Crochet Helped Me Suvive Trauma

How Crocheting Helped Me Survive Trauma

As regular readers know, back in February Ben helped me have a revelation.

We’d been in the hospital for over two months with our sweet Felix, who was (and is) battling a life-threatening disease, and the constant grip of anxiety was threatening to suffocate me. Worries about his future spun around my brain like a never-ending merry-go-round. There was absolutely nothing I could do to help my baby. I wanted to run away. I wanted to die.

Instead, I cried. Constantly. In his room. In the cafeteria. In bed. On the phone with my mom.

I was exhausted.

And one day when I was watering my cafeteria pizza with my tears, Ben suggested I take up a hobby to ease my anxiety. Hadn’t I always wanted to learn to knit or crochet?

That suggestion changed everything.

I took a free online crocheting class. Sitting on the cot in Felix’s room, armed with a size-H hook and some cotton yarn from Wal-Mart, I learned how to chain, and then how to single-crochet. My yarn got all twisted up and I didn’t know the top of my piece from the bottom, but before long there was a new piece of tangled cotton fabric dangling from my hook. I had made something! I had made my first swatch of fabric!

I learned a few taller stitches and then how to crochet in the round. I learned how to make a granny square. I learned how to stitch the granny squares together to make a blanket.

I had made a tiny little granny square blanket! Out of yarn!

I started to frequent different yarn shops in the city, getting acquainted with different fibres. I needed new sizes of hooks for different projects. I made a simple cotton bowl and a simple scarf. It felt like magic, creating real objects out of nothing but yarn.

Suddenly, I had something else to think about besides my son’s health and how much I missed my home and my daughter. I sill worried about him almost constantly, and felt pangs when I remembered how distant my old life was. But I had purpose now. Crochet helped me to hang on.

I will always have a tender place in my heart for crochet. It helped me survive the trauma of our stay in the hospital.

I’ve mulled over some of the ways crochet was so therapeutic. Here are a few of them:

It’s kind of like meditating.

Like meditation, different kinds of handiwork like crochet allow you to empty your mind. When you need to concentrate on making even stitches, there’s less room in your brain for worries and ugly mental pictures.

Some people count their breaths to help them meditate. I counted stitches. And when I did that, everything else disappeared for a little while.

Crocheting as therapy

It gave me a sense of purpose.

When a loved one is going through illness, there’s often very little you can do at the bedside but wait. I had nothing to do but sit and worry.

After I took up crocheting, I had projects lined up that helped me to feel productive and valuable when I felt otherwise useless and helpless. I could make a cozy blanket for my baby! I could make some storage baskets for my little girl’s treasures back home! Hadn’t I always wanted a black-and-white throw blanket for our living room? Maybe I could start crocheting infinity scarves for my friends!

When I went to bed at night, instead of dwelling uselessly on the scary future (Is the procedure going to work? Is Felix going to be a part of our lives for years to come? How would I explain his death to Lydia if it came to that?), I could think about my projects. What colour scheme did I want for my next blanket? What material should it be made from? How big should it be?

When I woke up every morning, I was eager to get back to my project and finish one more stripe on that blanket or the legs of that little amigurumi creature. When I put Felix back into his crib for a nap, I could cross the room and finish up the last rounds of that bowl and get it ready for felting.

It felt good to finally master a skill I’d always wanted under my belt. I could already cook, sew, and paint; now I felt like if I mastered crochet I could make just about anything.

It gave me a chance to be creative.

Crocheting gave me a chance to utilize the artistic side of my brain, the part that rarely gets a chance to shine when you’re taking care of babies. It was refreshing to think about colour palettes and texture and drape. I would notice colours in wall tiles and be inspired for a patchwork afghan. I would notice the delicate stitches in a woman’s sweater in the elevator and wonder what fiber it was made from and how I could achieve a similar look. I saw potential for inspiration everywhere. I felt like an artist again.

crocheted basket

It provided me with a distraction.

I recently watched a TEDx talk about emotional hygiene (Guy Winch). He talks about the unhealthy psychological habit of ruminating — the mental act of replaying upsetting scenes in our minds, over and over again. As he explains, the urge to ruminate seems so important that it can quickly become a habit which eventually jeopardizes our psychological and physical health. However, studies show that even a two-minute distraction is enough to break the urge to ruminate in that moment. Given enough practice, we can break that damaging habit.

I was caught up in a constant, dangerous habit of ruminating at Felix’s bedside. I needed a safe, constructive distraction. In the time it took me to add sixteen stitches to my wool treasure bowl, I was able to break through yet another urge to ruminate, repairing a bit of my psychological health.

