Posted by: Kate | March 28, 2011


I have always been a crafty sort of person.  Not in the sneaky-and-sly sort of way (that was only in my teens; since then I’ve found that it’s a lot more fun to be bluntly forthcoming, like it or not), but in the Martha-Stewart-DIY style. There were 22 people on my Christmas list, and somehow as a 10ish-year-old I convinced myself that I needed to give something to each person giving something to me… but since my cash-earning prospects were limited, I was forced into a make-it-yourself sort of mentality if I wanted to give anything better than Tic Tacs to my loved ones.

So, early on, it was hand-drawn cards and then simple cross-stitch projects… then one grandmother taught me how to embroider, and another how to paint ceramics. I learned to crochet – and eventually knit – from yet another grandmother, and to do beadwork and macrame from another (and this wasn’t even a family with divorce and remarriage; I just was the eldest child from two eldest children, and so on, allowing me to have nine grandparents, four regular-old-grandparents and five greats, all of whom were still alive until I was in college). I was a camp counselor for several years, and so I learned how to tie-dye like a hippie guru and make water candles that were works of art. By the time I was in college, handmade crafts were no longer the only choice my beleaguered budget could handle, but people always seemed so impressed by the uniqueness or care represented by any given project… maybe they were just being nice, but I tend to think I can create some pretty neat stuff.

This never seemed like all that much of a big deal for me, being good at arts and crafts. It was just a case of having halfway-decent manual dexterity and being able to follow directions… when people would tell me that they could never do something like that, I would always smile and think, “Really? Why not? It’s not hard.” (I feel the same way about cooking, by the way: able to do it, and vaguely baffled when people tell me they aren’t.) It was easy to belittle my own abilities along those lines, because I was so good at so many other things, too: I felt competent at my job, I felt secure in my role as a mother and wife, I was good at mental arithmetic and crossword puzzles. I tried to be grateful for just how many gifts life had given me, but the reality is, no one is ever really, fully aware of just how good they have it…

…until they don’t have it anymore.

Contrary to the way I might sound, when I talk about the events of last March, I didn’t actually lose the majority of my skills and confidence in one fell swoop. I had been losing things in little increments, like the blood loss of a papercut or the bruise of a mosquito bite, over the course of several years. I consider the beginning of a long, downward slide to have started with the choice to walk away from my doctorate, a mere internship-and-dissertation away from completion, because I felt like I had to make a choice between my job and my family life. This set me up for a long line of disappointments and heartache, in the name of lost professional and academic opportunities, that continues to this day. Added to that has been the spondylitis diagnosis, which has forced me to close a number of future doors, doors I hadn’t even tried to open yet and now I know I never will. (Which is not to imply that my future is entirely bleak and empty; I still have lots of doors left that I can try – just, different ones.

And so on. The sepsis/necrotizing fasciitis/coma/surgeries/near-death events of last year only provided an exclamation point at the end of a story that had already been started, leaving me with memory issues and processing problems akin to trading in my snazzy, wide-screened laptop for an old IBM 386 processor. With a monochrome screen.

Suddenly I had to reevaluate all manner of things I thought I knew about myself. Phone numbers became tremendous, endless strings of digits that my brain simply could not retain, and crossword clues were baffling and frustrating. My résumé became a sad joke, a record of who I used to be rather than a sales pitch for who I might become. My self-confidence regarding my roles as wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend, human… just eroded, and sometimes I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to rebuild any of it.

Always before, when I felt particularly stressed or just bored, I would reach for a craft project. Knitting has been my go-to obsession for the past few years, but really any make-it-yourself effort made-me-happy. So, when I was at my very most stressed and bored, sitting in a hospital bed for weeks on end last March, I immediately thought of yarn. I asked my stepmother to bring me some yarn and needles – thick yarn and fat needles, because I was still dealing with the very pronounced tremor that was my cerebellum’s way of expressing its displeasure at the inactivity of a coma – and of course she did so immediately. She found some beautiful yarn, in the cool colors I loved most, and some big wooden knitting needles, in a handy little purple bag.

That bag followed me from hospital to hospital, hanging on the end of my bed, as a sort of reminder that I could be doing something other than just sitting and worrying. I tried, a few times, to cast on for a new – very very simple – project, but I just couldn’t do it. I have always had this sense that whatever mood or vibes I’m sending out while knitting get wrapped up into the product, and I didn’t want that miserable, terrified angst to be a part of any sort of handknit project. So it sat, and I sat, and I just couldn’t knit.

I blamed the tremor. I blamed the inability to find a comfortable sitting position. I blamed my short attention span. I blamed my fractured memory.

I blamed anything but the fear: the terror that this might be yet another thing lost to the incredible damage wrought upon my body and mind. Another thing I simply could not do anymore, because I couldn’t remember how or had lost the necessary manual dexterity. Another failure.

