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Friday, February 26, 2016

"Don't Do What You Love"

Last year I landed an enviable gig testing patterns for a crochet designer in Minnesota. Abbey Swanson, the creative force behind The Firefly Hook, sends me boxes of beautiful yarn along with instructions for new and amazing garments and accessories she’s designed, and all I have to do is work them up and tell her how the patterns treated me.
I’d like to share this amazing woman with you, because she has a message that anyone who’s ever been told not to pursue a dream needs to hear.
* * * * *
“If you could do anything what would you do?”
Very pregnant with her first child, Abbey Swanson answered her husband’s question without hesitation: “Be at home with the kids, write, and crochet.”
So that’s what she did.
Tartan Wrap
Soon she attended her first craft fair, where people gave her money in exchange for her original, hand-made creations. “Granted, they were a steal since I priced them so low, but I was so grateful. That first venture gave me the confidence to keep crocheting.
Abbey began taking special orders and commission work, making up her own designs as she went along. Four years later, however, she realized she’d plateaued. She couldn’t crochet any more or any faster than she already was.
The time had come to ramp things up.
With the collaboration of two strategically talented friends—an editor and a photographer—Abbey started The Firefly Hook, a website dedicated to Abbey’s passion for yarn and design. “We’ve been running hard for three years now.”
“Don’t Do Anything Artsy,” Teachers Told Her
Anyone who’s ever had a talent or passion for something on the creative side has suffered the same well-intentioned, soul-crushing advice: “Don’t be an artist. There’s no money in it. It’s too hard to succeed.” And that’s exactly what Abbey heard in high school.
(Crocheters and creative types the world over are thrilled she didn’t listen.)
But, what does it take to succeed in the aesthetic arts? “Moxie. Lots of moxie,” says Abbey. “When you have the attitude that you can do anything, you don’t balk at rejection. But you don’t take success to heart, either. You create because that’s how you express yourself. You don’t need anyone else’s permission or affirmation. Your work comes out of your heart and soul.”
This sounds a lot like the advice Glennon Doyle Melton (of Momastery) gave a discouraged writer in her blog post Three Rules for Surviving a Creative Life:
God did not create the seas, then poll the internet about it. God did not create the land, then stand by the land making sure nobody looked sideways at it. God did not tap folks on the back asking them to “like” God’s light. God did not ask anyone outside of Godself if the creation was good enough. God made it—so GOD called it good. Then God moved on and created more good things.
“My teachers were right about one thing,” Abbey agrees. “It is hard to succeed. But if you have a skill – and you bolster it with moxie – you can do anything. Yes, a paycheck is nice and so is breakfast and a warm house, but those aren’t the reasons you create. They can’t be, or you will fail. But if you keep working hard and putting yourself out there you can create and eventually make a living off of it.
“What I wish my teachers said to me was, ‘You can be anything and succeed. You might need a job that can provide a paycheck while you work on your craft. But if you are willing to do that, you will succeed in life.’”
But She Does Wish She’d Listened to That One Teacher…
For Abbey, the most difficult part of her work is the math.
Yep, the math. It’s everywhere, kids.
“I can hear my high school math teacher saying, ‘I told you you’ll need this in real life’.”
Lucky for Abbey, she married a numbers guy. “My husband is my calculator who figures out my design equations for me. (Yeah, designs have equations. For real.) Some I don’t understand, like the expanding space of a circle, but some I can wrap my mind around like calculating how much yarn is necessary for various sizes.”
Abbey’s Public Service Message for the 18-and-under set? “Kids, stay in school. Do your algebra and geometry and trigonometry homework. Even artsy crochet designers need math.”
The Kicks & Grins
Abbey’s mom taught her to crochet when she was eight years old. “I will never forget the feeling I had when I started working on a blanket. Just simple single crochet stitches back and forth, back and forth. I am still fascinated by the way designs use space and texture to create.”
Nowadays Abbey gets to rationalize watching copious amounts of television while working/crocheting. “But that’s my down time. During the day I homeschool, am Mama to my three sweet kids, and work on the computer side of my business. Sitting in my comfy chair with yarn and hook is my reward at the end of the day.
Creating design books is one of Abbey’s favorite parts of her job. “First, I pitch a design idea (a single pattern or collection) to a yarn company. If they accept it they send me yarn, which is like getting Christmas delivered to my mailbox! Then I work up designs and write or outline the patterns. My photographer and I find a model and set a date for the shoot. I send a final draft with pictures to my testers and editors. Once the details are finalized my layout designer puts it all together. Then we release the pattern and let the yarn company know the links are live.
“Creating a book is exactly what a middle child was born to do. I get to work with a lot of people and be at the center of the hub communicating, delegating, arranging. All those involved in the process are very good at their jobs: testing, editing, photography, layout, modeling. It’s amazing to watch how people thrive when they can bring their own ideas to the project.
On Inspiration

