Why I Sew

A couple of things happening at my work this week have got me thinking about the creative impulse—why we do the things we do whether you consider yourself an artist or an amateur or a dabbler or a thinker. What compels us? What propels us? And where does the “thinking about why” come into the process?

It also brings to mind one of my favorite things to write about: death. The following is a re-working of a post I did on my old Mac.com website which no longer exists. I ran across it cleaning out some files and am sprucing it up for a re-post, because it’s popped into my mind several times this week.

I like to think about and write about death, but it’s not morbid, really, I promise. It’s just something I think about a lot because like most people, I’ve been affected by it and, like all people, it’s something that will happen to me someday.

I mean, let’s be blunt. We are all going to die. Some of us too soon. And many of us have already or will have to say goodbye to people in our lives far sooner than we would like.

Contrary to our vampire-obsessed popular culture would have us believe, there’s no such thing as immortality, at least, not in a literal sense.

But, maybe in a creative sense…maybe there’s a little immortality to be had here.

Every time I go home to visit my sister I have a little ritual. At some point during the visit I will find myself alone in my niece’s room (well sometimes she is there with me, but I don’t think she really knows what I am doing) and I start to dig through the oh-so-pink pile of pillows and stuffed animals that keep company on her bed.

Somewhere in there in this pile of dolls and stuffed animals is a little red-and-white patchwork pillow. My brother made it in high school Home Ec class. The batting is all lumpy from age and too many washings and it is a tiny little thing…the size of an American Girl doll’s head maybe. (It often gets used for that purpose these days.)

I like to hold that pillow and examine it…touch the fabric and the stitching and think about my brother’s hands cutting and manipulating the material. I can see the spots where he had to tie off the thread and start anew.

Sadly, the reasoning behind his choice to use black thread on a red and white pillow went to the grave with him.

I like to look at those stitches every chance I get and I revel in the memory that he was, in fact, once here among us, once with hands to make things. I picture his knobby hands drawing the needle through the fabric in those awkward, uneven loops and I feel close to him.

The night he died I lay in his closet and buried my head in a pile of his dirty clothes. I remember wanting to soak in the smell of him for as long as I could…that oddly metallic smell of blood and salt and mucous that was so earthy and unique to my fatally sick brother. I remember thinking that very soon the smell of him would be gone forever, to fade from a physical sensation into a nostalgic memory. I clung to his smell because it let me cling to him.

I feel like that’s the way grief goes. At first, it’s so painful and yet you relish the pain, because you know that once the pain fades a bit, it also means that it has been that much longer since you have drunk in the smell of your loved one. The less pain you feel, the longer it’s been since you’ve seen their face, heard their laughter, spoken to them, held them, touched them, essentially had them.

I stayed there in his closet so long that my sister and brother and brother-in-law wound up joining me there. We sorted through some of his things, cried, talked about him and discovered a journal he had been secretly keeping for the last year or so of his life.

The first pages of it were letters to each of us. I haven’t read mine in a long time…It’s too much….but I do grab onto that little pillow every chance I get.

My dear and wonderful friend Danielle, about a year and a half into intensive chemotherapy for liver cancer, decided to take up knitting.

I remember visiting her one winter day and found her in the front yard knitting. Her carefully tended garden lay mostly fallow around her and she had decided that, for the cold months,  a new hobby was in order and this one could be done during her hated chemo treatments.

Every time I visited her after that, she had some kind of a knitting project going. One visit, I brought her a big tote bag to store her growing cache of skeins of yarn and needles of all sizes. Months later, she showed me a ball of mottled purple, brown and grey and told me she had specially picked it out for me. She wanted to make me a scarf….

But first, she said, she wanted to finish the soft yellow blanket she was knitting for her sons.

She never finished that blanket.

I remember the night it did get finished though. I was laying in her bed, lying in the spot where she had died the night before, on a mild June evening shortly before her 40th birthday.

There was a confluence of women in the room….what I would call Danielle’s army. Her sister, aunts, niece, cousins and a couple of very close friends were there, gathered around the bed in which she died. I don’t remember where her three young sons were at that moment. I don’t recall where her husband was. I just remember laying in a spot that smelled of the lavender oil Dani’s sister had rubbed on her as she lay dying there the night before. I lay there and soaked it in, talking about her, about the impending funeral, about life and loss with all those women who had come together simply because we loved the same person for a time. I haven’t seen most of them in several years now.

