Tag Archives: Big Lessons

Make and Mend

I’ve said it before: I would be free to make myself more nice things if only I didn’t have to spend so much time repairing the torn knees of my small children’s pants.

So why do I bother?  Why fix it when it’ll just get broken again, when it’s cheap to replace, when I have other things to do?

Well, because it’s easier to add a quick patch to a garment than it is to find a replacement that would float in the Pool of Standards.

Because it’s important for children to know– not just academically, but experientially– that things can be fixed.

Because I HATE to throw things out, especially things that might still be useful.

Because I’m cheap and selfish, and even if I could get a new pair of pants at the Target for $9, I would rather use a scrap leftover from another project and spend that money on something I really need later.  Like chocolate.

Because, having raised children in a house with a mending basket, I am now the proud mother of smalls who delightedly point out holes in their clothes and start rattling off their grand scheme for the repair’s design before I can even see the damage.

Because there’s nothing more childlike than patched knees above dirty feet.

Because if I buy a new $9 pair of pants every time a hole shows up, that’s at least five new pairs of pants in EACH size for EACH child I raise– and that adds up fast.

Because going to the Target means getting all worked up about the needless and harmful gender dichotomy in children’s clothing.  Again.

Because I love a good puzzle and I love a good treasure hunt, and mending something well and with just the right materials can be both.

Because I can look at the patches and the fixes and the incongruous thread colors in years to come and remember the growing, and the running, and the exploring that destroyed those knees and seats and hems.

Because mending my child’s clothes gives me time, in the depths of the night, to work a little magic and say a few blessings into the seams.

Because mending takes ordinary, boring basics and elevates them to one-of-a-kind bespoke work.

Because I’m trying to raise children who understand that human time and effort go into producing and distributing everything in our home.

Because really looking at how the people in my life wear things out tells me so much about who they are and how they live.

Because it feels good to empty the mending basket.  Even if I’m just futilely struggling against entropy, scoring points here and there with small accomplishments like finishing the mending goes a long way toward making me feel like I’m making a difference.


a toddler Ithilien steps outside on a rainy day

One of the first things I noticed when attending college and living outside Oregon for the first time ever in my life was that I had a very different approach to rain than everyone around me had.

In case you don’t know, Oregonians are not bothered by rain.  In other places I understand rain forecasts affect voter turnout and box office sales and stuff, but if people in western Oregon cancelled their plans and stayed in every time there was possible rain in the forecast, we would still be trying to schedule a vote on whether to join the Union.  People go to the zoo in torrential downpours and wait in line outside downtown theaters in moderate rain wearing evening dress.  An umbrella is just another thing to accidentally leave on the MAX, and how are you supposed to use one on a bike?  Sure, you might cover your head if you’ve got a long walk ahead of you, but that’s why you’re wearing a hoodie, obviously.

My East Coast college campus, on the other hand, positively sprouted umbrellas when the sky was overcast, like they were some kind of bizarre poly-nylon mushroom.  I saw grown adults wearing rain boots– the chemical-smelling pull-on rubber things my mother used to buy for my siblings and me at the feed store when we were too young to dress ourselves– at the slightest hint of rain, presumably by choice.  People took dry, folded umbrellas to class and to club meetings, in case it rained on their 5-minute walk back later.  Some particularly deranged individuals even used umbrellas and slickers in the face of fog, snow, and other distinctly not-rain-like forms of dampness.

I told Robert, “It’s like they don’t know that people are waterproof.”

We joked many times over the years we were living in our little Finger Lakes college town– “Well, we’re Oregonian, so we’re waterproof.”

So naturally, when we had tiny, New-York-born toddlers who balked at the rain, we assured them “It’s just rain, and you are waterproof!”

Númenor latched onto the idea of waterproof-ness when he was two, and suddenly he went from asking “What’s that?” to asking “What’s that?  Is it waterproof?”

Yes, we said, you are waterproof.  Ithilien is waterproof.  We are waterproof.  The dog is waterproof.  The trees are waterproof.  The playground is waterproof.  The car is mostly waterproof, and some cars are totally waterproof.  Your cup is waterproof.  Yikes– no, the book is not waterproof!

