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Process Art Projects for Mixed Ages

Since the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic hit the U.S. in mid-March, I’ve been home with my kids trying to make the best of a bad situation. For our family, that has meant making things. At first I was energized by the unexpected gift of extra time with them, stepping out of our usual routine and into long, fluid days at home. We went weeks without ever getting in the car. I turned to one of my favorite books a lot during this time, The Arful Parent by Jean Van’t Hul, picking out a handful of projects to try during the week and hunting down any missing supplies in our Buy Nothing group or online.

But as weeks turned into months, and the world bent under the weight of a virus that seems intent on staying a while, our creative pace began to change. In part because my energy began to go toward growing a new tiny human, finishing the school term, and planning a big move– and in part because we are adjusting to a more long-term new pace of life.

Now, for the past week, we have been entirely indoors due to toxic air in Portland. We thank God we did not have to evacuate from the devastating wildfires that have ripped through Oregon forests and communities. The smoke has been terrible. Even with the two indoor air purifiers we are lucky to have, my lungs feel constricted after a week of breathing air that registers off the AQI charts. It has been scary and sad to wake up to skies made white and brown with thick, dense fog and smoke, a reckoning of all that humans have done to bring this on ourselves and a harbinger of the future to come, if we don’t make drastic changes.

We spent a few days in our pajamas watching endless movies and obsessively checking the news. For me, though, what keeps me sane is to pick up our routine again, reduce screen time all around, and try to do things that make us feel good. A simple healthy meal from a recipe we haven’t tried yet. Putting on an old CD and dancing in the living room. Snuggling in the big bed with a pile of books. And making things.

In general, what I’ve noticed is that we are planning less, and finding our own ways to practice simple creativity alongside one another. Making things together has become part of our daily routines, just as I’d hoped it would be, but through a wildly different set of circumstances than I ever could have imagined.

This seems to be the way many things have unfolded this year: unexpected and long-awaited changes, glimmers of hope, taking painful shape alongside worry and fear. Blessings are almost always mixed, and I’ve come to embrace the changes in our family’s daily rhythm even as I mourn the thousand losses, big and small, that have come with them.

Handmade needle book and hand-sewing kit

Before the fires, and before our move, I started a course in mindful sewing, and started bringing my hand-sewing kit out to the backyard in the afternoon, trying to stitch a row or two on a project while my kids ate popsicles and splashed in the wading pool. I set out chalk and paintbrushes, or set up their easel outside with some diluted finger paints, and let them find their way to creating when they felt like it.

And they have. My daughter tends to gravitate toward her special case of gel pens, her colored pencils, and her stash of scratch paper at different times during the day. She has filled a plastic tote with colorful sketches of people, especially mommies with babies in their tummies, and ladies in full skirts and high heels. I gather up her stack of drawings at the end of the day and smile at how her work has progressed, over time, from big monochromatic scrawls to multi-colored scenes with more and more detail. (I often recycle a lot of her sketches because she is drawing more than we can keep!) At first light this morning I heard her tiptoe out of her room and found her sitting in her jammies at her little table, rummaging through her pencil case to draw before anyone else was up. For all that I worry about the impact of this year on my kids, I’m delighted to see the ways in which it is helping her nurture an inner creative life, all on her own.

My son invariably chooses a plastic butter knife, a large plastic yogurt tub of multi-colored homemade playdough, and an assortment of other objects: little cars, rocks, large beads or blocks. His experiments skew heavily toward the sensory. He also knows where our box of Do-a-Dots is kept, and when he sees his sister or me at work on our own projects, he proudly goes to get his own supplies and sets up alongside us. He likes to practice taking the tops on and off these washable paint pens as much as he enjoys making bold, loud splotches of color on paper. Sometimes he combines the two activities and experiments with coloring on the playdough.

Maybe you have small children and are experiencing a bewildering mix of emotions as you move into the school year. My daughter is starting kindergarten, and even though I’m sad she won’t have the experience I had imagined for her, I know I’m incredibly lucky to have the privilege of homeschooling her and her brother. I’ve stopped freelance writing and am taking a year off from school to focus on them and have this baby. I know so many parents who are facing the impossible challenge of trying to work a full-time job while supervising distance-learning. In our own ways, we are all trying to survive. If making things together is part of how you cope, here are some snapshots of some inexpensive creative activities we have liked, some that take a little extra planning and some that just take a few minutes. Use whatever is helpful here and leave the rest.

Glue resist/”batik” painting on muslin superhero capes

Building a recycled village with cereal and milk boxes

Salad spinner art on paper plates

Painted cardboard robots with Make Do cardboard build kit

Painting sugar cookies with frosting “paint” and paintbrushes

Painting with cars and trucks

 

Dear Baby

June 5, 2020

Dear Baby,

Sometimes I think I know your name. Those are happy moments when I trust you are alive and healthy in there, your little heart still beating as I saw on the dark screen three weeks ago now, such an impossibly small but undeniable claim, I am here.

I discovered you were there on Earth Day, about a week after I had unexpectedly spent several days unable to keep anything down. You were a secret I carried with me for a few days, just the two of us aware that you were there. Not planned, but not unplanned, either. A sweet reminder of hope, renewal, possibility.

You don’t do it on purpose, but you bring that reminder with a heavy dose of all-day nausea and fatigue. At ten weeks today, I’ve been sick for about six weeks now, and it’s been hard. Especially as the pandemic goes on, and painful old structures get torn apart in hearts and in the streets, and there’s so much I want to give my energy to. Mercifully the days still pass as they always have, and with each morning we’re getting closer to the time when the sickness might finally subside.

There was a baby who came between your two older siblings, who only stuck around about this long. I felt this sick every day that baby was with us, so the nausea doesn’t reassure me much that you’re okay in there. I am trying to keep hopeful, to steer back toward trust when my mind starts to veer into worry. I want to trust God and to trust you, that your spirit has its own course and you will do what you came here to do, for as long you’re meant to be here. I want to believe in your life, as Sophfronia Scott writes so  beautifully. I don’t want to choose to believe in death.

