Honoring Thoreau on His 201st Birthday

Many readers know that I refer to Henry David Thoreau as my “dead soulmate.”   He came in to the world two hundred and one years ago today, making it forever a better place.  I have been a disciple of Thoreau for a long time now.  Shortly after I moved to Maine in 2000, I picked up a copy of The Maine Woods and gained an even deeper appreciation for my new home, its history, and what the sheer wildness of this place does to the human soul.  I have no good/bad judgment on what it does, by the way.  For some people, it feels remote, under-populated, provincial in the small towns and villages, and swamping in the size of its so-called empty territories (which are not actually empty at all, just ask the wildlife).  For others it’s a place of healing through nature, astonishing beauty, cut to the chase no bullshit truth, and a testing ground for self discovery.  For me, it’s all of these things.  One of my favorite passages from The Maine Woods comes from Thoreau’s experience climbing Katahdin.  It reads as follows:

“Think of our life in nature, – daily to be shown matter, to come into contact with it, – rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?” 

And that, ladies and gentlemen, sums up life in Maine.  If you’ve never had that feeling of sheer mind exploding existential wonder – who am I and where is this place? – please contact me.  I’ll recommend some very fine mountain tops in Maine.  I might even cheat a little and send you further over our western border in to New Hampshire’s Presidential Range too.

Ironically, I thought of Thoreau this morning as I took in the scene of my neighbor Becca’s field, which was hayed just yesterday.  The hay is still on the ground and I expect the baler to show up any day now to gather it in to those big, fragrant bales that will become bedding, feed, garden mulching, and who knows what else for countless living things.  Thoreau loved wildness.  Just about a month or so ago I shot a video of this field burgeoning with fresh, colorful lupines, yellow and white daisies, and Indian paintbrushes.  Ducks with their babies were living on the pond.  My young Collie, Wyeth, and I were delirious with the lushness of it and I think my viewers could hear that in my voice.  The field was wild.  Not The Maine Woods wild with its roaming moose and potentially killer river rapids, but wild nonetheless.  Today’s view of the field was decidedly domesticated.  I thought of all of Thoreau’s remarks in Walden about the domestication of land and, more pointedly, the domestication of mankind.  And yet, I also see a beauty of its own in this cut down field; it’s given its all and will now become a sustaining resource for others.  My memory of it in full bloom juxtaposed against today’s scene is a fairly direct lesson in impermanence.  That’s not a bad thing.  If I could have Thoreau over for tea, I’d ask him about this line of thought.

For me, the haying of this field is the cracking of the doorway to fall.  I know it’s only mid July, but July is a dearth month here in Maine, a month when beekeepers have to keep a sharp eye on their hives.  The big spring pollen and nectar flow is over and not much is happening until later in the summer and early fall to keep their little charges in food.  It’s the temporary dearth before the big dearth of late fall and winter.  This is the time of year I notice my young apples forming on their ancient trees and start to imagine the smell of them cooking down in to sauces and pie filling.  My goldenchain tree’s yellow blossoms have turned to tight, brown seed pods in anticipation of next spring.  The hot, muggy days are interspersed with dry, cool ones.

Fall is my best season, and it’s coming, which brings me to the life metaphor that inspired this post.

I turned fifty three last month.   It is not spring in my life anymore.  In fact, it’s barely summer.  Maybe it’s July, but it’s probably more like August, and only if I’m lucky.  Like Becca’s field, I’ve given a bit of myself so that others may thrive and I’ve been privileged and honored to have that opportunity in this life.  I regret nothing in my life as a mother, wife, or friend.  But I do have regrets on the career side of my life, and they have nothing to do with having been a stay at home mom for ten years or putting my sons first; that was worth every moment.  They have, instead, everything to do with not following my passions.  I’ve written about this before, and will not belabor it, but on this, Thoreau’s birthday, it warrants consideration again, not only for me, but for anyone who isn’t quite living the life they have imagined.  Or, as Thoreau put it in one of his most famous quotes (seen on tee shirts, tote bags, and tattoos the world over):

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams!  Live the life you’ve imagined.  As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler.”

