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Busy Hands

January 27, 2024

Several months ago I received a surprise in our mailbox. It was the most charming dishtowel in the world from a friend named Debbie in California. She had finished reading my most recent book, Every Ocean Has a Shore, and said she had been inspired to recreate the picture embroidered on an apron in Dee's kitchen, mentioned on page 84, described as  "a dancing teapot with arms and legs and a big smile on its spout, with a little poem printed under it in faded blue letters: My kitchen is a happy place, Full of joy and God's sweet grace."


I was delighted, of course, and have loved using the towel ever since, a rare gift that's both beautiful and useful (generous in size, wonderfully absorbent). After I wrote Debbie to thank her, she wrote back—a real letter with a stamp on it, written with a fountain pen, no less—and as you might imagine from the photo of her towel, her handwriting was impeccable, just as pretty and precise as the careful, dainty stitches of her embroidery.


Debbie and I have corresponded a couple of times since then, and she mentioned that she does her embroidery in the evenings because she likes to keep her hands busy while the television is on because just sitting and watching the screen not only seems like a waste of time but can also lead to falling asleep. I told Debbie that's exactly how I feel when the television is on. Whether it's Wheel of Fortune or the news or a compelling movie, I have to be doing something with my hands. It usually starts with writing in my diary—you know, recording riveting details like what time I took my walk that day and what I fixed for supper—and it might also include folding laundry, but eventually it almost always progresses to needlework. I've never made an amazing dishtowel like Debbie's, however.


About 45 years ago, a dear friend who had been my freshman roommate in college gave me my first cross-stitch kit for a birthday. It was a sampler that came with a printed pattern on a paper grid and clear instructions about which colors of thread to use for all my little x's. From where I'm sitting as I type right now, I can see it. The verse beneath the alphabet reads, Turner is our name/ America, our nation/ Carolina is our dwelling place/ And Christ is our salvation. Below that is a scene of two little trees, a bird, and a family—father, mother, son, and daughter dressed in Early American garb. (I completed the sampler before we had our son, and we never did get a daughter.) From working on that project, I fell in love with making art out of fabric, thread, and little x's, and in the years that followed, I did a lot of cross-stitch, most often at night. Some of the pieces were gifts to family and friends, and others are displayed on our walls. 


At some point I grew a little tired of following someone else's instructions about layout and colors and even had trouble finding pictures I was interested in. They all started to look too cute, too formulaic, too fake. So I decided to experiment with some designs of my own from photographs or simply by looking at things around me—for example, my husband's neckties, my feather collection, a neighbor's clothesline, or the night sky. That opened up a brand-new world of cross-stitch for me, with some embroidery and applique mixed in. A freestyle piece can take anywhere from one to two years to complete, but I don't set deadlines. I love watching a picture take shape gradually, and even the slow filling in of a background over many weeks or months has a calming effect. At the same time, it allows me to listen to music, carry on a conversation, or keep up with a television program. It might be fifteen minutes or two hours, but it's a perfect pre-bedtime ritual. The Louvre hasn't yet requested a loan of these pieces for a special show, but we enjoy looking at them. These were my projects during 2021 and 2023.


2023---blue-starry-night-with-full-moon.jpg    2021-framed-feathers.jpg


Maybe you can unwind in the evenings without busy hands. If so, I would love to hear about it. Reading, as we all know, is a great way to close any day and involves the hands only minimally. For me, that important activity always takes place following the needlework--in the bathtub, full of warm water. (I'm wondering, though, how long I can continue this luxury, considering the number of books that have somehow ended up. . . wet, some of them very much so.)


Speaking of books, here are some of my recent reads. (1) American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins, given to me by an Australian friend whose last name is Nightingale. (I'm a little jealous of her because of that.) The title of the book didn't particularly grab me, but the first page surely did. It was a forward-driving plot with all the right ingredients for a terrific read. This friend has a knack for choosing books I've never heard of but that end up on my "keepers" shelf. (2) Another one she recommended was Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. After reading that one, I learned that it had won an award for Best Young Adult Fiction, but this Older Adult thoroughly enjoyed it. (3) Another 2023 read was one of P. D. James' mysteries, Devices and Desires. (4) After that one, and two more by her, I read James' memoir, titled A Time to Be in Earnest, subtitled A Fragment of Autobiography. James clearly believed that no detail was too small to include when describing a person or place, so she's not a quick read, but her plots are always engrossing. (5) I've also enjoyed a number of other non-fiction books, such as Kitchen Privileges (autobiography by Mary Higgins Clark), (6) Dancing Under the Red Stars by Karl Tobien, (7) Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing, (8) E. B. White (biography by Scott Elledge), and (9) Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill (biography by Sonia Purnell).


In closing, many thanks to those of you who have read my new book (or any of my books, for that matter) and have contacted me through my website. I always enjoy replying to those emails and learning about your interesting lives. Though we haven't bought a vacation home or booked any cruises with the proceeds, the book has sold remarkably well in spite of my feeble marketing savvy. 


As for the new book I've said I'm writing. . . well, I am doing that, but it is still in its infancy, could even be called embryonic. (A little tip for all my younger reader-friends out there, something I know I've mentioned before, but here it is again: As the years go by, you'll find that it takes you longer to do the things you used to zip through and your multi-tasking skills diminish considerably.) Afternoons are my main writing time, so since I'm closing this newsletter at 12:00 noon, it's now time to get my hands busy on the keyboard and go tend to the "Baby."