Art & Crafts, Mindfulness, Travel

My First Foray into Art Abandonment

I’m starting an eleven-day trip today. In anticipation of this I made little art cards from an old pack of playing cards (an idea from Nichole Rae’s book Art Journal, Art Journey), with the intention of letting them go along the way. “Art abandonment” was developed by Michael deMeng. The idea is that you make some art, attach a note to it explaining that it is up for grabs, and leave it in a public place for someone else to find. I wanted to try it because I liked the idea of scattering a little art during my travels and maybe, just maybe, adding a tiny bright spot to another person’s day.

Here’s a little sampling:

If you happen to find one of these guys or have any questions about them, please feel free to comment below.

Thanks for reading! 🙂

Art & Crafts, Writing

My Creativity Playlist

Are You Ready Little Art Card | My Creativity Playlist | dianaklein.comI was recently going through some old mixed CDs—you know the things we made back in the dark ages before Spotify? Anyway, several of the CDs were titled with particular emotional tones like sad or contemplative, so that I could listen to them when I was in the corresponding mood.  One of the CDs I came across, however had no such label.  I gave it a listen, and remembered that it was my creativity playlist!  It’s a bunch of songs that for one reason or another made me feel encouraged to be artistic—to write, to sing, to make things.  And I realized, giving it another listen, they still do.

There’s a lot of music from the soundtrack of The Lord of Rings: The Return of the King on it which is not surprising because much of my first manuscript was written with Howard Shore’s orchestral brilliance pumping into my ears.

There’s also two songs from Stephen Sondheim’s Sundays in the Park with George—one (Move On) taken from the original cast recording of Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin and the other (Putting It Together) a cover and partial rewrite by Barbra Streisand.  These tunes support me in my creative pursuits because “art isn’t easy” and even though “there’s nothing that’s not been said”, it hasn’t yet been said by me.

It’s interesting to me that there are two songs about vulnerability: BareNaked by Jennifer Love Hewitt and I’m Sensitive by Jewel, but it shouldn’t be surprising, after all, how else can you be when making and showing your stuff, if not open and vulnerable?  I particularly like Jewel’s determination to embrace her delicate senses by saying “Please be careful with me.  I’m sensitive and I’d like to stay that way.”

There’s one actual folk song (Fair and Tender Ladies sung by Rosanne Cash) and another (When Love is New by Dolly Parton and Emmy Rossum) very close to that style which, for me, always seems to get inside an emotion, but often with a sort of matter-of-fact kind of practicality that I like.  I guess some might find lyrics like “Love is pretty when love is new, like a blushing rose in a dazzling dew” and “Come all ye fair and tender ladies, take a warning how you court young men” somewhat cynical, but I find the words and the voices that sing them wonderfully evocative.

The remainder of songs are basically singer-songwriter-y. There’s Dido’s reminder that I need to grab living with both hands in Life for Rent.  And Eva Cassidy’s poignant cover of Sting’s Fields of Gold.  The drums and vocalization at the beginning of Rubén Blades’ Patria are enough to get my creative juices flowing.  And Joan Osborne’s One of Us makes me want to try look at things with God’s eyes and, to be honest, I really just love belting that chorus. That I Would Be Good by Alanis Morissette prompts me to remember my intrinsic value as a person, not for how I look or what I can do (even and especially artistically!)  And the lyric, “That I would be good, if I got and stayed sick” never fails to give me chills.

And of course, no playlist can be complete without a rousing call to action song—in this case, Defying Gravity from the musical Wicked because “Everyone deserves a chance to fly.”

Recently, I added one more song to this list: Emily Maguire’s Start Over Again—because, in most situations in life and almost always in creative ones, I find myself needing this advice “Go Slow.  Be kind.  Be wise.  Start over again.”

What about you? What music makes you feel creative?  Do you have a playlist?

Art & Crafts

Confessions of an Overwhelmed Crafter

I think there has never been a better time in history to be a maker of art and crafts. There are so many glorious books and fascinating tutorials out there all just waiting to be salivated over.  Walking through my local arts and crafts supply store, I am bombarded with one exciting possibility after another.