But we didn’t realize how seminal being waterproof was to our children’s sense of security until the day Ithilien finally got over his fear of the bath, and his lisped, wide-grinning, 21-month-old comment on the event was “Odderpoof!”

And so, we had developed the first of our major teachings as parents.

Here’s the whole list as it stands now:

Big Lessons for Small Children (and the adults they will become)

It’s just rain, and you are waterproof.

You’re stronger than you think, and you can withstand the quotidian misfortunes of life.  It may seem frightening out there, but if you keep your wits about you and make sure you have a way to get safe (or warm and dry, as the case may be) later, you’ll likely benefit from the adventure.  It might even be fun.

Almost everything can be fixed, but virtually nothing can be made new again.

Between a needle and thread, a crochet hook, wood glue, and some simple know-how, we can fix just about everything.  Furniture can be fixed.  Your blanket can be washed.  We can add a patch to cover that torn knee.  We can rub a walnut into those gouges.  It can be fixed.  This is true of relationships, too– no matter the misstep, there’s almost always a way to make a repair and keep going if you’re willing to put in the effort to fix it.  But don’t expect that it’ll be like it was before it was broken.  Thermodynamics doesn’t allow for that, and neither do people.  You might like the mended version better– sometimes it’s stronger, or prettier– but chances are that you’ll always be able to see where something has been broken.

Use your words, and if your words don’t work, retreat and get help.

Language is a big part of what makes us humans and not just frostbitten apes.  Learn to set boundaries and express your needs and expectations now, and it will save you years of therapy as an adult.  Say it with an I-message if you can, and if you can’t, at least try to remember that arguments aren’t about being declared right, but about working out how to live in a world where you don’t always agree with everyone.  If somebody isn’t respecting your boundaries or you can’t find a way to understand each other, the best thing you can do is get help from an appropriate source, whether that means asking your mother to arbitrate turns with a toy truck, filing a restraining order against someone scary who won’t back off, or going to couples’ therapy.

Even a hug is mean if it’s not wanted.

Negotiate consent in your everyday life.  Ask before you hug, always know whether you’re playing flag or touch or tackle, offer a high-5 but don’t get strange with the exchange if the other guy leaves you hanging!  Some people won’t want to be touched, and that’s their right to decide.  Some people will be okay with the game until they’re on the receiving end of the tackle, and it’s their right to withdraw or renegotiate the rules, even then.  Understand that people cannot be obligated to do things they don’t want to do with their bodies, not even if they promised, and not even if you already went first and it feels unfair, and not even if it would benefit somebody else.  If it’s not safe, sane, and consensual, it’s not okay.

You don’t have to help, but you may not hinder.

Respect other people’s work and leave it alone if you can’t find a satisfactory way to collaborate with them.  Don’t yuck somebody else’s yum, even if you don’t share their tastes.  Food you don’t want to eat is not disgusting, you just don’t want it.  A game you don’t want to play is not stupid, you just don’t want to play it.  Everybody gets to decide for themselves, which means it’s fine if you don’t like something that somebody else likes, but don’t be a jerk about it, just decline.

Families work together.

When a group is working on something for everyone’s benefit, everyone is expected to contribute however they can.  You can negotiate your role, and feel free to be creative about finding one you like, but if you don’t find a way to contribute, don’t expect to benefit.

That bug is not going to hurt you, so leave it alone.

Treat other lifeforms with respect.  Don’t waste food, don’t step on ants, and leave those chickens alone– everything that’s alive is striving to be so, and life is hard enough without capriciousness or cruelty.  Work to preserve nature in every way you can.  Yes, sometimes it’s necessary to kill something in order to thrive yourself, and that’s acceptable, as long as you’re respectful about it and don’t take lives thoughtlessly.  Remember that someday, you might be the freaky thing crawling across somebody’s bathroom floor, and choose the cup and the paper over the sole of the shoe.

There could be zombies on the other side of that door.

A closed door is a mystery and you don’t know what’s on the other side, so be prepared before you open it.  Don’t assume that since it was the UPS driver the last four hundred times, there’s no way it will be a zombie now, because that’s how people become the teaser fatality in somebody else’s show.  Expect the unexpected.  But, that said, do understand relative risks and prepare for potential dangers proportionally to their risk– it’s fine to open the door a crack and see who it is before you unlatch the chain, but it’s probably a bit paranoid to refuse to answer the door just because you can’t put your hands on a ready-made device designed for crushing the skulls of the undead.