Yesterday we put an offer in on a home we really love. I can imagine you and your brother and sister playing in the big yard with its wildflowers, long driveway, and tall trees. Carrying you and carrying my hope feels a little like that– walking through empty rooms and letting my heart move in. Your crib in our room at first, a baby gate at the top of the steep stairs, the Moses basket downstairs so I can put you down while I fold laundry or break up a squabble between your siblings. I arrange these things like a dollhouse, knowing none of it is certain. Motherhood has taught me nothing ever is. Each of us is a miracle hidden in plain sight.

Love,

Your mama

August 5, 2020

Dear baby,

Two months have gone by since I last wrote. I can feel your little feet or hands fluttering low in my belly. Every time I feel this fish-like swirl, I catch my breath and let amazement and gratitude course through me all over again. I am so glad you are still here with us. 18 weeks going on 19! It seems like too much goodness. I am still practicing believing in it, believing in you. Last week we closed on our new home– a different one than I’d thought, but the right one for us, I hope. It feels surreal that so much of what I’d imagined for so long seems to be taking shape. Hidden inside, somehow your little bones, muscles, skin, and eyelashes are forming. You can hear me singing now. Maybe you can even hear your big brother say, “Hello, bey-bee? You in dare?” as he does every morning, climbing into bed next to me and laying his little ear on my belly. Your sister wants to name you Lemon, Peaches, Jane, or Lindsay. At least she’s got all her bases covered.

At our new home, we are ripping out 60-year-old carpet and asking for advice on polishing and sealing the hardwood underneath. We are limbing trees, uprooting ivy and holly, and removing overgrown rhododendrons and shrubs that block the light from the windows. I imagine carrying you into these rooms in December or January, gray months when we will need all the light we can get.

The truth is, we need all the light we can get right now, in high summer. The virus is still taking too many lives, and the social change we desperately need is still slow in coming, with plenty of cruelty on its heels. The government of the country where you will be born seems more hell-bent than ever on protecting property and capital over human lives– but the truth is this has always been the case. Truth and light are not easy to take in, but they are as vital as clean air, food, and water. I always imagined I’d provide much more than that for you and your siblings, but lately my prayers are that simple, that tinged with fear. I pray that you and I and our family will survive the virus as it continues to rage this fall and winter, and that there will be enough of a planet for you to live on when you’re my age. I pray that we all make it until you’re my age, and then some.

But I am not sorry you’re coming, not sorry we brought your brother and sister into the world. Whatever comes, I don’t want to ever regret choosing you three, and I pray that you will never regret your births, either. I pray that you will each do with your life what you’re meant to do, and that you’ll get to be who you’re meant to be. I pray that my mothering makes that possible. I love you already baby girl.

Love,

Mama

August 20, 2020

Dear Baby,

On the grainy gray screen in the dim room, you open and close your tiny mouth, move your hands (five little fingers!) toward your mouth, cross and uncross and kick your legs. Your heart’s four chambers open and close rapidly, like the bellows of a bull frog’s bright yellow throat, in the pond where I take your siblings on cool mornings. Your body is as real and whole as any being in the natural world. Mostly unseen and quiet, your little life hums away.

The ultrasound technician calls you a cooperative baby. She takes her one hundred pictures in record time. She says she sees nothing that concerns her, that you are active and healthy and well. I feel like the richest woman in the world. It is 7:30 in the morning and I have been asked three times for my name and birth date, had my temperature checked twice, submitted to the eye-watering tickle of a Covid-19 nasal swab, all to be cleared for this chance to witness your shape on the screen. I see your skeleton, your profile, the innermost shapes of your organs– all of this an intimacy that feels invasive, excessive, but that nonetheless gives me goosebumps.

You’re really in there.

You’re really a little person, sent to us, mysteriously meant for us. Waiting to emerge into the waiting world. I don’t remember feeling this way with your siblings. This baffled, this late in the game. Still surprised, at 21 weeks, more than halfway through pregnancy, that we’re actually going to meet you, and welcome a brand new person into the insular world of our family. Our world that has grown even more insular these last six months, circumscribed by an unseen virus and the ever-changing borders of its reach, as we map the strange new reality we live in.

In just a few days, we’ll pack up the rest of our belongings and move everything to our new home. It isn’t far, not even over the county line, but it feels definitive in a way all of our previous moves haven’t. This is a home with the big backyard we always pictured for our family, well before we even pictured you. There’s a Norway maple with a thick limb perfect for hanging a swing, a sweep of firs at the top of the drive, rabbits that come to peer, curious, from the overgrown berry bushes at the back of the property whenever we visit. Already your brother and sister know to kick off their shoes, and run barefoot through the soft grass and shade. I picture you learning to walk and then run with them, and pray that we’ll get to watch you all grow up there.

There’s been grief, loss, worry, and stress in these early months of your budding life. Knowing you are there has brought us light and joy. We can’t wait to bring you home.

Love,

Mama

#100dayproject: Make your own bias tape for handmade masks

Checking in on my #100dayproject and wanted to share this handy trick I learned for making 1/2″ double fold bias tape, which works well for mask ties. I’m following instructions for three sizes of masks using this tutorial, which calls for a tie about the width and length of a shoelace. For me, that has meant I need a finished tie about 1/4″ wide and 36″-50″ long (longer for men’s masks, shorter for women’s and children’s.) Most elastic and cording is sold out online, and now even pre-packaged bias tape is getting hard to find. So, I’ve had to get resourceful and teach myself a new skill.

Here’s a quick tutorial of sorts for making your own bias tape with a DIY bias tape maker. All you need is a straight pin and an iron. My photos aren’t pretty but hopefully they’re useful.