And all of this is great, except for this balloon-popping truth: I can’t have it all. I can’t do it all.  At some point, I am going to have to choose.

Which can be tough. I think most crafters have been in this situation: they start a project with gusto, only to have it turn from something they were excited to begin, into a chore they had to finish . . . at some point.  Some people deal with this problem by simply junking the un-fun project and moving on.  I have done this, on occasion, but, for me, it’s even less fun to waste resources.  I know, some unfinished projects can be repurposed, but then that can turn into another uninspiring task.  In order to avoid all this, I’ve recently begun paying a lot more attention to how and what I’m feeling while I’m crafting, so that I can understand what I like and don’t like about a given process and subsequently choose projects that reflect those preferences.

countryside-softies-amy-adams-dianaklein-comFor example, I finally decided to sew a duck, based on a pattern from Amy Adams’ Country Side Softies.  This is one of many, many books I’ve bought because the ideas are so cool, and I just have to try them and then proceeded to spend many, many years . . . not trying them.  Anyway, as I began, I could feel the tension building inside of me, Is this really what I should be doing? Is this really what I want to be doing?  But as I started to just pay attention while I worked, I found myself relaxing.  I realized that what excited me were the fabrics, bringing together coordinating patterns and colors.  Also, I was really happy doing the embroidery, and admiring it as I stitched along.  I wasn’t super happy with the duck itself, though.  The beak was too long, and I felt like there was more I wanted to say artistically that couldn’t find a home on this little canvas. Alright, I thought, good to know.

Later in the day, feeling tired and bored, I began looking around for something else to work on, but nothing seemed to grab my fancy until I remembered an article by Linda Willis in the January/February 2015 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors about making an iPad pouch from a piece of embellished, raw-edged quilting. From my earlier run in with the duck, I knew that playing with different fabrics and embellishing with embroidery would be fun.  I was a little unsure, however, when it came to the matter of  raw edges.  I am the daughter of a master quilter, and raw edges (when a piece of fabric is topstitched, leaving its edges to fray at will) is something we just do not do, but it’s become a popular look in textile art (it also takes less time!), and I wanted to see how I felt about it.  So I went for it. But, instead of stitching the piece in straight lines on the sewing machine, as instructed by the article, I decided to hand quilt circles through the top layer, a felt middle layer, and down into the backing.  I quickly found out more things during this process: a) I needed greater overlap for fabric pieces than I had allowed for (oops!)and b) though the circles looked cool, sewing as directed would have minimized the fraying of the edges and made everything more secure.believe-pouch-pinning-dianaklein-com

believe-pouch-quilting-in-progress-dianaklein-com

Alright then, on to the embellishing! I sewed on a little rectangle bearing the word “Believe” in fabric marker, which I then outlined with backstitch.  Then I did a lot of embroidery and a little ribbon work to hide those pesky spaces where the fabric did not quite meet, further lock down the fabric, and just because it’s fun.  Once I got the purple ribbon and the gold embroidery floss on there, I realized that those are LSU’s colors which, given the fact that I live in Louisiana (and it’s football season), I see a lot of around here.  I decided to dampen down the school spirit with a few blue and silver beads and some sequins.  I think that helped quite a bit, though when I look at it, I still can’t help thinking Go Tigers!

Finally, I zigzagged the edges of the piece on the sewing machine and then sewed it together to form a pouch, complete with a Velcro closure. The finished product is pretty small.  I can just barely get some index cards into it.  And it’s not something that will stand up to a lot of wear and tear—partially because of the embroidery, but also because of the raw edges.  Yes, the jury on seaming is in for me: I suppose in some art pieces, raw would be better, but in general I prefer finished.  They are simply more durable—and neater.

