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A Ladybug Mistake

Fair Trade
Fair Trade (Photo credit: flydown)

This past weekend, my family went to our local Christkindlmarkt. It’s as close to a real German one as our city can make it, which means half of it was indoors and really cramped. Vendors sold items as diverse as summer sausage and local baked goods to handmade wooden toys (for reasonable prices, I might add) to handicrafts from Peru and, of course, your usual “made in China” products.

I rarely fall prey to impulse buys when the kids are around, but my desire to make this a special time where we buy a few things I rarely allow (e.g., summer sausage) coupled with the crowded space around the stalls made it hard for me to say no.

One of those purchases was four finger puppets, apparently fair trade-crafted, and from Peru. (While I do support fair trade, I am still skeptical sometimes if something with a hand-written sign is truly fair trade or just marketing.) Either way, though, someone made these finger puppets, mostly likely a woman.

The ladybug finger puppet had opened at the bottom. I didn’t realize this until we all got home and my older son mentioned that “there’s fuzz in there, Mommy,” when he saw the stuffing exposed. I was angry: I know I’d only paid $2.50 for that, but it was defective. I certainly wasn’t going to spending over an hour returning something worth $2.50, so I chose to repair it myself.

It took me probably about 20 minutes or so. The opening wasn’t complicated to fix; the difficulty was in working with such a short piece of finished off wool on a knitted project, hoping I didn’t start any runs (that’s why I prefer to crochet). As I was sewing, though, I realized that I was simply fixing another woman’s mistake. Don’t I appreciate it if someone fixes my mistakes for me once in awhile? Granted, my feel-good-me was picturing a poor woman, possibly with kids at home she was trying to support, peacefully making little toys for other children. She could have, of course, been a single, angry, woman who thought it was way beneath her to do this kind of handiwork.

Either way, I was connecting with someone who made a mistake. My blood pressure lowered, my muscles relaxed, and I felt pretty happy. Hopefully the craftswoman in the other hemisphere is trying to make a living, just like most of us, and that she is getting an appropriate pay for her skills. Sometimes we simply have to hope that we’re doing the right thing, even if we don’t have certified, stamped, official proof of it.

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Tree Angels Out of Coffee Filters

Kids tree angels with coffee filters.Lori StrausI owned a coffee maker, but because I never drank the stuff, no one trusted me to make it. Ten years later, Keurig (and others) thankfully saved my guests from eternal dessert-drink dulldom. But what to do with those extra coffee filters lying around? Tree angels!

I took two coffee filters, glued them together, and attached them to a craft stick. I used a container lid as a stencil to cut out two circles for the heads. I didn’t attach the heads until the kids had decorated them, because if they wanted to colour on faces, they’d be colouring over the craft sticks.

I don’t have a demonstration photo of these angels on trees, but so long as you don’t glue the coffee filters closed, the angel should, in theory, sit on top of your Christmas tree.

You can tell which angel belongs to the younger one and which to the older one. My logic-driven, school-attending older son included all the usual features of a face and also felt that angels needed legs, too. My younger son right now loves gluing on googley eyes, so there you have it: an angel with five eyes. (“All the better to see you with, my little gift-openers.”)

I think it’s crucial that a Christmas tree call up a lot of memories in our adult lives. I’ve of course inherited a lot of our old decorations. Some of the more generic ones have found their way into the local dump to make room for newer ones. Some of the more personal ones, though, have stayed, including a few I made as a kid. These tree angels are my first attempt at helping my kids create memories for themselves.

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Review: The Artist’s Way for Parents

The Artist's Way for ParentsI would argue that most parents in North America gain most of their parenting skills from “I’m not doing what my parents did” and parenting books. Whether Dr. Spock or Dr. Sears, we all have someone’s reference book somewhere telling us what to do in case of illness, what milestones to expect, whether babies need schedules or not, etc.

What I was sorely missing, though, was a more spiritual way of parenting. I’m not talking religion here. By spirituality, I mean a deeper sense connectedness to the world. Because creativity helps us connect with each other, I believe it’s important that kids be exposed to many forms of creativity so they can learn how to connect with others. This isn’t free play, though that’s also important. It’s simply arts and crafts and exposure to others’ creativity as is appropriate for my kids’ ages. Not easy for very cerebral types like myself.

My mom gave me a copy of The Artist’s Way for Parents by Julia Cameron. Cameron is well-known for The Artist’s Way, and while I haven’t worked through that book yet, I hear good things about it.

