Handmade Holidays: Thanksgiving 2014

We had a quiet Thanksgiving at home this year with one friend as our guest. While the elaborate cooking always makes it feel like a celebration, I wanted to dress things up a little. My new focus on the handmade life had me watching for the things we did ourselves.

First off, I took the time to make myself an apron. Inspired by Marisa Lynch, I bought a strapless dress too small for me to wear at a thrift shop because I loved the roses on it. Right from the start, I intended to make it into an apron, but I only sat down and tackled it this week.

The strapless dress I started with.
The strapless dress I started with.
The apron I made for it. (Festive!)
The apron I made from it.

I also wanted the table to look festive. I bought flowers from a local florist and put them in a handmade vase that was given to me as a gift.

We own a beautiful batik tablecloth, but it’s dyed with indigo, and somehow dark blue doesn’t really go with a harvest color scheme. Then I remembered that one of my unfinished quilts is a maple leaf quilt in harvest colors. It was too big for the table, so I folded the edges under. I love how it made the table look. Best of all, my place mats went with it as if I’d been planning this all along.

The table cloth is an unfinished quilt top. I love how it looks!
The table cloth is an unfinished quilt top. I love how it looks!

The cooking of the Thanksgiving Day meal can be a great place to practice the handmade life. My husband did most of the cooking this year. Everything we ate was homemade. All of the foods met my strict dietary needs, from stuffing without any grains in it, to baked apples without any sugar added. It was all super delicious!

Sauce made from whole cranberries and apple juice concentrate. Tart but yummy.
Our bird, full of grain-free stuffing.

While our group was small, the carefully made food and attention to aesthetic details did make it feel like a party. I felt a quiet joy throughout the day that tells me my Thanksgiving day celebration was a success.

Did you do anything to personalize your holiday this year? What handmade touches did you add to the festivities?

9 Reasons I’m Thankful for Facebook

It’s that time of year, when we stop and reflect on all the good stuff in our lives. While I’m grateful for my family and friends, the roof over the my head, the food on the table, and my recently restored health, I thought I’d take the time to be thankful for something that mostly gets criticized: Facebook. One of the more famous internet black holes, Facebook can suck up your time and brain. But there are some great things about it, too.


  1. I can skip reading the paper and listening to the news. Not only does the big stuff show up on Facebook, but you have people to moan with when the news is not good.
  2. I can get a cat fix without having to install a litter pan.
  3. I have somewhere to go when I need to laugh.
  4. It’s free.
  5. The quizzes posted on Facebook reassure me that I am indeed unique. My inability to pick from the limited choices reminds me that I can’t be pigeon-holed. Then I get an answer that I disagree with, just like 79% of the people who took the quiz.
  6. I get to see pictures of people I knew in high school and wonder when they got old.
  7. I have something to do when I cannot face whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing at the moment.
  8. The complete circle of life is there to be seen: births, deaths, weddings, graduations, vacations, and the need for caffeine to get us through it all.
  9. Best of all, I’ve seen a cat in a shark suit riding on a Roomba. I can die knowing that I have truly lived.

Thank you, Facebook.

In case you somehow missed it, a cat in a shark suit riding on a Roomba:
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Is there anything you’d like to thank Facebook for?

You Have to Really Look in Order to See

Over the weekend, I was fortunate enough to spend a day in a workshop taught by Jane Sassaman. The class was Abstracting From Nature. I signed up because I love natural subjects — animals, plants, landscapes — but do not want to get sucked into photorealistic interpretations when I make a quilt or other piece of art.

While I was looking forward to the class, I had a hard time preparing for it. The supply list was quite short because it was mainly a drawing class: paper, pencil, and reference material were all you really needed. The reference material was where I balked. She recommended large pictures of flowers but most of mine are little 3 x 5 snapshots or digital files. I couldn’t bring myself to print out a bunch of flowers because I knew I wouldn’t be using everything and it seemed like a waste of ink, paper, and time. (It didn’t occur to me to take my laptop to class: other people did that.)