There’s a lot I like about the pocket though: It reminds me again of how magical I think hand quilting is (even when the stitches are uneven). I love the way the blue thread pops off the lighter fabrics and melts away into the darker ones.  I love the texture created by the stitches—the small hills and valleys.  And I enjoy the feeling of quilting and embroidering—weaving a needle through fabric, pulling thread up and down, watching as the many small stitches add up to something so much more grand than the sum of their parts.believe-pouch-front-dianaklein-combelieve-pouch-dianaklein-combelieve-pouch-closure-dianaklein-combelieve-pouch-detail-dianaklein-com

And I love that the pouch itself makes me think of Rita, a friend who died some years ago. She made God’s pockets for an entire confirmation class one year.  They were unembellished fabric pouches meant to be a place to house notes about things a person wanted to hand over to God.  It’s a neat idea.  I’m not sure that’s what this is for, but I am happy to note that this pouch did not turn into something for me to finish.  It was something I got to watch evolve.

What about you? How do you decide what to craft? Do you ever get overwhelmed by all the choices out there?

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it with a friend. Thanks! 🙂

Art & Crafts, Nature & Spirituality, Sickness & Health, Writing & Reading

Invoking Saint Frida

I spent a lot of last weekend in doubt. This is not an unfamiliar place for me.  I frequent the land of doubt on a regular basis.  The source, this time, was my last two posts on running.  Should I, as a CFS sufferer have written about that?  Should I have admitted that I can run now and again?  That right now I am choosing to run, even when there are many other things I cannot do?  When, on a good day, I can only work about four hours?

I felt strange when I started running again in August. I almost didn’t want to see my sister on my run because I was scared to admit that I was able to do it again.  The fear came from two places 1)I didn’t want anyone to think that this meant I was all better, and now could do anything and everything, i.e., I didn’t want people to expect more from me, because I knew I couldn’t give it.  And 2) I was ashamed.  I was ashamed that I was choosing to run rather than do something that might make money or make someone else’s life better.

And when I shared my two posts about running on this blog, I again felt conflicted and scared, and yes, ashamed because I am always scared of what people will think of me. I am scared that they will think I am weak, stupid, free-loading.  I am scared other CFSers will get upset because they aren’t able to run, and my posts might give the impression that they should be able to.  Or maybe people will think that I don’t really have CFS or any other illness since I can exercise at all.  CFS is a highly variable—not only among the afflicted population, but also in an individual.

On Sunday, I listened to a wonderful dharma talk from Tara Brach about how we try to control so many aspects of life and how these attempts ultimately remove us from those things that most make life enjoyable, namely connection and presence. I realized that (once again) I was trying to control what others think of me—my family, my friends, and all the good people of the internet.  And the truth is: it’s a fool’s game.  There is no way to win.  No matter what any of us say or do, no matter how perfectly we curate our feeds and our public lives, someone—perhaps many people—are going to take issue with some aspect of our behavior.

And it’s not always about us. As a senior in college, I took a class that was meant to integrate all that a student had learned within his/her major.  At the beginning of the semester, we were given a list of about 75 names and theories which we were instructed to look up and study independently.  At the end of the semester, we would be given a test on the information—20 questions, matching.  We were warned how challenging it would be and that often students did not excel at it.  I (for some inexplicable, bloody-minded reason) decided to attempt to ace it.  I spent hours looking up the names and making notes on whatever I thought the professor might think was pertinent enough to test us on.  And then I carried my little index cards everywhere, pulling them out whenever I had downtime.  When the professor gave back our tests, he told all of us that someone—not naming any names—had gotten a perfect score—something he hadn’t seen in a while.  I didn’t show anyone the 100 at the top of my exam paper, but as we filed out of the classroom, the other students looked at me knowingly.  One woman, who I had hitherto considered a friend asked, “Did you sleep with him?”  I didn’t even know how to respond.  I was so horrified and confused.  “How could sleeping with the professor have helped me on an objective test?” I wanted to ask, at the same time wanting to demand, ”How dare you?  Is that really what you think of me?”

I am convinced now that it wasn’t what she was thinking of me that caused her to lash out in that moment. It was what she was thinking of herself, how she was feeling about whatever grade she had or had not gotten.  In that scenario, I did everything right.  I worked hard and I achieved success.  And somehow, my behavior (or her reactions to my behavior) still caused pain.  If I were to get it twisted, I would think that I maybe I should have dimmed my own drives and accomplishments to make her feel better, but I think we can all agree that that would have been ridiculous.

