Stuart Kestenbaum is the current Poet Laureate of Maine. His biography from his website states:
“Stuart Kestenbaum is the author of four collections of poems, Pilgrimage (Coyote Love Press), House of Thanksgiving (Deerbrook Editions), Prayers and Run-on Sentences (Deerbrook Editions) and Only Now (Deerbrook Editions). He has also written The View from Here (Brynmorgen Press), a book of brief essays on craft and community.
He has written and spoken widely on craft making and creativity, and his poems and writing have appeared in numerous small press publications and magazines including Tikkun, the Sun, and the Beloit Poetry Journal. He is currently serving as Maine’s poet laureate and hosts Poems from Here on Maine Public Radio/Maine Public Classical
He was the director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine for over twenty-five years, and was elected an honorary fellow of the American Craft Council in 2006.”
After listening to Stuart Kestenbaum’s poetry and interviews on Maine Public for many years, imagine my delight and surprise in being able to go to a live reading and meet the man himself.
Of course, he did not disappoint. His poetry was personal, moving, and filled with deep references to place that, when interspersed with traditional Universalist hymns, rituals, and readings in a century old rural Maine church created an atmosphere as reverent and holy as any in the world. With so much (deserved) focus on Notre Dame this past month, we would also be well served to remember and honor the smallest places of worship in our very own communities.
Stuart also shared himself generously, offering his own thoughts and experiences, his writing process, and so much more in personal vignettes related to the readings and to us. His work, both in his writing and in his twenty seven years as director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, reflect a deep love for and awareness of the interconnections between nature, making, art, writing, craft, and living as a human on this planet. For this reason, although I was surprised to find our distinguished Poet Laureate at such a tiny venue in such a tiny village in front of, yes, a tiny audience, it also seemed so right.
You see, Universalist churches are a haven for inclusion, and Stuart’s poetry and message felt as though it spoke to all of humanity even as it resonated with us, his fellow Mainers. As I approached the church in West Paris I immediately noticed its lawn sign: “Hate has no home here.” Next to the front doors, literally permanently fastened to the building, is the rainbow flag, a sign that LGBTQ persons are welcomed and loved in this place of worship. These signs of inclusion are soft and welcoming, yet they are also fierce. They are fierce in their message of unconditional love and acceptance, something every major world religion teaches and yet so few of us, if we’re honest, are able to live up to. People of many upbringings and traditions have found home at Universalist churches and for this reason I have always been drawn to them. They are common here in New England where progressive and free thought is both revered and, by some, reviled, and has been for centuries.
For whatever reason, however, I had never been to the First Universalist Church of West Paris. After being warmly welcomed at the door (by Will Chapman, by the way, the full time librarian and archivist for the Bethel Historical Society and part time librarian at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village), I was stunned by two visually overwhelming and beautiful features of this century old church.
First, the stained glass windows in this building are just breathtaking. Anyone who is an ardent admirer of stained glass should visit this church and spend some time awestruck by the craftsmanship and detail they show. Second, and of a very different nature, are two phenomenally hand-crafted works of fiber art at the back of the church. They were made by artists in Peru who used their fiber art as a means of support and were gifted to the church by a congregant. They are extremely detailed scenes of life on earth, filled with plants, animals, humans, scenes of village life, all in vibrant color using a variety of textiles and techniques. It was in the midst of this unexpected beauty and craftsmanship that the next hour of poetry, prayer, and fellowship unfolded, and it went by quickly.
At the end of a Universalist worship service, there is a ritual called the closing circle. All of us stood, held hands, and formed a circle while Stuart offered some closing thoughts. He reminded us that the context of our meeting here included world news of the terrible synagogue shooting this past week at Congregation Chabad in California and the Holy Week terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka and offered encouraging words of love and unity. As I stood there holding hands with people who were, prior to that hour, strangers, people who came from many walks of life and many religious or non-religious traditions, I wondered once again why hate gets the upper hand and creates tragedy all over the world. I don’t have the answer to that. I know you don’t either. But I can tell you that for one hour or so in West Paris, Maine, in one Universalist Church, with one Poet Laureate and a small group of loving and welcoming individuals, love reigned.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the many meanings of “sustainability.” After doing a little binge watching of Marie Kondo’s tidying up show on Netflix, I was forced to re-confront the sustainability of owning and maintaining everything I have. In January, I became aware of an online Zero Waste course sponsored by Eco Collective in Seattle, took the course, and pondered more about both waste and a more intentional use of resources in my life. Additionally, I have been reading about the closures of facilities at Woolrich in Pennsylvania and Jagger Brothers yarns here in Maine with sincere dismay. The word used to describe these operations by the decision makers responsible for the closures was, “unsustainable.”
Of course, there are sustainability issues in our very own microcosms, our personal and career lives. I have two assistants, one on site and one off site, because even with my tiny business the workload required to continue its growth curve was unsustainable for me alone. I recently had to announce that I’d be stepping away in 2020 from a volunteer position that’s near and dear to me because it has become, added to my other upcoming commitments, unsustainable for me. Just this week my husband and I had a heart to heart about the sustainability of my work hours vs rest and family time, because the red flags are everywhere. I attended church with the intention to keep going for the first time in years this past weekend. I have noticed that my mental and spiritual health has reached an unsustainable and yes, unstable, point without a carefully chosen faith community to help remind me that unconditional love is still very much alive in the larger world.
I owe this topic, this integration of what sustainability means in its many contexts, to a post by our friends at Dulse & Rugosa, a beautiful zero waste skin and hair care company based on Gott’s Island here in Maine. I had posted the article about the Jagger Brothers yarn mill closing and Dulse & Rugosa was able to broaden that out to the issue of sustainability in general. I had said that when I was a real estate broker and didn’t get both sides of a home sale, my father used to say, “Half loaves add up to whole loaves.” I’d said that the same held true in supporting – sustaining – the things, businesses, people, organizations, the very planet, that we love. We don’t have to give a whole loaf. We don’t even have to give half a loaf. We just need to give whatever part of the loaf we can when we can. If we can do that, we can perhaps reduce the number of sad business closures we read about on a regular basis.
Dulse & Rugosa responded by posting this image on their social media pages.
How would our decisions be different if we were planning to stay? While American culture tends to avoid explicit discussions around death, we certainly do behave as though whatever we won’t live to see doesn’t matter. This implies an awareness of our mortality, perhaps only when that awareness is convenient. But what if we lived as though we “planned to stay?” Because, you know, we do stay, long after our mortal bodies are gone. We stay in impactful ways and those ways can be positive, negative, neutral, or somewhere along a continuum of all three. How would we treat the world, which includes the earth, each other, everything in it, if we planned to stay? Maybe another way of asking is, “What would we do if we acknowledged that what we do matters?”
Sustainability is so often a concept used in the context of environmental policy, and rightly so. However, I want to suggest that we also look at sustainability by asking the following questions. I also want to make clear that I struggle with these as much as anyone else does.
Of the hundreds or thousands of things that I own, which ones do I want/need in a way that’s sustainable not only now, but also do not burden my loved ones after I am gone?
Of all the businesses I say are important to me, how many do I offer sustenance to by buying something from them on a regular basis, even if it’s just a small thing? Do I wear my “Shop Small” pin mostly to big box stores and then feel deflated when my local yarn store folds?
Of all the activities I give my time to, which ones create the best outcomes for myself, the people I love, and the larger world?
Of all the activities I give my time to, are there any that require taking time away from others? Do others ever have to bear the costs of my allocation of time?
