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Practice

Practice

Blue linen jacket with three pockets, hanging on a door.
My Monty Don Jacket

I hit a writerly speed bump the past couple of weeks. This happens. I’ve made a lot of progress on this book project since New Years, even if sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. There’s a shape I can see. There are several new essays that need honing, and some older ones that need reworking, and it feels like a narrative trajectory is shaping up. I’ve been sending things out, and a couple of them have caught, and a few have come back and for the first time in years that process does not feel life or death, does not feel like a referendum on my ability to do this thing. But about two weeks ago, I hit a blank. There just wasn’t anything in the tank. This too, used to freak me out, but now, I know not to fight it, know that when I find myself looking at the cursor, or dicking around on Twitter too much, that means it’s time to go do something else for a while.

So I’ve been out in the garden getting that up and running for the year. There are greens and onions and parsley all coming up already. In the front, the bulbs I planted last fall are blooming, and the cherry trees are getting ready to burst into blossom, and I’m starting to see some seedlings sprouting from the buckets of wildflower and poppy seeds I’ve strewn out there. And I’ve been reading fiction again! I’ve been tearing through Maggie O’Farrell’s novels (while I wait for Hamnet to come out in paperback because I read it on the kindle, and I want to read it in my hands). And sewing. A lot of it is utility sewing — more pants (I have a pants template that is easy, fits my odd bod, and only takes a couple of hours to run up), and a couple of simple long skirts. But I also made a jacket. The Merchant and Mills Foreman Jacket. It’s a menswear pattern, but I made it in a lovely soft robin’s-egg blue linen, and I love it. I told my bestie that I’d made the Monty Don jacket of my dreams and she said “It’s a garden show! Not fashion!” But really, that’s my favorite look — rumpled, comfortable, lots of pockets. So now I have my much shortened Monty Don jacket in soft blue, and a bunch of new pants and long skirts in brown and olive linen, and I’m ready for spring.

The past couple of years it’s people talking and writing about making art who have been the most useful when I get stuck. I think its because of the way contemporary art has shifted it’s focus from the object, to the practice. I haven’t sold a book in decades, and I really only publish a couple of pieces a year, so my production of literary objects is … sparse. But I write, and make things and garden pretty much every day. If I have a practice, this is it. The Talk Art podcast, for instance, is a joy. Driving down valley to walk the dog I listen to Russell Tovey and Robert Diament talking to artists about what they make, and how they make it, and what they want to make. It’s very joyful, and manages to almost never be about the commerce of art.

It’s always been the commerce side of writing that I’ve found impossible. I got paid so little for my first book that it was very very clear that I was not going to be able to make any kind of a living as a writer. And I sold it to a big publisher. When Patrick died three years after my novel had come out, I was about half way through a new novel, which I abandoned. It was about horse people and class, and my grandmother and in that moment of crisis it seemed absolutely dead, and meaningless, and I put it away. It seemed clear to me that I was going to have to write about the experience of losing him, of losing a second brother as an adult after we’d survived the death of our toddler brother as children. Patrick and I had been dining out for years on stories about our family, about the bad behavior of both of our parents, and at that point, in the early 2000s, the misery memoir was just gaining steam. People were telling me this might be the time, the time for that story. But I was such a wreck, and couldn’t see any trajectory at all.

We used to have a little film festival during the winter on Sunday afternoons, and that winter after Patrick died, the Andy Goldsworthy movie, Rivers and Tides, came to town. Goldsworthy went out every day to make something, and he didn’t know what he was going to make until he did it. There’s a point in the movie where he sort of bellows that at his wife (in a funny way, not in an art monster way). And he made things that essentially could not be sold. Icicles stuck together that then melted. Leaves pinned together with thorns, and suspended from twigs that eventually showered down upon his head. Rocks piled in shapes. That they couldn’t be sold brought me a real kind of joy. That he was just out there making things. For a while I had this Goldsworthy-inspired practice where I pulled a slip of paper with a topic on it out of a jar every day, and wrote about it. I wasn’t striving for a particular word count. And if it was too painful a topic, I put it back for another day. It was a really useful practice that year, when I was so sad, and missed my brother so much, and was tasked with rebuilding myself as someone who didn’t have siblings, someone alone. I generated a lot of content that way, content I’ve used over the years in various forms.

I’ve written some other things since then, but I keep coming back to the idea of writing that memoir. It became a sort of white whale. I need to write the memoir. I need to get it out of the way. After a really great workshop with Alexander Chee a couple of summers ago, I came home and wrote out the whole narrative of the trauma that was losing Patrick. It’s not bad. I got it down, and said the things I needed to say. But it’s still not the book I want to write — in part, because of the commerce aspect. Just as I was so panicked about clearing up Patrick’s so-called estate all those years ago, just as I recoiled at the prospect of having to sell all his belongings in the street, I discovered in the process of writing that material out that I don’t want to sell our story, don’t want to have to go on the road and answer questions about it.

And it’s fine! I wrote it all. I found that out. It was great practice.