What’s the answer then? I don’t know what it is for others, but for me, it’s to forget about trying to control others’ perceptions, and, instead, whip up as much daring as I can in order to be authentic—because I think that’s one of the ways we help each other (and ourselves)—by being vulnerable, being honest, and sometimes, admitting that which is difficult to admit.

invoking-saint-frida-dianaklein-comAs I think about these things, my eyes fall on a candle that lives on my desk. It’s from a line called Secular Saints by philosophersguild.com.  It looks like the regular seven day prayer candle with which most Catholics would be familiar, but instead of featuring the Sacred Heart or Saint Jude, it bears a portrait of Frida Kahlo.  I have long felt a deep connection with this Mexican artist, not only because she composed fascinating and bold paintings, but because she did not shy away from letting people know what she was feeling—the physical and emotional pain that walked with her throughout her life.  She did not try to be perfect—if anything, she exaggerated her perceived faults.  And though she is not a saint in the Catholic sense, I feel myself wanting to invoke her audacious spirit.  There’s a “prayer” on the candle which I like well enough, but my personal petition goes something like this:

O feisty Frida, help me to embrace my flaws and everything that is wrong with my life. Help me to know my true self and to show that self no matter who is watching.  Help me to be brave and bold and to act with resolve and passion.

 What keeps you from being authentic? Do you call on a saint (secular or otherwise) to help?

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it with a friend. Thanks!

Reconnect Little Art Card | dianaklein.com
Art & Crafts, Nature & Spirituality, Sickness & Health

Reconnect

Reconnect Little Art Card | dianaklein.com

This is a little art card (a part of a larger project that I plan to post about in months to come).  I made it a few weeks ago and subsequently tore it up some days since. Why?  There’s no very good explanation.  It was mostly because I was having one of those moments in which I wanted to lash out and this is the part of the universe that got it.  The card wasn’t precious.  Just an inexpertly made little piece of almost nothing made from cheap supplies and leftovers.  It wasn’t  big deal.

But I was a little sad. I had liked the little piece of almost nothing.  And the irony of my destroying a card bearing the word connect was not lost on me.  I have had some difficulty connecting—particularly here on this blog (it’s been almost a year since I last posted) and even more in other venues—especially considering the current political climate and the fact that tomorrow is the anniversary of the terrorist attack that took the lives of almost 3000 people—including my brother.

I often feel that talking about my brother’s death is self-indulgent (though this may be untrue), and I’m not even sure how many of my social media friends even know that he died on 9/11. I don’t want to burden them, or bring attention to myself, so I say nothing.  On Facebook this morning, I began to see the commemorations, and I thought, “I guess I’ll be logging off for the weekend.”  Some people will use this anniversary as a call to arms, a reason to be angry, to exclude and to hurt others.  Some people will aggrandize their own connection to or participation in the events in order, perhaps, to make themselves feel bigger somehow.  I usually stay silent about these things, too.  I reason that everyone has their own viewpoint; I cannot dictate how others should feel or react.  People should not have to tiptoe around me and my feelings.  Even if many of the posts in my feed make me nauseous and angry and sad, I say nothing.  I don’t want to fight.

And that’s still true. I don’t want to fight.  What I want to do is connect.  Yesterday, I dug the four shards of my little piece of almost nothing out of the garbage, and I sewed it back together with black thread and ugly stitches.

Reconnect Little Art Card Back | dianaklein.com

This is how reconnecting happens: with small, awkward steps, with the knowledge that damaged ends will never match up perfectly, and with the acceptance that you may always see the place where the break occurred.  The funny thing is how strong my little piece of almost nothing is now.  The stitches have reinforced it, making it, in some respects, both more durable and more flexible.  Also, I like it better than I did before I ripped it up.  Which again, is funny, because I was ashamed when I did it—that I had let my temper, my grief get the better of me.  I feared it was a sign that I had not progressed as far as I had thought or hoped, that I was less than, once again.  But I remember now, that we all have those moments—and we can all rebound from them.  We can, with a soft and open heart, rescue those precious bits we think we have lost, come home, and reconnect—if only, but possibly most importantly—with ourselves.

