A common thread

Great Pause #5

First Cozyblue project: Night Garden

A few months ago, I took my embroidery hoop in hand again after putting it down nearly thirty years ago. I’m not quite sure why I put it aside. Probably something to do with the fact that I was a single mom finishing my degree part time. That I had three kids to shuttle around. And then a new teaching career that asked for more hours than I had in a day.

Embroidery patterns have changed since the 70s and 80s when the patterns leaned towards cute or floral or country. Not really pieces I’d want to spend time on today. But then I found Cozyblue Handmade and Snuggly Monkey and I was hooked all over again. Mandalas and vines and sun, moon, and stars. Oh, my!

My hoop has been a lifeline during this Pause. I stitch and stab and worry about whether or not my leaf stitch is even; I focus on french knots and fly-stitches–with nary a thought of some lurking virus. Or a depleted bank account. Or missed grandchildren.

What’s on my hoop

Embroidery has become a kind of meditation that calms my fear and keeps me smack dab in the moment.

So how serendipitous that Tracy Chevalier’s new novel A Single Thread should offer me the the story of how the magic of needle and thread saves a young woman one stitch at a time.

Violet Speedwell is a “surplus” woman. During the Great War so many young men of marriageable age were killed that in the years that followed, a generation of women watched marriage, children, and independence pass them by. At 38, Violet languished at home with a demanding mother until she made the nearly unheard-of decision to move to a new job in another village … and life on her own.

One day Violet visits Winchester Cathedral on her lunch hour and finds that she has interrupted a service dedicating kneeling cushions created by the Cathedral Broderers*. Violet is drawn in by the prayers and music of the service and drawn to the community of women whose artistry would allow them to leave something of themselves behind.

So Violet befriends one of the younger broderers, manages to get her employer Mr. Waterman to allow her to attend the broderer’s Wednesday morning meetings, and begins to expand her life one stitch at a time. She goes on a summer walking tour alone. Dines out with new-found friends. She expands her role in Mr. Waterman’s office. And at long last stands up to her mother. Violet finds purpose in her work embroidering, while the group of women she meets anchor her.

Violet also finds herself drawn to the Cathedral bell ringers and their own mission. She meets Arthur, for whom bell ringing is just as much his life line as embroidery is hers, and bell ringing and brodering come to bookend the story. Quite literally.

If you are a needle worker, you’ll find the story especially engaging. A Single Thread both transported me to another time and place and connected me to this present moment where I’m grounded stitch-by-stitch.


* the brodery referred to in the novel is canvas needlepoint, not hoop embroidery–but the love of all things needle and thread is constant.

Forty days and forty nights

Great Pause #4

Depending on when you started counting, we’ve reached the forty day mark in this shut down, give or take a couple days. And just acknowledging that milestone makes this time feel epic. (Or apocalyptic, as the case may be.) It’s a number that carries much weight for People of the Book, be they Christian, Jews, or Muslims.

Forty. It rained on Noah. The Israelites wandered. Moses waited on Mt. Sinai. Jesus fasted. Muhammad received his revelation from Gabriel.

Isolated, all of them. Well, whaddayaknow!

So it’s no wonder that many of us are feeling the pull of this Pause–something calling us to turn inward and wait. Something Big is going to happen.

While it’s all well and good to await some sort of transformation, the Pause can also be rough. I want to use my time “productively” and so think I should be cleaning and organizing and painting (oh, wait … not that …) and doing all manner of spring cleaning. This is the time to finish the Great American Novel and fill reams of paper with poetry. Dive deeper into my relationship with my partner. Turn over a new leaf. Start afresh.

And there are some days when the stars align and all that is on the table. I strip the wallpaper. Bake the ham. Organize the junk drawer. Throw out the expired pantry items. (Sure jell with an expiration date of 2017–really?!) Walk in the park. Blog about the Great Pause. Read. And otherwise make myself useful.

Other days, not so much. There’s a heaviness that settles, some gloomy cloud of uncertainty. Days when my motivation dries up like the stink bugs belly up in my windows. I sit. I scroll through my phone. I read articles about the pandemic. I sit some more. It’s during these moments that I’m tempted to beat myself up for not being productive.

And then I remind myself: the world has shut down. There’s a virus loose and we don’t know who will catch it or how to stop it. We don’t know where it is or when if it will knock on our door. The business closed and the job dried up. In-come can’t keep up with the out-go. The future is uncertain.

