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Another craft fair coming up. Another exposure of my person (in the form of sock monkeys, zippered pouches, and the like) to an audience of strangers, begging for acceptance (and remuneration), validation for what I do.

I am not an artist. I do not think of myself as such. I’m much more of a crafter, a maker of things that may evoke emotion – sure – but are more likely to elevate something merely functional into something functional and cute. My ideas are not wholly original. The idea for potato-printing clothing and note cards came from Martha Stewart. Sock monkeys have been around since the dawn of crafting time. I used a tutorial for my zippered pouches, and a pattern for the baby clothing. My ideas come from books, from craft fairs, from craft forums and boutiques. I try to put my own spin on them (for instance, you’ll never see a Rockford Red Heel sock monkey), but at times I feel like a hack.

When I go to craft fairs, in addition to shopping for things I can’t live without, or couldn’t make myself, I observe trends in crafting, patterns in the wares. One year, everyone had apparently invested in screen-printing set-ups, for all the booths were peddling screen-printed T’s with various proprietary designs on them. Now, ironic taxidermy is hot. The themes that are in vogue right now are owls, squirrels, and other woodland creatures, playing, I guess, off the taxidermy theme. Anatomical hearts were all the rage a few years ago. Now Scrabble tiles and boards are being reused and evoked in myriad ways, from magnets and jewelry to throw pillows and spiral-bound books.

Don’t artists learn by imitating masters? Don’t they develop their own style by first practicing techniques, honing their skills, and emulating work they enjoy?

I took a low-tech printing class last year at the community art center, and my instructor told us explicitly to copy others’ work. She said we were changing it enough (through the reproduction process) to avoid overt copyright issues, and, what’s more – we were giving it our own spin. That felt reinforcing to hear her say, but I still doubt myself. I find myself wishing I could present something not only completely new, but completely me.

As I wait for Oriental Trading to send me those headband and bobby pin blanks so I can imitate the hair accessories I saw at the Art Star Craft Bazaar a few weeks ago, as I feverishly hope that the accessorizing-with-zippers trend is not past its prime, I wonder if I’ll hit my mark this time, or be relegated to the spot next to the face painters, to spend all day hidden behind a line of strollers and popsicle’d children.

The kids invented some game during lunch-time today that seemed like a cross between no-tackle football and a very competitive version of keep away.  They somehow split into two teams, and were able to keep track of who was on each time while they shuffled a soccer ball back and forth in the gym.  They were also able to avoid the many kids playing basketball as well as the few stragglers still eating their lunches at the cafeteria tables at one end of the gym.  There wasn’t any scoring; no bounced touch-downs in the back hallway of the cafe-gym-atorium.  It only got a little questionable when one kid had a dead-lock on the soccer ball, and others were gently pummeling him while the entire mass encroached upon the metal bleachers.  Boys and girls played together, 6th and 7th graders organized teams independently while their less socially adept classmates hung out at the periphery, still trying to master the art of sharing a basketball.  Aside from the scuffles near sharp metal objects and my own fears of being mock-tackled or hit in the head with a flying ball, it was a pretty mesmerizing experience. 

My mentor teacher when I taught preschool was forever rolling her eyes when parents would mention signing their 3-4 year old kids up for t-ball, pee-wee soccer, or competitive knot-tying.  They should be allowed free-play; they should be allowed to develop their problem-solving skills and “rules” of play without coaches and referees and disciplined drills.  Structured play has its place, and competitive sports plays an assuredly important part in the middle school extracurricular activities.  But it’s nice to see this hodge-podge group of kids – some stars on the basketball team, some who usually don’t touch a ball – invent their own game, give it their own rules, and engage in some self-sustaining preschool-inspired free play.

I should have stayed in bed today.

Today is day three of a migraine.  It’s too late to take drugs that would have any measurable effect on it.  I woke up Saturday, sure it was just a headache from crying my brains out after my “talk” with my mother.  I figured I could work through a regular headache, but by the time it had turned into a migraine, it was too late.  Too late, even, for my Tylenol + caffeine (Frappucino) trick, which I tried yesterday, to no effect.  I called the doctor’s office this morning, and left a message asking what I could take.  I waited all morning with bated breath, willing my phone to ring.  Ring it did, when I was with a student.  I finally listened to the voicemail, which said to take Tylenol.  Wonder drug of do-nothing.

