Friday, October 8, 2021

Bargain Basement

I upcycle cashmere. I thrift it used or, better, clients give it to me in exchange for a credit.  They buy a multi-hued handmade poncho with their old sweaters.  Or fingerless gloves, or scarves, or hats (for a critical time, even pussy hats).  This was an outgrowth of my greed for the sumptuous textile and my inability to pay full price for it. Years ago, in my thrift store travels, I started finding cashmere sweaters.  Occasionally, I’d luck out and they’d be in good condition.  Usually, they had holes or stains or pills.  But I’d run my fingers over that downy luxury and think, “Couldn’t I do something with this?”  And so a (cottage) industry was born.

I’m gifted at making something out of nothing.  Just about every place I’ve ever lived has been an underwhelming box (some super underwhelming - complete with rats, termites, scorpions, used needles AND used condoms).  I’ve cleaned that box, painted that box, and filled that box with accumulated furnishings, most of which I either inherited (probably too fancy a word for taking what no one else wanted) or found at a flea market or bought at IKEA (or sometimes IKEA via craigslist - used IKEA, people) or straight-up pulled from the street.  The result is  magical, every time.  It ends up looking like a million bucks and it costs approximately seventy-five cents.

My parents were raised in the depression and thrift was a daily part of my childhood.  Sometimes that went so far as my mother not buying quite enough meat for dinner (this from the wife of a Marin doctor - old habits die hard).  I was raised to be conscious of resources (“Turn out the light when you leave the room!” “Why are you standing there with the refrigerator open?” “Who turned the heat up past 65?” “Wait, how much did that dress cost?”). I still live in fear of over-spending (though I often do).  Even with savings in the bank (and twenty years of paying my mortgage on time) I often wonder idly about foreclosure.

Of course, our relationships to money are emotional - and often about much more than a number in an account.  Money represents, at least for me, ease, but more importantly, safety. Somewhere in my psyche I believe that if I have enough money I am immune to harm.  Not true, of course - I know a lot of monetarily wealthy folks who struggle emotionally as much as I do if not more.   But it feels true, at least to me.

There are times when I take what I can get, for money or love - a difficult client with a tantalizing project, a charming rogue of a boyfriend with a habit of disappearing, a friend who talks much more than they listen.  And I do this because, on some level, I don’t believe I can do better or that I deserve to.  I’ll take the discount rack, the dusty estate sale, the dude who’s maybe a little mean.  Because I can’t afford more.

I love working within limitations.  My favorite project is one where there isn’t a lot to spend, where re-use is essential, where there’s a tight frame.  That’s when we get creative.  But there’s a line between thrift and the feeling of not having enough.  Thrift is a captivating puzzle.  Want is a soul-destroyer.  

I was a latch-key kid growing up in a remote mountain neighborhood.  When I did get the chance to be with friends, or really anyone, I was so grateful. But that meant that I’d put up with just about anything to be in the warmth of human company; sketchy unsupervised hijinx, questionable adults, bullies.  I enjoy my time alone now, and I can be with people I love pretty much whenever I want, but that stray dog gratitude is still in me, it still translates.  I know what’s it’s like to be alone in the cold and I figure I have to be on my best behavior to keep that from happening.

I make do with scraps.  Yes, sometimes those scraps are cashmere, sometimes they’re the frumpy house on the beautiful block, sometimes they’re men who are intelligent, handsome, successful (and explosive).  White girl scraps, for sure, but scraps all the same. I take what my peers don’t want or can’t envision being good.  And if I can, I make whatever it is great.

But I have this image of myself as a small girl, maybe four or five, huddled under the dining table (which I still had until very recently).  My family is eating above me and I’m waiting for bits to drop down, morsels that will be my dinner.  To be clear, nothing like that ever happened.  But I can see it.  And I can feel it.

