A Walk Down Knittory Lane

I got into knitting almost 10 years ago when I was playing the title role in a musical called Chasing Nicolette at the Prince Music Theatre in Philly. Some time before I was cast in the show, I had been gifted a hardcover knitting book called Weekend Knitting, and I was immediately drawn to the gorgeous photos inside. There were close-up shots of textured, furry wools and shiny wooden needles with loops of squishy yarn lined all the way down to the tips. The models in the photos were beautiful and diverse, and they just looked so happy, like the only thing they wanted in the whole wide world at that moment was to be wearing a meticulously knitted garment while smiling at a camera. There was a really sweet (albeit completely unrealistic) shot of a woman soaking in a huge clawfoot tub while working on a long thin scarf that piled up on the floor next to her (I know this activity is unrealistic because I tried it, and steam from a hot bath makes woolen fibers feel sticky on moist fingers, especially with the added effect of fine condensation that collects on the needles; for me, tub knitting was totally weird/gross/unweildy, but the photograph was inspiring enough for me to give it a try). When packing for my nearly three month long stint at the Prince, I decided on a whim to bring the book with me, even though I didn’t know how to knit. I figured that once we were done with rehearsals and were in full performances, I would have time to learn (I ended up buying a copy of Stitch N’Bitch to aid me in the process) and time to make one of the seemingly simple and beautiful patterns from the book. I wanted to wear my own knitted things that would turn out looking just as exquisite as the projects in Weekend Knitting, and I would be so very happy, smiley, and proud of myself, and I would also be, of course, very warm, which was important when I was living in the northeast.

It was quite the rude awakening to realize, after successfully teaching myself  how to knit and purl on two straight bamboo needles, that jumping from garter stitch straight into a fingerless mitt pattern was going to be very, very difficult. I worked on my project for weeks, taking the stitches out and starting over so many times that my merlot-colored yarn became garbled and knotted and stringy. I threw my glove and needles across the room. I insisted that something was wrong with the pattern, that it was full of mistakes since it made absolutely no sense to me. I am pretty sure I shed some frustrated tears at least once. I flipped through my Stitch N’Bitch book over and over again, re-reading the same passages and trying to apply the clear steps in the pictures to the confusing instructions in the pattern.
But I didn’t give up.
I took breaks, and I got angry with myself, but I didn’t give up.
Eventually I finished my first glove. I was simultaneously elated by my success and devastated that I had to start the whole process over again to make a second one. But I did it. The glove on one hand was smooth and pretty because it was the second one I made, and the glove for the other hand was twisted and warped and imperfect, but I didn’t mind. I could see my learning curve spelled out across my palms, and it was proof that my patience with myself, however stilted, was worthwhile.

It didn’t take long for my knits and purls to become very uniform and consistent, but I was pretty stumped at figuring out how to read patterns so I just stuck to making the same 6 foot long scarves over and over. Years passed before my next attempt at trying another pattern, and interestingly enough, the impetus to dive in again came in the familiar form of a gifted book. This time, our friend Rahul had opened up an amazon package that sat unclaimed in his building’s foyer for months, and he gave it to me, his crafty-ist friend, thinking that I would make good use out of it. It was Stefanie Japel’s Fitted Knits, and, like before, I was immediately entranced by the photos in the book. I chose what looked like the simplest pattern in the book to tackle, a top down V-neck sweater in the round in stockinette stitch with knit2 purl2 ribbing at the edges. I bought my first pair of circular needles and a bright blue soft wool with a bit of shine that didn’t itch my skin. And I just dove in.
And I threw it across the room at a wall several times.
And I know I cried more than once.
And I convinced myself yet again that the pattern directions had major flaws in them, since they didn’t make sense to me.
And I wondered furiously why pattern writers insisted on using so many abbreviations. WHAT WAS WRONG WITH FULL SENTENCES?!?! And I stuffed the project in a bag deep into our closet a couple of times, waiting weeks before my fury had dissipated enough to trick me into picking it up again. But I did pick it up again. And my time away from the project worked. And at some point during this off-time, I had my first aha! moment, where suddenly the pattern instructions were understandable, and I knew how to get past the place where I had been stuck (increasing at the yoke to make room for the shoulders and sleeves had me so stumped my first time through), and I kept knitting and kept knitting, and I actually (finally!) successfully finished knitting my first sweater! I couldn’t believe it! I was so, so proud of myself! Once it was finished, I wore it all the time, with all it’s dropped stitches and wonky uneven seaming at the sleeves, and tension that zig-zagged all throughout the garment, depending on the level of frustration I was experiencing at the time of knitting. But honestly, no one could see how many flaws it had, and my friends were impressed that I had seen the project through to the end. But nobody was more impressed than me. And maybe Claire, who stifled her laughter at my rage and instead offered consolatory hugs and affirming pats on the back after each battle I lost with the sweater.