Or maybe he truly got down to business in Walden in this single sentence:

“Simplify, simplify.”

If I ever got a tattoo (no…really…that’s not happening…but if), it would probably just be that short, two word sentence.

I’m simplifying my own working life down to three essential elements:  making, writing, teaching.  If an opportunity or venture does not clearly fit as one of the essential elements, I will not be doing it.*  As I look to people in the creative world who I admire, I see that they know how to delegate to achieve their dreams.  They do mostly the work that they love, and, importantly, that no one else can do because the creation is specific to its creator.

Simplifying demands the banishment of fear, or perhaps, its management.  We may not be able to banish the feeling of fear, but we can certainly greet it and act in spite of it.  Fear and love famously (or infamously) do not coexist, and creativity, which in my view is a form of love for this life and our world, is crushed under the weight of fear nearly every time.  Thoreau’s take on go-big-or-go-home seems to have been expressed in this quote:

“I fear chiefly lest my expression may not be extravagant enough, may not wander far enough beyond the narrow limit of my daily experience, so as to be adequate to the truth of which I have been convinced.” 

Thoreau knew failure and chose anyway not to respond with fear or a quelling of his expression.  Thoreau didn’t live to see his super-stardom in the literary and philosophical world.  When he succumbed to tuberculosis in 1862 it was too early to know that he’d one day be so influential to so many.  He didn’t even see the end of the Civil War, a conflict whose outcome he cared about so deeply having been himself involved in the Underground Railroad from his home base of Concord, Massachusetts.   His book  A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was an outright commercial failure at the time of its publication, and yet I, and many others, revere that book today.  It chronicles Thoreau’s time with his brother, John, on the rivers in 1839, before John’s tragic death much too young.  Perhaps my own experience of losing a brother way too soon endears this book to me.  I think I understand a bit of the love, grief, and desire to relive time that may have been at the core of Thoreau’s need to write it.   Even Walden was only moderately commercially successful in its time and today is still the target of harsh criticism by those (in my humble opinion) who understand neither its author or its context.

I want to follow Thoreau the rest of my days, and follow him in his extravagant expression of who he was, not to copy his life or person, but to be inspired by it to find my own best way.  The truth Thoreau was convinced of was broader and deeper than even he could express, for all of his eloquence, and yet he conveyed it somehow to those of us with a heart sympathetic to his message.  His life story and the writing he left behind provide me with strength as I start to publish my own books in the next few years.  I can not hope to be remembered at all two hundred and one years after my birth; I am no Thoreau.   However, I can, and you can, take from his life and work the resonant threads and we can all be the better for them.

Happy Thoreau’s birthday & happy creating.

 

*Footnote: The online shops and the physical studio are not going away, but they are going to be increasingly delegated.  If there is one thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older it’s that I can not do everything and I can not be who I am not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Depression Era Poor Man’s Cake, Courtesy My Grandmother (and a Coupon Code For You)

My grandmother, Mary Barnard, with my niece, Rose, my son, Robert, and my husband, Bill, circa 1991, at her Little Sebago Lake cottage in Gray, Maine.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandmother lately.  I often think of her in challenging times for so many reasons.  At the moment I am realizing that I can no longer realistically run Parris House Wool Works as alone as I have been, because I am running myself ragged (no, threadbare) keeping up with all of the wonderful opportunities I’ve been given.  I have one fantastic helper, a virtual assistant, already started, and two other people waiting for me to get my act and timing together in a smart enough way to hand them some work.  So really, not catastrophic, but the overwhelm is a bit much right now.  Additionally, and more actually truly sad, the canine love of my life, Corgi Tru, was diagnosed with cancer last week and is not expected to live the summer.  She is twelve and she’s had a fantastic life, but I wasn’t ready to face letting her go so soon.