 

Art & Crafts, Art Journaling

Finding an Art Journaling Practice that Works for Me

Art Journal Fun with Crayola Markers!The entirety of my formal art training consists of a Basic Drawing class I took as an elective in college.  It was not a happy experience.  For, while I discovered that I could, with charcoal and paper, make a reasonably accurate representation of whatever still life I found in front of me, this did not seem to be enough for the instructor.  No matter how diligently I worked at measuring scale and shading objects to make them look three-dimensional, I was consistently, emphatically told that what I really needed to do was “Relax!!!”

Now, I don’t know what the average person’s reaction to an order like this is, but as a Type A, perfectionist who had spent her whole life attempting to be responsible and do things right (just like her parents and teachers had urged her), I found it extremely stressful.  I had never considered myself an artist before that class, and after, felt resigned that I never would be.

Still, I love color and pattern and texture, so, when a few years ago I stumbled on art journaling, I was immediately keen.  Art journaling can be different things for different people, but, in general, it’s some combination of art and writing that is done in a consistent fashion.  Often, art journals are places to try new things, record events (verbally and/or pictorially), or even, just get the creative juices flowing.  For me, it’s a place to play, learn, log my daily activities, and keep photos and other random ephemera.

It’s been a winding road developing a practice that works for me.  The first book I bought (Diana Trout’s Journal Spilling), was a lovely primer and I still have not exhausted its resources, but it told me to open my art journal to any page at random and start there.  I followed instructions (I’m still quite dutiful), but not having the pages in temporal order really irked me.  Also, I realized that I didn’t want to feel like I had to wait until I had finished a page artistically (a process that could take days), to do some word journaling.  2012 Art Journal Photo

No Excuses Art Journaling by Gina Rossi Armfield felt like a good fit.  It pares down the process by making use of a desk calendar, giving one artful tasks that help to record daily happenings and feelings.  I followed this plan for a while, but, though I got a lot of great ideas, I found myself becoming boringly repetitive.

2014-02 Art Journal Photo 02
I kind of love that I misspelled “ugh” in the bottom left of this page. It really shows how my brain was functioning at that moment!

A few months ago, I picked up Art Journal, Art journey: Collage and Storytelling for Honoring Your Creative Process by Nichole Rae.   Its process is quite different from other books of its type in that one makes entries in a computer file for several days or weeks, before printing them out, embellishing and collaging them with pictures and other artifacts into a book format.  I felt energized by many of the projects in this book and even took to doing a version of her “Words I Carry” project in the calendar I was using as my art journal.  The result wasn’t super arty, but it satisfied me to some degree, by adding more color and verve to my records.

2014-09-26 Art Journal Photo
Nothing fancy, but at least it’s something!

Soon though, I felt the itch to do whole pages again.  I figured this wouldn’t be that big of a deal since my journal is really small (4.5” x 6.75”).  The problem here became legibility.  I wanted the journaling to be readable since a lot of what I put into my journal are log notes and it’s important for me to be able to go back and track my activities and the way I was feeling.

2015-02-23 Art Journal Scan
What a mess! I love the gauze (a blood draw souvenir) taped in between the pages, though.

At first, I decided that I would write on the individual calendar dates and, through the wonders of washi tape, attach a small piece of art that I would complete daily.  This was cool, but I realized that some days, I didn’t have much to write—or felt too lousy to write at all—and, as a result, had all this insipid white space glaring at me.

2015-01-16 Art Journal Photo
A little Zentangle on the left and a thank you note on the right, but still too much white!
2015-01-10 Art Journal Photo
More misspelling. Word journaling is hidden beneath these flaps. I love that I used up a few paper scraps.

Recently, I decided to switch.  I art journal directly on the calendar pages (the paper’s not exactly what you’d call artist grade, but it’s fun to see how it reacts with various media), and tape in my log/journal notes as I go.  This allows me to work on an arty page for more than one day and provides for those days when I just can’t get to writing.

