Technically, Laurel, my first boss, didn't swallow a needle. It was a pin. One of those white-plastic-ball-tipped pins that you always put in your mouth without thinking because the pincushion is never handy. You probably have 3 or 4 pins in your mouth while you work, and maybe you have those 3 or 4 dangling there as you fit a wedding gown while the bride stands cooly on a pedestal with arms held out, and you're making small talk and pinning, so maybe now you only have 3 in your mouth, then 2, then 1. And then you cough.
And then there are none.
And you come stumbling into the back room with eyes watering because you can feel it dangling at the back of your throat, and because you're clawing at your neck and can't speak your assistant thinks you are choking. She is barely 19, but she's been taught the Heimlich Maneuver at school (fist inside cupped hand, then position behind the victim, bend knees, this might crack a rib but be firm, then, no, wait ... there was that important part ... oh yes, always ask first: "Can you breathe?").
Good Lord, you don't need the Heimlich Maneuver, so you push her away. And then there must be something like a swallow or a gag, or maybe another cough.
But the greater sudden mystery now is where that pin has gone.
* * *
We are disappointed when pins bend or needles snap, when safety pins specifically labeled "for quilting" have tips so poorly machined they snag fabric. We remain loyal to favorite brands from Europe or certain lengths and sizes that fit our hands perfectly, allowing fingers to fly with precision and prowess. The animist tradition believes such simple objects as tools are infused with their own spirituality or soul. For 400 years, kimono-makers and needle-workers have gathered at Shinto and Buddhist shrines in February to bury their broken needles into a tender bed of tofu or jelly cake during the festival of Hari Kuyo. By honoring these tools, women ask for better sewing skills in the coming year. It is a thank you to the hard working needle and a final resting ground for the many losses that women throughout history have swallowed, quietly burying their pain into cloth, one needle stab after another.
My own myths and superstitions around the inanimate object vary, but feel real and rooted in a form of practicality often verging on this animism. Eddie, the tailor from Hong Kong who I worked with for over 3 years, claimed that every time a pair of scissors dropped on the floor a tailor somewhere died (not only this, but crap if it doesn't ruin your good scissors, too). I was never clear on whether the spirit of the dead tailor was now in the scissors once they'd fallen, or if it was this spirit who'd made the scissors spin off the cutting table and onto the concrete floor, or fumble out of my hands and land, point down, in the fiberglass boat hull next to my 2-year old, or nearly miss my open-toed sandal/good tights/other cutter working next to me in the first place.
My mother's warning when I was 6, was to never leave the little golden bird scissors lying anywhere other than on the table in front of you, always in sight. Her story involved a woman who'd been sitting at the kitchen bench seat in the Swedish farmhouse chatting and embroidering. She left the table and when she returned she sat on the bird scissors she'd left lying on the seat cushion, and they stabbed her.
In the bottom.
I have never owned golden bird scissors; I do not trust them.
And this brings me to tsukumogami -- objects that have become self aware, usually after they have turned 100 years old. Harmless pranksters, talismans, good luck charms -- all this, yes, but these inhabited objects are easily angered if disrespected or needlessly discarded. Leave your golden bird scissors lying around? I guarantee they'll come back and bite you in the butt.
And this much I know first hand: leave pins in your mouth and momentarily forget their humble power? They will disappear into your body.
* * *
I still know what I worked on that day at the shop 25 years ago when Laurel was in the emergency room -- a pearl encrusted bustier for a January bridal show -- the first runway show I'd ever felt the time pressure of preparing for. I layered the most enormous beads I could find knowing on stage it would look stunning, but up close it verged on a pearlescent malignancy. My fingers were sore, the work was heavy, gaudy, slippery. But I was fast and focused.
An x-ray confirmed the worst suspicion: Laurel hadn't swallowed the pin, she had inhaled it, and now it dangled in a chamber within her left lung, an obviously machined object inside a maze of tender tissue. That weary pin would have been thrilled to rest in such a warm place, I'm sure. Perhaps this was its intent all along.
