Reflection with Books

 

I’ve had some kind of post like this in my head since before the holidays. I’ve been wanting to write about the next stage in my thought process around time and a slow life, as well as to highlight some of the fantastic books I read last year that helped bring me to where I am now. But to tell the truth, I’ve been struggling. My thoughts and plans don’t feel like they’re in any kind of order, and I feel a little lost, like I’m stumbling around in a trackless forest. I’m sure I’ll find my path again, but on the way there, I’ve decided to go ahead and write this post, so I can revisit some of the ideas that spoke to me in 2015, and also move on to other things I have planned for this space.

 

ABQ winter walk 2015 1

These photos are from a walk during our trip to Albuquerque just before the new year.  I always find the light in NM beautiful, as well as the cranes and geese that come through in the winter.

 

2015 was a good year for deep thoughts in my world, and it was also a great year for books. I can’t remember another time when a stream of reading material came to me one after another—as gifts, recommendations, and by chance—as if the universe was giving me the reading list for the next stage of my life.

The first of the startlingly appropriate books was Women’s Work: the First 20,000 years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. I read it as part of my research for that article on wool I wrote for Seamwork (that was the best research project ever in my personal history of research). There were some useful tidbits for the article in there, but what I liked most about this book was how it put “women’s work” throughout the millennia of human history in context, and made me feel connected to all those women who came before me.

At the beginning of the book Barber points out that women didn’t get assigned tasks in societies because they were weaker or inferior to men. Women got tasks like spinning and weaving because those were compatible with also being the primary caretakers of small children—the role of women in every human culture to date, for obvious biological reasons. Even though I don’t have kids, and it’s kind of obvious once you think about it, this was a bit of a revelation. Women’s work isn’t “less than”, it’s part of the set of skills needed to make a society work.

I also love how she talks about hand work and how it relates to society. Quotes like this one really spoke to how I think about my making:

“Working within a quota system of production is not like weaving for oneself. It is no longer fun, nor does the weaver get the benefit of extra effort put in. Mass production is not at all like making single pieces at will; there isn’t time to do a careful job. This economic principle is illustrated many times in history.”

I’ve always thought that feminism should mean we women can pursue what we want to with dignity. Choosing to knit or make jam should be just as valid a choice as welding or practicing science. Ultimately, this book let me feel more comfortable and grounded in my own skin and my own choices. When I spin or sew, I can feel proud of the connection those activities give me to all the women going back in time before me. It’s a great place to start from.

 

ABQ winter walk 2015 4

 

Another book that made my rethink my ideas about our society, specifically class and being connected to the land, is The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks. For the first half of this book I was incredibly jealous of the author, of the way he always had a place in the world and knew exactly what and where he wanted to be. The freedom we get in many modern societies is truly amazing, but does anyone else lament the amount of angst and flailing around looking for what we’re “meant to do” that comes with it? There are definitely days when I’d trade all this for a place to belong and a clear contribution to make. As his story goes on (I’ll try not to spoil anything) I realized that he too had to coexist with the realities of the modern world, but he finds a way to do so that gives me a lot of hope. The book is full of deep insights from a perspective I don’t often hear, that of someone intimately connected to both the land and the practices of the past. Its deepest impact on me was in how I think about what I really want out of life. I need to be connected and feel like I’m making a difference, and I’m not so sure I need “success” in any sort of modern sense of it. I do want a life that makes me “want for no other” as Rebanks says at the end of the book, and I should seek that kind of satisfaction.

 

ABQ winter walk 2015 3

 

“Slow” became a definite theme to my thoughts last year, fueled by another couple of great books. The first one was World Enough and Time: on Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen. It’s jam-packed with ideas, so much so that I had to go back and sift through the passages I bookmarked in order to figure out what I was really getting from it. It’s difficult to choose which of the many promising insights McEwen includes to share here. One of her biggest themes is that we humans need slowness, rest, and time for contemplation, in order to feel whole and happy. And that we can get those things, we just have to choose to do so.