* * *

Now, I’m sure there are many different crafts that provide similar therapeutic experiences. Knitting, embroidery, needle-felting, drawing/sketching, and colouring come to mind. If I spend much more time in hospitals or similar environments I hope to spend time learning or developing some of these skills, too.

One advantage of crocheting is that it requires so few materials to begin, making it portable and inexpensive. All you need is yarn and a single hook (and a hook typically costs about $2). I could pop most of my projects in my purse and take them with me if I wanted.

Crocheting uses a combination of creativity, repetitive movements, and problem-solving skills. All of these things kept my mind busy and honed my mental abilities in a productive way.

And there is so much you can make with a few basic skills, from stuffed toys to clothing to housewares. You’re bound to land on a project that excites you. Blankets? Hats? Lace doilies? Dolls? Softies? Dish rags? The possibilities are endless.

I hate that I had to go through this, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to pick up this amazing skill. I will have it now for the rest of my life. Crochet will always have a special place in my heart.

Have you experienced something similar? Have you found some other practice or craft that has helped you through troubling times? Do share!

Turns out, I want/need more Jesus. Who knew?

Turns out, I need Jesus

These last few months, as you know, have been hard, hard, hard. It’s a special kind of hell, watching your child fight for his life. Worrying about his survival. Helplessly witnessing his suffering.

It’s been more than my body and soul can bear some days.

I ache for peace. I long for something to give me strength during this trying time. But what?

As a lifelong Christian, I understand that the answer is supposed to be “Jesus,” or something along those lines.

But here’s the thing. And it’s embarrassing. Jesus has been largely absent from my life for several years. (And I write a blog about participating in Jesus’ radical Kingdom. Huh.)

I’ve retained the name of Christian, and in principle I’ve tried to live according to Christian teachings. Being kind to others, caring for the earth, talking about God, reading the occasional spiritual book.

But I’ve also spent the last few years feeling very cynical about the Church. I’ve lost interest in the Bible, in listening to spiritual music, in praying, in attending church services. Those things all felt kind of . . . lame. I was sick of pastors guilt-tripping us to do these things. I had no real internal drive to do them. So I let them go, living essentially as a functional atheist who admires Jesus from afar.

So in this time of extreme anxiety and grief I’ve been unable to find any real source of comfort. I mean, I take comfort in my husband’s presence, the love of my friends and family, etc. But I’ve longed for something a little more . . . transcendent. I want reassurance that this agony is something small and temporary within something else that is eminently good and eternal. Because it sure as hell doesn’t feel like it.

I’ve been finding myself . . . wanting to listen to music with spiritual lyrics. (I don’t think I’ve really done that since I got married nine years ago.) It feels weird, to be honest. Goofy, even. Me? Christian music? Aren’t I too hip for that now?

I’m starting to crave the wise words of spiritual men and women. I even want to read the Bible, the most boring and confusing of books, convinced it must have some words of comfort in there somewhere. Doesn’t Jesus talk about a peace that passes understanding and stuff like that? Eternal life? I could desperately use some eternal life right now.

I’m finding myself in an awkward place these days. I really, really want Jesus. For realz. I want  the Son of God. I want Eternal Life. I need the great I Am, the one who promises joy to those who mourn, strength for the weak. The one who loves the saddest, most pathetic creatures best of all.

For the first time in my life I am so weak. So stupid. I have so much grief. For once in my life, I actually NEED the things that Jesus promises.

I know that Jesus’ favourite people are the most pitiful ones, the most wretched ones. For once, I’m in that camp. That’s me.

I’m desperate. I acknowledge that I have been so full of pride. I have been so ignorant. I need help. I can’t do this on my own. (And all those other cliches from Christian songs I’ve never connected to.)

Turns out, I need Jesus. Not only that, I want him.

All this time as a Christian and I’ve never been here before.

I’ve never been desperate for Jesus before. Why would I have been? I was perfectly happy and healthy and capable of taking care of myself.  I’ve never really connected to hymns and psalms for that reason.

It took suffering for me to realize how badly I need Him. So I guess some good things always come from bad ones.

(*Note: I wrote the draft of this post several weeks ago when things were really bad. Things have been much, much better in the last few weeks. We are so full of hope for Felix’s future. Just wanted you to know that.*)

Image courtesy of frankenschulz via Flickr.

I Never Wanted to be Wise

I Never Wanted to be Wise

I’ve always intuitively understood that in order to gain wisdom, you needed to suffer.

So I’ve always understood that my easy, cushy life was a bit of a barrier in my vocation as a writer. I was raised by great parents, enjoy exceptionally good health, excelled in school, married a wonderful man, and am part of a loving church community. My firstborn is neurotypical, robustly healthy, and fiercely intelligent.  I have not suffered a single major loss so far. What could I possibly know about Life? How could I ever have anything worthwhile to say to a hurting world if I didn’t have any wisdom to back it up?