Abbey’s designs are best described as eclectic. “I am inspired by things that I see and experience. Mountains. Skyscrapers. Wildflowers. Scotland. Movies. Bandits. Gentlemen. Gardens. Tea. My favorite breakfast place.
“My Open Sky Shawl is my favorite design. Usually when I work on a design, there’s a way it is in my mind, another way on paper, and yet another when the piece is finally worked up. I have an idea in my mind and don’t give up until it looks how I want it to look.”
Open Sky Shawl

Do What You Love
That’s Abbey’s ethos, not only with respect to crochet design, but about everything: “Don’t give up until it (whatever it is) looks how you want it to look.”
It’s what she did to create the life and career that she wants, and it’s what she encourages everyone with a creative bent to do as well. “Remember, if you have a skill – and you back it up with lots of moxie – you can do anything.”
* * * * *
Check out The Firefly Hook, and these fabulous design books Abbey has published. And for any crocheters out there, below is a quick and fun pattern from Abbey, just for you.

Nesting Bowls Pattern 

Happy yarning! (Now go do something you love.)

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Satan, Thy Name Is Cat

Photo by Felinest

A friend, knowing that I have a cat and have a long history with cats, asked me this week if I thought she and her family should get a cat.
Here is my response.
* * *
No, darling. I would not recommend inviting the spawn of Satan into your home. There is a reason cats possess the slitty-pupiled eyes of reptiles. It is because they are the cold-blooded and Machiavellian cousins of such creatures as crocodiles, alligators, and Komodo dragons, but with less gentleness, goodwill, and sense of charity.
Cats are descended from dinosaurs; they survived their bloodthirsty predecessors by evolving fur, the ability to purr, and the entirely manipulative big-eyed kitten look made famous by DreamWorks’ Puss-in-Boots. They weaseled their way into the caves of the Neanderthals and then stuck out their tongues and middle claws at their dinosaur relatives outside who savaged each other to death while choking on asteroid dust.
Okay, I haven’t actually studied the prehistoric timeline in detail, but I’m pretty sure it went something like that.
Cats would kill us all if they had opposable thumbs. The only reason they let us live is because they lack the ability to open the door and let themselves out. Cats know that if they slash their people’s jugulars in the night they themselves will perish in famine and waste, trapped forever in a dwelling whose refrigerator, can opener, and exit platforms all require prehensile digits to operate.
You asked me if cats can be trained to stay off the furniture and countertops.
Thank you for that, friend. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard and so long that I actually peed myself.
