Thursday, March 23, 2017

Weighted Blankets and Warm Stories

"Stories happen to those who tell them," a mentor of mine once said.

I can't recall why I was listening to this podcast a while back, but what the instructor said about comedic dialogue is true for stories as well: You never cut off the conversation, the possibility, the story, with a No.

You just keep going and see where it takes you.

For my newspaper column in January I wrote about my fabric obsession and stash.  I had a voice speaking into one ear, "Seriously, you want the world to know how crazy you are?" and another voice in the other ear, "Deadline deadline DEADLINE!"

I met the deadline.

Through that column, I've found a sisterhood--women who write or call or pull me aside at speaking events and confide that they are Just Like Me! Imagine! And we giggle together and talk about sewing and cottons and scraps and patterns and always our shocking stash.

Last week I spoke at a Rotary Club in Springfield.  Afterwards, an older woman told me that her son's wife had passed away, and her son, going through her things, was dumbfounded at the huge quantity of quilt fabric, patterns, and supplies.  Why would she collect such a pile? "I sent him a copy of your article," the woman said, "and he told me, 'Now I understand.'"

A 77-year-old woman named Edith emailed me and said she makes weighted blankets for autistic children, and she would take any fabric pieces over a yard in size that I'd want to donate.

I asked more questions.  These blankets are sewn in a 6-inch grid, and each square contains a measured amount of Fiberfill and heavy plastic beads.  There's something magic about that warmth and weight that helps special-needs children sleep better.

I said I would love to donate to her cause, and rounded up two grocery bags full of fabrics--some colorful wovens and some flannels--all appropriate for children.

Today she came to pick it up.  A friend named Carrie who's started helping her sew came along, and also the friend's sister Donna from Alaska.

Edith was delighted.  I told her not to feel obligated to take it all if some pieces won't work for her, but she was thrilled with all of them.
It was so fun to see Edith digging and admiring.

More digging.
And more digging.  I like the movement in this picture.
Then we sat down and talked.

I forget how many blankets Edith and her helpers have already made, but they have a list of 60 families waiting for one.  She hears so many testimonials, such as the mom who reported that her 5-year-old slept through the night for the first time ever when he got his blanket. And that's what keeps her going and sewing.

"I don't waste a thing," she said proudly. "If there's leftover fabric, I use it for pillowcases for kids in the hospital. If the pieces are too small for pillowcases, I use them for the--oh, what do you call that?--the edge trim on the pillowcase.  And the really small scraps I give to another group and they make quilts for veterans."

She grinned.

I had prickles on the back of my neck, because sometimes God reaches down and gives me a little touch of Mom.  "That is EXACTLY the kind of thing my mom would do," I told Edith.  "She would just love you."

[After Edith left, Emily, who had come bustling through on her way to class, said, "Did you think about how much Edith's voice sounded like Grandma Yoder?"

She was right.  Then I really had prickles on my neck.]

But we are still visiting in the living room, telling more stories.

Donna had sat quietly smiling through our conversation.  So I turned to her and asked where in Alaska she was from. "Wrangell. It's an island off the panhandle," she said. "It's 26 miles long, with about 12 miles of paved road, and it's closer to Seattle than Anchorage. We're part of the world's second largest rain forest."

It's always interesting to hear what takes people to Alaska, so I asked her.

"We grew up there. Our family's been there forever."

"Oh! You're native Alaskans!"

"Yes. Well, Alaska Natives."

So that's how you say it. Tlingit, to be exact, it turns out.

How fascinating is that.  So then the sisters talked about totems and beadwork and growing up on the island, where people worked in either logging or fishing.

See, if you keep turning life's pages, you keep getting more of the story, which circled around to another story about sewing, which was as heartwarming as a weighted blanket.

When Carrie and Donna were young, a family from Oregon had come to the island to work as commercial fishermen, but they were desperately poor--so poor that the father and two sons had only one pair of shoes between them, and whoever needed them least that day went without, in the snow and cold.  And sometimes the second-grade boy clomped around in these men's shoes with his little stick legs.

The family was also too proud to accept gifts, which was incomprehensible to the people on the island who took care of each other and had always shared what was needed.

The family had two daughters who were Donna's friends. Their mom sewed feed-sack dresses for them by hand.

One day Donna had an idea.  She had wandered around the back rooms of the Presbyterian church, much like my children in their day explored the furnace rooms and balconies of Sheridan Mennonite when we went there for special meetings, and in a closet in an upstairs Sunday school room, Donna had seen a sewing machine.

She asked her mom if she could have it. Her mom sent her to the pastor's wife.  The pastor's wife had no idea the machine even existed and finally said, Yes, she could have it.

