Monday, November 30, 2009

Hard at Work in the Toy Shop

This starts the time of year when I combine my own High Priestess with the Eight of Pentacles. OK, so what does THAT mean?

Every year since junior high, in the dark of the winter solstice I retreat to my cave and tackle a project. I have ceased wondering why I do this other than to classify it as the possible good effect of some variation of seasonal affective disorder syndrome. I think it started when the teachers began assigning me research projects. I was that kid who actually didn’t hate research projects. Footnotes, yes. Somewhere there’s a formatting god who points his superscript at me and laughs without mercy. But the project and especially the bibliography that were the results of my efforts, no. I love research in winter.

One early year the subject was astrology. I dug out all my books, including my trigonometry text (yes, sweetums, this was BEFORE there were personal computers) and cranked away with the A to Z Horoscope Maker and Delineator. The result that remains to this day is a pair of bell-bottoms with my chart stitched in colorful embroidery on the leg. Of course they don't fit!  They're a valuable piece of folk art.  Or something.  Mercury rising. Gemini Moon. She talks, fer goodness’ sake!

Another year, later, after personal computers were available to the masses, I created a database from my latest Wilds of Missouri catalog and data collected the whole thing so I could find the daylilies that were open in the evenings (after I got home from work), very fragrant and reblooming. I gained an appreciation of data collection and the transient nature of floral inventory. I still like to order from Wilds, though.  I’m usually a rose nut but it all started with daylilies. I wish they’d bring back “Date Book” but I guess it wasn’t that popular.

Another year it was soups, another cookies, another postage stamps, another it was memorizing the price list from the latest antiques price books and another genealogy. Several years my topic was American Brilliant Cut Glass.

I have to confess most of my history classes left me cold. After all, in days of olde when knights were bold-e, I probably wouldn’t have been some guy sitting around the decision making table fighting or writing a writ or insulting my betters or peers or worsers. (Is that a word?? I’ll have to look it up to see). I would have been some merchant or teacher’s daughter with a little too much learning for practical purposes, a little too much of an opinion for good health and length of days. But I really love studying the artifacts of people’s lives.

So, by accident of the study of antique glass, I learned a little about labor relations and good and bad management. For instance, while cut glass was being produced in the eastern US in the late 1800’s, some of the bosses were not as considerate of their workers’ situation as they might have been. Think of the burns from molten glass, the early deaths from lung disease from glass dust, the cut hands from a slip of the grinding wheel or explosion of glass that resulted in devastation and poverty. One glass cutting shop decided to go on strike because their boss was a jerk and wanted another shop’s workers to go on strike with them. The other shop considered the proposal and rejected it because their boss was a nice guy and didn’t cause the hard feelings the first shop had for their boss. That’s something to be said for good management. The working conditions were nearly identical but the boss in one shop treated his workers with genuine kindness.

That’s genuine kindness, not fake kindness. There are some things you can’t make in a workshop.

Many years, my learning retreat has centered on antique samplers and embroidery, the techniques, the materials, the process and evolution of styles of stitching, the availability of materials to certain economic classes and the social impact of educating girls. Schoolgirl samplers in the early to mid-1800’s were something more like, “My kid made the honor roll” instead of a reference book of pretty patterns for future clothing and linen d├ęcor as they were in, say, 1700. Check out Betty Ring’s wonderful books Girlhood Embroideries and American Needlework Treasures at your nearest library or old book store.

And many years my learning retreat has taken me into some aspect of the tarot, a deeper dive into symbolism and cultural archetypes. Even I tell people to put down the books and just read cards when they ask the best way to start reading. But I have some goodies saved up for my solstice reading this year, nice thick ones with meaty topics that challenge my thinking and enhance my feeling for the tarot. Last year, for instance, one of my retreat activities was to read The Encyclopedia of Tarot (vols. 1-4) cover to cover. Good stuff. Also fuels the urge to buy old decks. (Mr. Kaplan, I’m sure that’s not what you meant it to do, right? =)

This year, since we have determined to have a merry little Christmas, my solstice retreat will take a familiar theme of making handmade gifts. First I made a list of who gets what. This year the "whats" are ornaments all hand made.  Then I figured out if I could actually make that many “whats” in time for Christmas, sorting by earliest mail-away date and taking my planned stay-cation into account. You’re bored with this, I can tell. But, that’s my Eight of Pentacles pounding away at the workbench, planning, selecting symbols and cloth and thread and beads and up at all hours.

The approach of the winter solstice or the “Dark Days of Christmas” as an Irish friend of mine used to call them always signals this Santa’s Workshop Elfin frenzy in me. Somehow the bright colors, the warm smells of good cooking (or bad, depending on the experiment), the planning and execution all serve my inner High Priestess well. She studies from a quiet distance the Inner Child hard at work on the Spirograph or Slinky of the season and smiles. There is inner work going on here too, the kind you can’t reach with needles or patterns or light or a color wheel. It is all preparation for the spring of life but it is also celebration along the way.

Best wishes.

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