Step 1: Cut 1″ strips of fabric from a section between 36″-50″ long. For true bias tape, you would cut these strips diagonally (on the bias) to give the tape more stretch. Bias tape is usually used to cover hems and edges, so it needs flexibility. For this purpose, stretch isn’t as important, so I’ve gotten more use from my fabric by cutting with the grain. I use a cutting mat, straight edge, and rotary cutter to make my strips.

Step 2: Preheat your iron. I got mine for $3 at Goodwill seven years ago. A little steam and some starch are helpful for holding shape. I used a tiny bit of corn starch, because, $3 iron. Press a short section of the 1″ strip in half lengthwise, so that the width is now 1/2″. (Tiny hand of my 2-year-old “helper” sneaking into the frame.)

Step 3: Open this section and then fold each side in to meet the center crease. Iron this down again. Your fabric strip is now 1/2″ wide, with each side folded inward measuring 1/4″.

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Step 4: Here is the cool part. Get a straight pin and work it into your ironing board fabric so that it comes out just beside the top of your bias tape. Insert it again as close to the bottom edge of the bias tape as possible, and thread it through your ironing board fabric again. You want to create a little “buckle” with the pin, and you want it to hold the bias tape as near to each edge as possible. If that makes no sense, have a look at the picture.

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Step 5: You’ve just created a DIY bias tape maker. Now you can run your tape through the “buckle” you’ve created with the pin, ironing it down on one side as you pull it through. Use one hand to iron and the other to guide the fabric through the buckle. You will have to work it a little with your fingers to make sure each side stays even. You’ll also want to pick the iron up every so often so that you don’t burn a hole in your ironing board!

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Step 6: To turn your finished bias tape into a 1/4″ tie for your handmade mask, fold the ends of your bias tape under before you fold it in half lengthwise, and stitch straight up the side, close to the edge. Reinforce the ends to keep from fraying. You’re done!

Our Family Art Room

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Making art is a big part of our family rhythm. When Lyle and I met 16 years ago, we connected over a mutual love of making things and celebrating beauty, whether we were reading Robinson Jeffers to each other, putting together elaborate pizza toppings, or collaborating on a handmade book project. When we got married and started imagining a home and how we wanted to raise our kids, we both pictured a big wild garden, and a dedicated area for making art.

So when our youngest graduated from crib to toddler bed this past fall, we decided it was time to move our kids into one bedroom and convert our third bedroom into a family art room. I found inspiration in The Artful Parent, a book I’m turning to frequently as we navigate the stay-at-home order. Our art room is definitely a work in progress, but we are all pleased to have a special space where art supplies are easily accessible– for better or worse. Our two-year-old has his own ideas about what accessibility means!

I thought I’d do a little virtual tour and think through some of the areas that still need improvement.

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Art cabinet

We love this little cupboard! It’s a 20s-era sideboard we found on Facebook Marketplace. For many months, it lived in our living room/kitchen area, since we tend to do many of our messier, supervised projects at the kitchen table. What we love:  It’s beautiful and functional. We wanted a way to store our art supplies that would be easy for our kids to navigate independently, yet also had a few inaccessible drawers for things like scissors, glue, and small beads. We also wanted it to work with our living room furniture, and it does because it’s petite! There are four of us living in our home– a modest 1,050 square feet, with no garage and minimal storage– and that’s small considering the average American home is 2,435 sq ft! I also love the handprint ceramic plates above it. These are Lyle’s, Sky’s, and my handprints when we were each two years old! We just need to add Robin’s little hand. Things to improve: Because of its small size, we really need to stay on top of what supplies we use often, what needs to be refreshed, and what can be stored elsewhere. I find myself doing most of that invisible labor. Recently I did a big clean-out, recycled some items we’ve pretty much used up, and kept only the most-used items in the cupboard. I stored extra supplies and things like the glue gun and salad spinner (for spin art!) on a rolling cart in the closet. I’m hoping that my most recent clean-out will make it easy for the kids to do clean-up. To be continued!

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Kids’ art table

This was an IKEA purchase we’re happy with, a craft table that can grow with the kids and comes with a dowel for butcher paper rolls. The bench is just wide enough for both kids to sit at, but that usually comes with a lot of shoving. We tend to have the kids stand to share the space when working on a group project. More often than that, I like to set it up with a few supplies (what unschoolers would call “strewing”) for one child to discover in between activities. I might set out the bin of playdough and tools, or some interesting bits of paper and a basket of crayons and tape. I like that Sky can come in and draw during quiet time, while I’m sewing or cutting out a pattern. As much as I had hoped it would become our main crafting area, we often still set up at the kitchen table, because it’s easier for Lyle and I to supervise their work.

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Gallery wall

Lyle hung two pieces of picture hanging wire from bolts. I bought some inexpensive binder clips at Target, which we keep in a little can on the cabinet.
What we love: It’s easy to hang up finger-paintings to dry, and displaying our kids’ art helps them feel proud of their work.
Things to improve: We just had a family discussion about how to preserve our artwork. I’m happy that Sky was very enthusiastic about the idea of photographing her favorites and having them bound into a special book she can look at– then recycling most of the originals. Lyle did the photographs recently so now I just need to upload them into a Shutterfly book. Then we can recycle most of the originals (we’re keeping some special things like Sky’s first finger painting and first stick figure drawing.)

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Sewing table

When my grandmother moved into assisted living earlier last year, my parents brought up her sewing table and 1960s Kenmore sewing machine. I felt a little sad that my grandma’s sewing days are over. I have so many memories of the table and machine, and sleeping in Grandma’s sewing room in her Gilroy home when I was a little kid. I remember its specific scent: a blend of her perfume, machine oil, and the pervasive undertone of garlic that’s inescapable in the Garlic Capital of the World. I remember her neat little sewing table set up along one wall, beneath a print of Vermeer’s The Lacemaker, and an impossibly-beautiful wall rack of thread in every color of the rainbow. (#goals). I dreamed of having a sewing room like hers one day and being able to make whatever I wanted.

