An Ode to the Holiday Card

Of course I love holiday cards. I’m a card person sort of generally, and while there have been years when I gave New Year’s greetings because I didn’t have time before then, or even Valentines, or even nothing—yes, many years—I still love to send holiday cards. Some years I have been strapped or rushed or distracted and only done what my mom called “Emergency carding”—only sending a card when I received one. But this year was a good year for cards.

I consider the sending of holiday cards a luxury of time and a tradition worth maintaining.

These days I make them myself, but there have been many years when I bought a box or two at the store. The point is the connection, not the work. The work, though, is play for me, and that’s a luxury too. To have the time to hand craft as many cards as I want to send, and the time to write a greeting in each, and buy the festive postage stamps—all of that bespeaks the glorious season of seclusion for my introverted side. (Yes, I also host holiday gatherings from crafty parties to holiday dinners, but I also have a strong introvert streak, and I love to create in the privacy of my kitchen, listening to my cheesy carols or the Nutcracker on a loop, and make and address cards to send to people I don’t see during the season.)

Some years I have a favorite stamp set and make a pile of the same card. This year I didn’t make more than two of any style, and mostly I made one of each, so the process of determining who would like which card was delightfully time consuming.

I make Christmas cards and Hanukkah cards and vaguely wintry/Yule-ish cards for people who prefer “Season’s Greetings” to anything else. Families with little kids get cards with cute animals as a rule. Some people prefer elegant cards, and some funny, some rustic, and some artsy. Sometimes I have one on hand that I think will be good for a particular person, and sometimes they call for a special one, and I have to make one on the spot before I can send it out.

All of these little decisions I make serve to refuel each of those friendships and attachments that I cherish despite time and mileage separating us. And they all take a little time to make, write, address, and stamp. Sometimes I even stamp the envelope to make it “matchy” or otherwise fancy.

And because I have time to do this, and the materials, and the friends and family to write them to, I am grateful.

As my friend Liz says, “We belong to each other.” And as my other friend, Mr. Dickens, says, “We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.” This holiday season I wish each of you abundant time and opportunity to reach out to people you love. And if you didn’t get a card from me and want one, hit me up. I have some left, and I have plenty more paper and ink. ❤

Picture Books · Reading

Picture Books that Inspire Creativity

One of my Teaching Assistants led a discussion in class today that ended with her students thinking about creativity and how it preserved their identity, even their humanity, in the face of mass marketing, corporate programming, and aggressive branding that tells us how to live.

One student shared that he felt most himself when he was playing his guitar—when he was alone with his thoughts and expressing his emotions without overt outside input. As they talked, the class agreed all art afforded that space, and then they realized that they used that creative or hobby time to make their most authentic connections to others—through their art.

It was a lovely moment, when students moved from reading a novel to applying some of the ideas to their lives. And it got me thinking, we need to start them young. There are, of course, picture books that can help. 😊 Here are some I love. If you have others, I’d love to hear about them.

Alison’s Super Awesome List of Picture books about Art and the Creative Process:

  1. “The Dot” by Peter H. Reynolds. One of my all-time favorites, this is a story about a kid who doesn’t think she’s artistic, and a teacher who brings out her best efforts. My favorite part is the end, where she pays it forward to the next kid who underestimates his potential. Every house should have a copy, she said firmly. It’s marvelous.
  2. “Little Mouse’s Painting” by Diane Wolkstein and Maryjane Begin. This one is also about visual art, and especially about what others see in your art (spoiler: themselves). But it’s true; we see ourselves in art—visual and other art—and the original artist can’t always predict what others will see or value. So we owe it to each other to keep creating.
  3. “Draw!” by Raúl Colón. This one is wordless, but speaks volumes about a boy’s power to explore the world in his art—to imagine and bring to life vast landscapes, exotic animals, the implication is anything, really—and to value art as escapist and aspirational. (Bonus: his later “Imagine!” takes the artist from his room to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, with equally magical and empowering results.)
  4. “Sun Bread” by Elisa Kleven. Not all art has to be painted. In “Sun Bread” a baker makes a vibrant, golden loaf of bread that looks like a sun, and it revives her community, stuck in the doldrums of winter. The book includes the recipe, egg wash and all, so that you can reproduce the sunny bread and understand for yourself “all the joy good bread can bring.”
  5. “The Quiltmaker’s Gift” by Jeff Brumbeau and Gail de Marcken. This one is about a greedy king who loves presents and has everything, but he can’t get his hands on a quilt made by the master quiltmaker, because she only gives them to people in need. He has to learn to give things up to get what he wants, but of course, he gets more than he expected.
  6. “The Night Gardener” by Terry Fan and Eric Fan. A mysterious gardener is transforming ordinary trees in to extraordinary animal topiaries in the darkness, and a community wakes up to new beauty every day. It’s a lovely fable about the transformative power of art.

