Today I have been blogging for eight years. Today I am fifty years old. I hadn’t given it a lot of thought, but I suppose I did expect to be fifty; I never expected to be blogging for eight years. But life, as we know, is often not what we expect.
I have started designing a line of needlepoint. As much as I love stitching, I did not expect that I would pursue creating my own line. I started stitching twenty-four years ago with two, small rectangular fish pillows for my boyfriend’s house. I bought them to have something to do as I sat with my mother when she was sick and dying. Reading, even a magazine, made me feel as if I were distant from her and what was happening. I wished, both emotionally and physically that I could be distant. But I needed to be there and the starting and stopping to accommodate the doctors and friends who were coming and going made retaining anything that I would read impossible.
Stitching allowed me to feel as if I were doing something, while still being able to talk or not talk, to make eye contact or not make eye contact. Beyond that, I found the rhythm of the needle moving in and out soothing. The subtle rasp of the wool against the canvas echoed a dissonance that I felt in my heart. Being close to her was always putting myself in harm’s way, but now I had to. It was the right thing to do. Push in. Pull out.
I finished the pillows and married the boyfriend a few months after my mother died. She never expressed interest in the fish, but she did like the boy. I moved into his house and the pillows and everything else became “ours.” My next needlepoint project was his Christmas stocking. I bought it in the neighborhood shop where I had bought the fish from a woman who became my friend. Joanie’s almost exactly thirty-five years older than I am. I did not expect to become friends with her when she pulled the T-pins from that Christmas stocking, took it down from the wall and referred to my husband by his boyhood nickname, but we did.
She owned the shop and her own line of canvases, yet a different artist had painted my husband’s stocking. It featured ducks and geese and holly on a background of white. Joanie painted his monogram across the top of a canvas that had 13 holes per inch. It is, roughly, two feet long and about ten inches across at its widest point. If you don’t stitch this means nothing, but if you do you know that it was a big project. I did not know what I was getting myself into, but I was determined.
I finished his stocking before our second Christmas together and started my own. Some stockings are part of a line and the artist creates a series within a theme, so that you can have a different, but similar piece for each member of the family. That was not the case with the first stocking that I chose, so I designed what I wanted – first for myself and then for my children – and Joanie painted them for me. They all have the repeating pattern of holly. Mine has poinsettias and a long, yellow satin ribbon that twists through the greenery. My oldest son has snowflakes; the middle has pinecones and the youngest has cardinals and mistletoe. I finished each boy’s stocking before his first Christmas, because that’s the sort of person I was then. My oldest son was born in November.
For a long time, I was rarely without a project. I stitched loads of pillows and made ornaments for the boys every year. It still provided a sense of calm and productivity. After I had come up with the concepts for the boys’ stockings I found that I preferred designing my own projects. Joanie, who continued to paint them for me, was always enthusiastic about my ideas.
I tore images from magazines and sketched on legal pads and explained, using large gestures with my hands, what I wanted. She listened closely, her eyes alert, until I finished. She would never interrupt. When I stopped – talking and gesturing - she would nod sharply and say, “Sure. We can do that.” And then she would. In an effort to eliminate so much background, which is the Siberia of any needlepoint project, I began to play with scale and pattern. Often, I asked her to make the flowers bigger, to paint a subtle damask, to create a wide border. It’s nonsense to think of background as tedious; it’s all the same stitch. It shouldn’t matter really, the color of the thread, but often it does. The joy is in the revelation of the image, not the field behind.
Three years ago, I began thinking about starting my own line of canvases and I talked to Joanie about it. No surprise, she encouraged me. She invited me to her house and walked me back to her studio, which is flooded with light and a view of her garden, and she taught me how to paint a canvas.
“I don’t know,” I told her. “Maybe I should I just show you what I want and you can paint it.”
She looked back, her mouth a firm line, and said, “No. You need to do this yourself. It has to be your work.” And she pushed me, gently but firmly, out of the nest.
I had a file of tear sheets filled with images of things that I thought would make great pillows or seat cushions. Old rugs, Chinese jars, wallpaper. And I sat at my desk and started to sketch and then finally to paint on paper and eventually on canvas. I showed my first designs to Joanie and she pointed out where I was going to have trouble and said, “Keep going.”
And I did. After several attempts on paper, I painted my first complete canvas, a pair of peacocks inspired by a piece of Chinese pottery. Eighteen inches square, it features hues that I love: lipstick red, jade green, rich turquoise against a background of pale aqua. But painting it was not enough. I needed to see it complete. Once it was dry, I pulled yarn from my bag, separated two stands, folded them tight and slid them through the eye of the needle and began. As I anchored the thread against the back of the canvas and pulled it through, beginning the weave that would create the picture, I could see the whole collection coming together. I was going to start my own needlepoint line. But I got a divorce instead.
I’ve never met anyone who wanted a divorce or who has come through it without feeling as if he or she has walked through fire. The end of a marriage, I’ve learned, is usually a long unraveling. Sometimes people are aware that it is coming undone, but others don’t see it until it’s in a heap at their feet. Regardless, it’s rarely the doing of one person.