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What I love: I’m so happy to finally have that space! I love feeling connected to my grandma and my mom when I work at the table. It even smells like my grandma’s perfume! While her Kenmore machine has been restored, and I recently bought a new foot pedal for it, I’m still more comfortable with the simple, user-friendly Janome Home machine Lyle bought me for Christmas 6 years ago. Maybe as I gain experience in sewing, I’ll be able to put her machine to better use.
Things to improve: Nothing! I’m thrilled with the table, being able to sew under the window for natural light, and the extra storage in her sewing bench. I am thinking of finding a little postcard print of The Lacemaker to hang above the table and remind me of Grandma.

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Bookcase/ironing station

This giant wood bookcase has been with us for years. It was a $20 score at one of my favorite local thrift stores. This year, we added a hinging desk to one shelf to try to maximize space. We also cut holes in the back for wires. I had planned to use this as my “office,” but found that it was too cramped for writing or studying. Instead, I set up a card table in a corner of my bedroom, where the light is better and I can spread my books out. I’m now using the fold-out bookshelf desk for ironing. Things I love: It’s a handy place to store the iron when not in use, and keep sharp tools safely out of reach of curious little hands. Things to improve: I’m liking this alternative use so far, but still finding it a little cramped/less than ideal. I can imagine bringing in a larger table for cutting and ironing, with some wall-mounted shelves above for fabric, tools, and books.

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Closet and fabric storage

This was the area most in need of help, and in writing this post I had a burst of energy one night and reorganized it. All of our closets are designed terribly, with most of the space shadowy and hard to reach. We stick most of our deep-storage items in these “black hole” areas, and that leaves just a small area for frequently-used things like our filing cabinet, food dehydrator, gift-wrap, and all of my fabric. I was storing extra fabric and scrap bag in the rolling cart, but I repurposed that for art storage. We also went through the deep-storage items and relocated them to Lyle’s shop, which serves as our  extra storage facility. What I love: I hung my fabric on hangers and I love how easy it is now to see what I have and keep it pressed. Things to improve: I’d like to build some shelves above the rolling cart.

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Dress-up corner

This little corner is left over from when the space was the nursery, with a Montessori-style floor mirror (currently covered in Crayola window marker.) We are using it as a dress-up area for our fashion-obsessed 5-year-old. I bought this inexpensive cardboard-and-fabric chest at Target, and it juuuust fits our growing collection of dress-up clothes.

That’s the tour! I’m so grateful we have an art room, especially as we’ve adjusted to the stay-at-home order. Making things together keeps us active and connected, even when the process is messy or frustrating or the finished thing doesn’t quite match our expectations (most of the time.) I’m looking forward to sharing some of our favorite projects in future posts.

#100dayproject + Sewing

Sewing is something I’ve been drawn to since I was little, when my mom often sewed clothing and Halloween costumes for my sister and me, and even for our dolls. I was always in awe (and still am) of her patience, creativity, and polish as a seamstress, and in hindsight I wish I had been able to learn more from her when I was younger. We have been making up for lost time each time she visits. In September we finished a shift dress in an ice cream cone fabric (called Social from Ruby Star) for my daughter that I’d been working on for months. As you can see, I felt pretty triumphant.

Though I enjoy sewing and have always had dreams of sewing for my own kids,  I’ve struggled to make time to do it. Mothering, writing, and studying have combined to make for a full life, and that hasn’t changed during the pandemic. If anything, my days feel even fuller, with both kids home with me full-time, instead of at preschool or with a babysitter a few days a week.

So when I heard about the 100 Day Project, I decided to join in. It felt good to think about doing a little bit of sewing each day, as a way to practice being present and feeling joyful during an anxious time. It gave me the energy I needed to go through my stack of projects, clean up my sewing table, and think about what small steps I could take each day to make progress. It’s been a lot of fun so far, and I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve been able to make in just two weeks.

Since I’m no longer on Instagram, I thought I’d share a little of what I work on here. Here’s my first project.

Baby Bonnet Project + Extra Steps

I found this simple baby bonnet pattern on Pinterest and wanted to make one for my friend’s sister, Amy, who is expecting her third baby girl any day now. I chose a lavender Robert Kaufmann “Blueberry Park” cotton with coordinating white lining from Cool Cottons, my favorite small fabric store in Portland. (They are offering online ordering and porch pickup, and also ship within the U.S.)

I loved the simplicity of the pattern and tutorial. As a sewing beginner, though, I also felt that many steps were left out. So I decided to take pictures of those steps as I went along, crossing my fingers the bonnet would turn out.

Visit the original tutorial over at Simple Simon and Co., and if you feel confused (like I did) I hope these additional steps will help:

Pin two of the ribbons to the lower two corners, then scoot them out of the way before pinning the lining piece to the outside fabric. You’re just trying to catch the two ribbons at the corners when you sew around the two pieces. These two ribbons will become the ties that go under baby’s chin (a little hard to see in the tutorial photos.)

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When you turn the bonnet inside out, it should look like this. The lower part is left open, and there is a straight seam around the other three sides. I also clipped the corners before turning it out to help it lay flat.

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Next the tutorial says to turn the open side toward the lining and stitch across the edges (looks like they use a Serger, but you could use a zig zag stitch on a regular sewing machine) to form a casing for the ribbon. This is going to form the back of the bonnet, when you insert ribbon and cinch it into a half circle. Though you’re not going to see the hem when baby is wearing the bonnet, I thought the raw edge looked sloppy and worried about unraveling. So, I took out about 1/2″ of the side seams at the opening, turned under each edge 1/4″ and pressed before turning both edges to the lining side. I then used a straight stitch to form the casing. I just thought it looked a bit more polished and only took a few extra minutes.