2015-03 Art Journal Scan 01
The writing on the left is an example of my taped in journaling. I began the page on the right with acrylic and collage not knowing what might become of it, but when I was looking for a place to put a picture from my harp presentation a few weeks ago, it seemed like a good fit. Is it finished? I’m not convinced.

I don’t know if or how long this strategy will work, but for right now I am enjoying it.  I love looking back at my old entries.  Even though I am primarily a writer, I find that the illustration, so to speak, reveals so much more about what I was thinking and feeling.  And because it’s all just for me, it doesn’t matter what it looks like.  If something turns out terrible, I just laugh and say to myself, “Well, that sure didn’t work!”  This is the main reason I value my art journaling—because it’s one of the few areas in my life where I can easily have that kind of attitude.  I consciously tell myself not to think, just act.  It’s a safe place for me to leap without looking and, even, you know . . . relax.

2015-03 Art Journal Scan 02
An experiment with pastels gone horribly wrong? Or the beginning of a cool new page? Only time (and more art journaling) will tell.

Do you art journal?  If so, what’s your style?  If you don’t, and would like to, here are some great online resources to get you started:

Julie Fei-Fan Balzer does a weekly Art Journal post on her blog, has a whole section of her site devoted to it, AND she has all kinds of other cool arty stuff on her site.  I cannot recommend it highly enough.  Just go there and subscribe to her blog already.

I just discovered this site by Connie Solera.  Lots of fun things—also a little more on the spiritual, healing side of art—which is quite lovely.  AND, she offers a free Art Journal Wisdom Tutorial

France Papillon’s site—a totally different almost subdued look, but with a lot of interesting texture and other design elements.  She also offers a weekly video tutorial of her work in her own art journal!

Thanks for reading! 🙂

Art & Crafts

The Foolish Quilter

My mother should have stopped me. She should have wrested the fabric and the scissors from my hands and padlocked the sewing machine. But that’s not my mother’s style. A quilt purveyor and sewing instructor for much of my childhood, the bulk of what she’d learned she’d taught herself—from books, from trial and error, from having the sheer gutsiness to reason that if it could be done, then why couldn’t it be done by her? And apparently this belief extended to me because, when, at 17, I hatched the brilliant idea to design and construct my first quilt—a “mosaic” turtle comprising over 1100 1½-inch squares and a few similarly sized triangles—she did not gently explain to me that such an endeavor might be rather challenging and perhaps just a mite beyond my novice quilter status. No, she just nodded her head and smiled.

Turtle Quilt

I began by getting out my colored pencils and graph paper and sketching a rough turtle shape. I then decided that I wanted my creation to be as colorful as the mommy-made, rainbow biscuit quilt I snuggled under every night, so I determined that the turtle’s head, legs, and tail would be green, the surrounding ocean blue, and the articulations of the shell would vary the rest of the spectrum. After coloring each square on the graph paper its appointed hue, I raided my mother’s glorious scrap bin, finding a multitude of shades and textures to use in each color zone. I delighted in the many remnants leftover from her projects over the years and, since I only needed to cut a 1½-inch square or triangle out of each, no piece was too small!

Then, the sewing. My mother offered no unsolicited advice at any point during the project, but when I asked how to randomize the squares within each color zone (particularly the blue ones, of which there were many), she suggested I toss them all into a box, mix them up, and sew them together as they came to hand. How thrilling it was to watch them come together, seam by ¼–inch seam, the appearance of the fabrics changing as each new piece was added. I made 33 chains of 36 squares (the triangles now joined together to form squares) and then pinned the life out of those chains, matching seam to seam and piercing each. Throughout this stage, there was a lot of deep breathing, quite a bit of praying, and yes, a fair amount of swearing (especially when, on at least one occasion, I sewed two chains together the wrong way round!), but at long last, the top was done, the mosaic turtle framed by two borders, one light and one dark.

About a year after I started, I completed the 41”x48” piece, hand quilting ¼-inch inside the shell articulations and other body parts.