I’d rather live from a place of wealth, of abundance.  It doesn’t have to be monetary (though I wouldn’t argue). I’d like to walk through my world believing that I have enough, that I am enough, that I’m safe.  I’d like to stop building beautiful cakes out of crumbs.  I don’t want to sacrifice my talent for bargain-hunting, for repurposing, for rebuilding.  But I would like to stop selling myself short.  Wheeling and dealing in the real world?  Excellent.  Striking an emotional bargain?  There never was such a thing.  I’ll take the second-hand cashmere, the vintage jeans, even the free couch.  But the rest, the difficult people, the fraught situations, the fear, I’ll leave by the side of the road.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Mars in Cancer

Mae and Lana are super into astrology.  They know their charts backwards and forwards (including “chart rulers” and other exotic aspects I’d never heard of).  They’ve also been educating me on mine.

My sun sign is Cancer, which the kids say makes for a good mother (nurturing, gentle) but a generally soggy person.  I could possibly tend towards passive aggression (wow, ok, I guess - if you say so,) hypersensitivity and a tendency to feel things deeply - ALL THE TIME.  I spend a great deal of time thinking about my emotions and the emotions of those around me, for better or worse.  Lana occasionally pats me on the arm and says “Poor little Cancer mommy”.

I have Sagittarius rising, which would speak for my flirtatiousness (they accuse me, correctly, of flirting with everyone and everything; cats, babies, husbands, wives, all the beings), my outward confidence (today I’m wearing pink cheetah print jeans) and my love of center stage (who wants to take a selfie??).

My Mercury (the planet of communication and intellect) is in Gemini.  I’m academically inclined, love word play and maybe have the tendency to gossip.  That explains my love of school (hand raised high in every class I ever took at any age, I can’t help myself), the kindle that travels with me everywhere (including from room to room), my great appreciation of words and putting them together (evidenced here) and, okay, yes, sometimes I do speak freely of my community when with a trusted friend (a most political definition of gossip).

Adorably, all three of us have our moons in Aquarius.  This means that our private selves are observant, detached, happy in quiet.  So lounging on a sofa together with books (or silent phones) is a happy equation for us.  We’ve thought about getting matching tattoos memorializing this planet placement but can’t quite figure out the image (we did consider a couch but maybe it’s not the most attractive visual for all eternity).

The really bad news is that my Mars is also in Cancer.  Mars is the planet of aggression.  It’s conflict, ambition, how you show up in a fight.  I show up like a Cancer; wobbly and passive and emotional.  I’m a lover, not a fighter.

Conflict is, in daily life, one of my greatest struggles.  I lavishly skirt it and when I’m forced to face it, I’m profoundly afraid.  I’m often convinced of my opponent’s argument and forget my own.  My voice shakes when I try to speak my truth in the chill of hostility.  I’m a crab without it’s shell, one giant soft target.  A fight makes me want to barf - literally, as the kids say.

It also means that being an actress was a predictably difficult position for me.  Walk in a room on a daily basis and convince a group of (usually uninterested) strangers of my talent?  And get turned down at least nine times out of ten?  I’m not built for it.  I spent my entire twenties nauseous.

It means that new client meetings are often daunting for me.  Believing in my own ideas and worth, being a warrior, doesn’t come naturally.  Once we’re friendly and cozy and in the process of design, I’m good.  But breaking the ice, showing up as someone that a stranger would want to trust with a project, requires an internal shove (go get ‘em, tiger - no really, GO).

The last number of years I’ve been working on standing my ground without apology, serene and unmovable as a redwood tree (or at least that’s the image my therapist and I landed on).  I’ve been trying to move through the world with less fear, spend less time appeasing difficult characters in an effort at defanging.  I breathe deep and try to remember that, really, there’s not a lot that can harm me in this later stage of adulthood, at least not in the way my child heart believes.