Finally, the tutorial says to insert your ribbon into the casing with a safety pin, and cinch to create the back of the bonnet (so cute!). I ended up cutting a much longer piece for this third ribbon, at about 32″ rather than 18″. I used 7/8″ white grosgrain ribbon, and found that after threading the 18″ ribbon through, the safety pin made noticeable holes in the ribbon. I also didn’t have enough ribbon on either side to form a cute bow. At 32″ I had enough extra to cut off the safety-pin-holes and tie a sweet bow. I also elected to use a bit of Stop Fraying glue at all four raw edges of ribbon.

Here’s the final project! I love it and I hope Amy does, too.

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And Saturday

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photo: lyle poulin

Like a lot of families, we have been starting seeds indoors. Delicate lettuce and nettle on the windowsill, sturdier basil, squash, and sunflowers on the back porch. With the quieter, slower pace of life during the pandemic, we have time to witness their growth. After very minimal effort on our part, after a week of watering and no sign of change, we start to notice the first movements of the first seeds, a barely perceptible shift from darkness into light.

It is the Saturday before Easter. In the chronology of the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection, Saturday is the and. Limbo time. Liminal. It is the day between two starkly different days. Between the painful, terrible truth of the death of a controversial, radically loving man, at the hands of the people he came to liberate, and the impossible, mysterious transformation of that death into supernatural forgiveness, into eternal life for him, and the promise of the same for everyone who chooses to take on the work of loving bravely and sacrificially.

On Good Friday, the man Jesus is put to death– his body hung on a cross, murdered, and buried in a cave, with a heavy stone rolled over the entrance. On Easter Sunday, his body is mysteriously absent from that tomb, and all kinds of strange, inexplicable things happen. He appears to his followers, not as an apparition but in his body– a changed body, but human flesh and blood nonetheless– to tell them to get up, to celebrate, because he is not dead but more alive than ever. And it just gets weirder and better from there. The whole story of Christianity begins there, on Easter Sunday when Christ rose from the dead.

But Saturday? Saturday is dark. Saturday is the heavy dark silence of the tomb, the feeling of no escape, no exit. Saturday is an eternity without Easter. Saturday is the finality of death, is death as the last word.

It strikes me that we are living in Saturday times. The pandemic feels like Holy Saturday on repeat. A Groundhog Day of in-between, of and, where death is the only thing that feels certain. It feels even more necessary, and even more difficult, to hope for Easter this year.

I think of my church, where I haven’t been since Christmas. In the Episcopal tradition, the cross is covered with cloth during Holy Week. We try to suspend our knowledge of the rest of the story. Having sung our last Alleluia the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, and with the Lenten season almost behind us, our mouths are parched with its absence. In years past, on Sunday after Sunday before Easter, I have had to stop myself from sliding easily into that familiar word, and so by Holy Saturday my whole body feels like it is leaning forward, at the edge of my seat, waiting for the word to flower on all of our tongues. At midnight, the Easter vigil marks the transition from death to new life, and with sunrise, Easter’s promise breaks through with light in the darkness. Alleluia: Praise the Lord. Joy and triumph.

Christians living after the crucifixion have the benefit of knowing this promise. We know the whole story at the outset: that inside of darkness there is light, inside of despair there is joy. This is the human story, the paradox of great suffering existing alongside great love, that Jesus came to offer us. But on Saturday, in Jesus’s time, his friends and followers didn’t yet know this.

So on Holy Saturday, we practice that not-knowing. And it is terrible. For me, it’s really hard to sink into that knowing, to allow myself to feel that bleakness, that absence of escape from the tomb. This year, it feels less like an intellectual exercise, and more of a reckoning with what I feel all around me.

What is the faith of the follower who does not know, has not yet experienced the return of Jesus, Love’s triumph over death? What did it feel like to be Mary Magdalene in the hours before sunrise? She does not yet know that when she goes to the tomb, she will find the huge stone moved from the entrance, the whole cave flooded with light, empty.

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photo: lyle poulin

So it is called Black Saturday, Joyful Saturday, Holy Saturday, Great Sabbath. And, and, and. All of these in one.

I feel like I am always, despite my meager prayers and my best efforts, the follower who does not yet know. Only in my most private moments of despair have I felt what I think of as Love breaking through, something I don’t think even approaches what I imagine Mary Magdalene must have felt when she saw the empty tomb and later her beloved teacher again. The certainty she must have felt with her body, canceling out her mind’s disbelief. I feel like most of the time I live my life inside of and, in limbo. My mind constantly fighting my body’s knowing that Love is alive and waits for me.

Inside this dark, endless Saturday of the pandemic, I struggle to make any movements toward faith. My prayers are wordless. My doubt and fear take up most of the space; keeping my hands busy and being present for my kids fills in the rest. The most I can do is try to keep a small space open in my heart for the possibility of Love’s return. I want so much to believe that life triumphs over death, but it’s hard to do. As it must have eventually become, even for Mary, once the shock wore off. Even after you see it, feel it, know it, it remains difficult to hold onto, because we are human.

So even though we are always in need of Easter, always in need of God’s mercy for our failures and mistakes, and the reassurance that we belong in Love, I feel it more deeply this year. I’m not even sure what that means at the literal level of the mind. It just feels like my body is leaning more heavily toward Alleluia, like my eyes can’t get enough of the sight of seeds sending out green shocks of light, breaking loose through dark soil.

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Silver Linings and Giant Dark Clouds

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Last night I had a good long talk with a dear friend over a glass of wine and Google Hangouts. I am still savoring the warm feeling of connection, and gratitude for our friendship. Among other things, we talked about the rollercoaster of emotion we are all riding, and grappling with the challenge of feeling all of it.