Oh well, I thought. I’d rather be ignorant and happy and have nothing of value to say than genuinely wise. I would choose an easy life over my calling as a writer any day.  I mean, if God wanted to just give me wisdom, Solomon-style, I’d gladly accept it; but otherwise: no thanks.

* * *

Then The Call came.

I had just sat down in front of the computer to answer emails and nurse twelve-day-old Felix. I had just gotten Lydia down for a nap. I texted Ben to tell him I was winning at parenting today.

Then the phone rang. A woman from the London Hospital told me that Felix had tested positive for a life-threatening disease called SCID in his newborn screening. We needed to come in the next day for further testing.

You know the rest of the story so far.

The next day as we drove up to London, our stomachs in knots, I said to Ben, “Well . . . one good thing that will come out of all this is it will make us better people.”

And I think it is making us better people.

We have learned so much about hospitals, health, and generosity. We have met amazing people and discovered just how wonderful our community is. We have learned about sacrifice and pain and risk.

These last few months have taught us to be more understanding, open-minded, and sensitive to other people’s suffering. More appreciative. Humbler. Less superficial.

Wiser.

I’d still take ignorance, health and happiness over wisdom any time. I’d give this all back — and all the lessons learned — in a heartbeat if I could. I guess that’s why we’re not given a choice.

But if this is what I’ve been given, I guess it’s my job to figure out how best to use it.

Maybe it will even make a writer out of me. Or at least get me going in the right direction.

Jesus is Not My Personal Saviour

I wrote recently that I believe community will save the world. And I keep coming back to that.

I’m believing less and less in personal salvation.

Because if I am experiencing salvation, it’s through community. I’m only getting there because of you guys.

If left to my own devices, my own will, I know I am doomed to hell. (“Hell,” by the way, is not necessarily a place you go after you die. But I’m not going to get into that here.) I have a weak, pitiful, petty soul – I can feel it. All I really care about is my own comfort. I don’t want to help anyone or take responsibility for anything or even seek after goodness on my own.

But you guys encourage and inspire me. Your kind words, your generous offerings, your shining example turn me towards God.

In different circumstances – if I’d been born to a different family at a different time and in a different cultural context – I could be a total monster. I know I would. It’s only because I’m embedded in this community that I am as nice and temperate and disciplined as I am. There is nothing essentially good about my heart or anything.

It doesn’t feel totally accurate or complete, then, to say Jesus is saving me. He may be the source of all goodness, but he’s doing the saving through a multitude of people. My family, my husband and kids, my friends, my blog readers. They’re all a part of it. Their collective love and support is carrying me to heaven.

And I think that’s called the Holy Spirit. The collective power of hearts fueled by love. (But maybe I’m wrong. The Holy Spirit is so tricky to define and pin down.)

Sometimes I feel like together we’re a living organism on our way to heaven. You know . . . a Body. (Hey, didn’t Paul say something about that?) None of us could get there on our own.

So I don’t feel right saying things like “Jesus is my personal lord and saviour.” For starters, I almost never feel like he speaks directly to me in private. I almost exclusively know him through you folks, and he only enters my heart through interactions with you (and the authors and pastors who speak to me through books and podcasts.) Jesus is our lord and saviour. We are saved collectively.

And I’m not even sure everyone in this Body would agree or say it that way (I’m looking at you, my favourite atheist friend. You’re helping to save me, whether you mean to or not), but I don’t think that makes it any less true.

Thank you for being the Body and for helping me to be a part of it.

Q: When is it Appropriate to Share Your Faith?

A: When they ask.

The other day I experienced THE WORST, most inappropriate example of proselytizing I have ever witnessed. (Evangelical pun not intended.)

I was sitting in a hospital waiting room, weeping over some bad news about my ill infant son, when someone I love decided to bring up the long and narrow path versus the short and wide path, and the importance of choosing the right one.

It kind of blows my mind that any human being would need to be told that this was the wrong moment to preach at another human being, but apparently it’s not that obvious to everyone in the world.

Knowing that Ben and I are Bible-believing, church-attending Christians ourselves, you might be surprised to learn just how often we are actually “witnessed” to. For being the wrong kind of Christian. For attending the wrong kind of church. For reading the wrong translation of the Bible. I swear to you, it is a fairly common occurrence. If you are not a person of faith, you might be surprised to find that you are not the only one who gets preached at. And still always jarring and slightly bewildering every time it happens.

Sometimes it comes from a stranger at the door in the middle of a busy afternoon. Sometimes it’s from a loved one during a carpool to an event.

The one thing all of these wildly terrible acts of “witnessing” have in common is problematic timing. That and a lack of respect for our own spiritual experiences and beliefs.

