I have been thinking about my childhood a lot the past few days. I had occasion this week to visit two different bookstores - searching for the perfect gift for a friend. I was looking for a birthday present for my friend Kendra, hoping to find a nice book about crafts, creativity, making a business from your artistic hobby, or something along those lines. I had in mind what I wanted, but I looked and looked just to be sure I was picking out the right thing. I went to two bookstores, flipped through numerous different books, and ended up buying at the second bookstore the first book I had picked up at the first bookstore I visited. Perhaps there is a lesson I should be learning from that.
I was struck by the large number of really nice, hip, beautiful, interesting books about crafting. When I first got into knitting, I invested a good chunk of money in a small collection of knitting books, buying all of the exquisitely beautiful books I could find that had fun or beautiful (or both) patterns in them. That was several years ago, and it seems like the number of books of that nature has increased exponentially during that time. There were books on sewing, knitting, crafting recycled materials, creative family projects, "green" sewing, knitting for babies, knitting for pets, sock creatures - and on, and on, and on. As I flipped through the books, many of them written by thirty-something women, I felt at once energized and a little discouraged. How can there be a place for my creative voice in this sea of women who've said, "I'm sick of this job. I think I'll publish a book on how to knit baby hats" and gone on to be successful? Are there any original ideas any more? But, I also thought, "if she can do it, can't I do it, too?"
I ended up buying two books - one for myself and one for my friend. For my friend, I purchased The Handmade Home by Amanda Blake Soule. For myself, I purchased Weekend Sewing by Heather Ross, even though I know the projects are too advanced for me. I love the ideas and aesthetic in the book by Soule, and found myself visiting her blog with the same sort of cringing adoration I felt flipping through all of the beautiful craft books at Barnes and Noble. Her blog, her ideas, her photos - very beautiful. It made me feel like my little blog, read, as far as I know, only by my friends, is pretty small-time. I can't imagine how one gets the kind of following she has - nor can I imagine how one goes from writing a blog to publishing two very beautiful books, or how it is that she is able to have the lifestyle she has that allows her to pursue her every creative whim. It makes me just a wee bit jealous, honestly. In Weekend Sewing, Ross provides a little background information on herself - she grew up in Vermont, in a one room schoolhouse where she and her family spent their days all cozied up and creative. Ugh, I thought - if I ever did get to the point of writing a book, what kind of a quaint little bio could I have! One room schoolhouse, my foot! If I'd had that kind of upbringing, I'd be a successfully published author, too!
But then, I thought about it some more, and it dawned on me - I did have that kind of upbringing. I mean, it wasn't a one room schoolhouse, and we didn't have the kind of winter you get in Vermont, but I really had such a wonderful childhood, with a house full of books and music and art and creativity - it's no wonder all those crafty books pique my interest the way they do. It's no wonder Garrison Keillor makes me get weepy.
I grew up in rural Southeastern Ohio, on 20 acres of land in the foothills of the Appalachians. My parents were a 1980's version of "back-to-the-landers", a decade or two later than most and not completely off the grid. My parents were married in 1959, my brother was born 10 years later, and I 6 years after that - so they were able to have some adventures on their own before settling down with us. I have a lot of memories of being outdoors - playing with pets, "helping" my mom in the garden, exploring the woods. We grew a lot of our own vegetables, many flowers, fished in the pond out back, raised chickens, ducks, rabbits, and donkeys. We made dandelion jelly. My mother was an artist - woodcuts, paintings, stained glass, random-weave baskets made from honeysuckle and grape vines gathered on our property. My father still prints hand-set notecards and broadsides on antique letterpresses he inherited from his father. For years my parents gathered all of these products to sell in various ways - at the Farmer's Market (way before Local Food was a movement), on consignment in art shops and galleries, at art shows, and at an annual holiday art sale organized with other artist friends. My mother was a prolific letter-writer - I have vivid memories of her writing letters at our kitchen table after dinner, a cigarette, unfortunately, balanced in her left hand as she wrote. She always said she was really left-handed, having been forced to become right-handed in the days when left-handedness was discouraged. I like to think that Dora's leftyness comes from my mom.
If I could change one thing about my childhood, it would be that my mother not be a smoker, because if that were the case, she would still be here with me - to answer my questions, to help me believe in myself as an artist and mother, to see the amazing perfection that is my daughter. Other than that, I honestly wouldn't change one thing about the way I grew up. It was a wonderful experience - something I surely did not realize at the time and something that, even as an adult, I don't always appreciate as much as I should.
We moved to Asheville 8 months after my mom died. It was so hard to leave, and so hard to stay. Athens had become a place with so many memories and ghosts, I had to get away, at least for a while, to focus on my marriage and try something new, to see what was out there for us. I love that we live in Asheville - it's home to me now and the friends I've made here mean the world to me - but I miss Athens, too. I miss it and I want to go back, and then when I'm there it doesn't feel right, either. It's like the urge to change the station when I hear Garrison Keillor's voice - there is a part of me that doesn't want to go home and face what is no longer there. I spent 28 years getting used to seeing my mom in my childhood home, seeing her in the pews in the church I grew up and was married in, in the garden where I dug around in the dirt as a child, at the kitchen table writing letters after dinner, marking my height with a pencil on the wall in the kitchen. In the 8 months I lived in Athens following her death, and in the 4 years since we moved here, I have not gotten used to her not being in those places. It is going to take a lot more than 4 years and 8 months to get used to her not being there. In fact, I don't think I'll ever get used to it. I think I'm afraid that if I get used to her not being there, I might forget all those wonderful memories I have. It's like I have to keep those images alive in my mind to try to keep her close to me. It's easier to do from a distance - I can sort of pretend she's still there, sitting at the table after dinner listening to Garrison Keillor. But when I'm home, it's not so easy to keep the images vivid - the house is different, everything is different. And I know in my heart, even when I can picture her there, that she isn't sitting at the kitchen table listening to Prairie Home Companion any more - and she never will be again. That is why, really, that I want to change the station when I hear PHC come on - because I know there's one less devoted listener on the other end of the transmission.
I'm starting to learn that the process of writing is not something you can control. You can start out in one place, with the intention of saying one thing, but by the end of it you're somewhere entirely different. Sometimes the thread of what you've written is easy to pick out, and other times it's more difficult to find the line that connects the beginning to the end. I guess it's like life, in a way, where memory and reality get all tangled up, and we try to find the common thread that ties it all together. You end up somewhere you had no idea you were heading, and it's nowhere near as simple, beautiful, or crisply defined as it is in all the craft books at Barnes and Noble or Malaprops. What is the common thread? Is it art, music, beauty, nature, God? It is all those things, I guess, but most of all, it's love. It's imperfect, honest, doing-the-best-we-can love. It's loving our kids, our spouses, our parents, our families, our friends, our earth, our pets. It's loving ourselves. It's remembering that it's just as important to love the living as it is the dead, and that we don't need to apologize for any of that. It's loving our past and our present and our future, and remembering that all of those are just as beautiful as anyone else's experience, whether or not the book about my experience is on the shelf of a great bookstore or residing in my mind. It's remembering that my experience matters, whether I have 9 followers on my blog or 9,000, and that writing it down is half the battle no matter how many people read it.
So there, self-doubt. I love myself, so you can just stop what you're saying right now.
And mama, I love you, too, so so much, and I always, always will.