In my experience, cats can be trained to do nothing. NOTHING. As in, Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
Some people argue that cat-training fails because cats are stupider than dogs.
Oh, no they are not.
Cats are disturbingly brilliant. And they are as self-serving as the sociopathic lovechildren of Jeffrey Dahmer and Ayn Rand. Cats will do nothing unless they want to do it, and unless the thought of doing it originated with them, and unless it is exactly the opposite of what you want them to do.
Did you just think, “Then I’ll use reverse psychology to train my cat”?
Your cat already knows. Unborn, inside the womb of its treacherous and conscience-less mother, the cat to whom you will subject your home and family has already sensed your plans and is strategizing their defeat with greater complexity and forethought than Garry Kasparov working his bishops and knights and pawns toward an international chess championship.
The only salient, defensible, and rational reason to introduce a cat into your home is if your home is presently infested with mice.
Which brings me to another cat-myth I must refute for you.
Cats will occasionally bring you their kills, or a portion thereof. There’s nothing quite like a mouse leg lying on the floor beside your bed first thing in the morning. Especially if your eyesight sans-contacts rivals Mr. Magoo’s, and you have to squat down, nose to the bloody, bone-bared limb in order to see what it is.
But this is neither a generous nor a sociable act on the part of your cat.
“She’s trying to contribute to the household,” one friend pled when her cat brought an eviscerated rabbit to the back door.
“He wants to share; he’s trying to feed me,” said another duped cat-enabler.
“Kitty is so proud of her hunting prowess!” claimed someone else.
Right. Don’t kid yourself.
What the cat is saying, when he lays a carcass at your feet, is “I could do this to you. Right now. Do you see that of which I am capable? Fear me, pathetic human with flat, rounded, useless claws, and blunt, milk-baby teeth. You are still alive only because I allow you to be so. Now open that can of Friskies before I change my mind and disembowel you like the foul, sewer-dwelling rat you are.”
I beg you, friend. For your own good, turn back now from the cat-seeking path you are on. It leads to no good. The cat will fur your furniture, your family, and your food. It will devour your plants, then barf them into your shoes. It will shred your sofa, your sweaters, and your sanity. When you are laboring in vain to extract from your carpets the urine it utilized to punish you for your unknown sins against it, you will remember my words and cry, “Why did I not listen to my wise friend?”
If you really need a pet, get a pig. Because if a pig behaves badly, there’s something you can do about it.
But my friend, there ain’t no bacon on a cat.
(Unless you've been duped by cats and you hate me now.)

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Everything Needs to Be Loved