The thing is, Ben and I love talking theology. We appreciate having our beliefs questioned and tested in respectful dialogue. We enjoy being exposed to different ways of thinking. We would genuinely love to hear your perspective on religious matters.

But there is a time and a place for that stuff. And if you’re wondering when that time is, I’ll make it easy for you: I’ll initiate the conversation. I’ll ask you about your beliefs. (And tip number two: It’s NOT when I’m grieving my sick baby’s diagnosis.)

If you’re someone who is passionate about sharing your faith (and that’s awesome if you are – I’m so glad you’ve experienced such love and hope in your faith that you want to share it with others!) I think this is a good rule of thumb to live by: Share your faith (verbally) when someone asks about it.

(I’ve written about this subject before, from when I used to be a really active and vocal witness for Christ.)

Otherwise, please stick to sharing your faith by your actions and attitude.

“Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save."

Show them the love of Jesus through your generosity and kindness. Be helpful. Volunteer. Listen. Smile. Hug when appropriate.

Show them the power of the cross by your courage. Stand up against meanness and injustice. Defend the weak and helpless.

And when someone inevitably asks you why you do the things you do, go ahead and tell them. The timing will be right, and they’ll actually be able to hear what you’re saying.

Instead of wanting to punch you in the ovaries.

**(Updated to clarify: I’m mostly referring to questions of salvation. By all means, if you feel you have words of comfort from your faith that are appropriate to the situation, consider sharing them. But please don’t try converting anyone during a sensitive time.)**

Infertility Was Just As Bad

A few times in these last weeks, I have thought, This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me.

Watching my baby suffer. Being apart from my three-year-old. Contemplating the possibility of watching my baby die in my arms.

I have sobbed the deepest, most desperate tears over this situation. It can’t possibly get any worse than this.

But then I remember: I have cried this hard and with this much agony and despair before.

Infertility was just as hard.

Contemplating my life without children was just as painful as contemplating my life without Felix. I wept over my nonexistent children with just as much grief as my very real, possibly-dying son who has a face and a name and a personality. (Of course, now there is the added pain of knowing my baby is suffering. Every experience brings its own unique type of pain.)

In fact, in some ways infertility was worse, because I felt so alone. I felt like no one could understand. I felt like I couldn’t fully share my grief – I felt ashamed of it. Because who cries over nonexistent children? How can you really be sad over the absence of people you’ve never met? It felt preposterous. Weeping every time I got my period was too embarrassing a picture to share. But I couldn’t help feeling intense grief.

But everyone can sympathize with the tragedy of a sick or dying baby. It’s universally heart-wrenching. Few things tug a human’s heart strings like a suffering child. I feel perfectly reasonable sobbing over my diseased infant son.

I never felt okay sobbing over an unwanted period.

I guess I bring this up in case you or someone you love is dealing with infertility, and are tempted (like me) to feel like you’re overreacting or that your problem isn’t as heart-crushing as mine. In my eyes, it totally is.

I also bring this up as a form of healing for my past self. I was justified in being that sad. I understand that now.

It’s okay, younger self. Infertility really is that heartbreaking. Your tears are completely appropriate.

* * *

Endnote:

There were moments after Lydia was born when my heart screamed out: The pain was WORTH IT! Thanks to my experience with infertility, I was able to have such a deep, deep appreciation for the gift I’d been given. Deeper, perhaps, than I would have had if I’d gotten a baby as soon as I’d wanted one. All that time of unrealized longing increased my joy when it was finally fulfilled. (I still wouldn’t wish it on anyone, though. Infertility is an EVIL that only God can redeem.)

Only in retrospect does pain have any meaning or value, I think.

I never would have believed it while I was in the depths of agony, though. I never would have believed that any good could come from that suffering.

Just like I don’t believe now that this pain will be worth it.

But maybe someday I will again.

Felix’s Condition and Treatment: An Explanation

Felix in hospital
For those who wanted a better understanding of Felix’s condition, and the treatment options we’re exploring, here’s a more detailed explanation. This is my understanding of it, from a totally non-medical perspective, so you’ll have to forgive me if some of the details are slightly off.

So as you know, Felix was diagnosed with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), which was caught via newborn screening.

SCID is a genetic disorder that Felix inherited from us — Ben and I, it turns out, are both carriers. SCID is actually unusually common among the Mennonite population, though I’d never heard of it before Felix was diagnosed.

There are 10-15 different kinds of SCID, and Felix has the most common and most serious kind — SCID ADA. A mutation in his chromosomes prevents his body from creating ADA (Adenosine deaminase), an enzyme required to make T-lymphocytes, which are needed to fight off infections. The initial blood test showed that he had almost no T-lymphocytes.