For the most part, I’m standing stronger.  But every once in a while, conflict will surface like a dorsal fin from the ocean’s placid surface.  I’ve surrounded myself with kind and loving people in my personal life; if trouble arises there it’s resolved with care by all parties; no sharks to be seen. The only battles that do feel worth attempting are those that involve the welfare of my children.  I need to protect my work and my income, I need to show up fiercely to advocate for what I feel is right for the kids if they need that help.  And if that battle is with someone less than kind, though I may show a brave face, internally it’s 7.5 on the Richter scale.  Everything in me wants to throw up my hands in surrender and say, “You win, just please, please, go away”.  But, when I’m fighting for the kids and our livelihood, I swallow hard and face the enemy.

It’s the hardest thing I do, in a sea of challenges (attempting to parent wisely and compassionately, captaining my own business(es), managing the household and it’s often tight budget).  It’s the time I most lean on my friends, the time I most miss being partnered.  It feels lonely and terrifying and often futile.  No matter how hard I try to reinvent myself, my basic wiring is what it is.  My Mars is in Cancer.  I’m never going to be good at fighting - it’s always gonna scare the shit out of me.

Thankfully, at the end of my day slaying dragons, I return to the treehouse on the hill.  I put together dinner and sit on the couch with those gorgeous kids and the beloved street dog, munching and chatting and watching old seasons of Survivor; the crab finally deep inside the safety of it’s protective shell.  And so so happily, I put my phone on do not disturb.  Go away, scary old world.

Oh, also?  My Venus is in Leo.  Die-hard romantic.  Damn it.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Ramona the Brave

If you’ve seen any of my social media posts in the last few months, then you know I got a dog.  Mae says my Instagram feed should simply be called the Ramona Fan-page.

Ramona came to us at four months as a stray from Zihuatanejo.  She had been rescued, rehabilitated and spayed by Surfers for Strays, a non-profit operated by gringos (if you’re looking for a dog, I don’t have enough good things to say about them).  They put her on a plane with a friend of the organization (a twenty-something surfer coincidentally traveling to the Bay Area) who delivered her to us at a gas station in San Rafael on a cold November night.  While we had contingency plans if she somehow wasn't a fit, it was love at first sight.  She is the star of our household, patiently enduring our ongoing vows of adoration.

Though the adoption of this particular puppy happened quickly, I had grappled with my desire for a dog for over a year.  Historically, I have jumped into relationships, pregnancies, real estate purchases; I can make quick gut decisions.  This commitment was long contemplated.

I have a complicated history with dogs.  When I was eleven, I lost Adam, a young German Shepherd that was my most trusted companion in a time when I felt very alone. The situation that resulted in his death was complex and very dark; it was a central expression of what was profoundly not right in my family.  I loved Adam desperately but with his death I closed the book on dogs.  I couldn’t even look at them without feeling heartbreak.  I told myself I wasn’t a dog person.

When I was twenty-two, my live-in boyfriend, Mark, wanted to get a dog.  I had great reservations.  But when we visited a litter of golden retriever puppies deep in the sprawl of the San Diego suburbs, when a particular girl puppy with pink nail polish on one of her claws (to identify her as the only female left for adoption) kept tumbling into my lap and gazing into my eyes with such naked devotion, I cautiously agreed.  In the weeks that followed, my self-concept about my non-dogness shattered, quite painfully.  With the rush of love for her, I once again felt the loss of Adam.  My heart was pried open by the fuzzy crimped fur on her ears.

That dog, Ellie (full name Eliante, named after a Moliere character I played that year), became one of the great loves of my life.  She was my baby before babies.  Already eager to please, Mark trained her impeccably.  It was like she could read our minds.  When we later separated, we shared custody of Ellie, which was probably as much a testament to our deep friendship as our love for the dog.