After the second failed attempt to send a scope and suction into Laurel's lung, the surgeon informed her that he would try one last time. If he couldn't find the pin's route, he would have to saw open her chest and surgically remove it. If he didn't, Laurel would eventually suffer from pneumonia and die. Her father was with her. We received phone calls at the shop with updates. Friends stopped by to visit. No one had cel phones then. No one texted. This was old fashioned waiting, the kind I now regard as steeped in tradition. If waiting were an object, it would have turned 100 years old 100's of times over. I sat on the carpeted stoop by the phone, a wedding gown in my lap, a tray full of pea-sized pearls on the floor beside me. One stays busy while one waits.
Laurel returned to work the next day, hoarse, phlegmy, bearing an enormous x-ray film and a new rule: No one, ever, puts pins in her mouth. For months we caught ourselves, we reminded each other, we teased -- only gently -- because the greater reminder was the shrine thumbtacked to the wall opposite the phone: a ghostly grey image of Laurel's lungs and ribs, and an unblessed stark white pin hovering there, content.
The offending tsukumogami never received its final rest in a soft bed of tofu or jelly or lung; it wasn't that deserving. Laurel stabbed the thing through the x-ray film, dried blood and all.
The stitches you sew on Sunday,
See, Mom, it doesn't matter if you fall down. Nobody around here even cares. Just try not to fall on your bottom though, because that hurts.
And I remembered how to skate after all.
Sunrise, 9:17 am. Sunset, 4:14 pm. A total of 6 hours and 57 minutes of daylight. A loss of 4 minutes and 45 seconds from yesterday. Tomorrow, a loss of 5 minutes from today.
The sun is a low, pale attempt.
Snow is late and warm gusts of wind kept us awake last night. Ice won't set in places. Trusted glassy river thoroughfares are unreliable or rotten. In Tuluksak, a community of 400 upriver from Bethel, families sacrificed hundreds of pounds of thawing winter meat when they lost power for a week. A recent study indicated that for each 5 degree increase in latitude (a distance of about 345 miles), the rate of suicide increases by 18%. The state of Alaska encompasses nearly 20 degrees of latitude.
Even though researchers claim this last loss isn't seasonal, all of this loss is still real.
And I can feel my own constitution slipping, though I wonder about the reality of it. I question the authenticity of the emotion. Its validity. Its source.
The descent is slow and quiet.
A stiff curl inward.
Old Friend. I know you.
I name you:
you are the fear that accompanies the end of an endeavor,
and whips the fierce need to embark upon another.
A nod to you, there hovering, weighty, pushing.
Coming to me with your dark.
And despite you, I will begin.
And I will make my own light.
Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.
I recently spent 4 1/2 hours cleaning a kitchen with a friend. This kitchen isn't mine and it's not hers and I won't say who it belongs to, but I will say that I've cleaned this kitchen before and have always been dismayed at its state. There is nothing like a common enemy to bring two women closer together as friends, and in this case the common enemy was filth ... and something that looked an awful lot like bird poop on the dish drying mat, which remains a great mystery to us both.
While we wiped drawers and hauled dented pots and pans from deep, deep cupboards, we both agreed on the following: stay on top of your cleaning so that this (arms spread, looking at the kitchen) doesn't happen. Do you wipe down the stove after every meal? Yes. Clear the counters at the end of each day? Yes. Wipe behind appliances? Yes. We both love the hum of the dishwasher in the evening when we turn out the lights. This is order. This is predictability. This is entering a clean kitchen in the morning and pouring yourself a lovely cup of coffee.
In a clean mug.
With no bird poop.
I know. Bizarre.
I come from a Swedish household and still refer to my mother's style of housekeeping as "Swede Clean." Her baseboards/door trim/decorative plates will always pass the white glove test. Mine? No. But this is why I don't display decorative plates or wear white gloves.
This friend and kindred spirit I spent hours cleaning with had a different impetus for an orderly life:
she grew up in chaos.
But that's not my story to tell.
My story is that I've spent the better part of 40 years fearing chaos, and in turn, holding the sad belief that if I remained tidy, I couldn't be an artist. I believed that artists live in stirred spaces where inspiration circled them at all times and if you took the time to sweep beneath and around their things you'd scoop away all that artistic energy and ready it for the curb and the Tuesday morning garbage truck (but do not roll it out on Monday night because the bears will get into it and spread it all over the damned driveway and that's just a nasty mess).