When I buy something, how much packaging do I really need? Does visually engaging but ultimately land-fillable (or worse) packaging add real sustainable value or just make the product more salable for its manufacturer at the outset?
When I choose my DIY activities, what kind of balance can I strike between those things my knowledge and resources are well suited to and those things I can leave to others, thereby supporting their businesses? (For example, here at the Parris House, we grow vegetables, apples, keep bees, and keep hens. We make our own soaps and of course, we do fiber art. Our resources would not sustain larger livestock, but we can support our local raw dairy and meat producers by buying from them instead.)
At the top of this post I have a photo of last year’s pea harvest. I love fresh, sweet peas, but every year I grow them I think to myself, “That was a lot of time, space, tending, and shelling for such a small return.” Is it a small return, though? That’s a subjective question. How do I quantify the satisfaction inherent in the process of growing, harvesting, preparing, and then tasting those fresh peas? To borrow from Marie Kondo, they definitely “spark joy.” I suppose for me, staking out a row for peas, knowing the return is objectively modest, is worthwhile and it’s causing no harm. For someone else, the effort would simply look unsustainable. Everything we do, buy, produce, or spend time on can be subjectively evaluated in the same way unless it is simply crystal clear that whatever we’re analyzing is objectively harmful or unsustainable.
I think you get the gist of my musings. In my life there have been several crossroads at which the unsustainability of a single decision or accumulation of decisions has become so unbearable that some kind of disruptive change has been necessary to create a more tenable life situation. What I am learning now is that by looking at sustainability in a holistic, multi-contextual way, I can make better decisions that will work in the direction of ease and responsibility – to myself, to others, and to the planet – instead of accumulating in to an unsustainable morass. These decisions include what I choose to do and have and what I choose not to do and not to have.
Henry David Thoreau distilled this down to its very essence when he wrote, “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” Thoreau lived as though he planned to stay, conducting his life with an economy that is rarely matched in modern day America. In fact, his economy with words is one I apparently can not hope to achieve.
I’d be very interested to know your thoughts on this topic and the contexts in which sustainability has meaning for you. In a country where some of us have too much and yet others have much too little, what are the moral implications of seeking sustainability in a variety of ways as well? Feel free to join the discussion. I know I don’t have even a fraction of the answers.
We are in the last hours of 2018 and I find myself thinking about the psychological concept of negativity bias, explained on Wikipedia this way: “The negativity bias, also known as the negativity effect, is the notion that, even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature (e.g. unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions; harmful/traumatic events) have a greater effect on one’s psychological state and processes than neutral or positive things.” I admit I fall victim to this. If someone asked me “How as 2018?” I might respond with a long sigh…even a groan. I mean, hey, I listen to a LOT of NPR. My political and social proclivities are known to most of you. No need to elaborate here. But I’ve got a great antidote to our natural negativity bias. Go back and look at your Facebook or Instagram photos from 2018. Yes, it’s a known hazard of social media that we post our “highlight reels.” This does have the effect of perhaps sugar coating things and, it is ever important to say, we should never judge our own real lives by the highlight reels of others. But I am arguing here that these photos can also serve as a gratitude journal of sorts, assembled perhaps unintentionally but there nonetheless.
The working title of my upcoming book is A Year at the Parris House and that’s exactly what these photos, culled from the Parris House Wool Works Facebook page and posted during 2018 show. While these are highlights, and specifically highlights related to my fiber art and homesteading life, they also represent a good part of my personal reality and one that I enjoy sharing with others. It doesn’t mean that nothing bad happened to me, my loved ones, my friends, or especially my country during 2018. But these photos are one hundred and seventy five or so touchstones for gratitude. They show in my professional life: a book contract, a successful gardening and beekeeping season, an article and project in Making Magazine, my first book advance, a writing and making trip to my beloved Nova Scotia, work on a major commissioned piece, my ongoing work with Beekman 1802, happy times teaching and demonstrating skills and arts (here, at Beekman 1802, and at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village), two hook-ins (Belfast & Paris Hill), and our remarkable Get Hooked at Sea trip aboard the Schooner J&E Riggin with so many other talented souls.
I shared some personal points of gratitude too, including another trip to Nova Scotia for the graduation of my son James’ girlfriend, Beth, from Dalhousie University, and the highlight of my entire year, the wedding of my son, Robert, to his beautiful bride, Tracy. My relatively new Collie companion, Wyeth, has been at my side for all of this.
2019 is already shaping up to be another year of gratitude. I am working on another magazine project and article, finishing up that major commissioned piece, finishing up my book manuscript, and starting the redecorating/sprucing up of the Parris House for its opening in 2020 as a fiber art/homesteading/heritage skills center, just in time for the publication of my book. I am also in the beginning stages of a new teaching initiative I’m brainstorming with some cherished collaborators and, of course, Ellen Marshall of Two Cats and Dog Hooking and I are already taking registrations for Get Hooked at Sea II. I may even get to Rhinebeck this year (fingers crossed on the new vendor juried application) and I will definitely be back at the Sharon Springs Harvest Festival. On a personal note, my two youngest sons, Peter and Paul, and Paul’s girlfriend, Gabi, are graduating from college in May. I have reached an age where not knowing what else a year will bring is met with anticipation rather than anxiety, although, being no stranger to tragedy in my own life and in the lives of those I love, I am hoping all of us can avoid that unknown this year.
I would encourage you to look back at your own photos from the past year and linger over them long enough to remember the moments in which they were taken. Most importantly, remember the people in your life who made that moment possible and take some time to thank them for their part in making the best of whatever 2018 dished out. We do nothing, achieve nothing, are nothing, alone. In my case I need to thank my family, my friends, my VA, Paul McCoy of Practically Arts Studio, my assistant, Heather Daggett, the Tuesday group, my online customers, and all of the makers, including Ron Adams of Bear Pond Wood Works and Edna Olmstead, who have helped stock the shop with good things since day one. I need also to thank Josh Kilmer-Purcell, Brent Ridge, and everyone at Team Beekman 1802 for continuing to afford me an opportunity to better make a living with my art and also spread the art to a wider audience than I would have on my own. To every venue and every publication that has ever hosted me for teaching or writing – including Beekman 1802,Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, Telstar Adult Ed, Stitchery in Rhode Island, Portfiber, Rug Hooking Magazine, Making Magazine, the Schooner J&E Riggin, and now my publishers at Down East Books/Rowman & Littlefield. To mentors who have generously taught me so much: Connie Fletcher of Seven Gables Designs, Susan Feller of Susan L. Feller, Artwools, Eric Davis, Vanessa Rogers of Backwoods Bee Farm, Carol Cottrill, Lisa Steele of Fresh Eggs Daily, David Homa of Post Carbon Designs, Edna Olmstead, Mike Iamele and the incredible people in our Mastermind group, Britt Bolnick of In Arms Coaching, and more. I know I am risking leaving someone out by name; there are just so many to thank as this year winds down. If you tried to write a paragraph like this, who would you come up with? Perhaps take some time in the next few weeks to privately and even publicly thank them.
I don’t expect all of you to look at my pictures. I have compiled them here as much for my own future reference as for your possible enjoyment. There are about one hundred and seventy five of them, so click through some, all, or none, but do click through your own and, if you feel called to, tell us what you were grateful for in 2018. Sometimes gratitude is just the fuel and inspiration we need to go out in to the world and help right the things that are wrong in it.