The beauty of The Artist’s Way for Parents is that it helped reconnect Kid Lori with Adult Lori in a non-self-help way. It fuelled my ideas and drew on what I’ve already experienced in my life, no steps to memorize or supplies to buy (unless I want to). Simple suggestions and case studies about activities like going for a walk with my kids, for example, inspire me much more than the rules I’m supposed to live my days by until the kids move up to the next parenting book. The Artist’s Way for Parents ever so quietly nudged me to remember what I enjoyed as a child and then encouraged me to simply draw on that.

So really, The Artist’s Way for Parents is actually about what my parents did right: they let me be creative.

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I Pulled out My Clarinet: Music to My Ears, Not My Kids’

Lori Straus playing the violin as a child.
The violin was another instrument I dabbled with as a child.

The other week, my kids pulled out all of their toy instruments and started their own marching band. This particular band didn’t let any instrument play for very long: each instrument was required to pick up where the previous one had left off as the boys dropped one instrument and grabbed another. The week had been pretty stressful for me, so I thought it was high time I ignored the kitchen mess and joined in: I pulled out my clarinet.

My first clarinet lessons were in grade 6, when you could take lessons for short periods of time through the school board. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to learn the clarinet or the flute, so the instructor had me purse my lips like you would for a flute. I don’t know what I did wrong, but he handed me a clarinet.

A year later, I switched schools and joined the school band. I think there were four of us. I really felt for our band leader, the school’s art and music teacher. We played The Phantom of the Opera theme so poorly, I think the Phantom would have hanged himself if he’d heard it.

After those roughly two years of not really practicing, the clarinet stayed locked up in its case for roughly another ten. (It was a cheaper one, made of resin, so it could handle the storing abuse I put it through.) During my grad studies, it came out again, and I hired university students as private teachers. I eventually bought a wooden clarinet, too. I actually practiced solid for about three years, I think. Then I got pregnant with my first child, and the clarinet got packed away again.

When I pulled out my clarinet to join my kids in their marching band, I also pulled out all the sheet music I’d been carting around with me over the years, including my practice binder from the school band. I played a few songs for the boys. Some they recognized, others they didn’t (even though they should have – I guess I need to practice).

Then my older son started hammering out tunes on the toy xylophone he had. There was definitely no tune there – he was actually playing the rhythm. But he was really trying to play with me, asking me if I recognized this song or that one. My younger son banged around on a tambourine. He actually had a beat going, but he would only hold it for about 10 or 15 bangs before stopping. I tried to play along, but it’s hard to play any music for just 10 or 15 bangs and expect to feel accomplished!

In the end, we had fun. The clarinet went away again – bedtime was looming. I’m not sure when it’ll come out next, but since it’s already made one appearance, I’m certain it’ll make more.

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Got Gunk on Your Creations? It’s OK to Throw Them Out

Garbage (Photo credit: Editor B)

The first pair of socks I’d ever crocheted had attracted some disgusting gunk on them in the laundry. They belonged to my younger son, so I thought the gunk was something really gross. In the end, I threw the socks out, but I was not happy about it. They were, after all, the first pair of socks I’d crocheted and I’d crocheted them for my son.

To be honest, though, my son wore them once and that was it: he didn’t actually like them. He wasn’t going to wear holes in them or take them school as though they were some wearable version of the Velveteen Rabbit. I can’t blame him, either. How would you feel about polyester baby-blue-and-white socks with a silver thread spun through?

Some creators, e.g., writers, are encouraged to hold on to everything. The assumption is that you may have a gem in your draft drawer. But look at choreographers: do you think they video all of their brainstorming and rehearsals in case they need an idea later? No – they simply work at their choreography until it’s done and then show the final product to their audiences.

Chucking something we create into the garbage can be tough, but it’s necessary: If we hold on to everything, we’ll be bogged down by the projects that didn’t work instead of lifted up by the ones that did.

I’m almost done a pair of socks for my other son. Then it’s on to replacing the ones in the local dump. This time, though, I’ll get my son’s opinion on the yarn and see if I can make them more to his liking. If it works, then it was worth throwing out the first pair.

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How Art Connects: Mama Says

Cover of "Mama Says: A Book of Love for M...
Cover via Amazon

My mom once in a while shops at a bookstore in Collingwood called Crow’s Nest & Gifts. (They don’t appear to have a website, otherwise I’d happily link to them.) The books she gives me are wonderful, spiritual, and simply fantastic stuff for kids, though they may or may not understand them from time to time. (My kids are still young.)