One of those friends sat in Danielle’s rocking chair in the corner, stroking a finished yellow blanket on her lap.

“Oh! you finished it” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “I wanted the boys to have it. I wanted them to have their mom blanket.”

A few months later, I got a package in the mail from Danielle’s aunt Melinda. She had taken the yarn Danielle had earmarked for me and made the scarf that Dani had intended to make me, but had never gotten around to.

Along with it came a note: “I know Danielle wanted to make something for you. I was with her when she bought this. I thought I would knit it up for you. It makes me feel close to her.”

I treasure that scarf like I treasure that pillow my brother made in Home Ec class so long ago.

Shortly after I got that scarf in the mail I became rather melodramatically obsessed with the idea that I also wanted to leave something like it behind for the people I love and who have loved me.

I bought a sewing machine.

I sew.

In a way, I sew for the same reason I hold that pillow and that scarf. I want the people in my life now to not only remember me when I am gone, but remember that I loved them so much that I thought of them and created things especially for them. And sewing things for people I love makes me happy, even when it makes me crazy, destroys my apartment or when a million little mishaps frustrate and confuse me. There is almost always a moment in which I want to give up on the whole thing (sometimes I do) or I just start hating everything about it (most of the time I find the love again).

And I hope that the people who have gotten my oh-so-delicately (and sometimes pointedly) flawed gifts feel the love that’s woven into them.

I want them to look at all my awkward stitching and design flaws and remember that once upon a time I had real hands and real arms and a living mind that thought of them and cared about them. I think it’s the only immortality I am likely to be allowed.

Part of that pile on my niece’s bed includes a blanket I made for her. It was an early attempt and is falling apart in places and someday she will have to put it away or it may disintegrate all together. But for now she sleeps with it every night and every time I tuck her in with it I imagine a day (hopefully) far in the future, when she’s a grown woman and I am gone from this life.

I picture her holding that blanket, examining the stitches…touching the fabric that I spent so much time handling and positioning and hopefully she’ll think about how very much I loved her. Hopefully she’ll feel very close to me. If so, I feel like a part of me might be just a little bit alive again in that moment.

At least that’s part of how I feel when I look at my brother’s pillow.

I handle that pillow and remember how much I loved him and how much he changed me. And every time I think of him, I think of my friend Dani too. Because they both changed me. And they both left too soon.

I am a different person than I might have been without either one of these people in my life.

For one thing, I sew.

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Procrastination and Relations

Welp, so far so mixed. I re-launched this blog with every intention of NOT ignoring it, like I have so many other times in my personal-writing past.

I promise, I have thought about writing something pretty much every day since the last entry (I owe a couple of people some poems per my last entry in May, I will stop being lazy and actually do it), but of course, as you can see, alas, thoughts do not always result in actions (which I guess is good news for those moments of internalized road rage).

However, I am proud to report that in the intervening weeks, I have kept up admirably on my weekly work blog (which, if you are so inclined, you can read here), with the exception of last week’s entry, which is obviously late and which I am working on today (of course after I get done procrastinating over by writing this…sigh…this is what it’s like in my brain). I realized this weekend that most of my family members and probably some of my friends really have no idea what I do for a living…so if you’re ever wondering, check that out.

I’ve also had a wonderful burst of creative energy in lots of other non-writing ways. I’ll post a gallery of some stuff I’ve created over the last few quiet months.

Meanwhile, I just spent a fun weekend with my family and wanted to get a few thoughts down before they too skitter out of my flighty response time.

I flew home to Phoenix Friday morning. My sister picked me up, we made a supply run, picked up her children from their respective schools and then headed up Heber-Overgaard where my grandparents spend their summers out of the Phoenix heat.

The occasion? My grandfather’s 90th birthday. Woot. Last week, my sister and I were debating on what to get him. It’s really hard to buy for my grandparents. In general their needs are few, their lifestyle is minimalist and their living spaces are small. We figured our collective presence was probably the best gift we could offer. But my grandpa solved the problem of making a material gesture himself by enlisting my brother-in-law in finding a good price on some new tires for his quad which he still rides as often as possible.  That’s right. He rides a quad. Off road. Through the forest. At 90. Pretty much every day that’s not raining.