Thank you to every single one of you for your support in 2018 and I wish you a very happy, prosperous, and beauty filled 2019. – Beth
*Note on clicking through…be sure your cursor is pointed on the side arrow which will appear as you hover on either side of the photo. The arrows tend to shift up or down a little bit as the photos appear.
So, I’m writing a book. For over a year I have been shopping a proposal to publishers. I knew that I could self publish at any point, but I have wanted to collaborate with a publisher for many reasons, not the least of which is to tap in to a professional editor’s expertise in helping to make the book something that will best serve my audience and that will have a viable distribution channel. One publisher told me that the proposed book was too broad for their niche. Another publisher told me it was too niche for their broad audience. Fortunately, like Goldilocks, I found a match that was just right in Down East Books, headquartered in Rockport, Maine (yes, I know the image says Camden, but trust me on this), which is an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield in Maryland.
This book is both in itself, and is about, the realization of dreams. I learned to read when I was three. My mother always said I was two but I’m adding a year to that to make up for a possible exaggeration on her part. I mean, maybe? But no matter. I started writing stories at about age five, drawing pictures to go with them. I remember one in particular was titled, “The Foggy Frog.” I collected frogs, the toy and figurine type, although I played with real live toads on the regular outdoors on the edge of the southern NJ Pine Barrens where I grew up. I remember the pictures I drew. I could recreate them even today. By the time I was twelve I knew I wanted to publish books of my own. I was twelve over forty years ago. In the intervening four decades I had stopped listening to the inner me who wanted to write, make art, play music, and have a creative career. People who meet me today think I’ve been working in the creative economy my entire life, but it’s only been since 2014 that I’ve worked in fiber art full time. By the time my new book is published it will be 2020. I will turn fifty-five years old in 2020. I want you to hear something loudly and clearly in this: it is never too late to realize a dream.
The working title of this book is, Seasons at the Parris House: Heritage Skills for a Contemporary Life. I have no idea at this moment whether or not that will be the title on the front of my book when it is released in 2020 but it captures the essence of what it is about. Let me take an excerpt from my proposal to explain the vantage point from which I approach this project:
“When I was thirty five, eighteen years ago, my husband and I moved ourselves and our four then-little sons from the urban/suburban Princeton, NJ area, a region in which we had spent our entire lives, to rural Western Maine. We went from a 1950s mid century modern cape on a suburban lot to a two hundred year old Federal home and barn in a National Historic District. Our new neighbor across the street had a cow in the backyard, much to our young sons’ amusement. I was a stay at home mother with a degree in Business Administration/Marketing from the University of Delaware. I had, prior to becoming an at-home mom, worked in market research and in procurement and project management for a large defense contracting company on busy Route 1 in NJ. I didn’t garden, I didn’t hook rugs, I didn’t keep chickens or bees, I had no idea how to can food. Upon arriving to the Parris House, I noticed that our apple trees looked like they needed some attention, but I had no idea what to do. Sometimes I baked. But it seemed as though almost everyone around me in my new home was proficient in at least one heritage skill, whether they were my age or old timers, and I thought, “That’s amazing. I need to learn these things too.” That was the beginning of my journey of bringing heritage skills into my own life, without a big farm, without a lot of formal training, but rather learning them the way the people around me had learned them: the passing on of knowledge, often inter-generationally, from one human being to another.”
That was my situation upon the realization of one of my most fervent dreams to that point, which had been to move to rural Maine and raise my sons here. What I know now is that the desire to work with my hands, create something out of nothing, grow and preserve food, keep animals and insects, and “practice heritage skills,” was not unique to me. In the nearly two decades I have lived here in Maine and collected a new skill set, the yearning for these skills among the general population has only increased, including among people living in urban areas and people with little to no land at all to work with. I tell people all the time that none of this is rocket science, but they often seem skeptical. They seem to believe that heritage skills are complicated, mysterious, or beyond their reach. They are not, and this book is for anyone who wants to make a start toward learning them.
I have always enjoyed the juxtaposition in my own life of living in a two hundred year old home in a National Historic District while always embracing the newest technology I could afford. At the Parris House we have smart phones, smart lights, and smart thermostats. This laptop I’m writing on right now, not to mention the fact that I use it to run a business that’s about 90% online, is a technological godsend. We also have centuries old windows with wavy glass and completely pesticide free growing practices. I dye wool in pots on top of a vintage gas range…and then sell that wool to anyone literally in the world who wants it via the internet. You don’t have to live like Laura Ingalls on the prairie to embrace heritage skills, and you don’t have to completely forsake the solid methods of our ancestors to live a contemporary life. Mix it up. Make some dreams come true with it all.
The book will take you through the four seasons at the Parris House. It will take a look at the historical contexts of the place, people who went before us, and lifestyle behind what we do here today. Each season will have fiber art projects, recipes, growing tips, fun things for you to try yourself. You do not need a farm. You do not even need a lawn for some of these projects. They will require no super specialized equipment, impossible to source ingredients, or secret codes to unlock. They will be simple, but not insult your intelligence. Each featured project or recipe will result in something valuable, beautiful, and/or delicious but without unnecessary complication. Many will be starting points or stepping stones to get you on your way to a deeper study of whatever it is you find you are most interested in.
It will have beautiful pictures, because I’m a visual person and I’m going to be taking lots of beautiful pictures for this project.
It will be a working book. While I hope to make it visually inviting, it is not meant to sit on the coffee table or the shelf. It is meant to be out and open on your kitchen counter or table, in your craft area, or even outside with you, as a reference and companion for the projects it contains. Get it dirty, dog ear the pages, use the hell out of it.
For me personally, this book will be a grateful acknowledgment of Maine, of Paris Hill, and of the Parris House. Without this setting, I would be a different person living a very different life. That aspect will be strongest to me alone, though, because this book is really written for and focused on you in your place and in your life, be it urban or rural, east coast or west or somewhere in between, in North America or well beyond.
By the time this book is published, we will be gearing up here to offer seasonal quarterly retreats at the Parris House which will provide hands on experiences in fiber art and heritage skills, which will provide more learning opportunities for those who want to expand their making and doing.
Sound interesting? I was brand-new-author-thrilled when I saw that Rowman & Littlefield had already put up a pre-order page for the book. You can click on that HERE. Please remember that publication is not scheduled until 2020. In the meantime, I’m working hard!
If you would like to keep up to date on everything that’s planned for the next chapter (pun intended), a sign up box for our newsletter is at the bottom of every page of the website. You will never be spammed. In fact, the newsletter needs to publish a bit more often (as time allows…or doesn’t…).
For a glimpse of the Parris House homestead, enjoy the pics in the slideshow below.
That’s the big news from here. Thank you for reading. – Beth
As many of you know, I was aboard the Schooner J&E Riggin for four days last week as an organizer and facilitator of 207 Creative‘s Get Hooked at Sea event. I am sure we’ll do a blog post for the 207 Creatives website or Facebook page on the trip as a hooking retreat and workshop, however, this post is about my personal experiences and insights. This was my first time on a large sailing vessel, seeing my beloved Maine from an entirely different vantage point and I can honestly say I am changed. This post is about that.