She shared something writer and Zen Buddhist Natalie Goldberg talks about in reference to another emotional rollercoaster, one that my friend and I know much better than the current virus-powered one: writing. The act of creating something can also open our hearts and bodies to the full range of human emotion. We can feel excitement, curiosity, and desire to make tangible the thing we can see in our mind’s eye. We can also feel anxiety, self-doubt, and even fear. Don’t get swept away, Goldberg says.

It’s a practical bit of advice, as well as a deeply profound, lifelong practice. It is perhaps the practice, for Buddhists and for people who practice mindfulness meditation. For writers, when our purpose is to create something, the practice is to hear the unhelpful voices of fear, anxiety, and doubt, and then gently dismiss them to focus on setting down the next word. Word by word, we make sentences and then paragraphs.

This is hard work. This is often unpleasant work. Most of the time, for me anyway, it doesn’t feel the way I think “meditative” should feel. It feels like digging away in the dark, tunneling into places I didn’t expect to find, and letting go of the places where I thought my writing was leading. For me this is the work of the creative Spirit alive in me, and I write because it is thrilling to participate with it, even though it mostly feels terrible at the time. When a piece of writing is gestating in me, I can get broody as a hen, grumpy and distracted if I don’t have or make the time to write, whether because I am afraid or just busy with the daily tasks of mothering, running a household, studying, and working on freelance projects.

Right now I am brooding over an essay that has been with me for years– as the seed of an idea, grit turned over in my thoughts over the course of weeks and months, and then smoothed into a sudden rush of words that now sit in a Word document on my computer. It is something about empathy, and fear, and not getting swept away, and how strange and difficult that becomes during certain tides of life.

This writing project and its questions have resurfaced with the pandemic. I find myself reflecting, during the day, on the shape and edges of empathy and compassion. I’m wondering how to witness my own and others’ emotions as we adjust each day to a new layer of information and questioning over all that remains unknown. How can I do this without getting swept away? Maybe the practice is to notice when I am getting swept away, and then clamber back to shore again.

There’s a lot of writing out there right now about grief, and how we are each allowed to be in this time in our own way, and how grief is a nonlinear and cyclical experience. I am no stranger to grief, and one thing I know about it is that it can become all-consuming. It can become difficult to recognize yourself within its grasp. It can start to feel as if grief is all there is, and all there ever will be.

What I know of grief is how it moves in me, and that is necessarily different from the way it moves in others. There is no “right way” to do it. I am trying to remember how I wanted to be spoken to when lost in grief. I think the words I needed were very few. Maybe no more than, I hear you, I am with you, I love you, You are strong even in your fear and your pain. I am not sure I even needed to hear I am sorry for your pain, or This too shall pass.

My friend and I went on to discuss what it was about the phrase silver linings that so grates on the senses, and we decided it was more than just its overuse. It’s the subtle forcefulness of the image, the way it requires focus on only the beauty of the possibility of light. The language itself asks us to entirely ignore the big dark cloud between us and the light.

Right now it feels like many of us are asking if it is okay to see and feel both, particularly those of us who hold more privilege, live in wealthier countries, and find ourselves spending a lot of time at home managing anxiety and fear, our own and that of the people we love. Can we appreciate the moments of light that shift through this oppressive dark cloud, without denying the cloud’s existence– the reality of the virus, all the lives it has taken, and all we still don’t know? Can we accept that in some ways light and darkness require each other, give each other shape– without suggesting that the darkness is good? How can we hold all of these contradictory emotions in our hearts and bodies?

In the wake of the sudden shift, in my state, from monitoring the virus elsewhere to the sweeping changes of a stay-at-home order, I’ve struggled to find the capacity to witness others’ grief and fear, for fear of getting swept into it. Perhaps because the virus’s arrival stateside came on the heels of a major mental health emergency in the life of one of my loved ones, I found myself with almost nothing in reserve. To heap more worry over things I could not control, onto the already mountainous pile in my life, threatened to break me, and I could not risk breaking, because I have children to care for. As a result, I feel I am failing some of my friends in their time of need for compassionate witness, because I often feel I don’t have the strength.

I’m working to find that strength, in a way that feels healthy. Maybe it’s finding a deeper, wider strength that doesn’t live in my body– the strength of faith, for lack of a more precise word. I will admit to fear about feeling fear, that Depression-era relic, which is somewhat new to me. While ordinarily I don’t shy away from heavier emotions, these days I find myself clinging more tightly to the light. Where I once felt shame for finding joy during hard times (and it’s always hard times, for someone, somewhere,) right now I am treasuring those moments, even seeking them– whether that’s in the mundane beauty of daily life with small children, or while taking in news from the global community, looking for stories that detail the unexpected and the resiliently human.

My son recently discovered dandelions, and his big sister has been teaching him how to blow the tiny seeds, attached to their parachutes of fluff, into the air. His whole face lights up when he spots one in the grass, during our walks to the park when there’s a break in the rain. (While playgrounds are closed, public parks are still open, for now, in Oregon.) His joy over the flowers makes me smile, and his sister’s tenderness with him. Meanwhile, the empty streets remind me that this is no ordinary day, and the dandelion seeds make me think of how the virus spreads, carried on breath and air.

Both are real, the light and the dark. When we get swept away again, I want to practice saying to you and to myself:

I hear you.
I am with you.
I love you.
You are strong even in your fear and your pain
.

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A few stories:

The 50-year-old hermit who knows a thing or two about social distancing
How the U.S. fought tuberculosis using community-based public health strategies
Rebecca Solnit on how disaster shakes loose old power structures

 

 

 

For Now

Maybe all the Frozen 2 has gotten to me. Our nearly-five-year-old is as Elsa-obsessed as the next little kid, and we’ve had both soundtracks on repeat since December, with accelerated listening as the pandemic has grown. Even our 2-year-old, who is barely speaking in sentences, can confidently bust out with “Let it go! Let it gooooo….”