This is something that’s been at the core of my beliefs for as long as I can remember having some, and it’s wonderful to have it validated by someone who’s clearly done her research: that we can choose to live in the way that seems best to us, that we still have available many of the options of people in previous eras, even if our society at large is moving a different way. After all, if you take a step back, we have just as much time as anyone in the supposedly “slower” past—actually more, since our lifespan continues to increase, and we arguably have more leisure time than ever before (depending on how you define that). Just because a choice is there doesn’t mean it’s easy though, going slower and with more meaning is something we have to do consciously, and follow through on every day. I’m trying. McEwen quotes Howard Zinn:

“To live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all the bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

The book is full of quotes, insights, and strategies for anyone who’s thinking about moving slower and more fully in life, and is especially helpful if you also have a creative practice you’d like to nurture.

 

ABQ winter walk 2015 5

 

Another person who’s gone to great lengths to re-imagine his relationship with time is William Powers, author of New Slow City. My dad, who worked in wildlife habitat conservation for decades, had an interesting take on this one: that Powers was ignoring the fact that a lot of the calm he seeks he can only find in nature, that maybe he is suffering more from a lack of contact with the natural world than from going too fast. I think Dad has a point, but I also think the two things are intertwined. Powers also has a lot of other good ideas about moving slower, and being less influenced by the craziness of modern life in New York. The thing I liked best about this book is that it’s a chronicle of Powers’ personal experience, so it feels approachable, even if not all of us can afford to cut back drastically on work the way he does at the beginning of the book.

 

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One thing that comes up prominently in Powers’ book and in McEwen’s is the damaging influence of advertising. This also strikes at the heart of something I’ve been thinking about for a long time; that the job of this entire industry is to make us feel dissatisfied—the exact opposite of what I personally want out of life. This perpetual dissatisfaction harms us, as well as the environment, by encouraging more and more purchases of disposable stuff. For me, a trip to the thrift store is sometimes enough to start a mental spiral of “I want, I want,” and even “I could make this, I could fix that,” which pushes me out of my slow making mindset and back into the same old place of wishing for more time.

I think I’m looking at it all wrong when that happens, it’s a modern-society habit I just haven’t shaken off yet. What do I want more time for—so that I can make more stuff? Haven’t I already established that I don’t need more stuff? Haven’t I already established that I have the same amount of time as any human being that ever lived, or possibly more? And how did we all decide that keeping a score of things accomplished is the best, maybe even the only, way to judge the quality of a life?

So, I’d like to strive not for more time, but for better time. As McEwen says:

“What matters is not how much [time] they actually have, but how best to inhabit it and make it spacious: how to allow room in which attention can take root.”

I know that when I can drop into “natural time” as Powers calls it, paying attention to just the moment I’m in, I find so many layers of sensory and emotional complexity to be discovered in every single minute, sometimes I’m then amazed that I spend any time at all ignoring all these textures, completely distracted by everything in my own head. The best way I can describe how I get to that slow place (although it sounds a little negative) is to say it’s by not thinking about what’s coming next, not waiting for whatever I’m doing to be over, and not planning for later. What I’m left with is what’s right in front of me.

Which is not to say that I succeed in going slow all the time, far from it (um, especially lately). And even if I could I’m not sure it would work. After all, I need to make plans in order to accomplish things, and once I get into slow mode I have zero interest in planning. I have lots of other questions too. Is there a mode in between “experiencing the moment” and “planning for the future”? Is it possible to send a slow text, or do some activities inherently belong to one realm or the other?

 

ABQ winter walk 2015 6

 

There’s also a piece of all this that’s about experiencing what I’m really feeling at a given time. Powers says, “It’s what’s happening to me when I go off the drug of distraction. Sadness has the space to grow …” For me anyway, the part of myself that’s habitually distant developed as a survival mechanism while I was miserable in school as a kid. The real world is infinitely more wonderful to me now than it was then, but that doesn’t, and won’t, mean I never feel sad. And if I’m not distracting myself, then the sadness is right in front of me too. I’m trying to choose this richer experience, both when it’s light and when it’s dark.