Once I could admit that my marriage was over, I began to look around to find people who had ended theirs well. I was lucky that I knew a few women who stood on the sidelines of soccer games next to their exes and planned birthday parties together and formulated schedules for holidays that were sane and civilized rather than battle zones. I sought them out. I begged their counsel. They nodded when I told them that I wanted my divorce to be different than my parents’ had been and they promised me that it could be.
Living with my mother and witnessing her dying was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but getting a divorce is certainly the second. It is not what I thought was going to happen. I did not think I would ever sit at the kitchen table where our family had routinely exchanged stories of our days to tell my children that their parents were not going to be married any more. Three pairs of clear blue eyes looked back at me in disbelief. I was stunned that they were stunned. I had wept my way through the summer and as much as I tried to keep it from them, I felt our home was awash with pain and worry. They had not seen it. It was not what they thought was going to happen.
I did not envision standing in my basement with the boxes of Christmas decorations open on the ping-pong table as we divided the hundreds of ornaments I’d collected. I remembered where I bought every one as I slid them into two bright and glittery piles. I did not think I would ever pull four stockings from a box and leave one behind, worrying that whatever came to replace them in my ex-husband’s house would not match the one I made him twenty years ago. Then I realized he would probably never use it and I ached for all that went into it.
Still, we managed the dividing with some grace. A woman asked me recently, after watching me and my ex-husband sit together for nearly three days of swim championships, “How do you do it? You make it look so easy. I don’t think I’d be able to speak.”
“It’s not always easy, though it’s usually not hard either,” I told her. “But what it always is is conscious. We do it for the boys.”
We have always parented well together and we still do. We consult with one another on the larger issues of rules and responsibilities, rewards and punishments. Any sentence that I prepare to utter that contains the words, “your father,” I stop and review in my head: do I really need this information and are my children the best source from which to get it?
We agreed going into the divorce that the worst thing about our own parents being divorced was the way they treated one another and how the tenseness of their relationships made our milestones difficult: graduations, weddings, baptisms. We wanted to avoid that, and we have. We celebrate the boys’ birthdays and Christmas morning together as well as any school or sports event. It seems to be working pretty well. It’s not perfect, but it is civilized. They know they can count on us and that we can be in the same room together, not only without tension, but also with humor and tenderness.
I have been the person on the other side of the table now, as a few women have sought my perspective on how to manage the process of divorce. I am not, by the way, a divorce cheerleader. More often than not I find myself shaking my head over a cup of cooling coffee and saying, “I don’t think you’re there. Keep trying.” But for someone for whom the issue is resolved I say, “There is a lot of change.” How you live, where you live, perhaps where or if you work and certainly, your friendships will change. Many of these things, especially the friendships that will fade, will not be what you expected.
But if you are careful and conscious, you can craft a life for yourself that is entirely authentic. Starting over offers a clean slate in a lot of ways. I’ve lost friends whom I held very dear, but I find that now I only spend time with people who I like. To a great extent I do only what I want to do. And if I am sometimes anxious about how I will sort all of this out, I know that I am where I’m supposed to be.
Part of that place is drawing and painting and stitching. I had put down my canvas during the separation and had not thought about it until I hung the bag in which it lives in my front hall closet of my new home. The closet is in the very center of the house and holds the normal stuff of hall closets. It’s filled with coats and boots, leashes and balls, school supplies and gift-wrap. Eventually, as I settled into a new routine, I began to take the peacocks from the bag and weave the yarn into the mesh. The movement still soothes me and I liked the idea that this piece would be the first new one in this space.
As the canvas filled with rich color, I began to feel a rejuvenation of my passion for creating and I knew it was time to look again at launching my own line of needlepoint. When I called Joanie, now three years from our original meeting, she did not hesitate to pick up the thread where I had dropped it and began coaching me again to get started. I call her with my worries. “I don’t know if this will work.” “I don’t know how to manage.” “I don’t know what I will need.” All of these are versions of “I don’t know what to expect.” She replies calmly with humor in her voice, “Right. You just have to keep going.” So I do.
I am going to keep going here, too, however irregularly. I’ve gone back through the entire blog, from beginning to now, to do some cleaning up. I’m shocked at how often I referred to myself as silly and dismissed my life or my talent or what I was doing. I’m incredulous that I gave others the forum to criticize me so cruelly. I’m quite finished with that.
My life has changed, almost entirely. What is certain, is that I am fifty today. I am starting a line of needlepoint. I am still blogging after eight years and still grateful that you stop to see what I have to say. Thank you, as always, for reading.
The line of needlepoint will be called Mrs. Blandings as well. I have eight designs with which I am satisfied and two that I’m still tweaking. I’ll have at least two more to complete and all of them will be ready to go to market in January. They will be available to retailers and for purchase here once I launch. Feel free to email me with questions.