On other words, Felix has virtually no immune system. As a result, even bacteria, viruses and fungi that pose little problem to the rest of us can be deadly. Something as ordinarily harmless as the herpes simplex virus (i.e. cold sores) can kill him. If left untreated, babies with SCID don’t make it to their second birthdays as a result of frequent and serious infections.

That’s why for now, Felix is in isolation in the hospital, so that he can’t catch anything. He’s also being treated with antibiotics for the (so far mild) infections he did pick up in his bladder and lungs. He also needs to be on a really low dose of oxygen right now, because his breathing is slightly impaired from the infection. His eating has been affected as well, so that he may need a feeding tube if he doesn’t improve.

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Treatment Options

The most effective and long-term treatment for all forms of SCID is a bone marrow transplant (BMT). This treatment essentially involves taking the working immune system of a healthy person and transplanting it into the patient. The patient must first undergo chemotherapy to wipe out any of his original immune system and to “make room” for the new one.

By far, the most effective BMT involves a matched sibling. If the sibling is a match, a transplant typically has an 85% success rate. I have come into contact with two families who have experienced miracles thanks to sibling transplants. Lydia (along with me and Ben) was tested two weeks ago to see if she was a match. This was our greatest hope.

Unfortunately, we got the news on Wednesday that she’s not a match. (Ben and I weren’t even close.) We were devastated to get the news. Now we have to look at other options. Fortunately, there still are a few.

First, because Felix has ADA SCID, he can actually receive injections of the missing ADA enzyme. Now that we know a sibling BMT is not an option, we are pursuing that option immediately, and hoping he can start getting the treatment in the next week or two. Most patients begin to improve after a month or so as the immune system builds up, and we’re hoping to see his lungs and his eating improve enough that he won’t need oxygen or a feeding tube. If he gets healthy enough, we might actually be able to take him home in a few months!

However, ADA injections are generally only effective for a year or two, at which point they begin to wear off. So we still need to look into long-term solutions.

The first is a BMT from an unrelated matched donor. Because we’re Mennonite, we actually have a pretty good chance of finding such a donor — there are many in the bank, in large part because many Mennonite children have already been affected by SCID and their families tested. We’re more likely to find a match within our own ethnic group. Unfortunately, though, the success rate for BMT’s with unrelated donors is a lot lower — it has typically been more like 50-70%. (Our doctor pointed out, though, that these figures all come from children who were very sick at the time of the transplant. Felix is the first to have been caught before he was very sick. He has an enormous head start.)

The biggest problem with all BMT’s, but especially unrelated ones, is that the healthy new transplanted cells can attack the patient in what is called graph-versus-host disease.

So another option for SCID ADA patients is something called gene therapy. It’s a very new, cutting-edge, experimental kind of treatment that involves using the patient’s own bone marrow. It’s a modification of a BMT that attempts to avoid graph-versus-host disease: bone marrow is taken from the patient, the genes are corrected, and then transplanted back into the patient. This treatment is only being done in three places in the world: Los Angeles; London, England; and Milan, Italy.

Because it’s so new and experimental, it’s hard to say how successful it is, though I’m told the outcomes look good. The other advantage is that the cost of treatment would all be covered, since the researchers want more opportunities to try it.

So these are the options we’re considering. We have a few months to learn more about them and decide. Obviously, they’re all terrifying, as they all involve risking our child’s life. It’s difficult that we have to grapple with percentages of survival.

As of right this moment, though, we’re feeling hopeful. At least there are options. (Our feelings could be different by tomorrow).

And for now, Felix is still doing quite well. He’s a pretty content guy, sleeping a lot but with plenty of alert time, and he’s easy to soothe when something upsets him. He’s handling all of this stuff amazingly well.

And we’re just so grateful for the amazing people — doctors, nurses, family, and friends — supporting us through this all.

Community Will Save the World

hands

I once read a blog post by a Unitarian pastor who said she believed community would save the world.

I think she may be right.

In fact, I think this is just another way of saying what Jesus said: that the Church would do greater things than he did.

I’ve always been a little skeptical of this statement. I mean, really, Jesus: us? Greater things than you’ve done? Are you sure about that? Have you met us? We’re a lazy, selfish bunch.

Or at least that’s what I thought until tragedy hit out family.

The community that has enveloped us with love is saving us. And it looks and feels a lot like Jesus.

This community is sustaining us, as a family, on every level while we endure this hell.

For starters, there are the doctors.

Jesus cured people with a touch. This team of doctors and nurses who is treating Felix has cured countless children with life-threatening diseases. SCID, leukemia . . . they’ve saved children from certain death. It’s not instantaneous and it’s not perfect, but it’s very real healing. So it kind of reminds me of Jesus.

