Unexpected Gratitude for A Suicide Attempt

photo by Kurt Fristrup

It’s amazing what you can be grateful for. Sure, we’re grateful for food on the table, a roof over our heads, robust health (if we’re lucky enough to have it), the usual stuff everyone talks about on Thanksgiving Day. Gratitude is simply recognizing the value of something. Sometimes it’s something we’ve come to take for granted, like turning on a tap and getting hot water. Sometimes it’s something horrific that doesn’t sound like any good could possibly come from it all. And yet, we can still be grateful for the terrible as well as the good in our lives.

I got a phone call one evening from someone I hadn’t known for long. Sherry* was a member of a club I belonged to. I didn’t know much about her, and wasn’t sure why she was calling me. I had talked to her about mental illness in the past, just a little, because it runs in my family and hers. Otherwise our interactions had been minimal. I couldn’t imagine what she was calling me about.

After a polite greeting, Sherry told me that she had been admitted to psychiatric hospital because she had attempted suicide. She was calling from a locked ward. I was startled, then sympathetic. I was able to listen to her and hear her story with compassion and understanding. She was afraid to call her family and closer friends, because she didn’t know how they would take the news. I reassured her the best I could.

When that phone call was over, I thought the strangest thing I may have ever thought in my life — how grateful I was that a suicide attempt by one of my relatives had prepared me for this moment.

I am still floored when I think that I could be grateful for something so horrible, but I am. When I first heard that a close relative had been put in the hospital for a suicide attempt, I was grateful she was still alive, but otherwise, I was a mess — frightened, angry, unsure, confused. I never thought I would be grateful for my part of the experience: hearing her story, visiting her in the locked ward, watching her go through therapy and recover. How could I be grateful for something so harrowing and painful?

And yet, only a year later, there I was on the phone, talking calmly to a woman I barely knew, and being of comfort to her. I was able to talk to Sherry about her situation because it wasn’t exotic or bizarre to me. It was something I’d dealt with before.

If Sherry had called me the year before my family went through our suicide crisis, I don’t know what I would have said or done. I would have been completely flummoxed, probably said all the wrong things, or worse yet, hung up and left her to deal with her problems alone.

Knowing how badly I might have responded makes me even more grateful that I was prepared for that moment and able to hold Sherry’s hand as she went through her ordeal. Thanks to that phone call, I am grateful for one of the worst times in my own life. I try to remember now that even the darkest moments can have an unexpected silver lining.

Is there anything awful in your life that you are grateful for today?

*Not her real name

Today, members of 1000 Voices of Compassion are blogging about gratitude. To see a list of other posts on gratitude and compassion, click here.

Quilting Doesn’t Take Forever; It Just Feels Like It

I sometimes think the “F” in UFO* stands for “Forever.” As in, “this thing may be finished one day, but it will feel like it took forever.”

This is the downside to be a quilter (and a novel writer, for that matter). I love big, complex, time-consuming projects. They are engrossing and challenging. The intricate, detailed results are satisfying, but getting from start to finish can take me a long long long long time.

For example, today’s quilt (which I finished last week) is part of a series that I started in 2000. You read that right. This project is fifteen years old. And it’s still not done! There are 6 different pieces in this color exercise I’ve challenged myself with, and it’s taken me over a decade to get them all designed and pieced. I have three left to quilt, so I am nearly there.

Color Exercise #4: Green-Orange-Yellow (34" x 34") by Kit Dunsmore
Color Exercise #4: Green-Orange-Yellow (34″ x 34″) by Kit Dunsmore

My goal is to use three adjacent colors on a 6-color wheel for each quilt. (Remember the color wheel from art class? Red-orange-yellow-green-blue-violet.)

The basic color wheel (primaries and secondaries only)
The basic color wheel (primaries and secondaries only)

The latest piece is my green-orange-yellow quilt, the fourth one I’ve pieced, but the third one quilted.

Close up of the Green-Orange-Yellow quilt
Close up of the Green-Orange-Yellow quilt

These quilts have been sitting in the closet, waiting for me to quilt them, which is part of the reason it is taking me so long. Of course, this quilt didn’t take fifteen years to make. It took a few months to make. But I spread out the steps over time, because I get stuck, distracted, bored, or all of the above. I constantly start new projects, despite the UFOs I know I have lying around.

Close up of the quilting in the border. The quilt is so busy this is the only place you can really see the quilting.
Close up of the quilting in the border. The quilt is so busy this is the only place you can really see the quilting.

I’ve decided it’s time to get some of my UFOs F’d and out into the world. I have lots of finished tops, so this is my chance to practice my machine quilting and finish some projects at the same time. If I stick with it, I might be able to get this color exercise series done before 2020.

Do you have lots of UFOs lying around? How do you trick yourself into finishing things?

*In the quilting world, UFO stands for “UnFinished Object.” It’s code for “yet another project I abandoned in the middle but still expect to return to someday.”

The Pain of Discipline OR The Pain of Regret?


Discipline: is it an ugly word or a good thing?

Sometimes our discipline requires extreme effort on our part (early morning workouts, I’m looking at you); sometimes, it requires sacrifice. Anything we choose to do right now means there is something else we can’t do with this moment.