I love all the different fabrics.
I love all the different fabrics.

After that, I outlined the turtle as a whole, and repeated that outline into the ocean at greater and greater intervals to create a kind of wave pattern. Then my mother showed me how to wrap the back around to the front as a binding and finish it with a hidden stitch. Lastly, the one thing she did insist on, was that I sign the back in embroidery thread.

You can tell I like turtles!
You can tell I like turtles!

Is the quilt perfect? Ahem, no. Far from lining up properly, many, many seams travel off like little roads to nowhere; the seams beneath the top are folded in a comical variety of directions, making the quilt slight bumpy; and the corners are not quite the 90-degree angles to which a rectangle usually aspires, but whenever I look at it, I smile. I am reminded of the power of the fool—the one who is only one part wisdom to nine parts enthusiasm—too ignorant to believe that trying might be a bad idea, might be too hard, might make oneself look like, well . . . a fool.

I still can’t believe my mother didn’t try to talk me out of it. She just sat back and let me create and I can only thank her for that, especially because with all her skill and all the beautiful things she’s made over the years, that quilt still hangs on her bedroom wall.

P.S.  I have to admit, I had an added motive for publishing this post.  It’s in response to a Quilting Daily challenge to write about one’s first quilting project and if I win, I get to pick 5 items from Interweavestore.com (sigh).  Here are my choices: Watercolor Markers Supply Kit; Hand-Carving Premium Collection; New Tatting; Friendship Bracelets All Grown Up; and The Art of Whimsical Lettering.  What would you choose?

Art & Crafts, Baking

The True Meaning of Christmas Cake

“There’s nothing better than Christmas cake.” I declare this indistinctly, between licks at the beater that has lately been mixing said dessert.

“If it’s made properly,” my mother adds. She stands opposite me in our small apartment kitchen, her manner marginally more demure than mine, as she uses a spatula to scrape the last, tiniest remnants of batter from its bowl.

It’s true. Some may call it fruitcake and rush into negative judgments, but this is not the small bar of candied cherries, citron, and pecans you pay $10 for at a supermarket. This is dried apricots, figs, sultanas, and cherries—all bought especially for the endeavor. And it is raisins, cranberries, and dates, and whatever other dried fruits have been languishing in my fridge—forgotten as snacks, they and their newly purchased brethren have now gotten happily tipsy on Irish whiskey, tenderly sprinkled with allspice, companionably joined by almonds, and finally, combined with the holy trinity: sugar, eggs, and butter—well in our case, it’s dairy-free soy margarine, and the flour that brings it all together is gluten-free, but this matters not one iota. I offer it a silent blessing as it disappears into the oven, where it will bake casually, not rushing, meditating gently in the oven for a few hours and when it cools, I will treat it to another swig of Jameson, wrap it lovingly in wax paper and aluminum foil, and then . . . I will wait.

Truth be told, I won’t be waiting as long as I should. Typically, one gives the cake 3 to 4 weeks to let it settle into itself, its flavors lusciously mingling and melding. I’ve heard stories of people in Britain who start the process as early as September, taking the cake out every few weeks to give it another wee dram. However, after having spent just about my entire life in New York, I have recently moved all the way to Louisiana. A week after Halloween, as they brought box after heavy box up the stairs, the movers commented on how wonderful it would be to be “home for the holidays,” so to speak. It’s true—especially since the move meant getting closer to family that already live here, but the business of becoming a Louisianan has eaten into much of my holiday prep time. I debated not making the cake at all. Why bother? And yet . . . it called to me. As I write this, I think, how ridiculous! It’s only a cake. It’s not even a family tradition. I learned about Christmas cakes through both my literary journeys and actual travels to Britain and Ireland. There is no ancestral link here, and yet, as I chop the fruit, I somehow always feel a certain sense of prayerfulness. I feel a strange satisfaction as my chef’s knife finds its way through the slight resistance of the leathery fruit. I revel in the colors offered by each morsel—tiny gems when they are lit up by the whiskey. And when I add those lovely bits to the batter, stirring carefully, I feel a warming completeness. This is something that is right, my heart says. In a life of uncertainty and pain, at this moment, as I mix together a silly Christmas cake, all is right with my world.

