Setting my own standards: A New Year’s goal

I wrote this months ago and it seems fitting to post today, New Year’s Eve. One of my resolutions for the coming year is to pay attention to what is truly important to me—to not let others opinions or expectations weigh so heavily on my decision-making process. Read on…

On a sunny, brilliant September morning, I was rowing with my coach. As we watched the women’s University team pass, she muttered something about what she figured they were thinking about her—that if she was really good, she’d become an elite rower, for example, rather than coaching a community club team.

I countered that applying other people’s standards was silly and that what she was doing was so important. Because of her, people are learning a new skill and enjoying an opportunity that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

And then I realized that I apply the same sorts of standards to myself. I feel inadequate because I don’t make big bucks with my work. And I question whether others see me as a “real” writer.

Writing is taken seriously where I live. Iowa City is one of four Cities of Literature in the world and home to the top creative writing program in the country. We’re lousy with writers—we brush elbows with Pulitzer Prize winners at the farmer’s market and stand in the check-out line at the public library with authors of critically acclaimed novels. I often feel sheepish identifying myself a writer in such refined company. And yet writing is what I do day in and day out and I work hard at it.

So I told my coach that we both need to stop judging ourselves by impossible and entirely inappropriate standards. Easy to say, hard to do.

How about you…are there expectations or standards you judge yourself by that don’t really fit with your goals? No? Then how do you avoid such behavior?

(For the record: my coach is figuring it out. She was recently hired full time to be our club coach and says it’s her dream job.)

Happy Holidays!

Things have been a little quiet around here—family matters have intervened. My mom was in the hospital for 11 days and I flew out to be with my folks when she was released. Fortunately, she is doing better, but we had quite a few days where once we got her clean, fed, and comfortable, she’d nap. I’d been planning to finish for her Christmas gift a table runner I’d pieced earlier in the year, and her naps gave me the perfect chance to do so.

I used her very snazzy Brother Ellismo machine to quilt it. We had some trouble getting the free motion functions to work (my mom uses the machine primarily for embroidery), so I ended up using the walking foot to do some straight stitching. I was a little intimidated by all its bells and whistles at first, but the wonderful extra work space, ease of threading, and amazing needle threader really won me over. It didn’t take too long to figure it all out (except for the free motion aspect), which surprised me, too. I love the two machines I most often use—a Bernina 153QE and a Janome 6600. But I gotta say, this one was pretty pleasing.

So here are some shots of the final result. The pattern is so much fun—Lone Pine, made with X-blocks. My buddy Mel and I bought these rulers two summers ago when we met at a quilt shop in Manchester, Iowa, during the riding of RAGBRAI. Neither of us had ever used them and wasn’t sure I would. But they were very fun—kind of like using my mom’s sewing machine—they offered a new take on something you do regularly, in this case strip piecing. Yes, the binding is a bit wobbly, and I think a bit of free motion between the trees would have been great, but given the situation, I’m happy with it, as was my mom.

Hope you all have a wonderful holiday, filled with time to read, sew, be with friends and family, and relax. Cheers!

WPA—Would Politicians Approve?

John V. Bloom mural in Tipton, IA post office

I’m so lucky! There are, of course, many, many things that make me feel lucky in life. But right now I’m referring to the fact that I get to travel around the Midwest learning about and photographing things I never before knew existed (or may have taken for granted).

Moline, Illinois post office (currently for sale for $400,000)

That’s the way I felt with today’s Etsy post on the Works Progress Administration (WPA) era. I knew a little about it (and frankly I still know just a little about it, because it turns out there is so much to know). During Franklin Roosevelt’s time more than 100 departments, known as the “Alphabet Agencies,” were formed by the government to both provide work for people on relief (unemployed and supported by welfare).

These jobs included all kinds of artistic and recreational endeavors, as well as construction projects (many under the auspices of the Civilian Conservation Corps—CCC). While I chose to focus on murals and buildings within driving distance of my home (and in the case of the boathouse above, within walking distance), I discovered that there are a plethora of WPA-era murals in post offices around Iowa and Illinois.