A bit about the J&E Riggin…
The J&E Riggin is a two masted schooner, 89 feet long (not including the bowsprit), over 20 feet wide, built in New Jersey in 1927 as an oyster harvesting boat on the Delaware Bay. For its complete history you can go to the beautiful website its owners, husband and wife co-captains Jon Finger and Annie Mahle, have lovingly put together at www.mainewindjammer.com. One of the most striking things about this schooner is how immaculately restored and maintained it is, in incredibly authentic condition. It does not have onboard power save for the sails. When becalmed or when in need of maneuvering in the harbors, it is propelled by a small yawl boat Captain Jon built by hand himself. The yawl boat is a work of art in itself. When it’s time for the anchor to be raised, no auxiliary power is employed. It is raised by the muscle of around four crew and/or volunteers with a gear and lever apparatus. I tried it. It’s hard work. At night, the boat is lit mostly by kerosene lantern. All of Captain/Chef Annie’s world class meals are prepared in a tiny galley kitchen on a wood burning cook stove. Annie is a Culinary Institute of America graduate, cook book author, and celebrity chef (she may demur at that last thing, but let’s face it – she is) who has let none of this affect her completely down to earth, generous, and kind demeanor. The food is…incredible. Captain Jon, aside from being the captain of our journey, is also an accomplished watercolor artist, musician, and more. Jon and Annie are the devoted parents of two daughters who were raised, in part, on the Riggin. Back at home, they keep bees and chickens, and they garden. Quite a bit of the farm fresh ingredients that made their way in to our meals were from Jon and Annie’s homestead.
The J&E Riggin as she is today is the result of loving stewardship that respects her age, history, and heritage and my respect for Captains Jon and Annie and their equally wonderful crew of five is boundless. These are hard working people who make their guests not only feel welcome, but feel as though they become a part of the J&E Riggin family in a few short days.
We see a lot of messages in our social media feeds that go something like this: “Trust the journey.” “It’s not the destination that matters, it’s the road there.” “Live in the present, the future is not guaranteed.” As a fiber art teacher I also often encourage my students to enjoy the process and remain open to the outcome that results, rather than holding an expectation concretely during the making. At the Squam Art Workshops, where I taught for two years, “process over product” was a mantra. Indeed, on our Get Hooked at Sea retreat aboard the Riggin, not a single one of us finished our lovely project guided by teacher Maggie Bonanomi, but we were fine with that. It was about the process, the making, the camaraderie, and we will share our final products with one another over the coming months. On the J&E Riggin, this concept becomes very literal. One morning I asked Captain Jon where we were going that day. He said, “I don’t know!” And he meant it.
The J&E Riggin’s usual sailing territory for guests is in Maine’s Midcoast Penobscot Bay, approximately between Boothbay and the Acadia area. Where she sails on any given day is determined by the wind and weather. Every trip leaves from Rockland, which, as an aside, is my favorite town in Maine. Rockland is central to those two approximate sailing boundaries and the weather will determine which way Captain Jon takes the Riggin. It is a “sail to nowhere” and yet, it is very much a sail to somewhere.
For me, that somewhere was a place of revelation. One comical revelation was that, in spite of not being able to ride in the back seat of a car without turning green, I can be a passenger on a schooner in open water and not feel a single twinge of seasickness. My bag was packed with a tub of crystallized ginger and two boxes of Dramamine but neither proved necessary.
Other revelations were more serious. One was how very badly I had needed a trip just like this one, a trip with no set destination and with very limited connection to the news, the internet, and the demands of my every day business life. Another was my need to spend time with creative and energetic people. This trip was shared with creative people all around: captains, crew, and guests, who were pursuing something meaningful to them upon which they each made their individual imprints. The crew, four young men in their twenties and one woman around my age, I believe, were phenomenal examples of extremely gifted people sharing their gifts in ways most people only dream of. Captains Annie and Jon were unwittingly providing to me an example of sincere and exemplary hospitality that I know I will use as a reference point when we open the Parris House to retreat and workshop guests in 2020. They refer to their relationship with the J&E Riggin as one of stewardship, not ownership, which resonates with me as we have never claimed ownership of the 200 year old Parris House either. You can only steward these great old entities while it is your time. They predate and outlive us if all goes well.
Related was the revelation of just how much I require freedom and space over my life and over my time. There is a tremendous feeling of freedom when you are a guest on a schooner in the big Penobscot Bay. I can only speak as a guest because I was well aware of the constraints the captains and crew were under as they make sure every detail of the trip is attended to for us. As a guest, however, I was able to make the mind blowing observations regarding the power of the wind, the vastness of the ocean (especially when it looks so big, yet we’d not even left the bay), and how small my favorite landmarks looked along the shore. My perspective on everything was turned upside down/inside out when I was looking at places I’d only seen from land from out on the water. I realized that there are so many things I’ve never seen before and will probably never see in this lifetime, and with that realization came the knowledge that I had better choose very carefully how I spend my remaining years. I booked another trip on the Riggin for my husband and myself in 2019 halfway through our voyage.
And then there is just the overall awareness that we do not have to, in fact usually we can not, know our destination for much of our journey in this life. Our daily journeys, led by Captain Jon, always ended in some beautiful harbor, in fair weather or foul, expected or unexpected, with limited control over the destination because of zero control over the weather. On the journey, the captain controls what he can in the context of what he can’t. Sometimes the sailing is relatively blind. On the first day under sail we were treated to a fog bank. We could see it on the horizon when we set out and within about an hour we were engulfed in it. Visibility was low. The J&E Riggin’s fog signal rang out in to the bay. Sometimes we could see other vessels just within our visible range, looking like ghost ships. Other vessels a little further off would have been invisible. The J&E Riggin is equipped with modern GPS, radar, and radio communication. It is also equipped with an experienced captain. Therefore, we were never in danger although wecould not see. It is often human nature to fear when sailing blind, when we don’t know what’s next, but it is actually the essential nature of our lives. Uncertainty of outcome is a given as long as we can not bend time to see our futures. What choice do we have when rising in the morning but to answer the question, “Where are we going today?” with “I don’t know!”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a list maker, a planner. I chart out every day, every week, every to-do list. I make plans and try to follow them. I act with intention on what I can when I can if not doing so would lead to perceived disaster. Examples are how I conduct my dearest relationships, my health, my business, my class preparations, my writing, my home. But those four days as a guest aboard the J&E Riggin persuaded me to loosen the parameters on my life and make time and space for more experiences like that one. The world will not stop turning if I can’t answer an email within fifteen minutes. Spending half a day hiking my favorite mountains here in Western Maine might inspire more art pieces and workshop ideas than working away at my desk on something seemingly important but with, in the long run, a weaker return on time invested. On the Riggin there is a truly beautiful efficiency to everything, and I do mean beautiful. Nothing is out of place, everything is immaculate, all details and contingencies are planned for, and the result is pure elegance of experience, and yet…uncertainty in destination is not only acknowledged, it is celebrated. What an example for living.
Here is a slideshow of our trip for your enjoyment. If you would like to book the trip of a lifetime on the Schooner J&E Riggin go to the website at www.mainewindjammer.com. Reservations for the 2019 season are being taken now. For those wondering if we’re working on another Get Hooked at Sea trip, the answer is “Yes! We are!” So please watch for posts about that as we figure out the details and timing.
(If you have not read “Part 1,” and want to, please just scroll back to the post immediately prior to this one.)
We left off on the last post with my husband, Bill, and I out in Western Massachusetts having been to a Blondie concert, MassMoCA and the Museum of Dog. I’ve saved the historical sites for this part of the story.
As many of you know, I have been involved at some level with the Sabbathday Lake Shaker community for quite a few years. I have volunteered on work days, taught rug hooking, and demonstrated the craft for Open Farm Day and Harvest Festival there. I have unabashedly fallen in love with the place, so aptly known as “Chosen Land” to the Shakers, and with the people there. Along with a truly dedicated staff and team of volunteers, for whom the work is clearly deeply meaningful, there are the living Shakers themselves, Brother Arnold and Sister June. For them, Sabbathday Lake is home, and because of them, it is a sacred place that can not be, and I do not believe will ever be, considered wholly a museum.