Photo by Ray Morris
On Valentine’s Day, a holiday fraught with angst for both the coupled and the hitch-less, everyone’s talking about, thinking about, longing for love. “What a person desires is unfailing love…” (Proverbs 19:22a, NIV). And according to a dear, wise friend of mine, who usually expresses it while ruffling up the facial fur of some small animal, “Everything needs to be loved!”
That reminded me of certain popular song lyrics, which got me thinking about modern music, which I figured (by reflecting on my own listening experience) is by and large about love. I like quoting statistics—I think it makes me look savvy and scholarly—so I Googled the question, “What percentage of pop music is about love?” Here’s what I learned:
“A study by SUNY Albany psychology professor Dawn R. Hobbs found that ‘approximately 92 percent of the 174 songs that made it into the [Billboard] top 10 in 2009 contained reproductive messages’.” (
Love songs aren’t actually about love! They’re mostly about sex.
I think the majority of people reading this are canny enough to recognize that sex and love are not the same thing. In a perfect world they’re symbiotic, but not synonymous.
So if we live in a culture that’s couching (“couching”—get it? See what I did there? Bwah-ha-ha!) sexual gratification as the ultimate expression of love, it probably behooves us to give some thought to what love actually is, as opposed to what Brittany, Beyonce, and Bieber say it is.
One thing real love is NOT is a noun.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
Love is a verb. Love is an adjective. Love is a behavior. And it applies equally to any relationship, be it with a spouse, a parent, a child, a sibling, a friend, or an acquaintance.
Love acts.
Love is patient and kind.
One morning on his way out the door my friend’s husband asked her a stupid question. I don’t know what the question was, but she declared to me the full, flagrant, raging idiocy of its content. Maybe she’d just answered it two minutes before, but he wasn’t listening. Maybe any third-grader could’ve sorted out the solution if she gave it the briefest amount of thought. Maybe it was the same thing he’d asked her six times in the last week.
Whatever his query, the first response that tried to spring from her tongue like Michael Phelps off a diving board was snarky, sarcastic, and just plain mean. The second answer that came to her was only marginally nicer. So she turned to the wall, clenched her jaw, and breathed until her brain could come up with a gentle and kind response.
That’s love.
Love is not jealous or boastful.
In Humility, one of the best books ever published (IMHO), Andrew Murray writes, “The humble person feels no jealousy or envy. He can praise God when others are preferred and blessed before him. He can hear others praised and himself forgotten, because in God’s presence he has learned to say with Paul, ‘I am nothing’ … The soul that has done this, and can say, ‘I have lost myself in finding you,’ no longer compares itself with others.’”
Competition used to be an elephantine presence in my marriage. Friends refused to play board games with us, because they feared for the emotional and psychological safety of all involved. Recently Hubby and I also had to stop playing Scrabble before bed, because one or the other of us would win, which meant the other would lose, and there was no love crossing over the pillowcases after that. Ever.
Love applauds another’s victories, and puts aside the egotism that says, “Me first. Me tops. Me at the expense of all and everyone else.”
Love is not arrogant or rude.
A wise woman I know often says to me, “We are given discernment not to criticize, but to pray”. (You have, perhaps, rightly discerned that I tend toward being a smidge critical.) Discernment is the ability to make accurate judgments. In the spiritual sense, it suggests a supernatural element to the ways a person might know something that in any natural, logical sense they shouldn’t be able to know. But even in the practical, physical world, we all discern things, good and bad, about other people:
“She’s selfish to the core.”
“He wouldn’t tell a lie to save his life.”
“Pretty sure he’s got a mental disorder.”
“She has no self-confidence at all.”
“He’ll stab you in the back first chance he gets.”
Photo by i k o
Love uses such wisdom and knowledge to uplift, protect, and encourage others. Arrogance and incivility use what we know to tear people down. It’s as simple as that.
Love does not insist on its own way.
This is where love gets down in the dirt. It abandons its rights.
Love chooses to care more about the relationship than about the wrecked car or the broken window or the forgotten birthday or the perceived offense.
Love chooses to care more about the person than the mess they made or the quality of their work or their bad decisions or their character flaws.
Love chooses to care more about the future than about the past; about perseverance than about pleasure; about intimacy than about expedience.
Love sacrifices in ways that cause it real discomfort, inconvenience, pain, sorrow, and hardship. It concerns itself with the good of the other, and the good of the relationship, and for the hope of what could be, and for the integrity of keeping its promises.