We all chipped in and got the tires for his birthday. What an awesome thing it is to be able to give your 90-year-old grandpa a gift like that!

He seemed delighted with the tires, once he finally noticed they were there. They were sitting in the living room of the cabin we rented, bow perched atop, but neither he nor my grandma noticed they were there, which was fine. But as we sat there chatting, talk turned to his current tire situation and how he couldn’t ride until he got new ones.

My brother in law and I exchanged bemused glances as my grandparents prattled on about grandpa’s current lack of riding ability, exhibiting an apparent complete lack of awareness that the 4-foot-high stack of solid rubber situated right next to the couch they were sitting on might provide a solution to said problem.

We laughed and called everyone in, pointed out the gift and presented him with his card.

Of course we had forgotten to buy a card, but my resourceful little niece had packed colored pencils and paper and we whipped up a homemade note that everyone could sign.

I wrote: “Thanks for the awesome genes.”

After reading it, he said to me : “You know Jess, if you play your cards right, you could have a 90th birthday too!”

To which I replied: “That’s the plan, grandpa!”

He said: “You know, the operative word there, is ‘play.’”

I couldn’t agree more. And if he’s correct, I’m right on track.

Speaking of playing, it’s always fun playing with my niece and nephew. Jayden (nearly 11) is getting older and wittier every day so playtime involves a lot of banter.

Here’s another favorite moment from the weekend.

My sister, Jayden and I hit the local bakery for fresh donuts on Saturday morning. I don’t like sugary foods much at all and especially not in the morning, but it sure smelled cheery and my niece was thrilled to help select a bounty of donuty delights to share with the family.

We had a few other stops to make before returning to the cabin, but my niece tried to divert the plan to drop off the donuts first.

Me: “No we’re gonna do everything all at once and then head back.”

Jayden (semi-snarkily): “Well I just thought we might want to get the donuts to the people while they’re hot and fresh.”

Me (very snarkily): “YOU’RE hot and fresh, little dork.”

Jayden (incredibly snarkiliy): “Yeah, well, so are my toots.”

HA!

(And yes, my family’s never been exactly shy about bodily excretions, though I don’t see how anyone’s family can be shy about it when there are tiny humans around who need butt-wiping and aren’t shy about demanding it. Oh, while we’re at it, I discovered this weekend that my crazy nephew recently got to fulfill a lifelong (he’s 5) scatological dream. TMI indeed).

Anyway, “hot and fresh” quickly became a new catchphrase.

Another favorite moment of wit belongs to me…mostly because it really cracked my sister-in-law up, and I love it when people laugh at my jokes. She and my brother are (admittedly lazily) trying to have a baby.

My brother-in-law had grilled up a bunch of different meat for a giant family dinner. My bro made up a plate for himself and his wife. Congratulations on the cook of the tri-tip/NY steak/chicken etc were bandied about toward my brother in law as we ate.

At one point, my sister in law asked her husband: “What’s the difference between my meat and your meat?”

I couldn’t resist a quip: “No wonder you’re not pregnant.”

What can I say? I crack my shit up.

It was a fun weekend. I am very glad I went. And yet, I am very, very happy to be home. Something about Arizona makes me a bit melancholy and fairly lethargic. Probably partially the heat and partially the amounts of food we all seem to eat when we’re together, so it’s always nice to leave, even though I miss all these crazy faces when we’re not together.

Girldom

I got a call from my sister last week warning me that I might be hearing from my niece very soon about certain girlythings. Apparently 10-and-a-half is now the age wherein one is exposed to the school-board-approved approach to explaining the joys and mysteries of womanhood.

Apparently, whatever school presentation went down weirded my niece out a bit and my sister told her she was allowed to talk about it all she wants with the women she is close to like herself, me and our sister-in-law.  I don’t blame her for being weirded out. That school stuff freaked me out too. I remember getting a brochure titled “Growing Up and Liking It,” which was horrifying to me because at the time I remember I was also pretty melodramatically focused on the fact that one day I would grow old and die and I was having a rough time with the concept of mortality.

So the thought of liking growing up was difficult to wrap my head around, especially when this well-meaning material was accompanied by a video of flowers unfurling, dewy grass, girls on bikes and drawings of the uterus and fallopian tubes that looked like some weird alien creature wearing headphones. I was fairly confused and clueless until I read more Judy Blume.