But it’s the quiet song in the next film, “The Next Right Thing,” that I keep returning to, every day in this limbo world of the pandemic. (Is it stuck in your head now, too? Sorry/not sorry.) I’m not on social media, I check the news once in the morning and once in the evening, and I delete most of the daily deluge of “how we’re responding to COVID” emails.

Maybe it sounds cheesy but right now the most I can do is the next right thing. All I can control is how I respond right now, using my best understanding of the information that’s available in this moment.

What good will it do me to wonder what if, what’s next, how long? I’m trying to figure out how to get through the next hour without fear clamping its tight, sweaty hands around my throat. With a chronic illness I’ve just barely gotten a handle on that is triggered by stress and anxiety, it’s a matter of survival, for me, to learn how to choose not to dwell on things I can’t control.

I get that not everyone has that luxury, and I am grateful to the trained professionals who make “What if” and “How long” their daily work. As a whole, at the level of city, state, and national leadership, we do need to ask those questions in order to end the pandemic.

But as an individual, as a student and the mother of two young children, my main job is to stay healthy and sane enough to keep going, and help my family stay healthy and sane. I’ll even be as bold as to hope we might still thrive in spite of the dramatic changes to our daily lives. If “What if” has a role in my life right now, it needs to be one that serves my little family, and supports those goals.

What if we feel our fear and our sadness alongside joy at the beauty of the spring day outside, alongside our pleasure at seeing the familiar faces of preschool friends on the laptop screen? What if we notice when we’re getting grumpy and say it out loud, stomp our feet together until we’re laughing, and ask for an extra hug? What if we make it a habit to do something little and nice for someone every day, and see how it makes us feel? What if we don’t feel like getting out of bed, but we get up and get dressed anyway?

Today we begin week two of… what do we call it? Self-quarantine, sheltering in place, social-distancing? Oregon just made it official this morning, but my family’s been sheltering in place for a week now. I’m working and going to school remotely, while home with the kids, and my husband goes to work in his shop. (He runs a small manufacturing business that can thankfully still practice under the new guidelines.) Occasionally we have shouted conversations with the neighbor across the street. We take giant steps to the side when we pass people on the path at the park up the street. And we make daily Facetime, Hangouts, and Zoom dates with friends and family across the city and around the country. It’s working okay for now, but I definitely have moments of overwhelm, every day. It’s challenging sometimes to stay in touch when we mostly, of course, talk about what’s happening related to the pandemic.

Today is week two, but it’s also noon. So my kids and I check the daily schedule we taped to the wall, to give us something to anchor to, stay grounded when the bottom has dropped out from under us. It’s just a colorful piece of computer paper, with drawings my kids can “read,” and a paperclip on the side that my daughter can slide down to the next activity on the list. This morning we’ve had free play, some movement (yoga), and outdoor play (backyard sandbox digging and a walk around the block.) At noon, it’s time to clean up toys, wash hands again, and help make lunch. Then we’ll rest and do some coloring or painting, and head outside again to pull weeds or work on the snap pea trellis up in the garden.

Although this age range has its own challenges, I’m mostly grateful that my kids are young, and we’re not worried about keeping the on track academically. I am trying to keep them from asking me 10,009 times a day if it’s time to eat a snack or watch a show. I’m trying to keep myself from losing it.

There are so many ways to move through the impossible. This is what’s helping us, for now. It has been a helpful reminder when we don’t know what to do. All we can do is the next right thing.

Little Idea Bank

Art Activities, Week 1, from The Artful Parent, by Jean Van’t Hul
Monday: Paint a Song; Q-Tip pointillism
Tuesday: Draw cars and houses, mail to friends, ask them to draw people and mail back
Wednesday: Fingerpaint and cut out a banner
Thursday: Bake teddy bear bread for dinner
Friday: Make and play with homemade playdough

Movement
Ride bikes and scooters
Jazzercise on demand
Yoga Together! by Elizabeth Jouane
Good Morning yoga flow on YouTube

Stories and Reading
Fairytales on Storynory
The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Audible or Libby versions)
Red House, Tree House, Itty Bitty Brown Mouse, by Jane Godwin

Free Play
Hape Quadrilla Marble run
Alphabet foam mat

 

Libraries Foster Connection and Community Resilience: Speaking to Support Portland’s Library Bond

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Today the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to refer a library expansion bond measure to the November 2020 ballot. Along with thirteen other Portland residents, I had the pleasure of participating in a period of public comment before the referral was put to a vote. This is the three-minute statement I spent weeks writing and whittling down.

I wasn’t the only speaker who got a little choked up sharing my story of love for our library system with the very sympathetic board, all of whom seemed ready to vote “aye” even before hearing public comments. The board room was packed with people of all stripes, passionate about supporting and improving the library. One speaker’s family has had five generations use and enjoy the Belmont branch.

Our library system is one of the most-used in the nation, but ranks 102nd in square footage. Officially made a tax-supported public library in 1902, most branches were built in the early 20th century, designed to accommodate an early 20th century population we have since overwhelmingly outpaced. My family has been regularly  turned away from packed event rooms at storytime due to overcrowding, and after one of several such experiences I reached out to the Library Foundation to ask how I might get involved in efforts to fund expansion. They responded with kindness and generosity, and invited me to participate in supporting this bond measure by sharing our story.

What a thrill to participate in this local part of the democratic process. I’ve been hungry for hope and for ways to directly impact decision-making locally, and this morning fed my soul. I can’t wait to vote yes in November.


Chair Kafoury and Commissioners, I am grateful for this chance to speak to you today and ask you to put this bond before voters in November.

I’m a homeowner and the mother of two young children, ages 5 and 2. We live in Lents, one of many neighborhoods in East County experiencing rapid change, not all of it beneficial to the people who live there.

My daughter and I started going to storytime in 2015, when she was 4 months old. Once or twice a week, we walked to the Holgate Library and joined the circle of kids and parents from our neighborhood for stories and songs. Her face lit up whenever we said the word “library.” By preschool, her vocabulary wowed her teachers.