In spite of my involvement with Sabbathday Lake and my interest in Shaker history, I had never been to any of the Shaker museums that are just a day’s drive or less from home. It was at the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace, in Adams, that the very kind and capable staff recommended a visit to the Hancock Shaker Village, only about thirty minutes from there. But first, let’s talk about the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum.
The Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum is extremely well done in every possible way. I would highly recommend you click on the link and thoroughly explore their website and then make plans to visit. Upon entering the gift shop, where you must purchase your tickets before going in to the homestead, you will be greeted by knowledgeable and friendly staff members who have a clear enthusiasm for the museum and its history. You will have the choice of having a docent give you a guided tour, using an electronic audio/visual tour device, or simply going through the home in a self guided way, reading the plentiful and detailed exhibit descriptions in every room. My husband chose the A/V tour and I chose to just walk through the museum on my own.
This museum is so professionally and engagingly arranged and annotated that I was taking mental notes on how this example might inform decisions for our own historical society back home. Every aspect of Susan B. Anthony’s remarkable life is covered, from her family of origin, to her early life and career as a teacher, to her work in the temperance, abolitionist, and of course, women’s’ suffrage movement. All of this history and context comes very much alive with the extraordinary collection of artifacts, documents, and ephemera belonging to her and/or her life story. I think my favorite artifact in the museum (a photo is in the slide show below) is the plaster cast made of her clasping hands with Elizabeth Cady Stanton. I felt goosebumps as I looked at this incredible object. And, being a fiber/textile geek, I was also very interested in the completely hand-quilted replica of a quilt that Susan had made as a young person. Additionally, there are antique woven coverlets, linens, dresses, and the tools of carding and spinning in the home. It is beyond the scope of this post to tell the entire story, but again, the museum website is extremely thorough, much like the museum, so click on over to that for so much more information, including on the restoration of the home itself.
Susan B. Anthony died in 1906, fourteen years before women were finally given the vote in the United States. It is unfortunate that she did not live to see the final fulfillment of that dream, but she left behind millions of grateful women, including those of us who were not yet born. My grandmother was three years old in 1906 and seventeen years old before women had the vote. I have thought about that often, that my own grandmother was born in a time when she might never have expected to vote. It means that we have not had this privilege in America for very long. Let us never fail to exercise it.
Susan B. Anthony may have been certain that eventually her work would win the day, even if she wouldn’t live to see it. She is quoted as saying, “Failure is impossible.” The gift shop at her birthplace has silver toned bracelets with these words in them, and I couldn’t leave without one.
Here are the photos I took, with permission, which do not begin to do justice to the museum.
We took the staff at the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum at their word and went, the next day, Sunday, to the Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Here are excerpts of the introduction on their website:
“Hancock Shaker Village began in the late 1780s, when nearly 100 Believers consolidated a community on land donated by local farmers who had converted to the Shaker movement. By the 1830s, with a great many more conversions and additional land acquisitions, the Shaker community peaked in population with more than 300 Believers and more than 3,000 acres……Eventually, forces outside the community, including the industrial revolution and the shifting of America from a rural to an urban society, worked against their continued growth and stability. By the early 1900s, with dwindling converts, the Shaker population at Hancock declined to about 50 Believers, most of them Sisters and orphan girls who had been adopted by the community, and only a few adult Brethren……Many outlying acres of land were sold off, and buildings were razed during the final decades of the Hancock community. In 1959, when the Shakers could no longer maintain their City of Peace, they sold the remaining property to a local group committed to preserving the Shaker heritage. The utopian village known as Hancock Shaker Village continues its life today as a history museum with 20 authentic buildings, a working farm and significant collections of Shaker furniture and artifacts.”
I have to objectively say that this is an absolutely lovely and beautifully curated museum village of over twenty historic buildings and thousands of Shaker artifacts, not to mention the extensive gardens, extremely knowledgeable and personable docents, and an onsite visitors’ and educational center. It is also a breathtaking venue for weddings and events. I say “objectively” because I have to remove the part of myself that compares it to Sabbathday Lake. This is not a fair comparison and should not be made. Sabbathday Lake is literally the only Shaker location on Earth that is an active Shaker community with a working farm, shops, gardens, and livestock that are not strictly for educational purposes, but are actually the continuing business in support of the living Shakers who have been conducting their spiritual and working lives there since 1783. Sabbathday Lake is the only place on Earth where you can attend an actual Shaker worship service. No Shaker museum in the country should be compared to this, because their missions are different. The other museums are doing critically important work in preserving and honoring the memory of the Shakers who no longer inhabit those locations and educating the public about Shaker life.
Having said that (and then I’ll leave this point alone, I promise), that part-of-me-that-was-comparing-and-should-not-have-been felt a profound sadness at Hancock. I left there, after having a truly wonderful visit, more committed than ever to my volunteer work at Sabbathday Lake with a renewed sense of just how precious that community is, how rare, how indescribably valuable, and how humbled I am by my luck to have it right here in my own backyard in Maine.
OK, onward. Hancock Shaker Village is a must see on your trip through the Berkshires and Western Massachusetts. It is possible to spend an entire day, maybe more, there going through each building, taking advantage of the tours and demonstrations that are offered, having a bite to eat in a remarkable fresh food cafe on site, and shopping the gift shop (where, incidentally, they sell products still made at Sabbathday Lake, as does the Mount Lebanon historic site which we will talk about in a bit). It was so much fun to do the right kind of comparing when we saw the Hancock dwelling house, the laundry room, the dining area, the meeting house and seeing how they were similar and yet different to these same spaces at Sabbathday Lake. Bill teaches soap making in the laundry room at Sabbathday Lake and was having a great time in its companion space at Hancock.
Across the street from the main village there is a path back to the reservoir and also leading to the Shaker cemetery, which characteristically has just a single stone representing all who are buried there. The gate was open to the actual burying ground, but out of reverence we remained outside the gate. It is a beautiful and peaceful place to visit and to remember the bustling Christian community that once existed there.
Here are a few pictures of Hancock Shaker Village, including pics of its iconic stone round barn. As before, I took a lot of fiber/textile related photographs. Notice also the beautiful lunch I had in the cafe there.
Finally, before heading for home, we went over the state line in to Mount Lebanon, New York to visit the Mount Lebanon Shaker Historic Site. Unfortunately, I did not take many pictures there, and, in any case, I would encourage you to also explore their website. Here is an excerpt from the history on the website:
“The Shakers at Mount Lebanon led the largest and most successful utopian communal society in America for 160 years, from 1787 to 1947.
From this central community developed the Shakers’ ideals of equality of labor, gender, and race, as well as communal property, freedom, and pacifism. From Mount Lebanon also grew the now famous Shaker aesthetic of simplicity, expressed in their objects, furniture, buildings, and village planning.
With over 6,000 acres and 100 buildings, Mount Lebanon Shaker Village was a driving force in the agricultural, industrial, commercial, and institutional activities of its day. The Village was divided into smaller “Family” groups (Church, Second, Center, North, East, South, and so on.), each with its own leadership, members, and commercial activities. As the Shaker community declined in population in the early 20th century, the site was gradually sold to various private owners, including the Darrow School, which still inhabits Mount Lebanon’s Church and Center Families, and the Abode of the Message which inhabits the South Family’s buildings.