Edward Millman mural in Moline, IL post office

There are, of course, well known murals from this time period—those in San Francisco’s Coit Tower come to mind. But to learn that so many murals were painted for tiny post offices, and that most are still in existence, amazes me…to know that every day people are in the presence of artwork whose creation helped feed artist’s families, while enabling artists (and actors, musicians, writers, and craftspeople of all sorts) to continue in their chosen line of work…and to know that the government valued those lines of work enough to support them, is nothing short of stunning.


There were certainly people who felt disdain for the New Deal and the Alphabet Agencies, but not so many that the programs didn’t exist.

I’ve had a number of conversations with people about whether this kind of government work program could work today. What do you think? Why or why not?

And I Will Make Thee a Bed of Roses…

People who know me hear me complain about not having enough time to sew. “I write about sewing all day, but I hardly ever get to do it!” goes the whine. It’s often true. But last Friday I got together with some friends at Inspirations, a newish quilt shop in Hills, Iowa, to sew. The shop has a sunny classroom space where we gathered, and I managed to make 45 pennants for three more holiday garlands, which I finished up today.

Garlands are one thing, but it takes me an awfully long time to complete a quilt. I’ve slowly come around to the idea that a quilt doesn’t need to be quick and that it’s fine to have more than one project going at a time. So I’ll try not to feel too terrible about showing you something that took me more than a year to complete. It was worth the wait.

The quilt started out in October 2010, when I took a French Roses class at Common Threads. (The pattern is an old one by Heather French—sorry, I can’t find a link to her site.) I was excited about the colors and fabrics, and took the quilt to Lake Tahoe to work on. It was there I realized what a creative bunch I was sewing with. The pattern is traditionally put together without sashing, but someone suggested I add some and someone else brought over some black and white options to audition. Keystones punch it up a bit more (I fussy cut a few of them ato highlight the mushrooms, birds, and chairs). And finally, over the summer, I added the “strata” border (a Mary Lou Weidman term). It is such a great reminder that it’s okay to change up a pattern and to do some things that take a bit of extra time, rather than rush to finish.

Linda Duncan quilted it and I just love what she did. She used a pink thread that really gives the quilt spark, and she tried a new technique on the flowers. Rather than quilting around each layer, as she’s done on French Roses quilts in the past, she stitched “spokes” in hopes that when the quilt was washed it would create “petals.” Indeed, it worked just that way.

I am once again a bit giddy, and I can’t help but pat myself on the back for taking a pattern of long-standing and giving it a different twist. I can’t bring myself to put the quilt away (and it goes with absolutely nothing in my house). So I’ve got it hanging over the stair rail, where I can admire it daily and force unsuspecting visitors to tell me how much they like it, too.

Pennants? Banners? Garland? Let’s just call it holiday decor

My eldest daughter was with us over Thanksgiving and we had a massive list of things we hoped to accomplish (perhaps “accomplished” is too strenuous a word, as our activities included sleeping in, playing Bananagrams, viewing the new Muppet movie, and eating a seemingly endless supply of pumpkin pie).

Our two crafting plans were to make folded German paper stars and stitch holiday banners/garlands. I’ve made those paper stars a million times, and once even held a “how-to” session at my office to teach my coworkers. But try as we might, Maggie and I really struggled and in the end we were doing something wrong. Maggie’s excellent at origami—she used to make bouquets of folded flowers for her friends’ birthdays—but this task eluded even her.

I wasn’t very helpful because I was largely focused on sewing. Maggie’s moved into an apartment and will be visiting us for Christmas, so she’s decided not to get a tree. I told her she still needs some snippet of festive decor and thought a holiday garland would be easy to put up and simple to store.

There are umpteen tutorials online for these and I spent a ridiculous amount of time perusing the methods for making them—fused, raw-edged, with interfacing and without, etc. I refused to consider any with templates and finally settled on an amalgam of techniques. I used the cutting instructions from What I Made Today because you could create multiple pennants from a 9″ strip of fabric. But I thought they looked a little more finished if I sewed them right sides together, then turned and top-stitched each pennant. I used pre-made double fold seam binding for the “string” and stitched them fairly close together. I was kind of giddy about the results (it takes so little, really, to put me in that state). I thought it might also be cute to clip holiday cards in between the pennants with sweet little clothespins.

Okay Maggie, I’m waiting for that photo of your garland on the bookshelf! (And sorry these photos are a bit dodgy…I was rushing to sew and shoot, so she could pack.)