first knitted sweater, and a baby face

first knitted sweater, and a baby face

At the time, I had no friends who knit and there weren’t as many tutorials online as there are these days, so figuring out how to read a knitting pattern was a solitary, aggravating job. But it wasn’t impossible. It took hunkering down and fierce-dedication-bordering-on-obsession to figure it out, and more than a little patience with myself, and trust that not every single pattern was completely wrong and full of typos and miscounts. But it was absolutely achievable. After the success of the V-neck sweater, I made another one for Claire, to get the kinks out and right all the wrongs I had made in my own sweater, and it came out GORGEOUS, and is a sweater she still wears seven years later. Next I started going through all the patterns in Stefanie Japel’s book, choosing more ambitious projects each time, learning new techniques and challenging my burgeoning skills. And then I had another aha! moment; not all knitting patterns are created equal. This seams so obvious now that I have been knitting for so many years, but after making 6 sweaters in a row that were knitted fairly well, yet still came out kind of weird and ill-fitting, I understood that fit was just as important an element in sweater making as learning how to read the patterns. So was yarn choice. So was making swatches. Just because a sweater looked beautiful in a photograph didn’t mean that it would look beautiful on me in the yarn I bought in the size I made with my particular stitching personality. So the learning curve continued. After some online research, I realized that the talented knitwear designer was quite a bit more buxom than I was, and therefore her patterns, with the exception of the V-Neck sweater which had a tighter fit, left way too much room in the chest area on me. I wasn’t adept enough yet to know how to adapt patterns to my own measurements, so I decided to branch out and discover patterns by different knitwear designers, and then a fateful conversation with a knitting makeup artist from the first season of Fringe led me to ravelry.com, and the rest is history (I am HYMagic on ravelry in case anyone wants to follow).

I thought it would be fun to walk down knittory lane (that is so corny and I am sorry) and take a look at some of my earliest sweater knitting projects. I would never call them failures because it’s only a fail if you learn absolutely nothing from it, and that has never been the case with anything I have knitted…although it has definitely taken me several attempts at the exact same mistake to finally learn the things I am supposed to learn.

Here, we have the Puff-Sleeved Cardigan, a really cute sweater that made me look kind of like a marshmallow when I put it on. It’s too baggy in the chest and under the arms, the silhouette is frumpy, and the peplum is too short and lays down funny. My buttons were so bomb, though. I should have used smaller needles to get a tigher fit, and perhaps a different kind of yarn, because I wanted the look to be fuzzier and look more like fabric rather than a garment where you can see the distinct stitch definition.

Puff-Sleeved Cardigan

Puff-Sleeved Cardigan (I realize that this picture/angle doesn’t look all that terrible, but I never ever wore this sweater after spending months on it, so just trust me that I didn’t feel confident in it AT ALL.

This Back-to-School U-Neck Vest was another one that fit poorly- again, much to loose in the chest area and the arms, and also just kind of baggy all around. I loved the color of this yarn, and the details within the pattern were really cool, but it needed to be much smaller. I usually knit the smallest sizes available for a pattern, and it was around the time of making this sweater that I started to learn (it took many more projects to fully comprehend this lesson) that my personal tension, though very even, is pretty loose. By going down one or two needle sizes, I get the correct gauge.

Back to School U Neck, baggy-style

Back to School U Neck, baggy-style

From Stefanie Japel’s other book, Glam Knits, I fell in love with this BoHo Blouse, knitted it up quickly in a chunky wool, and was immediately disappointed. Too big. Again. Frumpy. Again. I wasn’t sold on this yarn choice either, but in my early knitting days, I found it difficult to envision what a garment would look like in different colors and yarn choices, so I tried to stay within the ballpark of what the photograph showed, in this choice using a heathered wool with different flecks of color in it. Look at how it sags so much in the back and drapes down in the shoulder area. For a better fit I should have gone down in needle size, but in general, I have learned that flowy blouses are just not my thing, and a sweater that conceals my shape on top doesn’t really suit my style. This sweater, like the first one, was never worn and was gifted to my sister-in-law.

ugh.

ugh.

blergh.

blergh.