I think about my grandmother in stressful times because I loved her so much and she was such an enormous influence on who I am today.  The very best times of my childhood were spent at her summer cottage on Little Sebago Lake in Gray, Maine.  I was a stressed out child, mostly due to circumstances at home but also because, well, I seem to have been born Type A (I’m working on it). The summer cottage time in Maine with my grandmother was the antidote to that stress.  There were no crazy expectations at the cottage.  I was always good enough.  In fact, I was great, or so my grandmother told me.  We played cards, swam in the lake, climbed hills to find wild blueberries, hiked to an abandoned cellar hole and cemetery, and ate.  We ate ice cream every night at 8 o’clock on the dot.  My grandmother didn’t scoop it out like most people do.  Nope.  She took the paper wrapping off the half gallon – a true half gallon back in the ’70s – and then cut the ice cream in to perfectly even bricks.  I will never know whether she did this just to have nice equal servings or because she had been a Depression era mom and this was the most efficient way to divvy up a box of ice cream.

As I said, my grandmother had been a Depression era mother to three children, my Uncle Courtland, my Aunt Dorothy, and my mother, Elizabeth, all born between 1920 and 1928.  She knew what difficulty really meant.  She lost both of her parents before she was forty herself, and she survived the indescribable worry that must have come with having a son and son-in-law serving in combat during World War II.   As a child I never gave any of these things a thought.  I just knew that this was the sunny grandmother who made my life a dream in the summers and had introduced me to Rudyard Kipling, Lewis Carroll, Grape Nut ice cream, daily diary keeping, Canasta, and, perhaps most pivotally, Maine.

I would often awake in the summer time to the delicious aromas of whatever my grandmother was already baking in the kitchen.  Sometimes it was homemade fried donuts, or cookies, or the recipe I’m going to share with you now, Poor Man’s Cake.  Poor Man’s Cake was a Great Depression recipe and I’d bet there are variations of it, if not this same recipe, in your family too.  It may even be older because my copy of the recipe from my grandmother says, “Poor Man’s Cake, World War,” which may indicate World War I.  Her brother, my great uncle Winfield Martin, had fought in France during the Great War and nearly died.  Thankfully, he recovered in a hospital in France, came home and lived a long and good life.  You will notice that this recipe has no milk, no butter, no eggs.  But don’t be put off.  Either this cake is the most delicious and addictive old recipe ever, or…it just is to me because so many memories are attached to it.

Here it is for you to try.

1 pound raisins in 2 cups water, boiled 15 minutes

Add to the raisins…

3/4 cup shortening and mix together

2 cups sugar

1 cup cold water

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tbsp baking soda

1 tsp nutmeg

1 tsp allspice

1 tsp salt

4 cups flour

1 cup chopped nuts

1/2 jar candied fruit (I don’t know what 1/2 jar measures out to, but feel free to wing it)

Mix all ingredients together.  Bake at 275 degrees for one hour in 3 greased and floured loaf pans.

I know that sounds like a very low oven temperature, but that’s what my grandmother did.  What you end up with is a very soft, very dark raisin/fruitcake, very unlike those doorstop fruitcakes often found in the supermarket during the holidays.  Sometimes she left out the candied fruit and it was more of a raisin spice cake/bread.

This week (May 22nd to May 29th) I’ll offer coupon code POORMANSCAKE in the Etsy and Shopify shops for 10% off your order of $25 or more, and let me know if you try the recipe!

Happy hooking – Beth

 

In to the Hands of the Next Generation

Last Friday I left Maine early in the morning to head out to Rochester, NY for the weekend. It’s not a trip unfamiliar to me because my third son, Peter, is an engineering student at RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology), but I wasn’t visiting Peter.  In fact, I could not visit Peter this trip because he is on co-op semester working for a company in North Carolina right now and through the summer.  No, I was visiting the RIT Hooks & Needles Club to teach them rug hooking.

Saturday at lunch time I was greeted at the local Macaroni Grill by Mirjam, Felix, Elizabeth, Theresa, and Cathryne, the executive board of the club.  We had a wonderful Italian lunch and got to know a little bit about one another.  One thing that was completely clear was that these young women, from different parts of the country (even the world), studying different college majors, and with a variety of interests were all avid fiber artists.  Between them they knit, crochet, cross stitch, needle felt, and engage in other creative pursuits.  They talked about their oversized yarn stashes (some things are universal) and about what fiber art meant to them in their lives.  By the time lunch was over, I knew I was going to have an interesting and good day with them.