Nobody else can draw the spaceship you want.

Do things for yourself, even if that means doing them imperfectly.  Take the chance.  You will make mistakes; that’s part of learning.  Keep trying, because so is practicing what you want to become.  Don’t be afraid to fail, because failure is a wonderful teacher.  Keep trying, because nothing will destroy you so utterly as an abandoned dream.  You can’t wait around for someone else to deliver on your vision.  Nobody else has your brain– you are the unique product of millions of years of evolution and thousands of years of human society, and your insights and ways of thinking are yours alone.  Follow your passion and share your vision with others, even if you don’t know yet quite how you’ll make it work.  Do something creative every day, even if nobody else ever sees it and you can’t leverage it into a living wage job.  Never be ashamed to do what brings you joy, even if you know for sure that someone else makes fewer mistakes at the same activity, because vicarious pleasure over someone else’s perfect product is no substitute for your own joy in the process.  They can be better at drawing than you are, but they can’t be better at your drawings.

Listen to your body.

Sleep when you’re tired, and eat when you’re hungry– that much is obvious.  But your body gives you more subtle signals, too.  Trust your instincts about people and situations, because your brain, like your family, would rather see you safe than perfectly rational.  Know what it feels like to be getting sick and take it as a signal to go easy so you can get better again faster.  Know that a fever and a runny nose are your body’s way of making you well again, and focus on supporting your immune system instead of suppressing it and feeling oppressed by it.  Your body is your most valuable tool– use all its functions, from sensor to computer to creator to athlete.  Push your physical limits, but respect your body’s expertise when it starts to push back.  Remember that growing is hard work.

Some Grace and a little Walnut Oil

I don’t really remember what I was trying to work on.  I remember that I was yelling.


I snatched the plastic unicorn out of my 4-year-old’s hand and knelt down to bring us face-to-face.

“Ithilien!  You broke my table!  Why would you do that?”

Ithilien's feet in the doorway and a view of the offending toy unicorn on the corner of a low table, showing damage

Of course he didn’t know.  I know, because he’s four, that probably what happened was that he was fascinated by the deep pockmarks the unicorn’s horn left in the wood as he banged it down again and again on the surface of my studio cutting table.  He had tried it the first time to see what would happen, and the second time to see if it would happen again, and before he knew it there were 11 deep, short scratches in the table surface and I was yelling at him.

He made the grinch face.  You know, the one where his upper lip goes V-shaped over his sucked-in lower lip.  His eyes filled with tears.

“You scared me, Mommy!”

Why would you do that?

We’re still a few years from him articulating the second question for himself, but I have an active imagination.

I held him close in a hug.

“Oh honey, I know.  I’m sorry I yelled.  I should have been gentle and kind with my voice.”

We looked at the table and at the unicorn’s horn, now scraped clear of painted finish.  I explained that I need the table for working on, and that I want him to respect my things.  We talked about how sometimes people yell because they are angry or to get somebody’s attention if people or things are in danger, but it’s better to use a gentle and kind voice to talk to somebody, especially somebody you love.

And then I got down the jar of walnuts and we rubbed one into the scratches.  We talked about how most things can be fixed, but when you fix things they’re never really the same as they were before– that’s one of the Big Lessons we try to instill in our children from birth.

I asked his forgiveness for scaring him by yelling when I could have used a gentle voice.  I said his name with love and care, the way he deserves.

And I’m trying to have faith that he meant it when he said he forgave me, but I know that nothing is quite the same after you fix it as it was before it was broken.  Just like my table, with its now nearly-imperceptible unicorn-horn scratches.

the same table, after we rubbed some walnut into the scratches, with unicorn and Ithilien's tummy

We are all learning.  To be better, kinder people.  To think before we act.  And making mistakes is part of learning.

What matters is that we learn from mistakes and practice becoming the way we want to be.  What matters is that we know that walnut oil is a great fix for scratched tables, and a hug and an apology goes a long way to setting a relationship back on track.

Because most things can be fixed.  You just have to want to fix it and to know how to begin.

Amazing grace, indeed.