I dropped my pizza in the dirt at lunch, and my yogurt sprung a leak (why did they ever do away with the plastic lids???) in my lunch bag.  Even though I tossed it in a plastic bag this morning (thus negating any environmental savings from eschewing a plastic lid), it oozed all over its containment sack, and I had to eat it using the Ziploc as a protective shield. I kept biting my cheek during lunch.  I bit it once this weekend, and it perpetuates as my teeth keep catching on the mess of my gums. 

I wish this school had a nice, soft, comfy couch in the faculty lounge.  Or a faculty lounge, for that matter.  We do, sure enough, have a door marked as such, but it’s the euphemistic “lounge” you find in department stores – a bathroom.  I used to love taking my break on that couch, blissfully unanxious about sleeping through the entire afternoon.  I would take my lunch with the kids, too hungry at that point to stand on formality of eating with grown-ups.  Then I’d have my entire 45-minute break to snooze, just as the kids were doing not too far away.  Even better, sometimes I’d lie down next to the kids, on the soft, carpeted floor, in the darkened room, while the soothing music played.  Ostensibly, I was providing the model of calmness, stillness, and enticement to nap.  In reality, I was resting.  On the few occasions I would fall asleep, the creaking open of the door when my lead teacher would return from her break would startle me enough to wake me, and I would check on my sleeping charges, then go take my own break.

Today is a day I could use a nap, and so I am longing for the comfort of that couch.  Grad school had such couches, and though they were by no means as comfortable, I still managed to catch up on a few minutes sleep now and then, during my 10-hour days. 

I couldn’t even muster up my usual level of patience for the fidgety kids.  I was not up for telling S. to put the marker away 6 times, to get out her planner 3 times, to just put down all the fidget toys (see: office supplies) on the desk.  I chose a passage for us to read about theGolden GateBridge, and it was too hard. 

I saved myJaffacakes — special little delicacies from my cousin inEngland– for my afternoon snack, but I’m biting my cheek even with them.  And of course, the migraine persists.  . I’ve been awake since 3:30, miserably tossing and turning and designing lesson plans in lieu of sleeping.  Put me to bed.  I want a do-over on this day.

How can I communicate openly and honestly with my mother?  With her, even I-statements don’t stand a chance since she perverts and twists everything I say to her like it’s a funhouse mirror, until it resembles an insult, rather than a clear expression of my feelings. 

Mom buys me things I do not want, do not like, did not ask for.  They don’t fit, or have missing pieces, or are things I would never like and have expressed so.  Never one to see the solution-less problem, she bends over backwards, martyring herself in pursuit of the one underwire bra I will like, because it will fit, even though I have stated my opposition to them a thousand times, on moral, ethical, spiritual, and ergonomic grounds.  Yet far be it for me to reject her gifts, for she recoils as if it is a piece of herself. 

At the very least, she meant well.  She honestly believes this.  Foisting unwanted, unasked for garbage of my or others is a measure of her good intentions.  And if she is so well-meaning, I dare not say anything about that particular act, as it is perceived immediately as an act of overt criticism.  Even if I start a sentence with, “I know you meant well, but…” it’s a criticism, it’s a critique, it’s a bald-faced insult of her good intentions. 

Last night, as I tried to assert myself, going against my usual complacency for her actions, and avoidance of conflict in general, it turned into a Mommy-trashing session.  According to her, at least, I was engaged in nothing less than the undermining of her very foundation, nothing more than verbal abuse.  Here’s how I perceive my part of the conversation went, after polite small-talk:

“Mom, I don’t like it when you send me a stamped card to send to someone, like Uncle Leo.  When you do that, it makes me feel like I’m a child.  I am an adult and am capable of sending a card by myself.  If it’s important to you that I send one, please just tell me.” 