I am very much still figuring all of this out. Some days it definitely feels like I haven’t figured anything out at all. But I have real hope that if I keep thinking and writing and trying to move towards what I want out of life, I’ll get there eventually. I’m convinced that I’ve been thinking about time the wrong way. It’s not a thing chasing me down, or a precious commodity to be hoarded, it’s the whole of our experience, an experience we can interact with as we choose.

I’d like to mention one more resource that ties into these thoughts, this interview with the artist Ann Hamilton from On Being. This, recommended to me by my friend Amanda, has got to be one of the five best interviews I’ve ever heard, at least in terms of relating directly to what I’m thinking about, especially time and our relationship to it. They discuss the fact that our sense of time is very malleable in the brain (which I find totally fascinating), as well as making, the creative process, knitting, and other things close to my heart.

I’ll leave you with two more quotes I found relevant.

Powers: “Everything out there on Fifth Avenue was dreamed up by somebody. None of it has to be … we can create something else.”
And McEwen: “For almost all of us, happiness depends enormously on letting go, dropping our own willed insistent management, and opening into a more flexible and spacious, and above all, playful relationship with time.”

 

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Just a Wreath

 

SW wreath 1

 

I spent this morning making wreaths with my crafting buddies at my friend Elena’s house.  She’s been making them for 20 years, so she gave us expert advice, and it was super fun.  Her whole living room floor was covered with a big blue tarp, and on top of it, buckets and boxes stuffed full of all kinds of wonderful greenery, dried pods, and beautiful berries, chiles . . . with that much natural beauty it would be tough to make anything that didn’t look good.  I made this one with lots of stuff from right around here.  I wish you could smell it!  Piñon cones and juniper are two of my favorite smells in the whole wild world.  I guess we all like smells that remind us of home.

 

SW wreath 2

 

I hope you’re enjoying the season!

 

Body and Earth, Home Territory

 

I’m pleased to report we’re home at last!  At last – without a crazy amount to do, with all my beautiful supplies and tools right in front of me, in my studio, in the kitchen!  Bliss.  We got back late Wednesday night (the same day I took these pictures), and the last thing I did before falling asleep was read the last chapter of a really interesting book I’ve been working my way through, Body and Earth by Andrea Olsen.  It was the textbook to a class one of my cousins took at Middlebury College.  My aunt read it too, she kept talking about how much she liked it, and finally they let me borrow a copy.

To be honest, it starts off a little bit, umm, out in left field for me – talking about our evolutionary history and how that relates to the way our bodies move.  But, it moves on pretty quickly into more concrete territory, talking about body processes, earth systems, and ways we can affect both, in a really integrative way that I loved.  I have been working on posture and healthy ways to work with my body a lot lately, and there are a lot of exercises and ideas in this book that I found really interesting and helpful.  But as far as just things to think about, the end of the book may be the best part.  There are a few chapters about connections between earth, body and society, again talking about how everything is related rather than each part on its own.  There are a couple of quotes in this part that speak to what I’m trying to say here.

 

 

Our culture breeds dissatisfaction in order to sell products . . .  As we realize that we are sensual beings, living as part of a world that delights the senses, we can distance ourselves from the cultural baggage of dissatisfaction.  We need less, not more, to experience a full life.

 

 

As we commodify art and creativity, we see art as other and creativity as foreign, rather than familiar.  In the process, we risk losing access to our deepest visions and our intuitive resources.   Conversely, as we reclaim creativity, we engage the unknown on a daily basis and listen for truth.

 

 

We have grown accustomed to high-end art: perfect recordings, museum paintings, and multimillion-dollar films.  But creativity is personal.  As we participate in the process, we recognize that it is not just about observing, not just about buying and consuming, alienating ourselves from our own creativity.  It is about participating in the creative universe we live in.