My last mentor in the clothing industry, Manuel, was a true artist and a craftsman; a master tailor from Manila with so much creativity swirling around him he created his own weather system. He used to write in the appointment book with the purple disappearing ink pen we used to mark wedding gowns (Appointment? What appointment? There's no appointment here.). He preferred delivering a gown to the bride at 11 pm the night before her ceremony (Nervous? Why are you feeling nervous?). He loved putting off and then solving the engineering challenges of a corset 3 minutes before a client was due at the door (Sew faster!). He loved dancing. And singing. He loved the beauty of women. And spontaneity. And chaos. And he loved me like a daughter.
He used to call me Booger.
And it was, at times -- for a tidy, methodical person like me -- utterly maddening to be with this kind of energy, especially when I let it dictate how I expended my own.
It took a lot of mental capacity to remain pulled together -- myself, the shop, the cutting, the appointments, the fitting, the sewing, the clients, the logistics, the dancing, the singing, the deliveries, the 20+ custom wedding gowns some months generated in an atelier mostly comprised of one seamstress, one tailor, one Manuel and one me -- I was the oldest 26-year old you ever met. And then I finally had a break down, I blew out my creative energy and had nothing left to give. I weighed 105 pounds and migraines seemed manageable compared to this idea that I wasn't inspired, ever, and perhaps never would be. That part was debilitating.
What? Booger, how can you not be inspired? I'm inspired every day of my life.
And this is when I started thinking that really being an artist meant belting out "The Girl from Ipanema" while busting out some Bossa Nova moves. And never worrying about tomorrow. Or schedules. Or disappearing ink. Or the challenges of the next client. Or caring when you finally made it home from work at night. Maybe I wasn't working hard enough. Maybe I wasn't loving life enough.
Maybe I never would.
Maybe something cold and Scandinavian and stoic and bleak was too lodged inside of me.
I left that career before I turned 30 and walked away from 12 years in the clothing design industry, something I'd wanted since I was 13. I didn't believe in myself as anything more than an assistant and I didn't want my own shop, my own line, my own label, my own runway shows. I just wanted out of chaos.
A different career altogether separates me from who I was then and who I am now (I'm taking a longish exploratory break from it, I say). But the lure of continuing to use my hands in the way I was taught initially is too great to ignore.
Manuel died two years ago. And while I know that rainy, silent day will come when I hear a Stan Getz horn or Astrid Gilberto sing off key and I'll finally lose myself to uncontrolled sobbing, I continue to think about my mentor. Can you be so good at something, so confident, that the only way to maintain your inspiration is to generate chaos? I wonder.
Or, can a quiet confidence in a skill well earned eventually offer one ... freedom? Did I misinterpret chaos as artistic freedom? Could it be that there were so few problems Manuel couldn't solve that sometimes he needed self-generated problems to stay alive and creative? Or, was he just simply sanguine and I, always the melancholic, am still reading too deeply into a situation and a relationship, despite years removed, that ultimately helped define me as an artist and a maker?
Maybe that's enough.
There is a German word: sitzfleisch. It means to be persistent in your work, despite obstacles. Like the good old: Ass. In. Chair. And I was this, all through my 20's, until I had to scrape that chair back and walk away. And among the myriad of lessons Manuel taught, perhaps the biggest and most unintended was to recognize where my own threshold for chaos resides. My work will be original and violent, but my counters will be wiped. My threads will be trimmed, my corners mitered.
Booger, are you sending this out the door? It looks like the dog's breakfast. Figure out how to fix it.
And for every screaming temper tantrum I never had, for every chair I never threw, the Swedes also have a saying, about persistence and discipline and a fair sprinkling of violence as well.
Translated, it means:
"You have kicked your way here."
"Girl Story" is a textile series I imagine I will work on for years. It feels like drawing from a well that will never run dry. The pieces employ ink, heavy, frantic hand embroidery and vintage textiles and were initially intended to explore menarche and the idea that every woman, every girl, has a story around this passage into womanhood. And what started out as a personal journey, a way to get my thoughts straight on how I could be an empowering figure in my own young daughter's life, has ended up touching other lives; women are coming forward with stories of other losses and renewal. Some of these losses I have never experienced nor can I fathom. These aren't vague blog post comments I'm receiving. These are purposeful letters. Women are stopping me and looking me in the eye. They have a story to tell. I promised I would listen, so I am.