All that work was not for nought. I have all that content, and a lot of it is coming into these essays that I do want to write — essays about grief and climate change, trauma on the private and planetary level, gardens and land art and representation and the practices by which we save our own lives, and perhaps, by sharing them, teach other folks how to save their lives as well. Essays about what it means, as my old Beloit College prof John Wyatt used to say, to live a good life.

Practice. It takes a lot of practice.

The Homemade Freak Flags of the Resistance

The Homemade Freak Flags of the Resistance

Three tunic tops on a clothesline. From left to right, they're white, pink, and green.

Himself has a stupendous collection of garage sale art. He grew up in an antique-y family, his mother had booths in group shops for years, and he remembers childhood weekends spent in the back of the station wagon, way too early in the morning, heading off to find treasure. The art collection has themes. For example, one room in the detached motel bungalow at the cabin is birds, and the other is vintage western travel swag. The main room at the cabin has a collection of three-legged ungulates, mostly elk, including a needlepointed scene I found at our now-closed Senior Center thrift shop. They had a rule, he and his ex-wife — they couldn’t spend more than a buck for unframed paintings, five bucks for framed ones. The needlepoint cost me ten bucks, but you know, inflation. They weren’t “collecting outsider art” — they were finding cool things to put on their walls.

For decades, he’s done construction work, mostly renovations, and for a long time he sort of specialized in modernizing old cabins. “Why,” he keeps asking me, as the person who grew up among the wealthy, “why do rich people all want exactly the same house?”

You know what he means — out here, the standard-issue second home or retirement home is usually log, dyed that weird orange color, with a green metal roof. There’s a pointy “great room” window, a deck, and usually something that looks like a barn but actually houses an RV, various 4-wheelers, and at least 2 SUVs. Inside the place will be furnished with oversized peeled-log furniture upholstered in fake Pendleton blanket textiles. Often there are chandeliers made from antlers.

You see the same thing with people dressing alike — the Instagram blonde mommies with a naked toddler on a hip, wearing that flat brim hat and photographed wearing a skirt and boots and feeding the chickens. The fly fishermen who all wear exactly the same shirt. The sporty Bozeman yuppies who pay too much money for the Patagonia jacket of the year because that’s what their people wear.

I really noticed this a few years ago when I started making my own clothes. I loved the clothes I was making, and for the first time felt comfortable in my skin. I’m short, have never been skinny, and most ready-to-wear never fit me right. I have a core set of 5 or 6 patterns I turn to for everyday, although I’m feeling like this summer I might shake a few of them up. They’re shapes that look good on me, that are comfortable, and that allow me to do all the things I want to do every day: go for a walk, work in the garden, curl up in a chair and read a book, sit at my desk and do my day job, ride a bike. Even, for those couple of years I was at MSU, teach.

I started sewing again in my late 40s because I kept seeing simple clothes in nice fabrics in fancy stores that were wildly too expensive for me. And so I started making them. I found some good fabric sources online. I bought a nice basic Singer that does zigzag and buttonholes. As I sewed more regularly, I got better at it, and figured out how to modify a pattern, learned how to keep pockets from gapping, learned how to re-cut a garment that didn’t work like I wanted it to.

I learned how to take charge of my own clothes. As Karie Westermann, the knitting designer likes to say: Making stuff is powerful. Making stuff gives you agency. Making stuff transforms. Making stuff makes something out of nothing. Go make stuff.

Himself has a saying: “that’s just lifestyle stuff.” Meaning, that’s just something someone else told you you should want and so you’re chasing it to make yourself look hip, or important, or wealthy, or whatever. The someone else is the giant machine of consumer capitalism, one that’s infiltrated every part of our lives, and like all good structural systems, made itself largely invisible. Consumer capitalism needs for us to keep chasing the hit, over and over and over. Buying stuff then throwing it out to buy different stuff because styles have changed. And styles have changed so you’ll buy new stuff. And go into debt to do it.

In order to keep doing this, capitalism needs to convince us we’re helpless. That we’re helpless even at the level of what we want. Hence the army of “influencers” to tell us what the color of the year is, or the 10 hottest trends in interior design or what your outdoor patio “room” should look like.

Capitalism needs to convince us that we can’t do it ourselves. That cooking is too hard, so we should buy prepared food or order out. That sewing simple clothing or curtains or throw pillows is some mysterious process that won’t work and you’ll look weird and you can’t do it yourself. When you can. When you can actually make something you’d like, and enjoy making it, and then wear it for years. That you can’t pull together a room from things you found at garage sales or inherited from your grandparents or found at junk shops because that won’t be a “look”.

One of my hopes as we come out of the pandemic is that people discover they’re capable of figuring out what they actually like. I love my living room, but it’s a cobbled together collection of furniture, about half of which is hand-me-downs, and family stuff, and piles of books, and some nice pieces of art, and some funny framed things that Himself has given me over the years. It’s warm and cozy and a tiny bit cluttered and it’s exactly how I want it.