Making and Doing, Creating and Sub-Creating

I love the idea of a self-sustaining hobby. In order for that to work out, however, I would need to be more determined in the promotional department. I am not. But once in a while, someone asks me to make them some cards, and offers to pay for them. And every once in a while, I let them.

I had a charming moment with my uncle last week. I had made graduation announcements for my little cousin, and the happy result of that was a pressing need for “thank you” cards. This may be my favorite little nicety, the “thank you” card. I make and use a lot of them. It’s probably my mom’s fault. But now it’s so engrained as a simple gesture that people really appreciate, I keep some in my desk at work as well as a pretty big stash at home so that I can write a little note whenever the occasion arises. People are pretty cool; the occasion arises frequently.

So naturally I was happy to encourage my cousin in her quest to be visibly grateful. I made her ten different styles. It was a blast, and my first creative project of the summer. When my uncle insisted on paying me, I used the money in less than an hour to order a new, elaborate stamp and die set, and I was reminded of one of my core values: encourage the makers—of clever, useful things, of crafts, of art, of music, of story. Makers make the world much more palatable.

My uncle recounted his relationship with his mom, my grandmother, who crocheted covered hangers by the score when her hands were feeling good, and quilted when they weren’t. He would “sell” these covered hangers for her and give Grandma some money, with which she bought more yarn. (This really entailed giving cushy hangers as gifts to all his co-workers and friends by the dozen, until they all had more than they could use and told him to stop).

Yep. I recognize the pattern. It’s a good hobby, especially for a teacher who used her head all day long and then wanted to relax by using her hands and resting her head. Boy, do I get that.

Really, though, there are lots of different kinds of “makers.”

Musicians make music, for instance. One of the things I insist on when we travel is tipping the street musicians and other performers. My kids got to the point where they started asking for some money as soon as we heard them in the distance. Whenever I can, I buy handmade items and art, craft beer and homemade jam, and, in addition to books, art supplies are my favorite gifts to give. Anything to keep that good juju going.

I have talked about the unique satisfaction of making something beautiful or useful in another blog, but here I’m most in awe of the way in which creators and patrons and happy supporters form a symbiotic community. JRR Tolkien talks about people as sub-creators, making on the microcosmic scale, as God created the world on the larger scale.  But for me the microcosm is enough.

Because in the effort of each of us to make a little something to make the world better, easier, more beautiful, all those little gestures of good faith and industry and inspiration–they add up and overwhelm the world.