I prefer to think of discipline as remembering: I remember that I want to be fit and healthy in the long run, so I exercise today. Or that I want to have 50,000 words written by the end of November, and will be doing myself a favor if I write at least 1,667 of them today.

And when I find discipline an uncomfortable, painful thing, I remember:

We must all suffer one of two things: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret and disappointment. — Jim Rohn

The pain of discipline is usually short-lived. The pain of regret is not. That makes the choice a tiny bit easier.

Do you like the idea of discipline, or is it an ugly word?

Keeping Stores Closed On Holidays: What I Learned in Germany

There’s been a lot of stuff floating around on the internet about stores being open or closed on Thanksgiving Day. Having stores open on a holiday is a bad idea, and living in Germany for two years taught me why.

The palace in downtown Stuttgart. We walked past it every weekend.
The palace in downtown Stuttgart. We walked past it every weekend.

When I lived in Germany in the early 90s, the hours for shopping of any kind were limited. Stores were open on the weekdays during regular business hours (8 AM – 5 PM). There was no shopping in the evening and the only weekend hours were in the morning on Saturday, with all the stores closing at noon. Once a month, we had “long Saturday,” when the stores were open until an incredible 2 PM. After that, you couldn’t buy anything until Monday morning. This meant that Saturday afternoons and all day Sunday were free from the sort of errands that are considered common in America.

A typical Sunday afternoon in the Stuttgart park: time to play chess, or just watch.
A typical Sunday afternoon in the Stuttgart park: time to play chess, or just watch.

Coming from the land of the 24-hour super store, I was initially perplexed. Working full-time in the U.S. meant I did my shopping on weekends to keep my weekdays from seeming unmanageable. Fortunately, my job teaching English to Germans left me with some weekday hours free, and I could get to the grocery store then. Saturday morning was the only time my husband could shop, but that didn’t cause any problem. As long as we made lists and planned our shopping trips, we were fine.

With time, I didn’t just adjust to the limitations the Germans put on my shopping opportunities, I grew to love it.
Weekends were not for shopping. We couldn’t buy groceries for the week or the lightbulbs we needed. We couldn’t look for new coats or shoes. We couldn’t even shop for the entertainment value, unless we were willing to stick to window-shopping only.

Me taking a break from playing frisbee. (Odds are, it was a Sunday.)
Me taking a break from playing frisbee. (Odds are, it was a Sunday.)

As someone who doesn’t really like to shop, it surprised me that this limitation still had an effect on me. Our Sundays were holidays whether we wanted them to be or not. The wisdom of taking a day off, of letting everything wait in order to relax, became apparent to me. Every week, there was at least one day I could count on taking a break, and it made my work days easier to get through. The pace of life, with its clear boundaries between work and play, became my favorite thing about living in Germany.

I told myself when I came back to the U.S., I could keep the tradition going. I could treat Sunday as a day off, a day to rest, no work to be done. You can guess what happened. A Sunday came when I needed something for a recipe and I was back in the U.S., where the stores are open all weekend. I could go shopping even though it was Sunday and I did. That dividing line that made Sunday a holiday was gone.

A swan in the Stuttgart city park.
A swan in the Stuttgart city park.

And that’s why I’m so distressed about the stores that want to be open on Thanksgiving Day. There are very few days in the U.S. where stores are actually closed, where we stop the commerce and focus instead on time spent with family and friends, on rest and relaxation. We need to set aside more days like this instead of working and shopping ourselves to death.

Even though there will be some stores open this Thanksgiving, I won’t be doing any shopping. How about you?

Halloween Costume for a T-Rex: Elsa from Frozen

When Tiny told her Aunt Rexie she wanted to be Elsa from Frozen for Halloween, Aunt Rexie was stumped. She doesn’t know how to sew, only how to knit, and she’s still a beginner. But she promised Tiny she’d make her Halloween costume this year, so she looked at pictures of Elsa and got to work.

Knitting this outfit was no easy task, but Aunt Rexie went for it.
Elsa from Frozen. Knitting this outfit was no easy task, but Aunt Rexie went for it.

The slim cut dress wouldn’t fit over T-Rex hips, so Rexie put slits up the side. She knew if she just made the skirt wide enough to wear, Tiny would look more like Cinderella than Elsa. She also knit a lacy cover for the cape with sleeves, hoping it would be enough like the translucent layer Elsa wore in the movie to satisfy her niece.

Tiny in her Elsa outfit. She loves it!
Tiny in her Elsa outfit. She loves it!
Rather than knit snowflakes into the gown, Rexie used glittery sequins.
Rather than knit snowflakes into the gown, Rexie used glittery sequins.
You can't be Elsa without the braid.
You can’t be Elsa without the braid.

Rexie also had to make a wig*. What a great excuse to buy more yarn!

While she found knitting the lace part challenging, she still got it done before Halloween. Best of all, Tiny loves it. She’s been wearing it around the house every day this week.

Halloween, here she comes!
Halloween, here she comes!

*My husband says it’s demeaning to put a wig on a dinosaur, especially a T-Rex. All I can say in my defense is: Tiny insisted.