I've been given permission to share letters here between a woman and her mother (now in her 70's and requesting anonymity). They were written in direct response to the blog post "A history of pretty," which explores the impetus for embarking on this series. The photographs in this post are from my own experience, cataloguing the time the and thought and essence of this project thus far.
I received these letters in reverence.
I hope you will read them with the same.
From Mother to Daughter.
...the article kind of left me with the feeling of “how can anything so every day-ish” be talked about in such length. Using washable pads was nothing unusual when I first got my period. Sometimes you could see them even on clothes lines drying after the family wash day. But when small children asked what that thing was, it was talked about in hushed voices. I remember seeing buckets of them, filled with cold water for soaking before washing them. When the first disposables came out, it was heaven. No more dealings with the bloody bucket, which by the way also had to be hidden, if possible.
When I listened to the video, I felt different. Remembering how I felt during my first period at age 13, it did feel almost like a celebration to me. Maybe it should be? I felt, like now I was a woman!! (Hahah) Most of my friends already had their periods and now I finally entered that “sisterhood”. You could talk to them about your cramps, how heavy or regular or irregular you were, etc. I always disliked references like “got my monthly visit” and others that made it sound like it was something to be embarrassed about and you couldn’t speak of it. It is more important as many smaller things we celebrate, like “Grandparents Day” or “Valentine's”. Without it, where would humanity be? I liked her linking it to the waxing and waning of the moon. I read somewhere a long time ago, that periods of all the females in a family correlate to a great extent with the full moon, I don’t know if that is true, but I do remember when all of you were home, it seemed like I had to buy one pack of sanitary napkins after another until we were all through and then we had a period of time when nobody needed them.
I would like to hear your thoughts on it.
From Daughter to Mother.
... I found Amy's quilting to be visually a bit disturbing because it was so familiar and so private, hung out there as it is for public viewing -- a little like the clothesline you wrote about. Even so, it has a beauty that reflects on the notion of menses itself. I felt the essay that accompanied the quilt was outstanding and gave me much to think about.
My response to Amy's art is layered and goes deep into what it meant to raise sons rather than daughters, for which I was always grateful. It has taken me 53 years, and growing beyond childbearing years, to feel truly comfortable in my own body. If menstruation had only been a stain of blood each month, it would have been easy to deal with. Instead, the hormonal fluctuations each month often created a sense of insecurity and distrust in my own assessment any given situation. I was okay on my own and my mood seemed manageable when it was just me and the kids. But when my now ex-husband was home, it was a time of heightened anxiety, fraught with emotional landmines. I could deal with the physical pain, cramps, fatigue, headaches. I just wasn't good at dealing with the difficulties, long-inherent in our relationship, during "that time of the month." Without those hormonal fluctuations, I might have trusted my intuitions more, realizing that maybe I wasn't "crazy" after all.
I always felt lucky to be raising sons because I didn't feel equipped to raise daughters. Life seemed far too complicated for women and I was having enough of a time navigating my female life much less helping a child feel confident enough with her femininity to grow into secure womanhood. Boys by contrast seemed like uncomplicated creatures. Snakes and snails and puppy dog tails. Now of course I see things very differently. If I'd had a daughter, my intuition would have grown more keen on behalf of a girl whose well being I would have fiercely protected. I say this because I now have a granddaughter and I enjoy great clarity -- there is nothing muddled about nurturing her whole person. I also see that boys are equally as sensitive to gender issues and equally as confounded by the roles of men and women in the arenas of power and vulnerability. Male or female, the human psyche is especially tender in the area of sexuality, especially as it plays out in the crucible of early family life.
All that is to say, Amy's work made me dig deep into my own memories and thoughts about being a woman over the years. I do remember the first time I needed napkins and how you, Mom, made me feel special about joining the sisterhood of women. I remember thinking I was now grown up enough to have a baby. That was mind blowing for a 14 year old. (I was a late bloomer.) You always made us feel like being a woman was a fine thing and that it would and should not impede anything we ever wanted to achieve. You offered unconditional support and love even during the times our journeys were difficult for you to watch. All of your daughters have been richly blessed.
With love and gratitude,
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.