Choosing the Handmade Life

Today I’m switching to a new focus for my blog. “Creating a Handmade Life, One Moment at a Time” means that I will be posting about handmade items much as I have in the past. But “the handmade life” has a deeper meaning for me, and I hope at least some of my posts will dig into other experiences related to making a life by hand, even when the actions involved do not require literal creation.

For years, I’ve had the phrase “handmade life” in my head. Described by Clarissa Pinkola Estés in her discussion of the fairy tale The Red Shoes, the concept of the handmade life was illustrated through two powerful images. One was a pair of red shoes made of cloth and the other was a stained-glass window in a medieval cathedral.

In Estés’s version of The Red Shoes, a poor orphan struggles to clothe and feed herself. Over time, she collects scraps of fabric, makes herself shoes, and dyes them red with berry juice. Though they are not fancy, the girl loves them dearly and they make her feel rich despite her poverty. One day, a wealthy woman offers to adopt her and treat her as her own daughter. She gives her new clothes, and destroys the girl’s cloth shoes. The girl sees shiny red shoes at the shoemaker’s and longs for them, because they remind her of the beloved shoes she’s lost. Unfortunately, the red shoes are not good for her: they force her to dance whether she wants to or not. Eventually, she begs to have her feet cut off in order to be free of the shoes, and a man with an axe obliges her.

Estés considers this story to be about soul life and addiction. The shoes the girl makes herself may not be admired or approved of by others, but they fill her heart with joy because they are of her making. The shiny shoes she replaces them with are empty substitutions and do not feed her soul, even though they seem like the same thing. In the end, they nearly destroy her. The girl was better off, spiritually and emotionally, with her tattered handmade shoes.

The handmade life feeds the soul and keeps us healthy. It’s another way of talking about an authentic or vital life, one that we choose for ourselves instead of having it handed to us or decided for us. The stained-glass window is Estés’s metaphor for this kind of life. Each day is a piece of colored glass, carefully shaped, polished, and placed within the overall design. The process is slow and laborious, but the results are magnificent.

Rose window in Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris. Photo by Oliver Mitchell
Rose window in Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris. Photo by Oliver Mitchell

Choosing to hand make our life means paying attention daily to what is important to our heart and spirit, and not just to the many demands the world makes of us. We have to make time for creating the life we live, even if we can only spare a few minutes a day, or we will lose our way and be in danger of dancing ourselves to death.

Over the last few months, I’ve realized how important the handmade life is to me. Choosing to write is part of the glass-cutting I do each day. So is spinning yarn, knitting or crocheting, taking time to sew or draw. All my creative interests help feed my soul the food it needs so that I am not in danger of being sucked into life-draining distractions like watching TV, eating junk food, obsessing over details, or shopping endlessly.

Being surrounded by handmade objects gives me deep satisfaction and comfort, but the process of actually making things with my own hands, imagining them with my own mind, is the true source of my joy and why I find this phrase so compelling. I want to live a handmade life and I hope to share it with you.

How do you live a handmade life? What choices or activities feed your soul and keep you mentally healthy?

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