A year before my marriage ended, we got a puppy.  Sunny was adorable and hilarious.  She also had a wire or two crossed.  She was reactive; she was actually kicked out of the Humane Society training class because she couldn’t stop barking at the other dogs.  Given the opportunity, any opportunity, she would book it at high speed.  She was delightful and she was a handful.  As the marriage disintegrated, she became a point of contention, an emblem of all I was doing wrong.  In the following chaotic first year of separation, her high needs and the needs of the kids were in competition.  Ultimately, sadly, the situation became unsafe for her (for reasons I won’t share) and I tearfully found her a new home.

Again, it was clear I wasn’t a dog person.  I couldn’t train a dog.  I wasn’t responsible enough for dog ownership.  Ellie had been a fluke, trained by someone who knew what they were doing.  Really, wasn’t I cat person?

Post divorce, slowly, I stabilized, we stabilized.  There were some tumultuous years, years I’m so glad to see the back of, but in some ways, we’ve emerged into the light.  The girls have found solid ground under their feet.  So have I.  We’ve built a place of safety in our house in the trees.  About a year ago, I again starting thinking about the steady sweet energy of a dog.

Our neighborhood borders open space.  We hike daily - together or separately.  Increasingly, as I wandered the trails I contemplated a companion, a non-verbal friend with whom to witness this daily shock of beauty.  As my work shifted with COVID, the shop closed and much of my design work happening remotely or at least episodically, a dog felt more possible.

I hemmed, I hawed.  Some days (the calm, quiet ones) it seemed like the best idea ever, some days (when the chaos of solo parenting descended) the worst.  At some point, on one of those peaceful days, Mae extracted a commitment.

“Mom, you keep talking about it but are we actually going to do it?”

“I…don’t know.  I want to - and it worries me.  What if it’s overwhelming?  What if we can’t give the dog what it needs?”

“Mom, it’s a dog.  You’ve done harder stuff.”

All the weight that surrounded the idea of DOG for me, all the heaviness, lifted a bit.  I’ve done way harder stuff.  And done it well.  Maybe I could do this, too.

And so, Ramona.  Mae pledged that she’d train her, that she’d walk her.  She hasn’t done much of either.  To her credit, she says that the way Ramona and I are attached at the hip, there’s not a lot of room.  Ramona, in early puppyhood, scared from her time on the street, would only walk if I was with her.  She’s getting braver (Ramona the Brave), more used to the idea that she’s safe.  But from early on, she was clearly a Mama’s girl.

And I, much to my surprise and delight, have trained her.  She sits, she stays, she comes when called, she walks the trails off-leash.  I’m not the expert that Mark was but I’m doing a fine job.  As is she.

And so, twice a day, we’re up in the wild, encountering woodpeckers and hawks and deer and even the occasional bob cat or coyote (“Ramona, COME!”).  She sleeps in her crate under my elevated bed, her snores a comfort in the middle of the night.  When the kids fly, and they will soon, I will still have a baby at home.  I, not a great believer in insurance, got major medical for her because I know I would pay anything to ensure her health and well-being.

When I’m with her, which is almost always, I feel the ghost of long ago Adam, the sweetness of Ellie, the loopy delight of Sunny.  My heart is wide open, the deeply buried dog part of it fully engaged.  Ramona is brave, it’s true.  But I, in loving her, have some courage of my own.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Bye Bye Shop

A week or so ago, I closed my shop for good.

There was some unnecessary landlord nonsense that forced my hand, but even without that I couldn't see the path through COVID.  Retail, especially in a small town, is a tenuous prospect on the best of days.  I used to joke that if it was anything but 72 degrees in an excellent economy, every star aligned, sales would likely be shit.  Right now it’s anything but 72 degrees.

These times are so strange.  While the impending demise of my shop has been hard to contemplate, I’ve simultaneously had brilliant online sales.  So while an institution of my life is ending (the shop being a finicky and charming fourth child), I’m also enjoying my new rhythm of making and sewing in my home workshop, cobbled together from the detritus of the shop.  I’m diving into the intricacies of online marketing, I’m refining my virtual store.