They had reserved a great classroom space for us on campus and they helped me set up the room.  It was Accepted Students Day at RIT, so there were a lot of visitors on campus, and some of the students we were expecting for hooking had gotten commandeered to serve as volunteers for the day.  As a result, our class size was smaller than anticipated, but I did not mind.  The mission of getting rug hooking in to the hands of the next generation is worth the trip, whether there are five students or twenty five students.

I felt that having these young women create their own designs would accomplish two things.  One, it would give them a chance to learn how to get a pattern on linen, on the grain, correctly.  Two, it would guarantee that their patterns were things that they could relate to and be excited about.  Their design efforts did not disappoint.

Brightly colored flowers.

 

A purple goat!

 

A woolly sheep.

 

A pig being abducted by aliens!

 

A design from a popular show (I am dying here that I can’t remember the name of the show now!)

My students immediately realized that the Beeline cutter was essentially like a pasta making machine for wool.  They were somewhat disappointed by the price of such a cutter, but I explained that used cutters are very find-able and that I’d keep an eye out for one for the club.

We only had a single afternoon to try to get in a lot of information and the fundamentals of hooking.  Naturally, the projects were not finished by the end of the day, but we did go over finishing techniques on some example pieces and I have promised them that I will start making videos (which people have been asking me to do forever now) on steaming and on each finishing technique we talked about.

It’s absolutely critical to pass rug hooking on to the next generation, and we have to pass it on in a way that honors and respects the fact – the glorious fact – that they will want to make it their own by bringing their own aesthetics, experimental techniques, and unexpected styles to it.  There is no question that every generation also works to preserve the heritage of any art, but if we encouraged them to do only that and not grow and adapt the art to the modern world, we would be contributing to the stagnation and death of the form.   I believe in teaching good fundamentals so that the craft moves down generations intact in terms of the overall quality of the work, but I do not believe in restricting students (of any age) to one genre, one color palette, or any one anything.   At RIT the students are innovators by nature, and it was exciting to talk to these young women about how they might innovate in their fiber art lives as well.

Toward the end of class, one of the students asked me how I got in to rug hooking.  As many of you know, I took up hooking after my mother passed away and I desperately needed a grounding, zen, creative activity as a mode of healing.  This story opened the door for the students to share what their art had meant to them, and the aspect of healing came up in their stories as well.   What a beautiful thing we have here.  It turns out that art transcends age, especially if we allow and encourage the young to make it their own.

As I was starting to pack up my things, I was presented with an absolutely gorgeous pink crocheted throw that the women had made for me as a thank you gift.  I will treasure this forever.  I put it to use as soon as I got home, wrapping it around my shoulders as I worked at my desk.

It was truly a privilege for me to teach these young women.  I want to give a heartfelt thanks to Mirjam, Felix, Elizabeth, Theresa, and Cathryne for spending their Saturday with me and I can’t wait to see their finished projects.  When I have pics of those, I’ll share them as well.

Who can you pass hooking on to?  Make a list of at least five young people to approach.  Rug hooking can survive for centuries more.  It’s up to us.

 

Always Do Your Best, Even When It’s Not “Enough”

Something happened this past weekend that made me think about intent, process, and outcome.  We can not always control outcomes, but we can control our own intent, our own decision making, our own process.  Here’s what got me started down that thought path.

This is my son Robert’s girlfriend Tracy, getting eye to eye with a stray cat.  While they were vacationing for his 27th birthday in Virginia this past weekend, they encountered a cat by the side of the road.  Being cat people, they stopped the car to make sure the cat was ok.  He wasn’t.  It was clear to them that he was injured and sick.  Because it was a Sunday, they had to search high and low for an animal hospital that was open, and finally found one in Charlottesville.  Transporting the cat to this open animal hospital involved several hours of driving for them (on my son’s birthday), and their feline passenger pooping in Rob’s car.

I wish I could say this story has a happy ending, but it doesn’t.  The cat was found to have FIV, which made adoption by Rob and Tracy impossible because they have other cats at home.  More importantly, the cat had a serious brain/neurological injury from what was likely being hit by a car, along with other injuries.  When Rob last spoke to the animal hospital, it was the vet’s opinion that the most humane thing to do would be to put the cat to sleep.