 

 

It seemed fitting somehow that as I finished this book, we came back into the landscape of my childhood, the places I feel the most connected to.  When we started into the plains and mountains of southwest Colorado, I felt such a tug on my heart, it’s not just that this place is beautiful (spectacular this time of year as the leaves change), it’s that I love it and I feel rooted here.  The desert, so close and yet so different, I love it too, even though I hated it driving across it as a kid, it seemed so empty.  It still seems stark, but so open, so subtle, so much a part of my home.

 

 

Just the clouds are amazing.  I’ll be back soon with more on participating in our creative universe!

 

 

 

Giant Cyanotype on Silk!

 

Some of you may be wondering what I have been up to lately, besides cooking and (occasionally) posting about it here.  Well, in part – this!  Bryan has a solo show on at the Flagstaff Photography Center for the next month, and for part of it he had this crazy brilliant idea to make a huge public participation project.  On silk, panels 12′ by 6′.  Which would hang on curved wooden supports (making that part was his responsibility).  The idea is that you walk through it, not just look at it, and the fabric touches you and moves with the wind, thus making a different, more interactive experience of what a photograph can be.

 

 

The first part for me was making the silk panels.  Suffice it to say I have never been this nervous about sewing a rectangle.  Ever.  I attached a measuring tape to my work table so that I would tear all the pieces exactly the same length, and got out my walking foot so as not to distort the long seams.

 

 
In the process, I kind of fell in love with this huge expanse of crepe de chine.  Having never sewn anything nearly this big out of silk before (a ballgown is the only thing I could think of that would compare) I had never studied how it falls like liquid, but somehow also holds a body, almost a stiffness in certain circumstances.  Amazing.  I’m not-so-secretly hoping that the leftover fabric ends up in my stash.

 

 

But back to the photo project – the next step was to soak the silk panels in the chemistry for cyanotype – like those blue prints you may have made in the sun with leaves and flowers, and hang them up to dry.  This we did at night, inside the garage.  It took longer to dry than Bryan expected, so we ended up setting the alarm for 4 am to take them down.  They got rolled up and the rolls went into a long skinny bag of blackout fabric (also made by me, and luckily went together easily like the plan in my head).  By now you are starting to see how this project had a certain secret-agent-mission appeal.  At one point I had a grocery list which included 8 gallons of distilled water, blackout fabric, muslin, carpet rolls/large dowels, thread, and shellac.

 

 

On the morning of the exposure, we set up (mostly) clean trash cans to hold water for rinsing, a hose, the muslin sheet so everyone could practice where to put their hands and bodies, and a hugely tall clothesline to hold the finished pieces while they dried.  Thankfully, a bunch of our friends and members of the photo community showed up and agreed to lie still in the sun for 15 minutes while they and the silk sheets took in enough light to make a photo.  And thankfully the monsoon clouds held off just long enough to get it done (it rained later)!  Bryan repositioned people partway through to get a lighter blue in some places.

 

 

Meanwhile I ran around taking snapshots, and then with the help of a few volunteers, dunked the first panel in successive changes of water to rinse out the unexposed chemistry, while Bryan and the rest of the volunteers exposed the second one.

 

 

Even though I was very involved with this project, I didn’t anticipate quite how much I would like the finished result.  I think Bryan did a great job bringing his vision for it into reality.  And, after obsessively checking my math at the beginning, I could finally breathe a sigh of relief as the panels slid onto the wood and I could see that everything came out the right size!  It’s hard to see just how cool it is here, but imagine walking through it.  I am impressed with the little details that come through, aspects of people’s hair and clothing that make it more personal.

 

 

If you are passing though Flagstaff, you can check it out yourself at the Photo Center (right on Heritage Square) through the end of August!

 

DIY Envelopes

 

Really, why didn’t I think of this ages ago?  But actually, my lovely aunt Barbara introduced me to this idea at our craft retreat, which she in turn got from one of her teachers.  I have made a few handmade cards, and looked for envelopes to fit them, but it never occurred to me to just make one!  And, you can use all kind of cool recycled paper.  The kind that is too pretty/interesting to just put in the bin.  I going to use this map and guide from The Art Institute of Chicago, mostly because it has the word “varoom!” on it in big letters.