I just sat here on my deck in the late spring breeze, breathing in, breathing out.  I lit some sage (I am in Northern California, after all) and I cycled through the moments of high and low that happened in those four walls.  Building it in a week, on the run from a failed business partnership.  All the strings of lights I hung over the years, all the wooden signs painted and tapped into the walls, all the death-defying ladder feats near the skyscraper ceiling.  The garments made standing at my desk., sewing and watching the town go by.  My children roaming through at different ages, in different phases.  The after-hours kisses, the room lit only by fairy lights.  The happy hours, raucous Friday five o’clocks.  The customers: the unexpected kindnesses, the occasional uneasy encounters, the acquaintances that deepened into friendships.  The parades, the street parties, my beautiful town delighting in it’s quirks. Day in, day out, for four years, that was my second home, often my sanctuary.

This is a time of great change.  People are dying, businesses are going under, revolutions of every kind are in bloom.  I’ve had my own personal great change, my own loss, my own revolution - small in global scale but large in my daily life.  Lately, sometimes I feel like I’m falling and sometimes I feel like I’m flying.  Whatever it is, I’m up in the air.  We will land somewhere - I'm so curious to see where.

RIP, shop.  I loved you.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020


April 8, 2020

I had to just look up the date.  Is it March?  April?  Quarantinuary? Coronember?  The days blend together.  I’m in a never-ending present.  In my house.  With my kids.  Doing the same thing every day.  Cooking, applying for loans, sewing masks.  And repeat.

I’ve started making courtesy masks.  In my previous life, I constructed other garments - ponchos, dresses, depending on the season.  Now a corner of my kitchen has been devoted to production of just one item.  My waiting list, after a single post on social media, is daunting.  I’m sewing as fast as I can.  My bedroom bureau is the shipping department.  Envelopes, stamps, a food scale.  Not anything I ever imagined two months ago but here we are.

It’s quiet, this life.  And it’s stressful.  Working with the government to try to get the rent covered on my shop.  Educating myself on the differences between the PPP and the EIDL.  Waiting to hear back from unemployment like one might await a hummingbird to alight on one’s nose.  Reading the news.  Worrying about people, small p and big P.  Trying to imagine what the next twelve to eighteen months will hold, wondering how to navigate it.  All from within the confines of my house, my favorite, most comforting place.  While in my pajamas.  

I know that most every cogent being on this planet is having a very weird time.  We’re all in our own envelope of quandary.  The specifics might vary from person to person but everyone is affected and everyone, on some level, is afraid.  Strangely, possibly sadistically, it’s helpful for me to remember that.  I’m in the vacuum of my own thoughts and worries, with little social interaction to distract or diffuse.  It’s easy to get lost and overwhelmed.  It’s easy to lose hope.  If I can remember that everyone I love, everyone I know, everyone I DON’T know, is struggling, too, I don’t feel so alone.

I just listened to the novelist George Saunders read an email to his creative writing students.  He advised them to write about their experience through this time, to do so with an open heart, because we’re going to need to process this and sometimes it’s the artists that help do that.  So I’m writing to you, dear reader, with an open heart.  That open heart is scared.  And daring to hope.  And grieving for what was.  And wondering, with awe, what will be, after this virus has had it’s way with us.  I’m reaching for you, from this quiet of quarantine.  Hope you're doing ok.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Howl

At eight p.m. in Marin County people howl.

In Italy they sing, in England they applaud.  Here, we howl.

Last night I went out a little early.  I wanted to hear how it started.  And sure enough, just before eight, a lonely yip.  Silence.  Again the yip.  Then an answering call from above us, a long low wail.  And presently Mae and I added our voices (Lana is an infrequent howler).  We favor a classic yowl - any wolf would be proud.  