Mount Lebanon was named a National Historic Landmark in 1965, and was recognized by the World Monuments Fund in both 2004 and 2006 as one of the 100 most significant endangered historic sites in the world.
The North Family today houses the museum and consists of 11 buildings on 91 acres. The iconic North Family Great Stone Barn – measuring 50’ wide, four stories high, and nearly 200’ long, was a testament to the ingenuity, faith, and perseverance of the Shakers. In September 1972 the barn was totally gutted by a catastrophic fire, leaving only its four massive masonry walls standing.”
I will say that those four masonry walls, still standing, are jaw dropping. There is an effort underway to restore that structure.
We were met in the visitors’ building by a friendly docent who again had great depth of knowledge about the history there. We did not have much time to explore the site because it was already mid afternoon and we had a five hour drive ahead of us to get home. I would very much like to go back there to walk the grounds. It’s important to note that much of what was the village is now occupied by a private school, so this site is not as intact as Hancock appears to be. Nonetheless, this is a very worthwhile destination. I was struck by this sign when you walk in to the visitors’ center/gift shop.
This sign affirms what many don’t realize, that the Shakers were not shut out from the world, but rather traveling widely to conduct their business. Nor did they spurn technology. In fact, the Shakers were extremely inventive and created new ways of making their work more efficient. Hancock Shaker Village’s website addresses the truths and legends regarding Shaker inventiveness:
“What did the Shakers invent? The Shakers were inventive people, embracing and often improving upon technology. There are many myths about Shaker inventions. Some are exaggerated truths; others are fiction. Because the Shakers, as a show of humility, often did not patent their inventions and improvements, it is difficult to say how many things they invented.Current scholarship indicates that the Shakers most likely invented the flat broom. They were one of the first to put garden seeds in printed paper packets for sale. They may have invented an early (but perhaps not the first) version of a circular saw. Authentication of many other Shaker inventions or improvements on existing technologies and items is debated and discussed to this day.”
The most observant among you may be asking, “So what about the other bracelet from Part 1? Where did that come from?”
On Sunday morning, before we left Adams, we went to a funky little cafe on its main street called the Coffee Liberation Front. I had a delicious fresh quiche for breakfast with equally great coffee. Bill had a rainbow striped “unicorn bagel.”
It turned out that one of the owners makes imaginative beaded jewelry, much of it with nods to different meanings and energies. Whether you believe in New Age concepts or not, her work is lovely. I chose a bracelet with “air” charms on it – a hummingbird, wings, feathers, a butterfly -things related to flight. I think I was drawn to it because, in both my life and my work, I am seeking as much freedom as I can create for myself. It, along with the “Failure is impossible” bracelet from the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum are happy reminders of both an enjoyable weekend away and my desired life direction.
I hope you have enjoyed these two posts highlighting our weekend away and hope even more you will visit some of the places I’ve described. If you have traveled to any of these places as well, I’d love to hear your impressions about them in the comments. If you have interest in Shaker life, I would very much encourage you to visit the Sabbathday Lake community in New Gloucester, Maine, just about half an hour south of the Parris House. There is truly inspiration everywhere.
Last weekend my husband, Bill, and I took a mini vacation trip out to Western Massachusetts. The primary reason was that we had tickets to see Blondie at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMoCA), but also, we just really needed to get away. We secured a cute, super retro (authentically; this was not a hipster re-creation), goin’-to-grandma’s style apartment through Airbnb for the weekend, which turned out to be perfect. It was in a working class neighborhood of Adams, within sight of the old textile mill where it is probable the building’s original residents, in the 19th century, worked. There was a huge Catholic church, convent, and school next door, clearly built by Polish immigrants. This in itself was a small scale immersion in the history of the place and I spent some time online researching the town, its industrial history, and even the streets and buildings that surrounded us.
This trip was a three day, non-stop inspiration fest. Let’s start with Debbie Harry of Blondie. She is 73 years old. Her voice is different now, but it is still strong, and her energy level onstage is astonishing. I went to this concert in large part because I wanted to get away for a weekend and because my husband really loves Blondie and a whole selection of other 80s era music I thought I’d prefer never to hear again. As it turns out, I truly loved this concert and discovered that Blondie is making new music that I like infinitely better than the old hits. It didn’t hurt that Debbie Harry came on to the stage wearing a jacket with neon-reflective multicolored honeybees all over it and has recently released an album called “Pollinator.” The back of the jacket was emblazoned with a…well…blunt message about keeping planet Earth life-sustaining, which I also appreciated.
Inspirational messages taken from this experience?
Age is a number. Aside from things beyond your control (truly random illness, accident, and the usual raw deals some people are handed health-wise), decisions you make today may well determine whether you’re literally or metaphorically rocking on stage at 73 or rocking in a chair unable to do much else.
Keep working. Change. Grow. “Pollinator” is a great new album that doesn’t sound like previous work. Debbie Harry and the band are not motoring around a golf course in Florida nor are they only playing the same familiar songs many of their fans probably came to hear. I hope the work I’m doing even two years from now looks very little like what I’ve been doing for the past five, let alone in twenty years’ time.
Wear bright colors at least some of the time, whether you’re 23 or 73.
The next day, we went to MassMoCA. We had been there about a month before but had been pressed for time and unable to see a lot of the exhibits. So we went back with a whole day to spend in the museum. This really was an immersion in every possible sensory exposure to contemporary art. To be completely honest, I have not always been a fan of contemporary art, but I am coming to realize that I was probably just never looking in the right places. MassMoCA is a fully engaging museum of sometimes immediately resonant, sometimes baffling, sometimes repulsive works. Very little of it left me feeling nothing, although there was a bit of that too. If anything, though, those pieces – the ones that left me with nothing – were a lesson in the variety of human nature. To someone, somewhere, they spoke volumes. One of the exhibits that particularly fascinated Bill fell in to the realm of performance art. It’s called the Cold Hole. When unoccupied, it is just a large viewing window looking in to a chamber filled with snow, ice, and a square cutout with a ladder in it leading to frigid cold water. Anyone who’s done a polar dip for charity in New England knows what it would feel like to jump in to the Cold Hole. On the day we were there we were lucky to see someone actually jump in. This act can be done by a museum go-er through special arrangement or by a performance artist, I believe. I am not 100% sure, but I think on this day we saw a performance artist.
I could write an entire post on what I felt watching this woman as she approached the hole (for which I have no pictures), as she stood over it for quite some time preparing herself for the shock of the water, in that brief moment of free fall in, and as she pulled herself out and walked toward the viewing window. Always one to create life metaphors, I had many. I will let you draw your own. As it is, this post on the weekend overall is going to have to be split in to two for time and length considerations.
The word that kept coming to me as I viewed the art at MassMoCA was “brave.” As I looked at some of the work, or in some cases, interacted with it, I realized that these artists are incredibly courageous. Even the work I couldn’t connect with, or, I’m acutely embarrassed to admit struck me as “I could make that…” (a thought and phrase I abhor, but there I was having it myself), was nonetheless bold. How many of us would have the courage to make a career of creating objects, sounds, or experiences for others to view that were intensely personal, time consuming, financially risky, and open to amateurs like me gut reacting with, “I could make that…?” The truth is, I could not “make that.” I can make what I can make, but not that. Only that piece’s creator has that ability and honor. I reacted to most of the art with deep astonishment, appreciation, and some kind of connection, but it doesn’t matter how I – one person – reacted to any of it. The incredible, head exploding thing to me was the brave vulnerability of the artists, of all kinds, in putting their work out in to the world, saying what they had to say, and accepting both praise and criticism as part of the deal. The “Mass” in MassMoCA of course stands for “Massachusetts,” but I could not help thinking of it also in terms of the masses of people who visit every year. It’s a lot of exposure. These artists should be wearing capes and tights.
