're at the top and finally you can exhale.