It says, "I’m sorry,” even when it thinks the other person should be sorrier. It says, “I forgive you,” when the offense feels unforgiveable. It says, “I will not abandon you.”
Love is not irritable or resentful.
If you read Grumpy, Growly Grizzly Bears, you know that it took Hubby and me a long, long time to learn to work with, rather than against, each other’s nocturnal/diurnal tendencies. Believe me, I resented him PLENTY for sleeping in when the kids were teeny-tiny and they got their busy, needy little days started by 5:00 a.m.
Photo by Marcus Rahm
One morning, after a few choice words to the back of his horizontal, quilt-smothered head, I left to make the kids’ breakfast—again—and hurled back a single epithet as I descended the stairs. I won’t reprint it here, but it’s a compound word, starting with Jill’s broken-crowned brother and ending with the backside of a braying animal.
I couldn’t believe that didn’t elicit a response from Rip Van Winkle.
Later that day we made up, and both apologized for our part in the contretemps.
“I’m sorry for what I called you,” I told him.
“When did you call me something?” he asked.
“When I left the bedroom this morning.”
He started laughing.
“What’s so funny?” I asked him.
“I didn’t hear you because I yelled something at you at the exact same time.”
He never would tell me what he called me, but I bet it wasn’t, “Darling.”
All that irritation and resentment above? That’s NOT love. Just so we’re clear.
Love does not rejoice about wrongdoing, but about the truth.
Original Photo by Angela Mabray
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
That’s a huge, wild, unparalleled lie. There’s no justification for celebration if we think we’ve won a battle by decimating the person we say we love.
“You’re an idiot.”
“Why can’t you be more like Tom (or Jane or Bill or Sarah…)?”
“Can’t you do anything right?”
If you’ve ever heard words like these from someone important to you—a parent, friend, spouse—I bet that same stab of heartbreak shot through your stomach when you read it above.
Words are potent. “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Proverbs 18:21).
We must speak truth over our relationships, and seek truth in our relationships, even if it’s painful truth:
“I’m angry.”
“I don’t like what happened.”
“This hurts me.”
Argument is not a Biblical concept. Debate and rhetoric are not scriptural mandates for resolving conflict. Anger is intended to flag injustice, not serve as a defensible lifestyle. If you don’t believe me, do your own concordance research. I’ll recant if I’m wrong on this.
Original Photo by Angela Mabray
Love edifies with its words and rejoices when both parties win.
Love protects.
Another version of this passage reads, “If you love someone you will be loyal to him no matter what the cost” (1 Corinthians 13:7a TLB). In other words, you defend her when others dishonor her. You look out for her best interests, emotionally, physically, psychologically, and financially. And this loyalty is also reflected by the “in sickness and in health” piece in the marriage vows.
I once overheard someone say that she and her husband had agreed that if either of them developed a chronic, debilitating illness, the other was sanctioned to get a divorce and continue his or her life unencumbered.
That sounds so… selfless. So freeing. So fair-minded.
But it’s so, so wrong.
What good is love if it only operates on sunny days? How “free” can one feel in a relationship, if it’s clear that other person is only obligated to stay as long as it’s easy and pleasant to do so? “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:3 NIV). You may think you’d take a bullet for someone you love, but would you abandon your dearest life dream in his best interest? Would you sacrifice a financial gain? Would you accept a lifestyle or situation that is less than you think you deserve?
That’s love.
Love trusts, hopes, and perseveres.
Has anyone not heard the story of Hachi? Every day this dog met his person at the Shibuya train station in Japan. When the man died at work of a heart attack, and never got off the train again, Hachi posted himself at the station and waited there for nine years, until his own death. (If you can read this book or watch this movie without crying, you are an ice-hearted, soulless, cardboard-cutout of a human being.)
Was Hachi foolish for wasting his life that way?
Should he have cut his losses and gone home with some other person who did get off the train?
Did he prove nothing except that dogs are loyal to the point of stupidity?
If so, why do we love Hachi so? Why does his story make us want to go back in time and feed him and take him into our homes and give him the love he lost?
I think it’s because we all want that kind of love. Love that never quits, that hangs onto hope and faith and honor. Love that remembers.
I hope you have that kind of love in your life today. But even more, I hope we all learn how to be that kind of love to the people in our lives.
What better Valentine’s Day gift could we ever give?