Keep Moving Forward

There are some things I feel very confident about. But it’s weird, isn’t it, the kinds of things people can feel comfortable with and still worry about other things that might seem less significant?  And how some things can intimidate one person but not faze the next?
Maybe it’s just years of desperation in grad school, but we pretty much had to be able to teach what we were assigned, and it made me scrappy—not an expert, but enough to teach a lower division class. I taught books wildly out of my areas of expertise, and made it work. Give me some library time, and I am confident that I can find a way to make most literature accessible, and maybe even entertaining.
So you’d think, maybe, that I could plan a crafty workshop.
I mean, I can, but I worry. Since I’ve found My Hobby (after years of trying on others that were temporarily interesting, but ultimately I didn’t stick with them), I’ve tried a number of ways to fund it and to get more out of it. My hobby is paper-crafting or card-making. I also make gift bags and tags and other gift-wrapping paraphernalia. To support this hobby/habit, I have resorted to flogging crafting supplies at in-home parties like Tupperware, and to indulge my desire to share what makes me happy, I have had “Make your own holiday tags” parties every December for the last several years.
The tag party works because it feels like such low stakes. People make little gift tags for the holidays. They’re quick to design and assemble; I put out a number of samples with appropriate materials, and off they go. Usually people leave with a dozen (or twenty) tags, and don’t have to buy them that year. I like that. I think the gift wrap industry is outlandish and have ever since a friend gifted my son a $10 Lego set and gave me the receipt in case he had it already. She had also paid $10 for a bag, tissue, and a card. I was mortally offended for her and vowed to address that.
So I do the tag party. I’ve given up on having the parties where people buy stuff.  My heart was never in it, and it’s a hobby for me, not a career, so I just provide the materials and let people play. That makes me much happier.
This year, though, they also wanted to do cards. You’d be amazed how much I fretted.
For someone who has pulled off half a dozen tag parties, a card party shouldn’t have been daunting, but it was. It really, really was. Cards seem like something a real crafter teaches, not some dilettante who stamps more for therapy than because she knows what she’s doing. The stakes felt much higher, for some reason. I still can’t quite explain why.

But I have a couple of wonderful friends who encouraged me, and who brought some extra supplies to help out, and off we went. And it was a lovely event. People made 2-6 cards instead of 12-20, but everyone had fun, and my little ambivert self found the sweet spot between having too many people depending on me for guidance and blending in with the crowd and making some of my own cards.
It was glorious, and now I’m slightly embarrassed by how much I fretted about it. When I was in grad school, and worrying about whether or not I could finish my dissertation, my wise 29-year old husband said to think of it like a boat you’re building. If you know what a boat needs and you get the materials and spend time building it, you need to trust that it will float, because that’s what boats do. Trust the boat to be boat-like.
And this feels like one of those times, when I should have been able to say “trust the boat” and move forward, but I didn’t. The good news is I get credit for pushing myself in to uncomfortable territory and doing just fine. And every time I do that, I have a little bit more street cred.

January Reflections and Projections

I took last week off for Christmas, as promised, but not because I didn’t have anything to say.  My husband and I both caught the Cold From Hell, and it flattened us, to greater and lesser degrees, for two weeks.
The week before Christmas is a blur. We didn’t feel good enough to do many of the things we normally do—bake cookies, play games, sit upright for longer than thirty minutes at a time…. The week after Christmas is a NyQuil-induced daze, complicated by the panic of getting our son ready to go on his first trip away since 6th grade Science Camp.
So this is a blog about opportunities missed and taken and changes looming that we are ready (or not quite ready) for.
My boyo went to France with a school group over break. It was a short trip, just a week there, but we are grateful that he had the opportunity and we had the funds. I really believe travel is transformative, and wanted badly to be able to give my kids that experience. But doing that means he is ready.
He is graduating high school this June, but he belongs to this generation (maybe especially in Southern California, but maybe not) of kids who opt to live at home a few years longer, who choose to go to school locally for that reason, who don’t even drive until they feel they have to.
But this was the first step. The trip abroad, without any parental supervision. In the coming months he’ll get a driver’s license and choose a college, and the baby steps toward maturity will gain momentum.  They’ll have to. His sister, not quite two years his junior, will overtake him if he doesn’t.
So because we have an older boy who prefers to stay close and a younger girl who chomps at the bit, we stand to have an empty nest in a couple years. We’re doing what we can to help their transition and ours.
Because we were sick in the days before he left (and because he’s seventeen), the boy got less guidance on prepping for his trip. He comes home tomorrow, and all appears to have gone just fine. Because we are shifting gears from parents of munchkins to parents of young adults, we are tweaking our jobs and investing in our hobbies. In five years our lives will look radically different than they have for the last ten or so, so we’re buckling up and preparing for impact.
Regardless of our best-laid plans for this break that remain unrealized, it is over. I go back to work tomorrow, and the kids are back in school next week. But we’ve got each other, we like each other, and we’re helping each other move forward. There may even be cookies. 

