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.

 

ABQ winter walk 2015 2

 

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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Life as Artists on the Road

 

I’ve been working on this post for a while (um, understatement).  I keep feeling like I should, or would at least like to, explain a little more about what we do and why it is that I travel so much, but it turns out to be not so easy to explain.  Everything from how I met my husband and fell in love, to the story of my own life and work so far, to the state of the art market (we’re not getting into that one here) is wrapped up in it, and just figuring out what to put in and what to leave out has been more difficult than I thought, but here we go.

 

nm highway sunset

 View from the truck windshield—a beautiful sunset from I-40.

 

The beginning of the story, for the purposes of this post anyway, is 2000, when Bryan (long before he was my husband or had this work) left his career as a business consultant.  He didn’t like what he saw himself becoming—that guy in a suit who cuts off little old ladies on his way to the airport.  He looked at the senior managers at his company and saw that while they were paid generously, they didn’t seem happy.  They were still overworked and stressed out.  Most of them had been divorced.  They spent their careers working to help huge companies with questionable ethical and environmental records.  He wanted more time off, and to have some choice of his clients, neither of which the company wanted to give him.  He followed his heart and resigned.

 

Bryan wasn’t sure what he would end up doing next.  He was a passionate photographer, capturing America’s wilderness using large format film (he still does).  To make the next part of the story short, over the following few years he carved out a niche that would allow him to make a living.  By the time I met him, in 2003, he was traveling most of each summer, exhibiting his work and photographing for new projects, and spending his winters in Flagstaff, Arizona, where I grew up.

 

Meanwhile, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself.  I had left school at the University of Arizona (in Tucson), feeling unfulfilled, uninspired, and lonely, and moved back home to Flagstaff in December of that year.  I worked at a small museum in town (cataloguing lots of beautiful artifacts) and at a couple of other places off and on, but nothing that was going to turn into a career.  Bryan and I met at the end of that summer, started dating and (um, more long story getting short here) fell in love from fall through winter.  By the time he asked me if I wanted to travel with him the following summer, I was ready to say yes.  It was a big leap of faith, actually bigger looking back on it than it seemed at the time, but I knew he was the one for me, and it worked out.  We survived some big adventures together that first time on the road (some that I question whether I would stick around if they happened today), but we made a good team. By the time we got back home in the fall, Bryan had decided that I was the one too.  We got married in October 2005, and we still travel together every year.

 

(This pic is actually our return last fall)

 The truck—hauling, transport, mobile studio and camper.

Our time on the road is a mixture of selling work, making new work, and of course the adventures that happen in between.  Most of the selling takes place at the country’s top juried art fairs, and at galleries.  The fairs are competitive events run by neighborhoods and art associations.  Each season it’s a logistical challenge for Bryan to come up with a national tour from the shows and gallery openings he is invited to that will sustain our work.

 

Most of these art fairs take place outdoors.  As well as art and workspace and some regular living stuff, our truck holds a tent and carpeted walls to make a kind of mini-gallery for the photos, which we set up and take down every weekend that we “bring art to the people.”  Dealing with the weather is also a major part of this experience.  I started a list of things never to take for granted, but everything else pales in comparison to the first two items: hot showers and ice.

 

Wherever we end up, there are usually interesting things to photograph nearby.  It might be a national park, or interesting architecture for the In a Big World Wandering series, or something for an entirely new project.

 

Bryan crossing flooded boardwalk

Don’t worry, he made it to the other side without falling in.

 

In between selling and shooting photos, we usually either camp out or visit friends and family.  I love camping, staying in beautiful places, and trying out local foods at farm stands and restaurants.  But few things make me more suddenly grateful than arriving at a real house full of friendly faces, running water, a large bed with clean sheets, laundry, and a kitchen, etc.  My fingers start to itch at the thought of real kitchen tools, and we usually end up cooking a lot for whomever we’re staying with, as part of our efforts to at least act like, if not actually be, the world’s best houseguests.  It’s a good survival strategy; we need to make sure we can always come back.