I truly believe we owe her pre-literacy skills to storytime at the library. This free program shaped her because it was easily available to us every week.

Like a good story is more than its plot, and a love of reading is about more than learning letters, storytimes are about more than songs and books. They are about consistency and connection. One of the first names my daughter learned was Juliet, the Holgate children’s librarian who knew her, in turn, by name. These early relationships and exposures matter.

But this magic formula is becoming harder to access at Portland libraries. Since my son was born in 2018, I’ve seen my family and others regularly turned away from storytime due to overcrowding.

One recent morning, after the usual chaos of spilled Cheerios and preschool drop-off, it felt like a minor miracle when my son and I made it to the event room at Holgate— only to find the door closed and a sign saying FULL. As I comforted my son, I was embarrassed to find tears in my own eyes.

But as we walked home that day, I realized I could make this about our small disappointment, or I could see the bigger picture. Over the past few years, I have felt the city changing. Like so many of my neighbors in Lents, I worry for the folks struggling to survive winter in tents and cars. Our city is stretched to capacity, and everywhere we look, we see need.

At the library, though, I see solutions. I see resources made available to people of every age, economic background, race, gender, and ability. I see those resources being heavily, gratefully used.

What if, on that recent day, I had been a first-time library user? A family new to town, curious about storytime? Would I have come back?

I want storytime for EVERYONE. And that’s just one of many library services that Portlanders want and use. The library consistently brings me and my neighbors connection and empowerment. As neighborhoods grow, our library branches need to grow, too.

Give the community a chance to invest in East County libraries like the one my neighbors and I use. Give us a chance to invest in each other.

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Health and Other Worthwhile Things: On The Ecology of Care by Didi Pershouse

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Photo of Green String Farm byLyle Poulin

A few years after finishing my undergraduate degree in creative writing, I apprenticed and worked on small farms, inspired in part by the writing of Wendell Berry. In an interview in one of my favorite magazines at the time, The Sun, Berry had spoken persuasively about the importance of being rooted in community, caring deeply for the land, and cultivating local economies, in an effort to rebuild sustainability for ourselves and our troubled environment. He also gently suggested that the interviewer not get too hung up on the identity of writer, because “there are lots of other worthwhile things you can do.”

This sentence was jarring. It allowed me to admit my frustration in viewing my creative work as my single purpose, and translating that into my sole means of financial support. I felt I wasn’t meant to do just one thing, and yet much of my training and the gist of the popular idea of a “serious” writer pushed me to do just that.

Beyond restlessness and money fears, I also felt hungry for work that would feed me and my neighbors, while addressing some of the dysfunction of modern life that nagged at my consciousness. As I apprenticed at Green String Farm, then worked for non-profit Petaluma Bounty Farm, I got firsthand lessons in growing food using natural process farming.

One of the main tenets of this approach is that to grow truly nutritious food, you need to feed the soil first— and to understand it as a community of microbes, fungi, organic material, and more. Soil health depends on diversity and balance. What a perfect metaphor for my own health! I, too, needed to do a range of “worthwhile things” in order to find balance. In tending the soil, I was tending not just the plants that grew in it, but also my body and spirit. In experiencing the satisfaction of nourishing myself and others, I got a taste of the fulfillment I was looking for.

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Book cover image courtesy of Didi Pershouse

This deeper understanding of the foundations of health is at the heart of a surprising new book: The Ecology of Care: Medicine, Agriculture, Money, and the Quiet Power of Human and Microbial Communities, by Didi Pershouse (Mycelium Books, 2016). Part memoir and part fact-driven analysis of modern farming and medicine, The Ecology of Care describes Pershouse’s gradual shift from her work in private acupuncture, to community acupuncture and advocacy for soil restoration. It’s a beautifully-written, hope-filled prescription for an embrace of community at every level— perhaps our best shot of surviving our climate crisis.

Pershouse draws connections between the soil degradation wrought by the industrial food system, and the harm done to our bodies by industrial medicine. Since “we are what we eat,” there’s a lot of overlap. Over the past century, we’ve shifted from small, diverse farms to profit-driven mono-cropping, and our guts reflect that change. Stripping the topsoil of micronutrients and microbes, and lacing food crops with pesticides and herbicides, we’ve experienced a corresponding loss of microbial diversity in our bodies, and an increase in disease processes related to the ingestion of chemicals. Likewise, as our systems of care shifted from village doctors, midwives, and herbalists to for-profit hospitals and privatized insurance, the cost of care has skyrocketed while quality has plummeted.

But there’s hope.

A re-invigoration of community-based healthcare can decrease costs and increase quality of care, while reducing the vast carbon footprint of an over-reliance on hospitals for basic care. An embrace of farming practices dedicated to creating a “soil carbon sponge” can help harness the excess carbon driving climate change, while restoring soil health.

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Photo by Lyle Poulin

A born scientist and gifted artist, Pershouse is both methodical in her research and emotionally persuasive in her writing. She brings humor and nuance to her discussion of the complicated history described above. In an era of alarmism, Pershouse’s work is refreshing in its commitment to both honesty and optimism. She moderates her appraisal of each system’s failures by offering tangible alternative frameworks, and allowing for emotional responsiveness. These challenges are significant, and Pershouse’s work is sustained by listening partnerships with friends involved in many different aspects of healing. In adopting such a practice for ourselves, healers of all kinds can avoid burnout. We can listen to one another when each of us inevitably reaches a moment of despair, acknowledging that pain before identifying what is working and what to focus on next.

For me, Pershouse’s work picks up where Berry leaves off. As I enter another surprising twist in my career path, The Ecology of Care helps me see how my seemingly-disparate interests—writing, agriculture, and community health— are in fact needfully interconnected.

“Hope is a discipline,” Pershouse writes toward the end of her book. This worthwhile work of restoring our health must be undertaken together, and everyone is invited.