The machine was almost too heavy to carry, but she lugged it to her friends' home on the fishing boat. Was it because the mom saw her as a personal friend that she accepted it? I don't know, but the mom ended up with a little sewing business. People would bring pants and things to mend, and she would also cut patterns from paper sacks and sew dresses. It gave her a dignified way to help support her family.

At the end of that year, the family went back to Oregon.  I don't know what became of the sewing machine or the friends.

But I loved the story.

See, that is how it works, with both fabric and stories. One thing leads to another, people connect, and windows open into faraway lives.

And the fabric I bought at a garage sale in 2005 and never turned into a dress for Jenny can now help an anxious little child sleep better at night.

Isn't that amazing?
Here's me and Edith. I'm holding a weighted blanket she brought to show me.
She's holding fabric.
We are happy.

Spring Morning

Hello there, spring morning,
Sunshine and sheep,
Small blossoms borning
While I was asleep.
Hello there, hope, 
glowing and new.
In darkness and rain
You silently grew. 

Good news, Winter,
Your pregnancy's past.
Thanks for your labor.
Goodbye, at last.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Newspaper Column--Hens and Befuddled Moms

A hen’s simple life provides an oasis in a complicated world

By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
MARCH 12, 2017

I love my flock of hens for many reasons, but especially this: They dispatch spiders with one decisive peck, a refreshing demonstration when one’s head is full of ideas and tasks and choices spidering chaotically in all directions.

One hen, named Dorothy, roosts in the back corner of the carport, on a coil of rope on a shelf behind a bicycle. After dark, I put on my old coat, step around the bike, grab her left wing, pull her out and carry her to the henhouse. She is warm and fluffy, and she almost purrs in a deep rumbling cluck that I can feel in my hands.

Then I open the door of the dark henhouse and set her inside, where the other hens scold her in quiet annoyance from the roost. They sound like us, when Paul and I just have fallen asleep and the college kid who was up late, studying upstairs, decides to make a quesadilla for a snack. Every bump and slam carries into the bedroom because it is an old house, the fir beams all interconnected somehow, and creaking floors and clanked skillets reverberate everywhere.

Hoping to remedy this, we are redoing our tiny bedroom, borrowing a few square feet from the office and adding insulation on the wall next to the kitchen.

Five of our six children are in college, and the sixth tutors at a university overseas. We didn’t plan or particularly encourage this, but, as our oldest son said, “If you sack seed for nine summers you’re motivated to go to college so you never have to sack seed again.”

“The Smucker warehouse must be doing awfully well,” my neighbor lady commented.

“Trust me,” I said. “The kids pay for college themselves.” Mostly debt-free, I should have added. In the interest of saving money, three of them live at home and commute.

This means that not only are midnight snacks prepared for all to hear, but the conversations in our kitchen, over morning coffee or while washing dishes after dinner, careen from heat transfer and Roman history to Socratic methods and math instructors at Linn-Benton. “Can you calculate how long this mug will keep my tea hot if the water is boiling but it’s 44 degrees outside?” the communication major asks the smoldering combustion researcher.

Lately, the conversation often circles around to two subjects that the kids enjoy but that make me feel slow and lagging in intellect and sophistication.

First is the idea of fixed vs. growth mindset, best explained by my daughter Jenny.

“Someone with a fixed mindset believes that their qualities, such as intelligence or talents, are fixed traits, whereas a person with a growth mindset sees them as areas where they can grow.”

A growth mindset is good, I am told, which motivated me to take a basket-making class and read up on construction and colors when it would have been much easier to sit down with a cup of tea and a well-worn copy of L.M. Montgomery’s “A Tangled Web.”

I’m still confused about the second subject the kids discuss: the Myers-Briggs personality types, an evaluation method with a possibility of 16 different results, indicated by a four-letter acronym apiece.

They say I’m an INFP, which seems to mean I’m a disorganized person who is easily overwhelmed, thinks too much and needs time alone to survive. And I live among noisy, practical and logical people who, in the words of a young friend, sort of drag me along in their wake, as opposed to me steering the boat.

In their pursuit of lofty thoughts and complicated lives, the kids love and indulge me in my quest for simplicity and rest, and they think I am sweet and lovable, which nice, but it’s also how I treat my chickens.

But, like my hens who figured out how to clear the gate even after we clipped their wings, I am determined to choose a growth mindset and keep learning. The remodeling project requires narrow choices among far too many options. I’ve lived through at least six eras in home decorating. I want to be up-to-date but not a fad-follower, and I don’t want to choose the equivalent of geese with blue bows around their necks.

“You need to watch ‘Fixer Upper!’ ” my friends told me. I looked it up online. It’s a show about, naturally, fixing up older houses, and the prevailing great idea is accent walls covered in shiplap, a type of rough board with interlocking edges.

Hmmm. I inspected the doorway where Paul had cut into the wall under the stairs, and there I saw the ends of rough boards with interlocking edges.