Scary stuff.

So I am allowing myself a good measure of grace. If I tune out for a day (or two or three or …) so be it. I’m calling no harm, no foul. Just sit in the quiet and get through the Pause, I say. If the only thing I can claim after all this is over is that I came out on the other side physically and mentally healthy, it’s a win all-around.

“Let us embrace all this dithering and get in touch with our inner whim whams,” is my battle cry!

I have been reading, of course. Not always with great focus, but I do read on. (Is there any other way to get through life?) There’s been The Tatooist of Auschwitz for the cancelled book club meeting in April, a good story with writing that sometimes had a little to be desired. And The Keeper of Lost Things, a charming bit of chick lit that was diverting enough. Or how about A Man Against Insanity which looks at the early use of drug therapy at Traverse City State Hospital during the fifties. I’m about to start The Friend which has been sitting in my TBR basket for almost two years because the story turns on the death of a friend, a traumatized Great Dane, grief–and I’ll probably cry buckets. But it was a National Book Award winner in 2018, so it’s sure to be a great read. (And certain I’ll cry buckets.)

On a lighter note, I got my National Park Senior Pass in the mail and I am free (quite literally!) to go to any national park for the rest of my life. (Once they reopen, that is.) Please note I have no shame in declaring my possession of said senior pass because, come. on. Free national parks forevaaaaaaaa!

So I’m dreaming of my trailer and the open road and exploring beyond these four walls.

When the going gets tough

Great Pause #3

And then the gloom lifted and it was time to get busy.

Last week I sewed almost thirty face masks for friends and family. I haven’t used my sewing machine like this in at least three decades. But I’m not alone–an entire movement of home sewers has risen up. NPR featured a story on men and women sewing masks, dubbing us craftivists. A friend-of-a-friend who runs her own home business (shout out to My Lovely Muse!) donated ten masks to my daughter’s floor at the hospital–and then shared fifty yards of elastic with me so I could start sewing myself. (Elastic is out-of-stock at most fabric store online, so this was like gold.) I passed some of that elastic on to a friend who was sewing masks for a homeless shelter and more to a friend who was making them for a nursing home. Pay it forward, people. Pay it forward.

My husband and I walk nearly every day in some local park or another and I have every hope that walking will continue to be part of my new normal. Reading comes in fits and starts. (Sometimes the focus just isn’t there …) But I cook nearly every evening and it has become something of a (soothing?) ritual. We are eating like kings! Not rich or exotic food, but healthy and homemade: jambalaya, pork roast, shrimp curry, chili, shawarma chicken bowls. I’ve also gained a couple pounds, but that, I know, is the result of the cookies and doughnuts and chocolate I’ve allowed myself. Indulgence goes a long way.

Last Saturday, hubby’s clippers in hand, I cut my own hair. Yep, you read that right. It’s not pretty and I will owe my stylist an enormous tip when she gets me out of the mess I created–but it’s shorter, at least, and I feel at least a teensy bit more … presentable. (The question is, for whom?!)

I want to hug these little faces …

Not visiting my grand kids is killing me. I Face time them a couple times a week, but the experience leaves something to be desired. At five, three, and one, the calls are a dizzying display of the ceiling or flashes of arms, legs, and foreheads as the two oldest wrestle the phone from each other. Our best ‘conversation’ was during craft time one day–my daughter set the phone on the table while the kids colored and cut. Once a week I’ve become the Happy Meal Fairy, dropping off goodies I normally wouldn’t consider fit for consumption because it makes them so happy.

I blow kisses through the window and for now that has to be enough.

Tears for fears

Great Pause #2

Fine dining ala Hudson News

It was a new world I came home to on March 24. The airports were nearly empty. This time, no restaurants or bars were open, and very few shops. I didn’t anticipate the restaurant closures, so Hudson News provided my fine dining experience. Once seated for my flight, I wiped down my seat area (including the window and wall!) thoroughly with a handful of sanitizing wipes. The young couple behind me traveling with their toddler offered me a surgical mask as they watched me “clean house.” They had six, she said. Kindness continues even in the scariest of times.

The day-to-day of staying inside didn’t seem too terribly difficult. At first. An introvert, I feel inordinately qualified to spend long hours alone. I had books to read. Coffee at the ready. Needlework on hand. Closets to organize, after all. When (and if!) the weather turned nice, I would clear my perennial beds and transplant my peonies and the hydrangea bush.