And then there are the friends, family members, acquaintances, charitable organizations, and taxpayers who are keeping us alive. Let me count a few of the ways.

  • Money has been pouring in from friends, family, and complete strangers so that we can focus on caring for Felix.
  • Our families are providing amazing care for Lydia while we’re preoccupied with Felix’ urgent care.
  • People are praying on our behalf when I can’t. Honestly, most days I can’t even pray. I’m just too worn out, too miserable, too hopeless. That’s why I keep asking you to do it for me – you who are closer to God. Maybe he’ll hear you. Literally hundreds of people – entire congregations, multitudes of blog readers, friends and family members scattered across the continent – are praying for us. If my Catholic friends are right, departed souls are even praying on our behalf. God’s got to listen, right? And just knowing that all these dear friends and strangers are begging for Felix’s healing helps me get through this.
  • Your tax money, fellow Ontarians, is also helping to keep him alive. We could never, ever in a million years afford this treatment, even with all the donations pouring in. Last week Felix received a $5000 vaccine that was paid for by OHIP. It’s only possibly because we’re pooling the money of thousands of people. The magic of community.

If I was on my own . . . I don’t think I’d make it in one piece, spiritually or otherwise. But community is keeping me together. It’s God’s Kingdom at work.

Some of the members of this community are consciously members of God’s Kingdom. Others are contributing without realizing it, but I think that counts, too. I believe that every heart that moves in line with God’s will is helping to build that Kingdom here on earth, helping to redeem it.

For some reason, I am learning that God prefers to do things collectively, in community; and he likes to do things the slow, complicated, mysterious way. Honestly, I often question his judgment on that (the quick, simple, painless way seems vastly superior to my way of thinking…), but I guess with him being the Great Benevolent Force Behind Everything and all I just have to trust that he knows best. I really wish he would consult me on these matters, but I guess I haven’t been around all that long and I can’t take it too personally.

So I’m trusting that God is using community to save us. I’m getting a glimpse of how he’s planning to carry out the redemption of all creation – through us. It’s insane and frustrating and messy and I kind of hate it most of the time, but it’s happening. And I guess I should be grateful that I get to witness it.

Image courtesy of mic wernej.

DIY Fabric Birthday Banner (Tutorial)

DIY fabric birthday banner tutorial

Yes, Lydia’s birthday was almost two months ago. I’ve been meaning to share a quick tutorial on how I made her fabric Happy Birthday banner ever since. But, you know. Harvesting and preserving and crippling back pain. But I’m finally back!

As I explained in my post about her handmade third birthday party, I wanted to create some quality, reusable items for celebrating birthdays through the years. For the banner in particular, I wanted something gender-neutral, timeless, and ageless, with the hopes that it would see many years of use with multiple children. This could even be used for an adult’s birthday!

I first spied this design on a friend’s Instagram feed and instantly wanted to make my own. It had everything I was looking for.

Only after I started making it, I discovered that the original designer was Marissa, an online friend who is a thousand times more talented than I am. The idea is totally hers. She did, however, give me her blessing in offering a tutorial on how I made it, since I figured it out on my own, just looking at her picture. (Also: if you’re interested in your own banner but don’t have the skills/time/equipment/desire to make one, I believe she is willing to take custom orders!)

It’s not at all difficult — it’s only time-consuming. if you sew at all, you could probably figure it out on your own. I am NOT a pro sewer and I managed this quite easily. For that reason, my instructions aren’t super detailed, allowing you to customize as you wish. I’m mostly offering sizes to guide you and help reduce guesswork, as well offering as a printable template for the letters.

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DIY Fabric Birthday Banner Tutorial

Note: Makes an 8-foot long banner, with extra length on each side for tying

Materials:

  • 10 ft extra-wide double-fold bias tape
  • 1 yard of white or off-white fabric (I used leftover ivory-coloured quilt backing. It was 44″ wide and I only used 16″ of it)
  • various printed fabric/quilting scraps for the letters. You’ll need 13 pieces, at least 4″x4″ each. Repeat patterns are fine!
  • thread: some white; some to match your bias tape; and some to match your scraps (if desired)
  • printable template for letters (download PDF here)
  • sewing gear: sewing machine; straight pins; sharp scissors; rotary cutter and self-healing mat (optional); serger (optional)

Instructions:

Begin by cutting the squares of white fabric: You’ll need 13 squares, 7″x8″ each. (Technically not squares but they will look like it when all is said and done.) A rotary cutter and self-healing mat would be IDEAL for this job, though I just used scissors. Absolute precision isn’t necessary here, since the rustic look adds to the charm (in my opinion).

Next, you want to finish the edges of the squares. There are a few ways you can do this, depending on your preference. Notice that you only have to do the sides and bottom; the top edge will go inside the bias tape and will be hidden.