Our bedroom was covered in 106-year-old shiplap, back behind the drywall and five layers of wallpaper!

I shared this astonishing discovery with Paul. He said, “Before we go tearing the Sheetrock off every wall in the house, we’re going to expose one wall in the bedroom. And you’re going to help, so you know how much work is involved.”

How did he know exactly what I was thinking?

So I helped pry off the accumulations of the years, and I learned about pulling out nails and how much dust a piece of broken drywall produces and how Paul’s great-grandma pasted on a thin sheet of cotton fabric to anchor the first layer of wallpaper.

Despite my need for solitude and quiet, I cook dinner every night and hope the kids all come home to eat it together. I ask about classes and classmates, I tell them to invite their friends over, and I do my best to understand the discussions on philosophy and trigonometry and music, because that is what a mom does.

Then I go visit my chickens. Among too much to ponder and process, they live in a separate little universe where life is simple and straightforward.

For one thing, their conversations are easy to understand. They discuss eggs, feed, the endless rain and the annoying Dorothy. Did I bring any vegetable scraps for them, they ask. Yes yes yes! And they race for the cabbage leaves and carrot peelings. Thank you, thank you! I laid an egg just for you, a brown one, they tell me proudly.

My hens are not terribly intelligent, I’m afraid, but it’s nice to feel like the smartest person in the room. Instead of thinking logically, they flap their wings and run off, screeching, if I rattle the feed bag too loudly. Probably they are ESFPs, totally in the moment and guided by the emotions of the group. I find this comforting.

Mostly, they are of a fixed, rather than a growth mindset. Despite learning to escape their field, they can’t figure out that to get to the feed trays, they must either fly back over the fence or enter the front door of the hen house. So they stand by the fence, clucking hungrily, but run off when I try to gently shoo them inside.

This is a problem, but it makes me feel sensible by comparison, and in the overall whirl of my life, this issue is small and manageable. In fact, the worst complication happened the other morning when I threw on a skirt and coat over my pajamas and ran out to feed them. One skinny Leghorn was outside, and I tried to corral her with a leaf rake, which did not go well. I looked up, briefly, and saw that a white pickup truck was parked on the road, and the man inside was taking photos. This troubled me on at least two levels, maybe three or four. Then he waved and drove off, the hen was eventually lured back inside, and I chose not to worry about the potential photos.

Hens don’t worry about weight or fashion or propriety. They find great joy in eating, and sometimes they follow me out to the mailbox with their plump hindquarters rocking happily back and forth. They don’t worry about Myers-Briggs tests, fixed or growth mindsets, or whether an all-white room will look out of date a year from now.

I know God had his reasons for making them chickens and for making me a sometimes-befuddled mom of a large brood of humans. At the end of the day, though, I am grateful that this is my calling, that life is all interconnected like the ribs of an old farmhouse, and that even in the dark I am held and carried home like a warm and contentedly clucking hen.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

A Few Random Thoughts

Just a few things I jotted down last evening...
On my mind:
1. I have a daughter who, if she is ever preparing for a wedding, wants to register at St. Vincent de Paul or an independently-owned thrift store.
2. It's an odd thing to be 54 and finally figure out that someone lied to you when you were 8 or 9, and all your life you've acted as though this thing were true, and it isn't and never was.
3. Last night we were with the other pastor's kids. Middle names were discussed.
Paul: I'll bet you don't know my middle name!
Little kid, confidently: 'Postle!
4. We took up the carpet in our bedroom, and there was old floral linoleum, and under the linoleum was a lovely fir floor, which Paul has been sanding down to perfect levelness and consistency.
5. Yesterday morning I threw on a few garments over my pajamas and ran out to feed the chickens. One was out and I tried to corral it with a leaf rake, which did not go well. And then I looked up and a white pickup truck was parked on the road, and the man inside was taking photos. This bothers me on at least two levels, maybe three or four. [Then he waved and drove off.]
6. Today I got a handwritten fan letter from a young man going to college in Iowa. Imagine.
7. This year, the SAD hit just as the daffodils started blooming, which is a very odd way to do things.
8. I think we should all give other people permission to tell their stories even if it makes us look bad. This is an easy thing for me to say, since I am generally the storyteller. I hope I'd feel the same if my kids told a story that made me look bad [or dumb or mean or unfair], since we all know that examples of such would be easy to find. And I am all about telling one's story honestly, which is why, when Paul got ordained, I told him that I'm willing to be embarrassed for the sake of a good illustration. But Telling in any form usually involves tough choices between Honesty and Honor, Healing and Pleasing, Speaking Out and Horrifying Somebody.
9. It rains a lot in the Willamette Valley in Oregon.
ETA: By special request, I came up with a tenth item:
10: It is March and so far I've kept my New Years resolution of not buying fabric. It has caused me pain and has required fierce resolve and avoidance of Certain Shops, but it has been done.