My mother was little or no help as she seemed to approach the existence of my girl organs and what they naturally do as alien invaders who must be hidden from view and discussion and protected from other creatures that would seek to invade my alien parts. (She debated about whether or not to “let” me use tampons because that might make me want to have sex. True story.)

I know my sister’s already doing a WAY better job of it than our mom did. She’s just better equipped in general and we had each other to talk about all this girly stuff when it came time, which helped. And we’ve been talking about it for a couple of decades now.

If and when I do get a call or a text or an email from Jayden saying “just how bad is this menstruation thing I’ve been hearing so much about lately?” I figure I will refrain from telling her about the massive hormonal shitstorm I was ironically embroiled in even as my sister was calling to tell me about my niece’s nascent entré into the dirty details of just what being a woman entails.

And I do mean hormonal shitstorm. For two days my body does its level best to help me lose my mind… I get the cramps, the bloating, nausea that my doctor says is probably the equivalent of morning sickness, the headache, the sometimes migraine and I destroy some article of clothing pretty much every month.

The joys of womanhood indeed. I’ll save the gory details for later. Because really, overall, in the grand scheme of things it ain’t that big of a deal, just something to deal with. I think that’s what I’ll tell my niece.

None of this body stuff is that big of a deal. I think when you MAKE it a big deal early in pubescence is when girls get uncomfortable in their own skin. There is nothing wrong with having your period. In fact, having your period kind of means that everything is working just as it should be. Girls aren’t oddities because of their cycle. They are NORMAL because of it. There’s nothing to be embarrassed by or to hide from. It can be annoying and gross, but so can boys and we put up with them all the time.

Along those lines, I don’t know how my sister will handle the sex stuff, but I also think it’s wrong to make a big deal out of it too. I say this having been raised by a sexually repressed woman who made feel like she believed there was something wrong with these parts, even as her religion purported to tell me that all of me was carefully created by an all-knowing and all-powerful God. If God as creator is the be-all if intelligence, then don’t you think maybe he designed sexual parts with an inherent pleasure principle for a reason?

If I had a daughter I would tell her there’s nothing wrong with sexual pleasure or the parts that produce it. However, I would also tell her there’s nothing wrong with being smart, being safe, being patient and logically explaining how making good sexual decisions will allow her to stay healthy in a way that will allow her to enjoy sexual pleasure without physical problems or mental self-recrimination for the rest of her life.

I don’t believe that having a moral code/being a moral person and experiencing sexual pleasure (even outside of marriage) are mutually exclusive.

Mothers really have the power to either fuck up their daughters on this issue, or empower them to be smart, to be unafraid, to listen and to talk.

If we come across as though we are uncomfortable about the realities of sex and womanhood,  or take an accusatory stance on those body parts and what they do (like my mom did for whatever reason…maybe she didn’t even know that’s how she was coming across?), a little one on the cusp of these things might rightly equate that uncomfortable-ness with her own beautiful little self, and that sucks. Because nothing is wrong. All is right in the world if you are growing up healthy and changing hormonally and experiencing weird mood swings and desires. That’s what’s supposed to happen.

Let’s just be honest with the little women in our lives. Yes, you’re going to get your period. Every month. For most of the rest of your life. Tell them why. Tell them what it means. Tell them it’s all OK. It’s not a big deal and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Yes, pretty soon, you are going to WANT to have sex with your boyfriend. It’s also nothing to be ashamed of. Tell her how those feelings are normal and natural, but that doesn’t mean she has to act upon them every time they are there. Tell her how we have the power to make choices that will make us feel good, and that sometimes the choice NOT to have sex with a boy is the one that will actually feel better for longer (MUCH longer, remind her of THAT too).

I think we should just tell them true stuff. Not project what our own mothers might have felt or done or said. Hopefully most of us have gotten past all that. (I have). Let’s stay there. Let’s try and leave our own baggage out of it and just be factual and logical and supportive.

Let’s just tell them the true stuff, because when looked at logically, it all makes sense. And we can remind them that they are great and perfect just by virtue of experiencing it all.

And then we teach them the joys of warm baths, naps and Midol. (My niece has already figured out chocolate). And it’s all gonna be OK.