That was perverted into accusations that I was ascribing intentions (malevolent, no less) to her actions, and that she views me as a child, and that she doesn’t think I’m an adult, and that she thinks, she feels, she means, she intends.  If you’ll reference my statements, I believe I talk only about her actions, and my resulting feelings, just like a good, assertive I-statement would.  She also enclosed a note I consider hideously inappropriate.  Had I used those words, I might be able to understand her feeling “trashed”, but I didn’t.  She essentially solicited gifts for Mother’s Day, under the guise of “helping me” by offering to let me know what she wants if I am so “stumped”.  I spent 30 minutes hand-crafting her a card, painstakingly sewing buttons and embroidering little flowers on it.  Her note immediately made me feel guilty for not sending a gift.  Even if I had – and I considered it – gone into a tizzy crafting/buying something fabulous for Mother’s Day, it wouldn’t have arrived on time, like the card did.  And doesn’t that just smack of, “I meant well, but I needed your reminder to send a gift, ‘cuz really I just forgot about you until you reminded me, and  it’s the thought that counts, but you solicited this ‘thought’, and it really doesn’t count, so Happy Mother’s Day anyway”?

So I gave her a similar message about her note about gifts.   Which was again perverted into accusations that I was assuming her intentions, her feelings, her thoughts.  This turned into a tirade about how everyone needs help, not just children.  People need help remembering to do things, to acknowledge the special days, to find the right gifts. 

And I basically lost it at this point.  Instead of her usual generalizations about life’s maxims and playing Devil’s Advocate for no apparent reason, it seemed very personal all of a sudden.  As if she were accusing me of, child or not, needing help to “do the right thing”.  And her version of etiquette – that’s what it’s always been about.  Sending cards for holidays and birthdays, making sure thank-yous are sent and received in a timely manner.  I hear about her harsh criticism for others who “never even sent a thank-you note” after she painstakingly picked out an obscure wedding gift of a pickle fork that probably confused the poor bride and groom more than anything.  I hear about her so-called friends who never call, never write.  I hear the judgment pouring out, and I know I have internalized it all. 

And because we cannot be mature in our conversations, my mother hung up on me shortly after 10pm, leaving our words said, but our conversation unresolved.  I called 8 times, and she wouldn’t pick up.  I tried my father’s phone, the land-line, and finally left a short message on her voicemail:

“When you hang up on me and don’t pick up the phone, it hurts my feelings.”

I tried again this morning.  She really couldn’t fathom why I’d want a “do-over”.  I had said what I wanted to say, right?  And every way I tried to say it, hurt her feelings.  I asked her last night how she would prefer I phrase it, as I couldn’t seem to play the game her way.  Oh, she had no idea; I should talk to my therapist about that.  Yes, I demurred, but my mother would be the only one who can gauge if my statements are appropriate enough for her ears. 

I don’t have therapy until Wednesday, and Mother’s Day is tomorrow.  I had to get this monkey off my back, so I tried again, in spite of her protestations that we’d already said all that needed to be said. 

“I don’t like it when you send me a stamped card to send to Uncle Leo.  Please don’t do it again.”


“I don’t like it when you send me a list of things you want for your birthday or Mother’s Day.  Please don’t do it again.”

Okay.  I pushed for a third.

“I’m not using the stand mixer you bought us for our anniversary.  Where can I return it to?”

Wal-mart.  Figures.  Of course, I was not rewarded for my last attempt, as I had waited too long to speak up (see how I can’t win?), and she doubted the store would take it back, even if she could (heroically) find the receipt.  And what a waste of money.  Yes.  Her money.  For buying us something we neither asked for nor have used in the 7 months since receiving it.  We are automatically ungrateful.  This was not expressed, but I could hear it between words. 

And though therapy isn’t until Wednesday, I think I may have figured out how best to express my feelings or opposition to things my mother says and does – leave emotion out of it entirely.  As all my feelings are perverted into insults on her pure intentions, or assumptions of her thoughts, none of them are valid. She can’t handle my feelings.  She can’t even comprehend them.   And they certainly don’t have a place in any conversation where I express dissatisfaction.  I may be able to get away with statements like this, geared at someone with the emotional maturity of a preschooler: “Stop that.  I don’t like that.  It makes me feel yucky.” 