And I did all those things that first week of the Great Pause–with enthusiasm and a sense of we’re-in-this-together. But what I didn’t expect was the gloom that soon settled over me. The dread of getting sick. Wondering if at that very moment the virus was multiplying inside me, every cough, headache, or muscle ache signaling “it” had arrived. Add to that the fact that my husband hadn’t worked in a weeks, so bills were mounting with no end in sight. (Promises of our stimulus check, unemployment, and SBA loans are bogged down in a queue with millions of others who are suddenly out of work.)

There were even some tears to accompany those fears.

But it’s amazing what we humans can get used to and two weeks later this all feels so. very. normal.

Home sweet home

What I read

You can’t go wrong with an Ann Patchet novel. Think about it. Patron Saint of Liars. Bel Canto. The Magician’s Assistant. State of Wonder. I need say no more … except, The Dutch House.

Patchett’s latest novel tells the story of the Conroy family. Patriarch, Cyril, makes good in real estate after serving in World War II and buys his wife Elna the Dutch house, a beautifully crafted (although ostentatious) home built in 1922 with marble floored foyer, a ballroom, rich wall coverings, delft-tiled mantels, and life-sized portraits of the original owners, Mr. and Mrs. VanHoebeek, still hung in place. The young couple moves in with their four-year-old daughter Maeve and begins the aspirational life that so many sought after the war.

From the beginning, Elna hated the house, spending her time instead on serving the poor in her local parish, leaving Maeve and eventually her son Danny to their nanny, Fluffy. In many ways Elna is a mother in name only–and she finally leaves the family when Danny is four to work with Mother Theresa in India. (Or at least that was the plan.) But Maeve and Danny have each other and their beloved nanny, as well as the housekeeper Sandy and cook Jocelyn. Cyril is distant and detached in that Greatest Generation kind of way, but the reconstituted family works.

And then Andrea Smith arrives. That wicked step-mother who fills the pages of so many tales. She even brings two step-sisters, but Norma and Bright are anything but mean. It’s Andrea’s arrival that pivots the story.

Danny and Maeve are sent to private boarding schools. Mrs. Smith (as the siblings still call her) marks her territory: favorite meals are taken out of rotation, family traditions spurned, and Maeve kicked out of a fairy-tale bedroom for her younger step-sisters. The two are persona non grata in their own home.

But it is the house that holds them in its embrace. Even when Danny is sent packing after Cyril’s death at age fifteen, even after the staff is let go, even after Maeve has made a life of her own and Danny marries, they return again and again to the house. The house, was, said Danny, “the … hero of every story, our lost and beloved country.” Sitting in Maeve’s car across the street after night falls, they wait while the lights switch on one by one and watch, trying to make sense of what once was and who they had become.

What I lived

I am myself an expert on houses. By the time I was thirteen I had lived in ten of them. Warren Road. JoyAnn Court. West Main Street. Ivan Drive. Brimfield. Summit. Edgewood. Sunrise Drive. Newcastle. Maxwell.

And each house held some sort of magic. The three flights up at West Main Street and my little ‘bedroom’ in the closet under the eaves. The sledding hill on Ivan Drive and the wide open basement, just right for learning to ride a two-wheeler with training wheels. The gravel road on Brimfield and listening to my dad laugh himself silly at the Smothers Brothers every Sunday night after I was tucked in bed. Summit, with its brown-painted wood floors that left chips of paint on the soles of your feet in humid weather and gauzy white curtains that floated on the breeze most summer nights. The woods behind Edgewood where we built forts, then played house for hours, and Sunrise Drive where Eric Sisson, my first crush, rode his pony over to give me a ride down the street. Newcastle, where my little brother got lost in the fields across the street on my watch, and where I made a pan of fudge to surprise my mom after work–only to have it upend in the freezer (where, for some reason known only to a budding 12-year-old cook I had set it to cool), milk chocolate drips puddling in the bottom of the cooler drawers in the ‘frig. And Maxwell. My final childhood home, fraught with family discord and drama, but a beauty unto itself, all timbered-stucco and brick. My bedroom with a window seat. (A window seat! Just like the girls in books …) Best friend down the street and bike rides around the lake.

Each and every house settled deeply in my bones, and I mourned each and every leaving. But I realize now that those houses have become heroes in my story.

Which is to say that a novel like The Dutch House reaches out, pulls me in, and settles me comfortable-like in its lap pages to watch the story unfold, just as I’ve watched my own.