Fortunately, she mentioned that you could bring a bouquet along to class instead, and that seemed so much easier. Our irises have been blooming for a few weeks now and a few of the flowers had fallen over, so I cut those stems, stuck them in a vase, and took them to class.

Am I ever glad I did. We started by drawing our plants in order to notice the key features: number of petals, leaf shape, how leaves branch off the stem. Students working from photographs were stuck with a handful of views of their plant and some had to ask around class to get pictures of leaves or buds. I could pick my iris up and look at it from any direction I liked and I had parts that don’t usually make it into photos.

One of the irises I took to class with me.
One of the irises I took to class with me.

I love irises and thought I knew what they looked like. But drawing them meant slowing down and really looking at the individual flower in front of me. I was astonished by what I saw.

I’m sure I’ve seen the fuzzy beard before, but I never really paid any attention to it. I fell in love with the soft veins in the petals, the graceful curves of the leaves, the papery material
on the outer edge of an open calyx, the over-the-top ruffles along the petal edges.

Some of my iris sketches
Some of my visual notes on irises
My notes on the entire flower.
My notes on the entire flower.

I even discovered irises have petals hidden inside I didn’t know about.

You rarely see an iris from this angle.
You rarely see an iris from this angle.

By the end of the day, my brain felt pulped. My attempts at abstracting the irises were hindered by my love of those elegant ball gown ruffles.

One of my "abstracted" designs... not all that abstract!
One of my “abstracted” designs… not all that abstract!

The strain of looking so hard and long left my eyes feeling dry and crossed, as if they would never return to normal. Now I hope they don’t, because all that looking helped me to see the world afresh. I am filled with wonder at the glorious complexity of an iris and reminded of the true power of taking time to draw: it helps me to connect with and really see all the miracles that surround me.

Tooth Trouble: When Preventative Care Doesn’t Work as Planned

Sometimes health feels this precarious; I'll do what I have to keep from falling down the cliff.
Sometimes health feels this precarious; I’ll do what I have to keep from falling down the cliff.  photo by Kurt Fristrup

Over the last two years, my dentist has been replacing my fillings. He explained to me that my teeth were showing signs of cracking and that my old fillings weren’t helping matters any.

My dental history is a long and busy road including pulled teeth, braces, fillings, and a root canal. One thing I do not want is more dental work, so I am willing to do anything I can now to reduce the chance of big problems later.

Having my old fillings drilled out and replaced was stressful, painful, and expensive, but my husband and I agreed it was worth doing. It made me dread my regular cleaning visits because the last three all ended with scheduling a round of filling work.

On Monday, I went into my six-month cleaning thinking “All done replacing fillings! All that’s happening today is a cleaning. I can relax.”

And I thought that right up until the dentist said, “One of your teeth is broken.”

I was surprised. I had no idea I had broken a tooth. Apparently, the piece that has cracked didn’t come out because my teeth are so tightly wedged together. I have a small mouth and big teeth, so there’s no room to spare.

Then he said, “You need a crown.”

Not words I wanted to hear. I felt like crying, but didn’t. He assured me a root canal would not be necessary, and that was good news at least.

The tooth that’s broken? We replaced the filling in November to avoid this very problem. It came apart anyway.

I’m disappointed that my preventative measures didn’t work. It’s easy to think the money I paid for a filling that only lasted six months was wasted. It’s a painful reminder that you can do all the right things and still not get the results that you want.

On the other hand, what would have happened if I hadn’t replaced my fillings? Maybe more of my teeth would have broken, and this tooth that has just cracked and only needs a crown might have disintegrated and required a root canal. There’s no way to know for sure.

I only have my faith in preventative measures. No matter what I choose to do, I’m the one who lives with the consequences. Much better that I should take good care of myself and minimize the chances of big problems than neglect or even abuse myself and open the door to catastrophe.

Good behavior does not guarantee anything when it comes to health. All I’m really doing is nudging the odds a little. But I want the best odds I can get, so I’ll be back at my dentist’s in November for my 6-month cleaning.

I just have to get this crown put in first.

