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. ❤


Lots of Work, but No Less Play: Observations on Academic Worklife and Personal Happiness

Every once in a while a student who’s considering going in to academia asks me how I manage to maintain a happy work/life balance.  I certainly don’t feel like an expert, but I am happy. But he first answer to that question has little to do with me:  find a partner who supports you and likes seeing you happy.
Rob and I got married very young. We were both sophomores in college, both enjoying college, and both invested in a long haul, education-wise. We were also both youngest children, so a friend of mine who was interested in Birth Order and personality warned us that “Two youngest children will spend each other in to the ground.”
I suppose he wasn’t wrong.  We’re still paying off student loans, even as our children get ready for college. What we both brought to the relationship, whether from birth order or some other reason, was a conviction that we deserved to be happy, and joy at seeing the other person happy. That was enough to be getting on with.
Some of the ways that has been borne out over the years are by spoiling ourselves and each other by spending money on our respective hobbies. One of the vows we wrote in to our wedding ceremony was “to encourage each other’s development as an individual, through all the years and changes of our lives.” One thing about getting married at 19: growing up and changing needs to be understood and embraced. He plays WarHammer, a game which involves dropping a ton of cash on plastic bits you can’t even play with until you’ve built and painted them. It also means I happily spend $20 on a single stamp set, seeing it as an investment in my future happiness.

It also means we’re protective of each other’s time. He’s quick to point out that a free weekend is sometimes worth more (cosmically) than what I would make grading Graduate Writing Tests, and I was overjoyed when my raise meant he could drop a class at the school that was both farthest away and the least fun for him.

Mostly, though, it means we have each other’s back in terms of support. When he’s got grading to do, I safeguard his time by picking up slack around the house. When I have something to write, he packs the kids off to Magic Mountain for the day.
Perhaps what’s most surprising about this is not how stinking lucky I am (I am—I’m aware!), but how this balance happened in a single generation.  My mom was delighted to be a Stay At Home Mom, and my dad was delighted to be a Provider.  But somehow as they raised me, it never occurred to me not to work outside the home. And Rob, who was raised by a single mom, always knew he wanted to be an involved dad.
Maybe that’s a place to start, or in my case, end—start from the understanding that you need to work—to contribute—but with the knowledge that a) there are different kinds of work, and home-making counts, and b) if you work at something you love, you’re already halfway to balance.  Second, remember that no matter how much you love your job, it is a job.  As such it supports your life, but is not your life.  This is the difference between living to work and working to live, right?  You owe it to yourself and to your family to have a full, happy home-life, and if you have kids, to model that for them.
And then, if you can, get on the Scheduling Committee, so you can write your own schedule. 😏
PS:  The Robbian Corollary to Work/Life Balance requires far fewer words.  He believes you need to be challenged to be happy, but also supported.  So the best way to do that is to have a demanding, challenging job and a relaxed, happy home.  Hard Job/Easy Home, rather than Easy Job/Hard Home.  I could be wrong, but I expect that’s his advice for everything from choosing a career to choosing a partner to the Grand Secret of Happiness on Earth.  He’s much more succinct (and dramatic) than I.

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.


Texts and Textiles: How we make our peace

One of the wonderful benefits of a hobby is sharing it with a community.  I wasn’t out to convert everyone to love what I love, but I was keen on creating time to be creative, and time to be chatty with friends.  Most of my friends are creative, and those who thought they weren’t have been shown otherwise.  Before long, I established a space where my friends could crochet, cross stitch, sew felt coasters, and make labels for homemade products, in addition to stamping and paper crafting.  My dining table is an oval—the only better shape would be a circle, but a circle big enough for all our ramblings would be too large for my space.  The oval works.  It is cozy, welcoming, warm, and inviting—surrounded by wonderful people and topped with creativity.
Along with this making, though, we do other important work.  Sometimes I cook, and we have a meal first.  Sometimes we do a potluck sort of meal; sometimes we just nibble on snacks as we work.  All of that contributes to a feeling of nurturing conviviality, and to me gives the sense of “product in, product out.”  We eat, then we create.  Lately, though, for various schedule and complicated-life-related reasons, we have been meeting later, after dinner, and snacks are less necessary than they were when I was building this community.  Now what we feed on is words. 
A group of women around a table doing handicrafts is a recipe for conversation, of course.  It takes part in the long, glorious tradition of quilting bees, craft bazaars, and the more modern idea of the “Stitch and Bitch” session.  We talk as we work.  We tell each other the story of our days.  Whoever is having the worst time at the moment, and needs the support of the group most immediately gets to go first, and we sort of tacitly understand we need to “deal” with that person’s problems before anything else.  And that’s what we do.  I read an article in The Onion one time that detailed a Girls’ Night Out, where women spent the evening “validating the living shit out of each other.” That’s where we start.  Whoever needs to dump their drama on the table does so, along with the paper scraps and yarn and ink pads and chocolate almonds, and we sift through it together.  We are honest in our support, and not afraid to speak truth to each other, but overall, we are a very sympathetic audience.  And somewhere in the snipping and pasting and analyzing and categorizing, things get sorted out, set to right—we reassemble ourselves as we assemble our little projects.
After the first person has spoken, the conversation moves fluidly, in and out of associations, memories, current struggles and successes.  The stories that we shape while we’re making cards or knitting baby blankets or stringing beads for a bracelet are every bit as important as the physical product—individually, perhaps moreso.  What has happened is that lovely concatenation of camaraderie and comfort that a semi-common purpose facilitates.  We are all woven in to each other’s stories, as supporting characters and new narrators.  We help each other see from different perspectives and offer multiple solutions to dealing with current problems.  Then we re-position ourselves as main characters and write ourselves in to the future. 
Sometimes the drama is small—daily dramas of the home or workplace.  Someone’s child is struggling in school.  Someone else has a family member causing unnecessary trouble.  Some project at work is fraught with setbacks or frustrations.  We deal with all of that pretty quickly.  Sometimes, though, it’s big stuff—decisions about starting a family, changing careers, moving out of state, caring for parents.  I think we rise to those too, with the same sort of diligence and good will.  Fewer cards get cranked out on those nights, but that’s ok.  Crafting is only the vehicle—the excuse to gather.  The real work is social, communal, and yes—literary, as we rewrite our lives and revision who we are.  It’s true that sometimes you don’t know what you think until you say it out loud (or write it down, but that’s a different blog).  My crafting table is a place where past stories are analyzed and future stories scripted. Sometimes this happens quite literally:  we help each other word responses to angry clients and cousins, repeat mantras or catch phrases to help us deal with problems in the moment, and talk through strategies to solve particular crises.  Because some of us are in academia, some of our support happens in the form of reading and helping to revise academic papers, tenure packets, and grant proposals.  Or someone needs help crafting descriptions for items for an online store, or topics for a blog.  Really, very literally, much of what we deal with directly is made of words, and we are called upon to “wordsmith” our way out of problems.  We create as many texts as textiles around my table.
But all of this wordsmithing takes place around an oval table littered with scissors and markers and felt and beads, and over a drink or a snack or a meal, between a few friends, whose characters make possible not only the meeting, but also the changing—the crafting of well-wrought lives.
“Female Friends Spend Raucous Night Validating the Living Shit out of Each Other.” The Onion.  Feb 23, 2012. Vol. 48, Issue 8.–27446