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Great Ponytail Band Hunt of Apocalyptic Savagery

Photo by Tambako the Jaguar

I think I actually have a useful bit of parenting strategy to share this week.
You have every right to be dubiously skeptical of that claim. If you’ve read Yes, Your Kids Are Awful, or Emergency Homeschool Curriculum for the Everlasting Snow Day, or even Blah, blah, blah-blah, Blah! you probably have mixed feelings about my efficacy as a parent and/or the worthwhile-ness of any child-rearing advice I might offer up.
That’s okay. I understand and am not wounded by your narrow-eyed head tilt. I have during my dozen-year tenure as a mother passed through pride, shock, shame, horror, helplessness, despair, and utter confusion, and have reached a place of limpid self-acceptance. As the sage and sagacious philosopher Popeye often declared, “I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam.”
I’m thinking of cross-stitching that on a pillow. Or a bumper bra.
But anyway, I’d like to share with you today something I recently discovered about competition vs. cooperation among siblings.
A few months ago my stock of ponytail bands dwindled, as it frequently does when a house contains two little girls who play beauty-shop with them, pull them out of their hair and abandon them to gravity at random times and places, and use them to alternate purposes such as halters for their plush horses, rubber bands for shooting their older brother, and garrotes for executing effigies of their older brother.
(That last one’s totally normal, right? Having grown up without near-age sibs, I’m frequently at a loss for a definition of “normal” regarding those relationships. Anyway, he’ll always be bigger and stronger than they are, so I guess I’m not too worried about him.)
So rather than buy a new package of ponytail bands, I called my daughters and announced a competition: “It’s time for a scavenger hunt! Whoever can find the most ponytail bands in the next ten minutes gets a cookie!”
I expected cheers and laughter and jumping up and down.
What I got more closely resembled the Ultimate Fighting Championship on street-cooked steroids with a Molotov cocktail chaser.
My sweet, ladylike daughters tore through the house, diving for the same ponytail bands which had lain on the floor or in the bathtub or around that hand-stitched Brother doll’s neck for weeks. They pushed and tackled and took fisted swings at each other. There was screaming and scratching and hair-pulling.
“I saw that one first!”
“Well I got to it first!”
“No fair! Your legs are longer!”
“Too bad so sad go suck an egg!”
In the end I had to scoop off the floor a few broken bands one of the girls snapped in half and threw at the other one before they both locked themselves in separate rooms, sobbing.
All this over a cookie?
God help us all if they ever crush on the same boy when they’re teenagers.
While reflecting on this incident, trying to figure out where the Great Ponytail Band Hunt had turned off the path of friendly competition and onto the Hades-bound turnpike of apocalyptic savagery, I remembered something I used to teach back in the day when people paid me to do such things.
In my undergraduate Intro to Educational Psychology classes I’d do an exercise to illustrate the difference between competitive and cooperative activities. The class divided down the center of the room, then turned their desks to face each other in two teams. I lobbed a ball into the group and told them that I wanted to see which team was better at seated, classroom volleyball.
They took to it quickly, the back rows setting up the front rows to spike the ball onto the desks of their opponents. They high-fived their teammates and talked trash to the other side of the room. The ball rarely went back and forth more than five or six times before someone slammed one that the other team couldn’t return.
Then I gave them a different goal. “I want to see how long you can keep the ball going without letting it touch the floor.”
The atmosphere of the entire room changed immediately. They worked together, cheered each other on, helped save balls that got misfired, and kept that game going till I lost count of how many times the ball crossed the center line.
I summed it up with my daily dose of pedagogic brilliance: “There is a time for competition and a time for cooperation, and it behooves you as a teacher to know which will work best for achieving your objectives.”
I think they may have applauded me. (Revisionist history is awesome.)
So I tried the Great Ponytail Band Hunt again, but this time I told the girls that however many ponytail bands they found in total together, they would each get that many peanut butter M&Ms.
Oh. My. Gosh.
My daughters transformed from two foaming-fanged hounds of Hell into a pair of My Little Ponies singing “Let’s Be Friends” as they skipped through the house holding hands. 18 ponytail bands were recovered, two dishes of 18 peanut butter M&Ms each were munched, and happiness-love-joy prevailed in our house.
For, like, fifteen whole minutes!
Hey, we’re a work in progress over here.
So, take it or leave it, that’s what I learned (or re-learned) this week.
In the spirit of this epiphany, I leave you with a passage from Ecclesiastes 3 (or from The Byrds, depending on the state of your religious/cultural savvy):
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace,
a time for a salad and a time for a Caramel Macchiato.
Okay, I made that last line up. Just wondered if anyone would actually read to the bottom.
Good on ‘ya. Impressed with you, I am.
For more parenting tips and insights, feel free to email me at
(‘Cause it’ll make everything else you read seem sophisticated by comparison.)