Nothing more specific, nothing like “I feel angry when…” or “It hurts me when…” or “I feel guilty when…”  Nope.  Just “yucky”.  I think she could handle that.

And just to prove I’m not completely insensitive, cold, hard, and unfeeling, I ran a version of my first attempt by my husband.  Just to check. 

If he persisted in buying me beautiful skirts that were size 4, and I’ve been a size 6 since forever, it might make me upset.  I might want to speak up.  I might say, “Honey.  I know you mean well when you buy me these skirts, but they’re always the wrong size.  When I see that they’re too small, it makes me feel fat, or as if you’re trying to tell me I’m not the right size.  They’re beautiful, but I can’t use them.  Please stop doing it.  It makes me sad.” 

I asked him if that would make him feel “trashed”.  Nope.  I asked him if felt like an attack on his very underpinnings. Nope.  It seemed, on the whole, quite rational, quite reasonable.  And quite, now that I’m wiser, unlike anything I’ll ever be able to say to my mother.

The phone calls never go as I plan.  It’s hard to have a mature conversation with a person who resists maturity with every stuffed-animal cushioned bone in her body.  Nevertheless, I keep trying.  Confronting my mother seems to be a necessary evil, lest I stew and breed resentment in myself.

My uncle, mom’s brother, is getting his tonsils out.  This is not the same procedure for a 50-something year old as it is for kids.  It’s not just ice cream, pudding, and a day off from school.  As I learned when I did my clinical rotation at the cancer hospital, getting tonsils removed when one is an adult is a little more serious.  Adults have actually become accustomed to using their tonsils as a first point of constriction for swallowing.  It’s what makes swallowing so painful post-tonsillectomy.  And the tissue is older, more at-home in its surroundings.  Mom has been talking up this surgery as if she’s going to be at bedside.  She complains her sister, who actually lives near my uncle, will do nothing to care for him, will just dump him off at home after the surgery and leave him to fend for himself among the hoarder’s cache of camera, National Geographics, and BetamaXXX pornos.  She herself is seemingly happy enough to disparage her sister, without volunteering to pick up the slack herself and fly out for the surgery.  It’s very convenient to complain, and very easy, without doing anything to fix the “problem”. 

But one thing she is very good at doing is sending gifts and cards, especially to people who are convalescing.  A packet arrived yesterday at my house.  In it were the usual assortment of newspaper clippings I might find “of interest”, a post card for some crafty person, some Spongebob paraphernalia, and a letter.  And one more thing – a stamped envelope with enclosed get-well card.  All she didn’t do was address the thing for me.  I wrote some bullshit in it about Jell-O and Ensure, crossed out the “Happy Birthday” message, and banished it from my house to the mailbox.  It was completely inappropriate.  Sure, her intent is kind-hearted – to make sure her poor baby brother gets get-well cards in his time of need, but the passive-aggressive way she went about doing it makes my blood boil.

“So who else do you think got these in my mail?” my husband asked. 

My brother and sister for sure.  I know for a fact she sends my brother cards for him to send to us sisters for our birthday, since he’s too incompetent or too important to seek out a gift shop on his own. 

So I called her.  If it’s so important to you, I said, or, if you think it would be so meaningful to him, just ask me, I said.  Like an adult.  Not that she’d ever cop to the passive-aggressive and condescending message of putting a pre-stamped card in the mail.  That strikes me as something you do for your child who’s away at sleep away camp for the first time.

And she can’t just say “okay.” She can’t just say that she’ll do that next time, that’s for letting her know, she appreciates that I’d take the time to send a card if it was important.  Why do I even try when I feel like I’m talking to a rubber wall and all my well-reasoned I-statements come back in my face, twisted, distorted, perverted so that it’s suddenly my fault for making my needs and feelings known?  At least I will know that I tried.  And hopefully it won’t keep building in me.

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May 2011