 

As you might imagine, doing work of my own during this traveling time is . . . difficult.  But I’ve also found that it’s fairly necessary to my happiness.  I’ve tried selling my own work at art fairs, mainly felted handbags (you can see a few of them on Etsy), but that market wasn’t quite right for the things I made.  Along with the usual issues of customers not understanding the cost of handmade goods, plus the physical work to set up an extra display every weekend, it all convinced me that this wasn’t the way to go (at least not with the bags).  I did learn a lot though, about all aspects of running an itty-bitty handmade business, and about myself.  I began to figure out that my passion is really more for empowering other people to become makers than for selling things I make, hence my latest project (and this blog).  Although come fall, I will be making a about a ton of those little fuzzy hats again . . .

 

booths ann arbor

Left to right: my booth, and Bryan’s.

 

But back to the road.  Being gone for long stretches, usually months at a time, of course makes me homesick.  I miss my friends, my family, the smell of the pine forest, my studio (especially my studio—the freedom to make pretty much whatever I want, whenever I want to), my kitchen, green chile, good tacos (depending on where in the world we are) . . . but I’m starting to adapt.  At this point, if we stopped traveling, I know I would miss that too.  I’d miss the friends and family scattered around the country that we get to spend time with, the foods we get to eat (yeah, I’m a little obsessed with the food) and the things we discover, especially when we can get off the interstate and explore.  It’s an amazingly diverse and interesting country out there.

 

At the end of a mediocre show, we’ll often look at each other and say, “Well, we lived.”  It occurred to me recently that what we mean is not just “we survived” but also “we’re living” in the fullest way, taking advantage of the paths and adventures that are available to us, even though not all of them are good, and testing our limits.  It’s not always fun, pretty much never glamorous, and as a friend who’s taking a sabbatical from art fairs recently put it “a stupid way to make a living.”  And yet, one thing we don’t have to worry about is regret about chances not taken and roads untraveled.  The odd and beautiful parts of life on the road, the magical things that happen when you’re in a strange place at a strange time, are what will keep me coming back, probably for as long as this weird way of life is possible for us.

 

squonk opera passing

A performance called (I am not making this up) Squonk Opera passing by the booth in Pittsburgh.

 

Now I feel like maybe I should have written this post right at the beginning, as a brief summary of the state of my recent life . . . but here it is.  This won’t become a blog all about life on the road (that’s not my thing), but I would like to bring up a few other ways that my own goals and work intersect our travels, and hopefully after this it will make more sense.  What about you, any thoughts about travel/work/life?

 

 

Me-Made Purple Corduroys—How Life is Like Fitting Pants

purple cords 1

 

Where to begin?  I think I could talk about these pants and all their glories and implications well past what you would read.  Well – I think I’ll begin with why they are purple, which will lead right into why they are fitted, which will lead right into why they are the best pants I’ve ever had.

So, a few years ago now, my aunt got this pair of purple corduroy pants, and for some strange reason I fell in love with them at first sight.  I’m not usually into purple, or brightly colored trousers, nevertheless I’ve wanted my own pair ever since.  I found 1 1/2 yards of, get this, lavender hemp and organic cotton corduroy on the NearSea Naturals clearance page!  (It had a “stain” on it, which washed right out.)  Update: although I love love love the idea of this fabric, the color of this fabric, and the resulting pants, the fabric is just not sturdy enough.  I got about a year of good-looking wear out of these before the corduroy pile started coming out, even with washing them inside out and not once putting them through the dryer, and that is just not enough for something I made.  If anyone knows of a source for sustainable, long-lasting fabric, please let me know!  The good news: all the work I did on fitting (keep reading) is already transferred to the pattern and waiting for me to find the next fabric! 