Soon the dogs join in.  Then the turkeys.  Occasionally the coyotes.  And Mae and I start gobbling because we find it hilarious.  And then eventually we start mimicking our neighbor below us, who on summer evenings calls her cat with a long melodic “Leeeeeeeeeeeeoooooo”.  She fancies herself a singer - we’re also privy to her voice lessons.  Mae and I call “Leeeeeeeeeoooooo” and then giggle at our meanness.  Then usually, the howl is petering out and we return to our puzzle and our audiobook.

The howl, as far as I know, started in Mill Valley.  I think it was rationalized as a tribute to healthcare workers - I believe that’s the reasoning behind the Italian singing and the English clapping.  But I’ll say this.  As grateful as I am to the people working the front lines of this war, those risking their own health and the health of their loved ones, working long and harrowing hours, I do not howl for them.

I howl because I miss people and that communal exercise connects me to them.  Strangers, not the friends that I reach out to via text or phone.  Connection with strangers has been put on hold through this crisis.  

I howl because I’ve been caged all day.  I’ve been good all day.  I’ve stoppered my fear (about my health, my people’s health, my shuttered business).  I’ve kept myself away from almost everything that makes my life - my friends, my boyfriend, my shop, even the pleasure of chatting with acquaintances at grocery stores.  I’ve done that for the sake of others.  For my own safety and that of my kids, yes, though I’m not so worried about the virus getting us.  I’m more worried about the virus getting other people THROUGH us.  I’ve kept a lid on it.  I’ve behaved.  And come eight o’clock, I’m ready to unleash a bit of my contained wildness.  And I do so at the top of my lungs.

We’re living in such strange times.  But nature hates a vacuum.  Into the abyss of the mundanity of sheltering in place, of quarantining, is sucked new rhythms, new joys.  The long hike with teenagers in the middle of a Tuesday.  The lentil soup made mid-morning because we eat at weird times.  The streaming barre class, squinting at my laptop to make out the images of my friends deep plies.  The six o’clock happy hour with my boyfriend, six feet apart on the deck, rain or shine.

There is joy here.  There’s fear.  There’s despair.  There’s loneliness.  There’s loss.  But there’s also, come eight o’clock, a long and loving howl rising up through the trees, many voices raised in solidarity.  We’re here.  We’re alive.  Ah-woooooooooo.

Saturday, March 21, 2020


March 21, 2020

When I was a little person, I remember my mom talking a lot about the Golden Rule.  At first, the idea of gold really grabbed me.  I imagined a cavern of treasure; gold blocks and precious stones piled as far as the eye could see.  Then as I got older I got a firmer grip on the idea.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  If there was one ethic my mother lived by it was that.

There’s nothing that touches me more than strangers being kind to each other.  When there’s no personal gain, being willing to help or just to sympathize or even just to smile at someone you don’t know, who you don’t love (at least specifically), this has always seemed to me to be the grandest gift.

Right now, all across the world, we are giving that gift to each other.  We’re doing it by staying home.  We’re doing it by temporarily shuttering our businesses, by forgoing income (voluntarily or involuntarily), by sequestering ourselves from the people we love, by being lonely and isolated and worried.  Even if you’re just sitting on your couch, this is hard work.  Not hospital-hard, not fighting-for-your-life hard, but hard.

We are staying home so that the person we don’t know - the cancer patient, the octogenarian, the boy with cystic fibrosis - doesn’t die, at least not from this virus.  And an enormous amount of people - the majority of those asked - are doing it with good will.  This, more than my own worries of the survival of my small business, of how I’ll pay my mortgage, of how I’ll support my kids, this makes me cry.  Because it’s beautiful.

The virtual happy hours, the virtual cooking classes, art classes, songs sung, just even the texts flying back and forth - “How are you holding up?  How are you feeling?  I miss you.  I love you.” - is heart-stoppingly beautiful.

I have to believe - really I have to or I’ll sink below saving - that, for the most part, we operate out of love, out of connection.  Our humanity wins over our selfishness, our ego, our fear.

There is treasure, it turns out, in the Golden Rule.  That treasure is love.