I personally wasn’t overly concerned about how the back looked, and I have access to a serger, so I did it like this: I serged all four edges of each square, and then did a plain 1/4-inch hem around the sides and bottom with a straight/running stitch. Then I pressed the edges. They look like this from the back:

hemmed edges from back - fabric birthday banner tutorial

Alternatively, you could do a double-fold hem (there’s plenty of room), or cut the edges with pinking shears and hem.

Next, print out my HAPPY BIRTHDAY letter template on regular printer paper (or something sturdier if you prefer — it will make tracing easier). Note that some letters are used more than once (H, A, P, Y), so you can cut out just one of each of these to save time. (I already omitted the second P in the PDF). Cut out all the letters. You will be tracing around these.

birthday banner tutorial -- letter template

Now trace around your paper letters onto your printed fabric scraps. I just used pen and traced directly onto the right side of the fabric. Depending on how much a perfectionist you are, you can trace the letters onto the wrong side of the fabric; just remember to place your letters backwards so they will be the right way from the right side. (Make sense?) *Remember that if you only cut one paper H, A, P and Y, you still need two of each in fabric to get all 13 letters.*

Cut out your fabric letters. Again, a rotary cutter and mat would be helpful; I just used scissors. This was the most time-consuming step.

Now it’s time to applique the fabric letters onto the squares. Place the letter as close the the center as possible and pin (remembering that about half an inch from the top will be inside the bias tape). Again, absolute precision isn’t necessary. Since this isn’t a garment and won’t get much wear and tear, I wasn’t not too worried about them fraying a teeny bit, so I didn’t do anything to finish the letters except stitch them on with a straight running stitch, about 1/8-inch around each edge. Again: a little bit of imperfection adds to the rustic look.

appliqued letters - fabric happy birthday banner tutorial

Note: you can choose whether to use matching or contrasting colours of thread for this job, depending on whether you want the letters to pop more. I went with (roughly) matching thread, since my sewing isn’t the greatest. But I used white thread in the bobbin so that it wouldn’t show up in the back.

Once all the letters are sewn onto their squares, it’s time to attach them to the bias tape!

Leave about 6 inches of bias tape before beginning to attach the squares: you want some extra length for tying or pinning the banner to the wall.

At the 6-inch mark, insert the top of your first square between the fold of the bias tape and pin in place with a straight pin or two. (Make sure the fabric goes all the way in to touch the inner fold.) Leave half an inch of bias tape before inserting the next one and pinning it in place. Continue pinning the squares at half-inch intervals until all the letters for the word “HAPPY” are pinned in place.

Leave two inches between the “Y” from “HAPPY” and the “B” from “BIRTHDAY.” Then carry on with pinning the remaining squares at half-inch intervals.

You should have at least another 6 inches of bias tape dangling at the end. Trim so that there are about 6 inches remaining.

Now for the most satisfying step: Stitch along the entire length of the bias tape at about 1/4-inch from the bottom, using thread that matches your bias tape. You’re going to want to start at the “Y” end. Just one, long, glorious top stitch. It feels awesome. Remove pins one at a time as you come to them with the sewing machine.

Sewing letters to bias tape -- birthday banner tutorial

Finish the ends of the bias tape with a top stitch (or something fancier if you prefer).

You’re ready to hang your birthday banner wherever you please!

DIY fabric birthday banner tutorial

 

Sorry, Matt Walsh. You Don’t Get to Tell People How To Feel

Sorry, Matt Walsh. You don't get to tell people how to feel

I was a young teenager when I saw an episode of Touched by an Angel that addressed race. I remember the black male character saying, “You don’t know what it feels like to walk on a bus and see the women all hold their purses a little tighter.” And I remember thinking, Oh please. Racism is not a real problem anymore. Slavery had been long abolished, black people could vote and they even starred in TV shows like Family Matters which we watched every week. Obviously, racial equality had been achieved. The guy was just being sensitive.

That’s my first memory of my white privilege talking.

Years later I went to university to study literature. Let me tell you, in the humanities/art/social sciences, folks are kind of obsessed with talking about gender and race. It’s almost all they talk about anymore, and I got sick to death of it. It felt absurd, sitting around as a diverse student body and a diverse staff (in terms of gender, race, and sexual orientation) to talk about discrimination and inequality. Does nobody notice how many women and people of colour there are here? I constantly thought. The head of the department is a woman! Obviously equality has been achieved here. We are so past this; can we talk about something else now? Like whether this book is actually any good?

I thought anyone in the university who still thought racism and sexism were still problems was being ridiculously oversensitive. (And what about this institution’s prejudice against Christianity? I wondered.)