These next images are unedited, taken with my cell phone in the museum. Unfortunately, I can not take the hours today to edit each one of them, but at some point may go back and improve this image set.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the coffee shop on the premises, Tunnel City Coffee. Bill and I went off our diets a little bit, but the scale told me on Monday that no harm was done. We did split the cookie and the biscotti in to two pieces and shared them.
Inspirational messages taken from this experience?
Good coffee is always worth the extra money.
Eat the pastry occasionally, preferably with someone dear to you.
When you create, do it for you. Not for the critics. Not for the fans. Not for that person who thinks, “I could make that.” For you.
Making art is inherently scary sometimes. Be brave. You might just find your work in front of millions of people some day.
Those last two things may well feel like jumping in to a cold hole.
You may often want to give up. Do not, because at some point someone is going to stand in front of your work with their minds and hearts on fire taking it all in.
So what do you do with a little time to kill in North Adams after you’ve spent the day at MassMoCA? You go to the Museum of Dog. This is a little museum that’s only been open for four months. You can tell that they are still putting it all together, but if a museum has a Rough Collie display like this, I’m happy. Our Collie, Wyeth, would have been so proud. We’re definitely taking him back there some day.
Inspirational message taken from this experience?
Have a dog.
Go to the Museum of Dog as they develop and grow.
If there’s something you really love, share it with the world.
So, that was Friday night and part of Saturday in Adams and North Adams, Massachusetts. The next blog post will be about how we spent another part of Saturday and then Sunday at the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace, the Hancock Shaker Village and Museum, and the Mount Lebanon Shaker Historic Site. Look for that one later this week or weekend.
In the meantime, be inspired, wherever you find yourself.
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:
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.
I’ve been thinking a lot about pots lately. I recently started my seedlings for this summer’s garden (yes, I know it’s terribly late, even for zone 5 in Maine) and after just a couple of days, the mixed salad greens have sprouted. I love this particular mix, by Pinetree Garden Seeds right here in Maine, for its variety of flavors and colors. As I looked at the tiny seedlings this morning, some of which will have to be thinned out, I thought, “There are this summer’s bountiful fresh salads, right there in that tray.” I was projecting them in to their future, though right now they are the tiniest of sprouts.
This weekend I’ll be working on the raised beds, getting them ready to accept the seedlings that are only now emerging in my trays and for the seeds that are sown directly in to the soil. For us, in this climate, planting time happens in the very last days of May or the first days of June. Our growing season – at least without the aid of greenhouses and other warming equipment – is short and we have to make the most of it. By September, and certainly by October, we’re harvesting the last of things save for hardy kales and the like, and winter squashes and pumpkins.
People who know me well know that I can find life analogies in almost everything, so here we go…
Right now these little divided pots my seedlings are being born in to are fine for them. In fact, I would go as far as to say they are right for them. They are providing a small space where the plants are watched over, nurtured, and not overrun by nature in a larger environment. Some seeds don’t require this small space at the outset and can be planted in the bigger expanse of the garden or raised bed right away. Seeds are all different, but one thing is sure: very few seeds are meant to grow in a confined space forever. My little salad greens will never become robust, zesty, hardy, ready-to-bolt-if-not-picked-in-time food producers if left in those little pots. And – you saw it coming – it’s the same for us, and I think we know it. We know when we are becoming metaphorically pot bound, when we can’t expand, when we can’t grow. We know when we can’t breathe, when we’re thirsty, when the nutrients are scarce, both literally and figuratively. It’s the way we’re made. What to do when our pots are too small? The garden continues to provide guidance.
These little salad sprouts are going to need thinning. Of all the gardening tasks there are, this is the most painful for me. I just hate thinning plants. Hate it. I know it has to be done so that the remaining plants are hale and hearty, with plenty of space to grow, growth being the objective, after all, but I can not completely shake the guilt of killing off the sacrificial plants. It can not be too long delayed, lest the roots be intertwined and you damage the primary plants when you pull the others. It is always harder to thin later. Best to do it as soon as it’s required.
As it turns out, I hate thinning my life too, or at least, I used to. As with thinning my seedlings, I’m starting to take comfort in the wisdom of it and know that it’s the only path for growth. What I say “no” to is becoming as important as what I say “yes” to these days. Some thinning is quick and painless. For example, this morning I uninstalled Twitter from my phone. I still have my @ParrisHouseWool Twitter account, but I don’t have to have the app on my phone. I can visit it intentionally and with a purpose when I want to share something (for example, this blog post) and eliminate it as a distraction on my phone. In a similar way, I can set my phone aside or in another room when I want an undisturbed block of time to write or do making work. I can tell people – again – that email is the very best, by a large margin, way to reach me and stick to that as my preferred mode of communication. Other things are less easily plucked and have to instead be moved through and out of the time pipeline. Commitments made in “yes” mode have to be honored, but not renewed if they are not consistent with your life’s primary goals. Once out of your time pipeline they have to become “no”s. When “yes” feels like an obligation or a “should” but is not coming from a deep place of purpose in your life, say “no” and do not second guess it. Say “no” and move forward with your remaining “yes” activities. If you have a task or obligation that for some reason you can not eliminate, find help with it, paid or unpaid as the case may be, but exhaust all other options to weed it out before you do.
Still feeling pot bound after a good round of saying “no” and thinning the field? Maybe you need a bigger pot. I’m not talking about buying a four thousand square foot house. I’m talking about living your life in a way that expands it. Do not be afraid to plant yourself in a bigger environment if the one you’re in feels restrictive or is not providing for your needs or dreams, and do not be afraid to be afraid. I had to learn this the hard way and have still not completely mastered it. Three examples from my own life come vividly to mind. The first is when I decided to take my work in person to Josh and Brent of Beekman 1802 to ask if I might become part of their artisan collective. The second was when I was invited to teach at the Squam Art Workshops among a field of teachers I regarded as having much stronger credentials than mine. The third was just recently, when I went out to Down East Books to meet my editor for the book I am currently writing. In all of these cases I saw opportunities to plant myself in a bigger pot, and in all cases I was so nervous I was physically ill: heart palpitations, nausea, GI upset I’ll leave to your imagination, feeling faint, sleeplessness the night before, all of it. Train wreck status, really. I knew I was nervous and afraid, even if I couldn’t pinpoint why (well, probably lots of past conditioning, but this is not the space for psychoanalysis), but I was hell bent on doing these things anyway. I have found that the level of reward of doing something is almost always proportional to the level of blowing through the self imposed limitations, in this case, fear, required to get it done. Related to this is that you don’t have to know up front every detail of how you’ll get whatever it is done. You just have to start, have a general plan, and then do the steps as they present themselves. Get in to that bigger pot or garden bed so you can thrive, even though that move is going to be uncomfortable and even though you can not – will never be able to – completely predict the outcome.
Your flower pot can almost always be bigger. I know very little about ceramics, but I can see by watching my husband make pottery that sometimes a pot comes out small even if there’s plenty of clay on the wheel to make it bigger. Sometimes this is because the potter didn’t draw it up and thin it out to its optimal size, leaving it somewhat stunted and leaden in its finished form. The clay was there; it just wasn’t optimized. But this a post based on gardening analogies, not pottery making analogies, so we’ll leave that there.