 

 

I’ve had this red envelope for quite a while, I love the shape and the old-style closure.  You can use any envelope you like as a pattern, just peel it apart carefully so that you have clean edges to trace.  You can also buy plastic templates in various sizes, or print out paper ones from lots of online sources, search for “envelope template.”  I like using an envelope you already have to start, since it’s right here ready to go.

In any case, check out the placement of your envelope on the new paper to make sure any motifs you really like will be where you want them.  Either use a paper cutting blade (hence my very old cutting mat is my backdrop today) or trace around your envelope and cut it out with scissors.  Use a bone folder, or similar hard but not too sharp object, to score along the folding lines.

 

 

Fold in the sides and stick your envelope together using glue stick, paper glue or ATG (borrowed from the matting and framing part of our studio).

For a simple envelope, you are done!  Just glue the top when you are ready to mail. Ridiculously easy.

 

 

I wanted to recreate the loop and tie closure from my pattern envelope, so marked the position of the circles from the original when I cut it out.  I traced a penny on heavier paper, and used two thicknesses glued together for each circle.  I used metal brads and a bit of top stitching thread, tying the thread in a knot around the brad, and slipping the knot under the paper circle before sticking it through the envelope.  Gluing an extra circle on the back for reinforcement seemed like a good idea as well.

 

 

I also think it would look great to glue or sew on a big snap to close the envelope, or a use buttons and loops, or make a reusable envelope out of something hefty and sew it together, or make your own folders . . . sometimes I think the measure of a good idea is when it gives you ten other ideas at once!

At our retreat I made a big map-velope which has two layers to make it sturdy, plus some small ones, to hold business cards, etc.  And of course you can decorate them!

 

 

I hope this gives you a bunch of new ideas, too!

(If you want to keep up with all my new ideas you can now Follow my blog with Bloglovin  Actually, you could before, but now I am officially claiming it.)

Creative Retreat Projects

So, I thought I would share a few of the projects we made this year at my fabulous family and friends retreat.  Each year all the women in our little circle get together and create and share and cook and eat, and magic happens.  Not like spells and potions (unless you count margaritas!), but a real feeling of this time being more than the sum of its parts, allowing us creative expressions that it can be so hard to find in everyday life.

 

 

This year thanks to the generous donation of time and effort by a friend of my aunt’s, we got to try encaustic, an ancient technique of painting with wax that I have admired in the work of some of our art show friends for some time.  I was so excited to try it out, and impressed by how everyone jumped in and made art.  Really, playing with warm wax is pretty irresistible.

 

 

We also got to make lip balm (beeswax again!) and flavor it ourselves with oils.  Plus knitting, screen printing, a field trip and making envelopes!

 

Even if you don’t have your annual craft retreat put together (yet!), one thing I find keeps me sane all year round is just a little creative time every day.  I started setting aside an hour a day for sewing in college, and I was really shocked how much more I got done.  Now I work on creative projects a lot of the time, but I found that I still need a little bit of the day that’s just for me, that I can spend however I want, regardless of whether the product will ever make money or even appear on this blog.  Even 20 or 30 minutes when I’m busy, to just put my brain on a different track, leaves me refreshed and thinking outside the box again.

What do you think?  How do you structure your creative break time?

 

(PS There’s still time (until tomorrow morning) to win a Fiddleheads hat.)

Unplugging for a Week of Creativity

 

One of my favorite weeks of the whole year starts tomorrow.  It’s a time when the ladies of my family and friends get together and let our creativity loose.  We learn new skills, cook and eat good food, and generally have a blast hanging out together.

I’m giving myself permission to unplug for this week, ignore my laptop entirely if I choose to, and just dive in to the experience.

I’ll be happy to share more about the event when I get back.  See you in about a week!