Technical details for the curious: I used size 00 needles and a smooth, slightly shiny cotton yarn to knit the dress. The cape is knit from single strands of a sparkly embroidery floss on size 3 (cape) and size 2 (sleeves) needles. I do not recommend using the sparkly floss for knitting. The stuff was stiff and slippery and not knitting friendly. I nearly gave up on it.

Creating Requires Facing the Unknown

November is less than a week away and I’m having my usual pre-NaNoWriMo* jitters. I’ve done this nine times before, and every October the same thing happens. I start thinking “what am I going to write?” I get anxious about planning, figuring out what my story will be about. The fear rises up, threatening to swamp me. I don’t know what to expect, what will happen, what November is going to look like, or what my 50,000 word novel will even be about. All that uncertainty is scary.

It doesn’t help that I’ve been floundering for a few months, wrestling the unknown, as I revise my novel about Rapunzel. I’m worn out from dealing with things I don’t know, and the fear that whatever I do, it will be a disaster in the end. NaNoWriMo just means more uncertainty, and who needs that?

Apparently, I do. I need a break from Rapunzel and here’s NaNoWriMo just in time to offer me a structured, fun way to practice writing without the pressure to write something perfect. (The deadline forces me to let go of my expectations — how can I possibly write anything good at such a speed? — and that frees me to write well. Go figure.)

All of this reminds me why creating anything new is difficult. Uncertainty is a huge piece of the creative process. This is why some of my projects (knitting socks) are done from patterns. I can count (more or less) on the outcome. The risk goes way down. But if I knit something from scratch (clothes for a T-Rex), I am heading into the unknown. I have to be willing to make mistakes. I have to be willing to try new ideas, change my vision, even start over from scratch. It’s riskier than knitting from a pattern, can take more time than I expected, and have its moments of intense frustration. It also has its moments of triumph, and that’s why I show up to begin with, in the hopes that I can see the project through to a successful finish.

Writing a novel is the same way. So is making a drawing or painting. Every act of creation is full of risk. Even the most experienced artists face the terror of the blank page, the gulf between where they are and where they hope to go, the doubt that they will ever be able to capture the vision they see.

In order to create, we have to face the unknown. We have to get used to being uncomfortable and feeling lost. A lot of creative time is spent wandering. We have to embrace the abyss, dive into the dark, swim around aimlessly in the hopes we will come upon some treasure. It’s awkward and frightening and even painful at times, but it’s worth the effort. If we persist, we come out on the other side with something of beauty, something with promise: a muddy shell, a tarnished ring, an uncut emerald, a shard of broken glass.

More work needs to be done, but we have moved closer to our vision. Maybe what we found changes our vision. That’s OK. The point is to keep chasing it, through the tangled forests and dark nights, into light-less caves and bottomless pits, until we get another glimpse of it or maybe even catch it by the tail.


And so it goes with NaNoWriMo. October is awkward, because I want a plan in advance. I long for a road map, with all the stops marked for me, so that I know where I will be going, what is going to happen, how I’m going to get to the other side. As long as I am doing something I’ve never done before, such a map doesn’t exist. Writing my own novel means making the map up as I go. I can plan a little, but only a little. My process doesn’t allow for extensive planning ahead. I must accept the uncertainty and write anyway. Experience shows that I will find answers, that the unknown will become familiar and clear to me, as long as I am willing to push past my fears and write.

November 1 is coming. When it gets here, I will write.

How about you? Do you struggle with the uncertainty of creation?

*For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. This will be my tenth year participating in this crazy challenge. (Yes, I love it.)

The Messy Process of Creating Original Work


My creative process is a cycle, which means I go through the same stages over and over and over and over again. You’d think I’d get used to each stage and know exactly what was coming, what to expect, and how to handle it. But that never seems to happen. Instead, I get bogged down, confused, or lost, and only when I stop to look around do I recognize the place I’ve reached.

I’m working on a novel revision right now and the place I’ve reached feels like a dead end. I can’t move forward, can’t muster the energy or interest to do whatever needs doing. My book needs lots of work. I have lists of unanswered questions and details to be decided on.

I’m in a thinking and research phase of my project. This is always hard for me. It’s about gathering the material new story ideas will spring from, and the steps involved look like work.

So today, I am holding onto this thought:

Writing is a messy process that’s equal parts “mess” and “process.” — Julia Cameron, Finding Water, p. 98.

“Mess” and “process” describe where I’m at well.

My book is a mess right now, with parts that need cutting, parts that need re-writing, and parts to be written from scratch. The goal of this re-write is just to find my story and make it stronger, re-organize the mess into something orderly and interesting.

The word “process” reminds me that this whole thing is going to take time. It won’t be fast or easy. It will take plodding, determined, deliberate effort on my part. Most of all, it will take patience as I slowly get a grip on what I have and what I don’t have, and then chip away at the deficit.

My goal for the day is to enjoy the messy process of writing a novel, to inch forward, a little closer to a complete story. With patience, I can cover miles of territory, an inch at a time.

Do you get stuck on creative projects? Which part of the process is hardest for you?