In the time it’s taken me to write this post, the pickling cucumber plants in my trays have also emerged just a little more from beneath the potting soil. Their insistent progress even in the span of an hour or so inspires me, and it will be with great expectation that I plant them in the bigger space that they both need and deserve in just a few week’s time. Today’s brave emergence is tomorrow’s harvest, for plants and for us.
In both a literal and metaphorical sense, what are you growing this year, and how much space are you going to need?
I have recently had to face the hard truth that I am a workaholic, and if you are too, you might want to read up here, because that life is not sustainable. You might think it is, but it’s not. Really. It’s not.
As those who have been following my social media know, I have been reading and doing the exercises in the book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron since the beginning of the year. I just finished week ten, of twelve. Week ten is really heavy on recognizing workaholism not only as an addiction or compulsion, but as a fear based way of living. What makes us slide over the line in to workaholism? Why do we think we have to be “on” 24/7/365 to succeed?
If you’re a small business owner I can already hear you, with some justification, saying, “Well, that’s just what it takes.” To some extent, you’re right, especially if you are your small business, or at the very least, you are the one responsible for driving sales and growth. It’s hard to ever totally shut off when there’s no guaranteed external paycheck, when you either make the sales, bring in the new students and customers, finish the custom orders, meet the shipping deadlines, pay attention to your social media and marketing, or else you don’t pay the bills. If you have employees or contractors the pressure is even higher, because part of paying the bills is making payroll. I get that and I know it can be overwhelming. Kicking back for a day, or a week, or if you’re really burned out, a lot longer, can seem like professional suicide. But, I have discovered something else that’s professional suicide: overwork, overwhelm, and burnout.
So, I took the Chapter 10 workaholic quiz in The Artist’s Way and failed spectacularly, in that, I was guilty of every common marker for the problem. No, I haven’t been taking at least one day a week off. No, I don’t take vacations. Yes, I do put off my family and friends because I “have to work” or I “have a deadline.” Yes, I do cancel non-emergency preventative medical appointments because I’m “too busy.” Yes, sometimes I realize I have not left my studio in three or four days because I’m trying to get it all done. No, I don’t take myself on what the book calls “Artist’s Dates.” Yes, I do blow off yoga and hiking and time in the woods and on the water because I “just can’t find the time.” Yes, I “forget to eat.” I could go on, but you get the idea, and some of you – I know that some of you – are living this way too.
Let’s go back to why we do this to ourselves. We’ve already addressed that there is a baseline reality to some need for very hard work: we are under tremendous pressure to pay our bills, make our deadlines, and pay the people who may be working for us or providing materials to us. But do we really have to go this far down the workaholic rabbit hole to make that happen? I’m taking the leap to find out, but more on that later.
The “why”s go beyond the very real financial and logistical pressures. One “why” is overwhelmingly cultural. Here in the United States we are raised (or were – I think it’s improving with subsequent generations) to believe that our value is not in who we are, but in what we can do, what we can produce. We are an independent, bootstrapping, hyper productive, entrepreneurial culture of powerhouses….right? Our heroes embody rags to riches stories. We worship celebrities because of how they look and how large a venue they can fill, without ever knowing who they are. We elect politicians not for the content of their character but for the alleged quantity in their bank accounts, because that’s how we define success. Look, I have no objection to anyone becoming wealthy in America. In fact, I applaud it if it is done in an ethical way that contributes to that person’s family and community, and I wouldn’t mind making it happen for me and my family. What I object to is the metrics by which we value human beings in this culture and the way it drives us not only to work excessively and compulsively, but to work ineffectively and in ways untrue to who we are.
For some of us, another “why” is closer to our homes. Perhaps we were raised by people who cared little about who we were as human beings and more about who they could mold us to become, either in their own image or according to some ideal in their minds. (I regard that lack of acceptance and freedom as child abuse, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.) These parents might appear well meaning, but the message they ultimately send is this: you are not enough as you are, you can not be trusted to shape your own life and path, you are not what we expected and therefore are somehow disappointing. It is no surprise that people raised in environments like this lack confidence, have trouble making decisions right for themselves, become people pleasers to their own detriment, and yes, try to compensate by working themselves too hard in order to prove their value. It may not always be parents who cause this crisis of authentic identity and self worth. It may be a highly critical teacher or role model. It might be peers who are bullies. It might be an abusive partner. All of this is addressed magnificently in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic, and without practicing psychotherapy without a license, I try to touch on this a bit when I teach my design class, Yes, You Are & Yes, You Can.
I have been living the workaholic life for at least the past fifteen years, but probably longer. I started my ten year career in real estate in 2003. Every good real estate broker knows the drill, or at least, what the drill might be if you’re a workaholic and insecure about making and being “enough”: take calls at all hours of the day and night, show property on weekends, nights, and holidays, travel to anywhere your client needs you to to execute documents (although this is better in the age of Docusign, unless your client isn’t computer literate), climb in every nook and cranny of every house, barn, attic, basement you show, stand over open septic tanks breathing it all in, walk land during hunting season hoping your blaze orange jacket is enough, on and on and on. My clients loved me. I was very well regarded in the field. And here’s the punch line in real estate brokerage. You’re an independent contractor, you have no benefits, and you don’t get paid unless the sale closes. Many of those failure-to-close factors you have zero – and I mean ZERO – control over. It’s stressful, sometimes lucrative, sometimes very not lucrative, and many people burn out. After ten years, I did. Spectacularly. So what did I do?
I started my own business and carried those same workaholic habits right in to it. Duh. And with those habits have come some serious mental and physical health issues I now have to attend to, the need to work on improving relationships and friendships I have neglected, and a real subversion of my own creativity, because no one can create when the proverbial well is dry.
No, I’m not done with Parris House Wool Works. On the contrary, I have big plans for Parris House Wool Works and for myself in a variety of arts. However, I am done working all the time. I am done not having a life outside of my business, and I am done thinking that who I am is so inextricably tied to what I can produce. What does this look like in practice?
Well, I’ve taken the past two weekends almost completely off. This weekend my husband, Bill, taught our soap class (which was delightful, by the way; we get the best students) and then we came down to our lake cottage, Sunset Haven, which is where I am writing this from today. (No, blogging is not work for me.) Unlike many times we are at Sunset Haven, we are not cleaning it for the next Airbnb visitors. There was a rare gap in the rental calendar and we can just spend time here for ourselves this weekend. We went to a cafe this morning and had breakfast, and then we did something unheard of for us: we mindlessly walked around the Maine Mall, got a lilac scented candle (our own lilacs won’t bloom until well in to May), got some coffee, and came back to the cottage. My husband is catching up on our personal finances and I’m blogging, lakefront. It’s a winter wonderland here, the lake is still mostly frozen, and in a little while I’m going to take Wyeth for a long walk on the camp roads. That doesn’t exactly sound like a Hawaiian luxury vacation, I realize, but this is a major departure for us. It’s a first step.
What will this look like going forward? I don’t know. That’s why this post is titled “Part 1,” because I plan to keep our readers informed on how this lifestyle change is going. I’m doing the journaling of this for me, I admit, but I’m also doing it for those of you following along who are also burning yourselves out in your own businesses or careers, or who are in danger of doing so.
What are you doing to take care of yourself this weekend? How will you give yourself the time and space to approach your work this coming week well rested and fresh? If you have been to the land of burnout, how did you recover? How are you doing now? Feel free to comment below.