Do you believe in preventative care? Do you get to the dentist regularly or avoid going at all costs?

A Blue Jay Reminds Me Not To Take Things for Granted

The first Thanksgiving after my divorce, I wound up at my sister’s in-laws’ for dinner. Along with their immediate family, they had gathered in other strays like myself, including three people from Britain.

There were bird feeders in the backyard, and we talked about the fact that I worked at the Lab of Ornithology at Cornell. Later, one of the Brits pulled me by the sleeve to the window.

“What,” she asked in a breathless voice, “is that?”

She pointed out the window and I looked, expecting some bland and difficult to recognize “little brown bird”, afraid I would disappoint her with my ignorance.

Sitting on the feeder was a blue and white bird with black markings on its face and a tall crest of blue feathers.

“It’s a blue jay,” I said in a tone of complete indifference. Where I grew up, blue jays are as common as coffee shops in Seattle.

She was undaunted by my world-weary attitude. “Wow.” A northern cardinal arrived and she asked me its name. She was just as excited to see it as she had been to see the jay. She grabbed her friends and they all stared out the window with their mouths hanging open as the jays and cardinals came and went.

Those red and blue birds that were so familiar to me looked exotic and tropical to the visitors from England. My ordinary was their extraordinary.

As I stared at the bright plumage of the birds and listened to their gasps of wonder, I promised myself I would remember that jays and cardinals are beautiful. I wouldn’t let the fact that I saw them all the time dull me to their beauty. I would not take them for granted ever again.

Only I did. I lived in New England for ten more years, and I saw jays and cardinals all the time without thinking back to the wonder those British travelers had felt.

I now live on the very western edge of the eastern blue jay’s territory, in a place where there are no cardinals at all. There are other lovely jays to see here, but they aren’t as striking as the blue jay I grew up with.

I was lucky enough to see an eastern blue jay last week. I spent a lot of time watching it through my binoculars, admiring the crisp black and white markings and the brilliance of the blue feathers on its head and back.

Eastern Blue Jay  photo by Kurt Fristrup
Eastern Blue Jay photo by Kurt Fristrup

I gloried in getting such a good look at it. We have feeders up, but jays rarely come in to them. I often hear them calling when I take Dory on our walks, but to actually see one clearly is a treat.

I have learned again that blue jays are extraordinary. Now when I see one, I remember those Brits at Thanksgiving, and share their wonder at the beauty of a jay. I promise myself that I won’t take them for granted ever again.

I can’t wait until I get to see a cardinal.

For Shakespeare’s Birthday: 5 Gifts He’s Given Me

I fell in love with Shakespeare’s work watching presentations of his plays on TV as a teenager. In 1980, Derek Jacobi played Hamlet and my family taped his performance with our new VCR. I watched that tape over and over, mesmerized by Hamlet’s struggle with doubt, by the inevitable destruction of the prince and those around him, and by the brilliance of the language.

Since then, I’ve seen many of Shakespeare’s plays, either live or recorded, and read some as well. I’ve added titles to my list of favorites — The Tempest, A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet — and been entranced repeatedly by his work.

In honor of William Shakespeare’s birthday 450 years ago today, here are just five of the many gifts his writing has given me.

My favorite bracelet
My favorite bracelet

1) “To thine own self be true”: Although pompous Polonius’s advice to his son is usually played for laughs, when he reaches this line, you realize that he is not entirely a fool. These are words to remember and to live by, that cut to the root of true integrity, for if you follow them “thou canst not then be false to any man”. (Hamlet, Act I, Sc. iii)

2) Hamlet: Both the character and the play. It’s still my favorite after all these years. Hamlet is an intelligent man full of passion but hamstrung by doubt. I also constantly doubt myself, so I am fascinated with his story. Like many of Shakespeare’s characters, he is easy to identify with as a person, which is what makes his downfall so tragic.