A lot of the things Matt Walsh writes about these days remind me of the ways I used to think and feel.

* * *

I’m not sure when things started to change – when I started to become aware of the realities of race, gender, class, and sexual inequality.

It was definitely after I left the academy — having that stuff shoved down my throat every day by upper-middle-class elites hadn’t been very helpful.

I think it started when I began actually listening to the voices of people from marginalized groups. I started to listen to the stories of gay and black folks, of immigrants and people with disabilities. This was all still through the easy, sanitary media of books, blogs and magazines, but still: I heard stories I had never encountered before. About exclusion and violence and systematic oppression. People really did seem to be suffering from injustice due to their sex, skin colour, or physical appearance. In Canada and the U.S.! They weren’t just making it up. People of privilege really do systematically ignore, silence, insult, and marginalize minority groups, often without realizing it. And I realized that I’m one of those privileged people, who never has to worry about my race or sexuality working against me.

I also started thinking differently when I learned that the Church is still the most racially segregated institution in North America. So just because my all-white church can hold hands and sing kumbaya, it doesn’t mean we’ve achieved reconciliation with the rest the world.

Yes, we have made a lot of progress towards equality since government-sanctioned slavery was abolished and women got the right to vote. But just because we’re not allowed to own people doesn’t mean everything’s okay.

How do I know? Because members of marginalized groups are still saying they’re being discriminated against. And I’m going to go ahead and believe them.

* * *

Earlier this week, Matt Walsh published a post entitled, “Sorry, but it’s your fault if you’re offended all the time.” He begins, “I truly believe that we are the most whiney, sensitive, thin-skinned, easily offended society in the history of the world.” He makes fun of the concept of “microaggressions,” and makes a number of declarations like, “If it wasn’t intended to offend you, then you shouldn’t be offended,” and “Being offended is a choice you make. Nobody is responsible for that choice but you.”

Then Walsh lampoons ethnic minorities and transgender people who share experiences of microaggression on the internet.

As a straight white person like Walsh, I will never know or completely understand the experiences of the people he’s mocking. But instead of calling them names (overly-sensitive, thin-skinned, etc) I think it might be more helpful to actually listen to what they’re saying.

And here’s where I especially disagree with him: the speaker’s intent is NOT the only thing that matters. You are still responsible for hurting someone if you speak out of ignorance.

Because here’s the thing. I also know what it’s like to be alienated and insulted without the speaker’s intent. You probably do, too.

For example.

When we were having a hard time getting pregnant, people said a lot of things that hurt me. They didn’t mean to. They just didn’t know.

Once, in a group setting, a friend shared about another couple that was spending a lot of money on repeated fertility treatment. Another friend spoke up, remarking, “I don’t know why they don’t just adopt. It’s selfish to keep spending money on fertility treatments when there are so many babies that need families.”

That wasn’t meant to hurt me – we weren’t even talking about me, and I wasn’t even undergoing treatment – but I wept the entire way home that afternoon. It wounded me so deeply not only that she didn’t understand, but that she didn’t care to understand the unique pain that comes from infertility.

It would have been nice if she could have tried to hear their experience from their perspective.

* * *

I agree and understand that it is difficult to say anything without offending anyone. It can get really tiring, always rethinking what you’re going to say so as not to hurt anyone. Especially those of us in positions of privilege, who have never had to think about race and sexuality being a disadvantage to anyone. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to be polite and sensitive at all times. It doesn’t mean we don’t need to apologize when we’ve unintentionally hurt someone’s feelings and try to learn from the experience.

I know I have and will continue to hurt people with my words, in part because my experience is incredibly limited. But instead of ridiculing and belittling people when they point it out, I want to actually hear their perspective, apologize, and try to be more sensitive next time.

And yes, part of maturing involves getting a tougher skin at times and not letting people’s words get to you. We don’t need to throw a tantrum every time someone says something that hurts our feelings. I agree with Walsh here, and am always trying to grow in that respect.

But at our core, we’re all dreadfully tender. We all ache to be loved and accepted. We all bleed at the slightest scratch if it hits the right spot. We just all have different tender spots. Haven’t we all been brought to our knees in agony by a glance, a word, a sneer, a phone call that never came? But instead of mocking people for their tenderness, we ought to try to be more gentle. Because we’ve all been there, haven’t we?

It’s easy and fun to make fun of people for being “sensitive” about things we’ve never had to deal with. Mockery shuts down the conversation quickly, so we never have to take responsibility for our ignorance.

But I’d rather go out of my way not to hurt my fellow bleeders. I owe it to them. And the best way to learn how to do this, I believe, is to listen. I’m going to try to keep my ears open and my judgey mouth shut as much as possible.

And definitely not tell them how they ought to feel.

Image courtesy of sciencesque.

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