I felt bad for Rob and Tracy.  They love animals (in fact, so much that they build cat beds for their Etsy shop) and had done everything within their power to save this one, to no avail.  I also felt bad for the cat, because I love cats so much and, of course, we have our own crazy orange tabby, Tesla, here at the Parris House who is part of our family.  I told them that they had at least provided this animal with affection and kindness when he was so sick and injured, and that they had sacrificed their own vacation time in an effort to save his life.

This is just how life is sometimes, and we need to remember it.  If we are always obsessed with a safe and assured outcome, we will never take chances.  Sometimes – often – we’re going to win for our efforts.  But sometimes we’re not, and sometimes there’s no accounting for the difference either.  It’s just how it is.

There is a fair amount – more than we’re willing to admit – of uncertainty in life, actually.  It’s why I hug my sons tightly when we have to say goodbye (which is often; they are all grown men now).  It’s why I drive back to the house if I’m not 100% sure I unplugged the iron.  It’s why I take nothing – absolutely nothing – for granted.  It’s also why I do my best and leave the outcome to take care of itself, because it’s going to and maybe not in the way I thought.

Of course, the flip side to all of this uncertainty resulting in disaster is uncertainty resulting in success beyond our wildest dreams.   Life is filled with those unexpected results as well.  For example, I knew that when we approached Beekman 1802 with our work in 2014, there was an off chance they’d say “yes” to it, but I wasn’t really expecting it.  That trip went, and that relationship continues to go, so well that I could never have imagined it beforehand.  From that one chance we (my then biz partner, Jen and I) took three years ago has come many happy pillow recipients, new friends for me, and opportunities I could not have dreamed of.

The same could be said from my experiences teaching at Squam, or from an online friendship that resulted in the recommendation of a publisher for my as yet still a dream book (the proposal is in though…I’m taking a chance…).

We don’t know what’s going to happen in our lives, good, bad, or anything in between.  But we can control the intent, the process, and our own effort.  Therefore, with this one life – this one, brief, amazing, limited time only life – we have to just do our best.  Doing our best creates better odds for the outcomes we want, and better handling of disappointment when things don’t go our way.  When we do our best we have fewer regrets, knowing we gave it all we had.

Next Monday I’ll have a more fiber art related post (although this topic also applies to the way we approach our art), as I am traveling to Rochester, NY this weekend to teach a pretty large group of RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology) students rug hooking.  When I interact with high school and college students I see young adults engaged in doing their best to make their dreams come true, and that’s inspiring.  I’ll have the whole story for you a week from today!

Have a great week, and give it your best.  – Beth

 

Giving Back – Our Choice for 2017

Back in the late fall, I announced that Parris House Wool Works was going to choose a worthy non-profit to support in 2017.  I knew that I could not give much – Parris House Wool Works is still finding its feet – but I wanted to give something, as much as I could.  I got a lot of absolutely great suggestions through the company page and my personal page, and I hope that by putting those threads out there all of those organizations got a little boost.  But ultimately, something really clicked for me just this month when my friend Betsy Brown posted an appeal for a girls’ camp here in Maine.  Betsy works at this camp, knows its strengths, its benefits, and most importantly, its girls.

Let me tell you a little bit about me, and it may become clearer why this cause hit me just right.

When I was a little girl growing up in southern NJ, I spent summers on Little Sebago Lake in Gray, Maine with my grandparents.   Many of you have read one of the most popular posts I’ve ever written on that experience.  If you haven’t, it’s here.    At any rate, I was phenomenally fortunate to be able to leave a situation in NJ not without personal problems and pressures and spend my summers lakeside with people who showed me unconditional love, who believed in me without exception, and where I could have new and empowering experiences like swimming, hiking, learning about plants and animals, cooking and baking, or just having the time to reflect.   Later, while raising my own sons, I would bear witness to the summer camp experience at Camp Hinds on Panther Pond in Raymond, Maine.   “Hinds,” as so many of us call it, is a Boy Scout camp where Scouts from all over the country spend weeks or more in the summer.  These boys are coming from a variety of life situations, and the experiences at Hinds can be life changing for them in the best possible ways.  My third son, Peter, an Eagle Scout, spent the most time there, but all of my sons experienced it in some way.