One of my favourites is Mama Says: A Book of Love for Mothers and Sons by Rob D. Walker, illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon. Each page is a short verse about what a mother teaches her son. For example:

Mama says
Be good
Mama says
Be kind
Mama says
The rain will come
But still the sun will shine

For this particular page, the illustration is of a Cherokee mother and her son (cover graphic top left). Another verse in unfamiliar characters opposes the English verse. It’s the English verse translated in to Cherokee.

And so the book continues for 10 more verses, cultures, and their accompanying languages. At the back is a quick description of where each of these languages is spoken.

It truly is a beautiful work of art, both literally and visually.

It’s also a book I’ve turned to myself on many occasions to remind myself of what I do. With all the parenting books out there reminding me of all the things I ought to do (because otherwise I could be harming my child), this one reminds me of how my heart and soul want to raise my children. It also reminds me that I’m no different than any other mother, regardless of faith, culture, or geographic location. Our methods may be different, but in the end, we’re trying to teach our kids the same values.

That, my friends, is how art connects.

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Your Creative Self vs. Your Ruling Self: Who Wins?

Rules are a common language in whatever medium you’re expressing your creative self with. Nothing emphasizes this more than a young child learning to tell jokes. Once they’ve learned the chicken joke, they start experimenting with other things that cross the road and the reasons for their crossing. If you’ve parented or looked after such a child, you know how tiring that can sometimes be, because the jokes…just…aren’t….funny. You admire the child for trying, but it’s hard to laugh at something that’s not funny.

However, it does drive home an important point: there are rules in whatever art form you choose to express yourself in. Sometimes learning the rules first can increase your creativity than just going at something free form. Having some basic boundaries can oddly be freeing.

Comedy improv is a good example. What may seem completely random is only partly random. Good players will follow specific rules and acting techniques to provide their ideas with structure. A well-known rule is to always say yes. If Player A says, “Here’s an apple for you!” and Player B says, “Thanks!” and takes the imaginary apple, Player B is saying yes to the idea that Player A has handed over an apple. If Player B says, “That’s not an apple, that’s a watermelon,” Player B has stalled the scene and Player A is left with the on-stage equivalent to having your first “I love you” not returned.

Think of dance. While it’s certainly possible to get down and boogie on the dance floor, many discover a lot more options if you take a dance class and learn some basic rules, i.e., basic steps. Same goes for writing: if you don’t learn how spell and write simple sentences, your work will make very little sense to your readers.

Whatever form of creativity you want to dabble in or actively pursue, don’t be afraid to pick up a book for beginners, or take a workshop once in a while. Rules and creativity don’t beat each other up; they work together.

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Practicing Your Creativity

Practicing creativity in basket weaving in eastern Europe
Any craft takes practice. Here are members of an older generation long gone doing their craft.

Ever practiced your creativity? If you’re like me, probably never. So when I read Daphne Gray-Grant’s three blog posts on deliberate practice, I was intrigued. I thought you had to be born a good writer. Kind of a laughable belief when I think about it. I don’t know of anyone who came out of the birth canal or c-section incision with a completed novella in hand.

When I was young, I used to get into a writing fury, punch out a short story in a week at most, and then let it sit forever. I thought that was practicing. But that’s the scribe’s equivalent to a novice pianist learning to play by randomly hitting the piano keys each week instead of practicing scales or studying master composers. Can you imagine attempting to knit a sweater by randomly moving yarn and needles together?

So why should writing be any different?

Author Malcolm Gladwell says in his book Outliers that anyone wishing to become an expert at something needs about 10,000 hours of practice. He talks about The Beatles, Wayne Gretzky, and Steve Jobs, to name a few. While he does believe that success is part situation, he also believes that the mastery needed to achieve success rides on practice.

But I have a job to do, a family to look after, and friends I’d like to hang out with. I don’t have 5 to ten hours a day to practice so I can accumulate my 10,000 hours in three to six years, and I refuse to be the Loner Writer.

However, I do have 10 minutes in a day, and that’s what Gray-Grant proposes. So I started practicing. Not every day, but frequently. My ideal time is in the morning as a sort of warm-up to my day’s deadlines.

Not practicing 10,000 hours doesn’t mean you’re bad at your art. On the contrary! It means that you can accomplish mastery in your chosen art form: mastery isn’t genetic, it’s learned. Moreover, chances are pretty good that whatever your creative passion is, you likely did quite a bit in your youth already. A little practice goes a long way and it’ll help you grow your creativity even further.