My Happy Hobby

I think it’s important to have a hobby—maybe not for absolutely everyone, but for almost everyone. Even those of us who love our jobs (and I do—I really do) need something else to do with our heads and  our hands. Maybe those of us who have no physical product in our jobs need one most of all. I certainly felt that. As the child of an architect, I often toured buildings my dad worked on. He worked for the state, so some of the buildings he worked on were prisons, which was less interesting to a preteen and teenager, but there were plenty of city buildings he worked on too, especially since we lived in the state capitol, so frequently as we drove around town, he would point out the window and say “That’s one of ours.” If he weren’t the lead architect, he was still involved, consulted, and proud. And he used to say how wonderful a thing a building was, because everyone from the architect to the bricklayers to the electricians could all point at it and say, “That’s mine. I did that.” 
When I went in to teaching, there was much less opportunity for such a proclamation. About halfway through grad school–knee deep in research, student teaching, and still taking my own classes–I thought about needing a hobby. I couldn’t really point to anything and say “I made that.” Students are much more complex than their education, and no matter how life-changing I like to think an English class can be, I was under no illusion that I “made” anything really.  Intellectual work has little physical product. Even if one writes a book, pointing at the book doesn’t really point at the product in the same way a potter points at a pot or an artist points at a sculpture or a cook points at a pastry. I started seeking out hobbies to fill that need.
I tried a lot of hobbies. My husband watched, amused, as I tried on sewing, jewelry-making, pottery, oil painting, needlepoint, and others. I still have vestiges in my closets of failed hobbies, and they occasionally come in useful, proving the hoarder’s worst nightmare—as soon as you throw something away, you’ll need it. Some of these hobbies, I just wasn’t any good at.  Sewing felt too much like work and involved too much math, actually (which is just an excuse—math isn’t an impediment unless I don’t actually enjoy what I’m doing. Then it’s an extra excuse to drop it.) For a variety of reasons from the silly (my mother did it: that’s her hobby) to the practical (it does take a long time to make an article of clothing), I gave up on sewing and all these others. Pottery stuck the longest; I really enjoyed wheel-throwing, and the useful, pretty (sometimes) things I could make, but when we moved 2000 miles away from my pottery instructor and I had babies and toddlers to tend and tenure to work toward, that fell by the wayside too. 

It wasn’t until my toddlers stopped being toddlers and were safely ensconced in school, and I had tenure and could relax a little, that I found the hobby that stuck. I was invited to a stamping party by the mom of one of my daughter’s friends, and we made a greeting card and a bookmark. Papercrafting. Yes.
For a bookish person, paper was a natural medium, and for the incurable happy-ass that I am, something sweet and cute that you can send to people was perfect. Also, part of me resists technology and values hand-crafted-ness, so the idea of making my own Christmas cards was a delight. And it was practical (HA!)—buying stamps was an investment and I could stop buying cards and tags. (I laugh because this actually is true: I haven’t bought a greeting card in over six years, but the amount of money I have spent on paper and ink and pretty stamps and cute ribbon… has very likely FAR surpassed what I might have spent on Hallmark. Still, not all hobbies have a return on investment like that, so I use it to rationalize pretty readily.)  Finally, the time required to do something meaningful was much less; I could squeeze in making a card or a bookmark in a few minutes if I needed to. It was a perfect hobby for this working mommy. My kids were growing up and were less reliant on me for every little thing, and my husband was great at encouraging me to take more than ten minutes to enjoy my hobby, but still, one of the appeals was that it wasn’t a time sink. 

So I dove in. Not only do I make all the greeting cards we use, I make enough to give packs of cards as gifts. I make all our gift tags and most of our gift bags and boxes. We still buy brown craft paper to wrap, but that’s just about it. I decorate the paper, make my own gift bags or decorate plain store-bought ones, and keep us in bookmarks, despite the puppy’s best efforts to seek out and destroy them all. It is a happy hobby because it revolves around gift giving, and that makes other people happy. It makes me happy too—to make something pretty and useful, and honestly just to MAKE something. The act of creating something fills some need very deep and ancient for me. I’m not making artistic masterpieces, but I am making things we use, and I’m making cards that require us to handwrite a note to people we love, and that makes me happy too in this age of emails and texts and Facebook reminders to wish someone a Happy Birthday. So in addition to making a card, I’m making a personal connection. I like that, probably, most of all.