Fast forward to just the past few years when I have taught at the Squam Art Workshops, which is basically a wildly creative summer camp for grownups, attended mostly by women.   If you want to know what that was like, you can check on my previous post here.   I titled that post, “And the Universe Said Yes” because that is what it was like for me…decades…as in four decades…after my experiences on Little Sebago with my grandparents, I still needed and benefited from the empowerment (there’s that word again, but it’s irreplaceable in this context), camaraderie, unconditional love, and art and skill building that are the hallmarks of Squam.

And where do I go when I need to be creative, centered, feel my best about myself, and maybe discover more about myself?  I go to our own cottage on Little Sebago, Sunset Haven, and allow myself to breathe.

The benefit of a good summer camp with a loving staff, especially for children and young people not normally exposed to nature, empowering skills and activities, or even broad and caring acceptance, is immeasurable.  I know, because even though my “summer camp” experience was in a private home, it saved me in a number of important ways.

Some of the kids who need this experience most come from families who can not afford to pay for it.  One two week session at the camp I am about to introduce you to costs $1,450, which, to me, seems like a bargain given everything that this camp offers.  Take a look for yourself as I introduce you to West End House Girls Camp on Long Pond in Parsonsfield, Maine.

Photo courtesy the WEHGC Facebook page.

This introduction to West End House Girls Camp is taken from their web page:

Welcome to West End House Girls Camp. We believe in the power of camp to change lives.

For many girls, summer camp isn’t in the cards. That’s where West End House Girls Camp (WEHGC) comes in.  Building on the 100-plus year history of Boston’s West End House, WEHGC offers need-blind summer camp opportunities for girls and young women from all walks of life, many of whom wouldn’t otherwise have this experience.

WEHGC opened its doors in 2011 alongside the West End House Camp (for boys) on Long Pond in Parsonsfield, Maine.” We now support over 140 girls per summer and have plans to grow to accommodate over 300 girls per summer.

What do girls get out of our camp? On the surface, the things everyone gets from camp: Sunshine. Laughter. Campfires and new friends. But for these girls, camp is also a chance to feel safe, be themselves, and experience a judgment-free zone – things they may not experience elsewhere. They learn to make independent, responsible decisions when faced with challenges.

Ultimately, our goal is for campers to develop in a variety of ways. Whether it’s new skills, self-confidence, or a side of themselves they may not have known before, we want them to carry something special with them beyond their days at camp, into the real world – life-changing experiences.

I would encourage you to go their website and surf around.  Look most carefully at the “Values” page, where you will find a list of everything we need more of in this country and this world today, and perhaps some of the things these girls need most in their lives as well.   Their testimonials about what the camp has meant to them are here.

Girls and women need to know that they are valued, that they can achieve at a very high level, and that in spite of the challenges they face, they have within themselves the power to make a better life for themselves.  No matter what childhood situation we are coming from, we need to know that, and more importantly, be shown that.  I believe that West End House Girls Camp does exactly that, and I believe we are at time in America where this is as vitally important as ever.

I have made an initial pledge to West End House Girls Camp for $1000 this year, with a goal of another $450 if I can which would round out the cost of one entire two week scholarship.  I am humbled by the fact that I can not yet give more, but it’s a start, and if I can surpass the $1450 goal with the kind of growth I’m looking for this year, I absolutely will.  Chances are also good that I will not feel as though my support of WEHGC is over at the end of the year, and I will continue my support in to the future, hopefully in bigger and better ways.

If this is something that interests you as well, you can find the West End House Girls Camp donation page here.  I will be bringing you news and updates about the camp throughout 2017, especially on our social media.  You can follow them on Facebook by clicking here.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you will be moved to either support WEHGC also, or some other worthy nonprofit of your choice.  Our country and our world need a heavy dose of all that is right, good, empowering, and compassionate, one person, one act, one donation, one hour at a time.  It’s up to us.

Happy hooking! – Beth

Logo courtesy the West End House Girls Camp Facebook page