3) “A Muse of fire”: When I am caught up in obsessive creation, I know what is happening to me. I am being driven by a muse of fire, a demanding taskmaster who requires frantic creation until my goal is achieved. Shakespeare gives me the perfect words to describe how I burn with inspiration. (Henry V, prologue)

4) Intense dream worlds: I am struck by the fantastical beauty in Midsummer-Night’s Dream, the lovers’ passion in Romeo and Juliet, and the solemn heroism in Henry V. The intensity of Shakespeare’s visions wake me up, make me feel — joy, sorrow, love, hate — so strongly that I come away both dazed and fully alive.

5) “Words, words, words”: Much as his characters and stories have infiltrated our culture, what stays with me are his words. The archaic language that can be challenging to comprehend is also full of glorious poetry, creative word use, burning images, apt comparisons, and humorous observations. To listen to lines by Shakespeare is to sit down to a sumptuous feast where every bite is full of complex, satisfying flavors. My appetite for it never fades. (Hamlet, Act II, Sc. ii)

Ten Reasons I Adore Life on the Prairie

I’ve lived many places in my life, but seven years ago I moved somewhere I had never thought of living. I’d heard of Colorado, driven through Colorado, even camped in Colorado, but I never once thought about living here. The funny thing is that of all the places I have lived, Fort Collins has turned out to be my favorite. As great as the town is, I know the real draw for me is the prairie. Here’s some of the reasons why (in no particular order):

1) Raptors: I enjoy watching birds of all kinds, but raptors have a special appeal. I see them daily, flying overhead or perched high above a field. Red-tailed hawks and American kestrels are the most common in my neighborhood. Bald eagles, a bird I’d never seen in the wild before, fly right over my house, and I am always thrilled when I catch sight of them.

2) Sky: We just have more of it here. The drama is endless. A giant storm can be raging away and yet seem remote. I can watch it drift across the plains, pouring onto houses or fields, from miles away. I’m constantly astonished by the beauty and variety of the clouds here.

Mountains nearly hidden by the clouds.
Mountains nearly hidden by the clouds.

3) Mountains: We have a clear view of the foothills and the Rocky Mountains from roads and trails all over town. The mountains stretch along our western horizon from north to south and add yet another layer to the weather we can observe. Mountains wrapped in cloud emerge covered with snow, while the sun shines continuously down on the flatlands.

4) Sunshine: Because of our higher altitude (5000 feet) and our low humidity, the sun we get is more intense, brighter and stronger than the sun I grew up with. You can feel it. And the majority of days are sunny, even in the winter, which helps make the bitter days a lot easier to bear.

Soapstone Prairie Natural Area. I know it doesn't look like much, but my heart thrills at the sight of it.
Soapstone Prairie Natural Area. I know it doesn’t look like much, but my heart thrills at the sight of it.

5) Grasslands: Our community protects the prairie with 36,000 acres of designated natural area. We can hike in many of these open spaces, surrounded by acres of wild grasses and enjoying the landscape and wildlife of the prairie.

6) Elbow room: I’m uncomfortable in crowds, so the emptiness of the prairie appeals to me. I look around and I am in the middle of a vast space, able to see for miles. I know long before they arrive if someone is coming.

7) Prairie dogs: Although they are often treated as pests, small colonies of these spunky animals survive in the margins along roads or in parts of the natural areas. They bark with indignation at my approach, a squeaky staccato warning to their buddies, while their black tails quiver with annoyance. They make me laugh.

Coyote in the prairie behind our house.

8) Coyotes: On clear nights, when the moon is bright, we hear the yipping coyote chorus all around our house. It brings home the fact that I live in the West and that it is at least to some degree still wild.

9) Summer mornings: On certain days, the early morning air is dry and clear, yet you can feel the heat of the day to come. I used to get the exact same feeling when I visited my grandparents in eastern South Dakota, so these magical mornings take me right back to the joys of childhood and summer vacation.

10) Timelessness: The prairie landscape is like the ocean, a landscape caught up in the events of the moment. The grass bows to the wind; clouds tumble over the mountains and stretch out over the prairie. Everything changes so quickly, so radically, that you can only be sure of this instant.

The prairie reminds me to enjoy the present, whatever it may be, and what better reason can I have to love it than that?