Or take my backyard. Now that we’re coming out of pandemic, I’m occasionally having people over, and we’re at that stage of the year where the backyard looks terrible. I mulched the beds in straw over the winter, and it looks very messy right now. The chickens are churning it up, and while there’s a few daffodils poking through, mostly its a lot of straw and my raised-bed veg garden that doesn’t have anything growing in it yet. My apple trees got hit hard by fireblight a few years ago and I didn’t cut them down and start over. One tree has a big dead section, but is regenerating just like one did on the other side of the yard. One tree is dead, with suckers. I grafted a varietal I like better onto a couple of the suckers. We’ll just have to wait and see whether they turn into a real tree. For now, the dead skeleton holds up the twinkle lights I like in the evening when I want to sit out there and read.

Livingston has shifted from being the town full of aging hippies and artists it was when I moved here 20 years ago (there has also always been about half the town made up of conservative ranchers and church people. I’ve heard stories of the epic fights that would break out between the hippie bar and the rancher bar back in the day) to a town with a much bigger contingent of rich retirees and second home owners. And a couple of people from my past, people with money, people whose aesthetic is still very much based on what Himself would call lifestyle have moved here. It has me feeling preemptively defensive about my “messy” garden and my “weird” clothes. I fled that world a long time ago, but the critical voice of the snob is one I can hear in my head without having to try very hard.

Resistance can be tricky. I forget that most people haven’t spent their adult life trying to resist, trying to escape the constraints of corporate jobs and culture. I’ve worked corporate jobs for 20 years, but as a kind of corner case. I’ve worked at home full time. I’ve been a contractor for most of it. I’ve gotten laid off because I had no interest in management or climbing a ladder. I just wanted enough money to pay off my debts, put something away so I don’t starve as an old woman, and have enough to get by day to day. I kept hoping I’d find a clear patch where I could get some traction on the writing, find a way to make it a career. That part didn’t work out, but I did get a house and a garden and a life and a nice partner and some chickens and a dog. I’m getting to where there’s a clear space for the writing. It’s all good.

What I didn’t get, because I did not want it, and never wanted to chase it, was the kind of wealth I grew up around. The kind of wealth that is deeply invested in having the right kind of house in the right kind of place with the right kind of decoration and then showing it off with that slightly hysterical tinge, see? See? Look at our fabulous life?! That some of those folks are showing up here, and bringing that energy with them, is … problematic.

The culture wants us to be consumers, not participants. I love my space, and my odd clothes, but the imposed conformity of capitalism, and the way it seeks to divide and label us by the things we wear and have and drive can leave a person feeling a tiny bit exposed. If I have a utopian dream, it’s a world where we can all be our inner weirdos all the time. That they don’t have to be hidden inner weirdos anymore. Where it’s the ones who don’t have a freak flag to fly who are considered odd.

We’re still on the tippy edge of fascism here as a nation, and conformity is a huge part of that. I think it’s why it bothers me so much that the people who can now afford to move here are the ones who want the same houses. Who want their house to look like everyone else’s, who want to wear the uniform, whether it’s jeans with a crease, boots and a cowboy hat, or the fly fisherman’s shirt, or the blonde girls with the flat-brim hat, tow-headed baby and the boots/skirt combo. There’s such an urge to conform, to choose a lifestyle, and for so many people those lifestyles are connected to a brand. “I just love that Patagonia lifestyle” someone commented on an instagram post my cousin put up for Father’s Day, talking about what a great dad her husband is. He had a Patagonia hat on. Talk about missing the point.

One thing I’m working toward in this longer collection I’m trying to pull together is to articulate why I believe that making things is an act of resistance. All those paintings Himself collected, none of those people thought they were going to be great artists, but you can feel the joy in making something in their work. My garden doesn’t look like one of those English garden shows, and for much of the year it’s really kind of a mess, but for a couple of months in the middle of the summer there are roses and fruit trees and a vegetable garden and hollyhocks and it’s glorious. There’s so much creative energy in the world that’s just gotten channeled into shopping these past few decades, and among the things we’re going to have to do to save ourselves from drowning in our own filth on this planet is to learn to stop fucking shopping. One way to do that is to learn how to make something. Learn to take joy in the process. Learn to like being terrible at something again. Make a painting or a cake or plant some peas or knit a pair of mittens. Take something you already have and reuse it. And if you know how to do something, teach someone else.

Of all the joyful things that have happened in the years I’ve lived here, maybe the best is all those holidays my nieces came over here to cook with me. We’d figure out a project, and hang out, and talk about their lives, and it’s one reason we have real relationships now that they’re starting to be adults. One texted me yesterday, about Easter desserts. We talked about desserts we’ve made over the years, brainstormed what she wanted to cook for her group of folks in LA, talked about a short story she’d written, and what she wanted to do about school next year. Maybe people bond like that over shopping, but I don’t, and that our relationship is built on making stuff is one of the great joys of my childless middle age. So let your freak flag fly, and let it fly on a clothesline, and let’s all try to come out of this pandemic a little smarter than when we went into it.