Christmas is only 2 weeks away (please don’t go running and screaming away from your computer in panic at this thought), so if it is to be a true Christmas cake and not a New Year’s one, as I have considered deeming it, it will only have a matter of days to rest before I wake it from its slumber, enrobe it in marzipan and fondant, decorate it in some fashion or other, and begin selling tickets for a chance to taste it.

Oh wait, did I just forget the true meaning of Christmas? Did I mention how good this thing is? No, I won’t really charge for the privilege of having a piece of my exalted cake. In fact, I’m quite certain that I will wish that I could share it with many more people—the ones I won’t see this Christmas—those left behind in New York and those other dear ones all over the world. You see, Christmas cake is about coming together—no matter how nutty you may think you are, bringing to life what you have—even if you view yourself as old or dried out, and realizing that when your gifts are joined with those of others, truly magical things can happen.

Shh . . . the cake is baking.
Shh . . . the cake is baking.
Art & Crafts

It’s Called a Knitted Brow for a Reason

The knitting gods are laughing.

Many people—too many people—over the course of time, have decided to perpetuate the notion that knitting is relaxing, soothing, a restful way to pass the time.  I have to admit that I have been one of those people.  And it is true that when one’s nerves are raw from sitting in one too many doctors’ offices, it is comforting to have something to occupy one’s hands and mind.  Order can be restored to a chaotic world through the gratifying binary surety of knit and purl.

That is, until you make a mistake.  Okay, one mistake is not so bad.  Everyone makes mistakes; you just go back and fix it.  So what if it means ripping out three rows?  It’s not a big deal.

Until you make another mistake.  Two mistakes is not a lot, but it’s a little frustrating that you weren’t paying better attention to what you were doing so that you could have seen you’re misstep right when you made it.

The third mistake is where it starts to get ugly.  The yarn is starting to fuzz from having been ripped out so many times, but really, it’s okay, you are learning and really, isn’t that what it’s all about?

Sure, and after ten years, I’ve made enough mistakes to be a master knitter by now—though I’m not.

I started making a hat last Thursday.  It was going to be a quick, fun project before I went back and tackled the Fair Isle vest I’ve been avoiding since August.  This is the vest that I nearly finished at least twice before having to dismantle almost all of it and start again.  The one that needs me only to knit the neck and shoulders, but whose completion involves picking up stitches evenly which can be a whole other nightmare I won’t even get into.  The one that will probably be too small for me when I actually get up the gumption to finish it.

So I started the hat—a lovely, tweed, cabled tam from the same wool with which I had just successfully completed a beautiful shawl in just over a week and a half.  This should be no sweat, I thought.  But the knitting gods are capricious and really, I think, just a bit cruel.  This past weekend I worked and reworked the hat as I watched the final games of my beloved Mets heartbreaking 2009 season.  Maybe it was because I had become a little cocky.  Maybe St. Augustine is in among the knitting deities and has insisted that I be purified of my ignoble sin of pride, but that hat that should have taken only a few hours to make is still yet to be finished.  I made a grand push Sunday night.  By the end of the Jets/Saints game, I had begun to decrease (knitter speak for “I see a light at the end of the tunnel!”), and I thought, I’ll just stay up until I’m done.  Three national parks later (Ken Burns The National Parks: America’s Best Idea on PBS), I realized that I had made yet another error.  I put it down, resigned.  This is something I have learned during my knitting tenure.  After a certain number of missteps, it’s best just to let it rest awhile.

And so it sits on my ottoman in the living room, waiting.  I will finish it, probably this week.  I don’t know what it’ll end up looking like, but another thing I’ve learned is that if you want to create something beautiful, you have to be willing to crash and burn—a lot.  I’ll finish the hat.  And I’ll make peace with the knitting pantheon, because I know in my heart of hearts that they are only trying to do me a favor.  They know what I need to be doing right now (write now!) and knitting is not it.