But after a few weeks at home again, my fingers got itchy. I wanted, desperately, to have some semblance of productivity, something to make my endless hours on the couch, hooked up to a VAC and unable to move very much, seem a little more worthwhile and a little less pointless and bleak. I wanted to find some part of me that existed from the pre-illness time, some part of me that felt familiar and unbroken.

So I picked up those needles, and cast on for a smaller version of a Clapotis, a lovely and simple wrap that I’ve made several times before. I almost immediately ripped out, unhappy with the early results… but then I cast on again, and then once again, until I finally found my groove. (That first project, of course, went to my stepmother as a thank-you for not letting me completely lose faith in myself… and I bet she just thought she was bringing an invalid a nice present.)

All of which is a very roundabout and extended way of wrapping (hah! wrap! …yeah, knitting humor is lost on the general populace, I know) around to my current challenge: in speaking with both of my kids’ teachers, I volunteered, or was asked, or something in the middle, to lead the class in a craft project. At first I thought, of course, I’ll teach them how to make rope on a spool knitter/i-cord-maker/knitting mushroom/French knitter (they’re known by all of the above names, but how could I possibly choose to link to any but the dirtiest-sounding one?). But upon further thought, I was concerned that the first-graders in Jacob’s class wouldn’t all have sufficient manual dexterity, and that even the kids in Emily’s fifth grade classroom might not have sufficient capacity for delayed gratification for what is basically just a way of making a piece of string fatter.

And so I decided on a recycling/basketweaving project that I saw on the shelf of a box store last year sometime: you take old newspapers and cut/roll the pages into long round lengths, some of which I would provide and some of which I would have the kids make themselves. I would bring in pre-made bases with lengths of dowel sticking up – a round or square base, maybe 4″ across, with thinner-than-pencil sticks standing around the perimeter, 4-6″ tall or so – and teach them how to wrap the magazine-rope around and around, weaving-style, to create little catchalls for their desks or lockers.

A cute idea, no? And one for which I already have most of the materials on-hand, not to mention the know-how, so it won’t break the bank (or my mind) to go hang out at the kids’ school for a few hours.

So here’s the remaining challenge: being a school-type thing, we all know it would be a better project all-around if I could find a book, or two, to tie in as related reading. But what to suggest? Emily’s class is studying pre-Revolutionary America, so basketweaving fits in relatively neatly there, but do I offer a more modern sort of approach to encourage them not to think of crafts as something old-fashioned? Something all pro-recycling and Save the Earth, perhaps? And what would work for a first-grade classroom?

Help me out here, people, really. Both kids have said that they’re excited at the idea of Mom coming in to school for a day… which makes it all the more important to look halfway put-together and organized. Whip out your google-fu, or just your knowledge of children’s books, and help me find some good books to recommend, or read, or something, to the kids’ classrooms.

Thanks in advance… I know you can do this.

This was the title of a Madhouse entry a few weeks ago, which I dutifully started that very day and then took ages and ages to finish… but the topic was timely and there were some really interesting other posts that day… I’m far too lazy to go through and link to each individual post, but go ahead and risk it, read backward to March 16th. They’re worth it.

Allison – Allimonster Speaks
Barb – Spencer Hill Spinning & Dyeing
Batty – Batty’s Adventures in Spooky Knitting
Dave – Notes from the Field
Eileen – Art Deco Diva Knits
Evil Twin’s Wife – The Glamorous Life of a Hausfrau
G – Not-A-Box
Haley – Aimless Tangents
Jennifer – Ask Poops, Please
Kate – One More Thing
LC – LC in Sunny So Cal
LeeAnne – This is the life…
Lisa – As If You Care
Louise – Child of Grace
Marcy – Mittentime
Melanie – usually, things happen
Nikki – Land of the Free, Home of the Depressed
Peri – knitandnatter
Sara – yoyu mama Have you seen her news? Go click on her and hit her with a congratulations or three, would you? Big things a-brewin’ in Sara’s house…
Yorkie – Den of Iniquity Prime


  1. Oh my that sounds ambitious! I’ll ask my librarian friend if she has any ideas 🙂

  2. We have a book called Make These Toys that encourages the use of recycled items…we’ve had fun with it and it seems appropriate for those age levels. However, the drawings are line drawings and might not be that interesting for reading aloud. Maybe better as a resource. Don’t Throw That Away by Betsy Snyder looks cute (found it on Amazon).

    Could you maybe talk to them about modern day artists who use recycled objects to make a living via Etsy and such? I think the Design Sponge blog has featured many designers and creative types who recycle…I seem to remember a series about people using wood pallets to make furniture.

    Good luck! And thanks for the nod!

  3. Earth Day is later in April … could you tie in the fact that you’re reusing old materials to lessons in conservation and find a book that corresponds? I’ll google and see if I find anything …

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