I thought this was the perfect amount of fabric.  I planned to make another pair just like my grey pants, even though I wasn’t sure that wide leg would be the best look for purple corduroys, I would figure out that fit first, and save more close-fitting pants for another day/next fall maybe.  Well – it turned out that all the wide leg pattern pieces would not fit on this much fabric.  To fit them in I had to narrow the legs quite a bit.  Well.  I just tapered the tops of the pattern pieces from the grey pants into the narrower legs, cut them out, and this is what I got.

 

purple cords fitting

 

Clearly those fabric saddle bag areas on the sides had to go straight away, that was the easy part.  Getting a better fit through the seat/inner thigh area took a lot more work.  Every day for weeks, my sewing time consisted of: ripping out and re-basting in a slightly different position some part of the crotch seam and/or inseam and/or side seam, trying the pants on, deciding what to rip out next (often the same part).  Although I worked on these only a little bit each day (partly to keep myself from getting frustrated and doing something hasty/stupid), I thought a lot about how life is like fitting pants.  The baking equivalent might be yeast bread, or even macarons.  There are a lot of variables, and each one seems to affect all the others, so that a small tweak in one area can change all kinds of things I would not expect.  But, if I just keep plugging away, trying things, seeing what happens, I will eventually reach a place where I am very happy with the results.

 

purple cords side

 

Well – I really could not be happier with this result!  Although I have tweaks to make in the next version (pants are clearly a journey, not a destination) they are the first pair I’ve ever had that really fit and flattered my figure, they’re incredibly comfortable, and I’m ridiculously satisfied with myself when I wear them.

If it wasn’t for the fact that things need washing, (Ok, and I do love skirts, and some days are for grubby clothes, etc.) I might conceivably wear these straight through until they wore out.

 

purple cords sewing table

 

Some sewing and fitting things I figured out while making them:

I took out all that extra I added to the back inseam of the grey ones, and then some.  Clearly a different fit requires a different shape.

See that diagonal wrinkle across the back hip in the first fitting?  I tried all kinds of things to get rid of that; letting out the side seam, unpicking the waistband and pulling the pants up, but nothing worked, until I saw something in Patternmaking for Fashion Design by Helen Joseph-Armstrong (which is one of my all-time favorite sewing books, expensive but worth it, I asked for it for Christmas one year).  It was one of my cousin’s textbooks at FIT in San Fransisco, and it shows you how to draft a pattern for just about anything you could ever want to make, plus all kinds of construction techniques.  It’s designed more for the fashion industry that for home sewers, and there’s not a lot about fitting, so I guess it says something that there is a section on pants fitting, where I found an illustration of a similar wrinkle with this note, “insufficient dart intake for dominant buttocks.”  That’s not how I’d like to think about my derriere, but the part about the dart totally worked!  I had been leaving that dart alone since I fit it in the last pants, but clearly it’s not a good idea to start think of any part of the fit as “finished” when I am changing the rest.

 

purple cords back

 

purple cords edgestitching

 

I used my edge stitching foot for the first line of top stitching (with a size 100 topstitching needle, moving the needle slightly to the left), and it worked great!  It was much easier to get an even stitching line with that little guide riding right on the edge.  I am now trying to figure out how I can use a similar guide for for the second line of topstitching, further to the inside..  Anyone know of a foot like that?  I used two colors topstitching and I really like it, one pair of Bryan’s jeans has that look and I decided to try it out.

 

purple cords inside

 

I trimmed a bit of the waistband lining before applying the rayon ribbon to the bottom edge, next time I’ll trim a bit more, but I like this finish.

If the legs look a bit long, I left them that way on purpose.  I keep noticing that the hems of cotton pants tend to creep up just a bit over time with washing, usually after I fix them just how I want them.  I’m not sure what the shrinkage of hemp is, but if these don’t get any shorter after a while I can always hem them up a bit more.

By the way, the above shot of the inside waist is probably the closest I got to the actual color, for some reason this purple seems to be hard to capture.

That’s about it, I guess, unless of course you want to talk some more about sewing, body image, and the power of DIY, etc. . . . if you see me around, I’ll be wearing these pants, and feeling happy!

 

tasha in purple cord pants