Neophilia. The word was coined by my sister Luli. With two more letters it could be something rather ghastly, but as it stands it simply means loving novelty.
Every few years I discover a new creative passion. I pursue it with fervor, but never develop any great skill. I love learning something new, and I love producing a physical object. My work, whether lawyer or teacher or mother, always consisted primarily of ideas and people.
It began with crochet. When I was 28, my friend Saralu and I drove from Jacksonville to Lakeland for a cram course before the two-day nightmare that was the Florida bar exam. We had packed frozen soups,stews, and a crockpot, cheese and fruit, cookies and wine.
The cram course consisted of long lectures and written summaries of the entire body of common and Florida law, each subject - torts, contracts, trusts and estates, etc, crammed in a tiny font on both sides of laminated pages. They were dense as a Claxton fruit cake, though less digestible. Every evening we returned to our motel room with heads buzzing - fee simple with remainder, statute of frauds, the mailbox rule, equitable estoppel.
After supper we poured wine, opened the cookies and sat on our beds, diligently memorizing the incomprehensible for about fifteen minutes.Then Sara unpacked her yarn and taught me to crochet. In three nights I had made half a shawl. In the next few months I had made shawls for my friend Sue, my sister Luli, and both my sisters-in law. That took care of Christmas.
For several years I entertained myself with yarn. I made a sweater for my son in brown, black and rust. He was five, young enough that he didn’t mind wearing it. I made a couple of lace shawls in a fan pattern. I invented my own granny square, a sunburst in brown, beige and yellow, and made an afghan for my boyfriend. Unfortunately I joined colors by simply weaving them in, as recommended by the crochet book, rather than knotting them. In a few years, the whole huge thing was beginning to unravel. Then I tried my hand at knitting. I bought expensive wool in lavender, pale pink, and deep cherry red, and made the front and back of a gorgeous sweater. Alas, I lost interest before I got to the sleeves, and I never finished it.
I took drawing classes. I learned to stare and stare, looking for lines and shapes and shifting shades of color. I drew a pair of shoes, a paper bag, and my masterpiece, a pair of hands holding a baby’s tiny feet, drawn from a photograph. I spent hours on Sunday afternoons, totally absorbed, leaning over the table, focusing so intently the sweat rolled down my face. I did lightning sketches at a Saturday morning drawing group, where $5 bought a couple of hours with a model. I carried a small sketchbook everywhere. I drew people in airports and animals in Africa. I realized that drawing from photos was easiest - the image already reduced to two dimensions - so I drew many earnest talking heads on McNeil-Lehrer.
I enjoyed the sketches, but it took hours to draw a full picture. I searched my craft closet while I wrote this post, and found the big brown portfolio from my drawing class. The pictures were dated March and April, 2002, before Amanda was born. Even though she usually lived with her mother in the early years, big blocks of empty time became less available after Amanda.
I gave up copying the world and began doodling my inner visions with colored markers. This was great fun, frequently fueled by marijuana. It resulted in many strange images on greeting card stock, often phallic or uterine or both. My all-time favorite is an anxious-looking multicolored bird pursued by little turd-y haystacks, a perfect depiction of aspects of my life.
I took another class, and discovered the joy of collage. For eight weeks I worked on a huge naked goddess, with flames for hair and a rainbow of flowers above her head. The crowning touch was interchangeable merkins* in different colors - thread tangled up and stiffened with glue, attached to her mons veneris with velcro.
She has been in the closet for many years, and when I took her out I still loved the suggestion of musculature in her disproportionate limbs. I could only find one merkin, a purple one that has faded to a boring brown. I don’t want her anymore, and I was planning to throw her away if I could figure out how to put her out by the curb without horrifying the neighbors. But Luli begged me to send her to North Carolina. So I shall veil her in newspaper and take her to Fed Ex. It will be Luli’s last 70th birthday gift.
After this tremendous project my ambition shrank to a more manageable size and I began making greeting cards. Collage is very slow, or maybe I am very slow, and a single greeting card takes me several hours.
I love my collaged cards so much that I can’t bear to send them away; I have several waiting for an occasion worthy of their splendor. However, I did send one to Michelle Obama. It was a strange-looking woman, rather fat, resplendently attired with a belt and brooch, wielding a peppermint-striped cane. I wrote a gushing message expressing my great admiration, told her the card was inspired by her fashion sense (belt and brooch), suggested that Malia and Sasha might enjoy guessing the source of each scrap in the picture, and enclosed an answer key. I received no reply, nor did the Secret Service pay a call.
I made the card for Mrs. Obama when I was recuperating from my second knee replacement, shortly after Obama’s first inauguration. Recuperation entails a lot of time on the sofa, painful physical therapy, and frequent hydrocodone. Most of my creative work is not inspired by drugs, but when it is, it is truly...inspired.
Painting T-shirts was my passion for a while. I made one with hippos for my brother-in-law’s fortieth birthday. I made two with large birds, one nibbling strawberries from the crew neck, the other with baby birds peeping from the pocket. These were for my older brother Don and his wife Doris, who wore them all over China, looking very pleased and completely ridiculous. I drew a strange grinning face in black marker on a gray shirt for Luli. I liked it so much that I made one for myself in color labeled, “Grandma.” I used the same design on a dress for 3-year-old Amanda, with the caption: “I’m with Grandma.” It helped people match black toddler and white guardian, prevented them from saying, “Where’s your mother,” at playgrounds.
I have recently returned to crochet, and made about nine hats for homeless people. Several groups of women in Gainesville make hats for the homeless, and the HOME Van used to display them on a clothesline in the trunk of Nancy’s car - a wonderful assortment of styles and colors, all hand-crafted. It was a treat to see people shopping for their favorite, and an even bigger treat when somebody chose one of mine. Now that HOME Van driveouts are, alas, no more, I can donate my hats to the clothes closet at Grace Marketplace, which Nancy and her pals have set up as an elegant boutique.
To my surprise, digging into my craft closet to find my old work depressed me. I had been celebrating creative play. Now I was surrounded by abandoned pursuits, and suddenly Oughts and Shoulds and You Never Stick to Anything echoed around me. Apparently I’m not good enough unless I’m a great writer, drawer, singer, crocheter, and shoe and fabric painter. Perhaps I wouldn’t mind this nagging work ethic so much if it resulted in great achievement.
Every dabbler needs a craft closet
I am not worthy of the name of amateur. An amateur is one who loves passionately, who devotes herself to her art or craft. I am a dilletante, a dabbler. I have many brief, passionate romances, like a bee going from flower to flower, producing mongrel honey.
But damn it, I’m retired. Why can’t I just have fun? Consider the lilies of the field. Why should I have to toil and spin all my waking hours? I don’t suppose my goofy painted shoes click and t-shirts are quite as splendid as good old Solomon’s array, but they please me. Someday I may be sufficiently sane to acknowledge that is enough.
* Merkin: artificial pubic hair. “According to "The Oxford Companion to the Body," the custom of wearing merkins dates from mid-15c., was associated with prostitutes, and was to disguise a want of pubic hair, shaved off either to exterminate body lice or evidence of venereal disease.” source: Dictionary.com
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