Okay, I think this sweater is the very first one I made that wasn’t a Stefanie Japel pattern (and for the record, I don’t want this post to seem like I am Stefanie bashing- I LOVE her vintage inspired designs; she is clearly VERY talented, and without her book, I would never have been inspired to try and tackle knitting my own sweaters! One of the sad truths about making your own clothing is that not every pattern is meant for every figure unless you are willing to put in the work to adapt the patterns, and Stefanie Japel’s work was how I learned to pay attention to my personal needs and preferences regarding knitwear designs). The Minimalist Cardigan was the first sweater I made that wasn’t knit in one piece, and although it is a very straight forward and simple pattern to make in all-over moss stitch with the lapel bands in stockinette, there was STILL room for learning. I am so embarrassed to admit this, but once the whole thing was knitted up and blocked and I was supposed to sew all the pieces together, I went to the store, bought matching green thread, and I USED MY SEWING MACHINE…

greensweater_web

greencardi_web…TO SEW THE PIECES TOGETHER!!!! I didn’t realize my mistake until I tried the garment on and stood in the mirror with a puzzled look on my face. Why were the shoulders so bulky?? Why didn’t the seams lay flat like they did in the photos for the pattern? I don’t know how or why I figured it out, but as some point I realized that I was supposed to hand sew the pieces together with yarn and a thick sewing needle made for knitwear. DUH. So embarrassing. Let me tell you, ripping sewing thread out of a knitted garment is painstaking. But once I figured out the right way to do it, the garment fit beautifully, and it is currently my oldest sweater that I have made (I threw out my first blue sweater once I got better at knitting and knew that I didn’t have to wear with holes and knots in them, and all the other garments I made in between were eventually gifted to friends/family).

Almost all the sweaters/knitted items I made after this one are wearable and still in rotation. I still had a lot to learn about my personal relationship to knitted garments and what kind of things I liked knitting the most, but I finally found my knitting groove. I learned to either go down in needle size or make swatches before every new project. I learned that I prefer neutral colored, unfussy wools to bright, funky colors and wild textures. I learned that I like simple stitches with minimal details, and laces only knitted up in flat hues. I learned that I am not crazy about tweed yarn. I learned that I don’t like sweaters with bust and waist shaping, and that I really love working with cables. I hate fuzzy yarn. Knitting socks is my worst nightmare. I prefer the Magic Loop Method to DPNs. And so on and so on.

This has been a ridiculously long post that took days for me to put together, but I get a lot of questions on tumblr about my history with knitting, so now I have a post to link people to should they have any specific questions about how I got into the craft. Oh, and the sweater in the picture used at the head of this post? It’s one of my favorite sweaters that I have ever made, even though I never really wore it much cause it has some fitting issues. I wish I had used a thinner yarn, and had made the sweater longer, and decreased the neckline stitches even more so that the neckline wasn’t quite so wide. This was the first lace repeat I ever used in a pattern, and it took me a long time to get the hang of it, but the result was stunning. I hardly ever wear this garment because it doesn’t work well with a regular bra and is a little too wide in the body, but another thing I have learned over my years of knitting is that sometimes a garment is worth fighting for; I am learning to ignore imperfections and focus on the beautiful qualities of my work more often, like the soft texture and the warm shade of the wool, and how delicate the lace pattern is coupled with the solid look of the neckline ribbing . This sweater works best with a belt and a strapless bra, and it looks really cute over skinny jeans or a pencil skirt, so I am dedicating myself to wearing it more often, despite the changes I wish I had made to it. I forgot how satisfying it is to wear my learning curve, spelled out across my shoulders.

©Robin Roemer

©Robin Roemer

Praise for the Archer Pattern

Button downs are a staple in my wife’s wardrobe, and several years ago I tried to sew one for her from a Colette pattern called Negroni. The Negroni pattern is meant for a (typical) man’s frame, and although the sizing was way off, I thought I would be able to fudge the shape a bit to make it work for Claire’s figure. It was super fun to construct a button down shirt for the first time, so in that sense the project was a success-

clearly so huge in the shoulders, even with some adjustments.

clearly so huge in the shoulders, even with some adjustments.

photo 5

The shirt is fine but Claire’s beautiful face kind of upstages everything else in the photo.

 

I now had firsthand experience with all the little doo dads that made this type of garment come to life. But as a wearable shirt, it was kind of a disaster. It was just way too big for her, and since I didn’t know much about grading pattern pieces, my only fitting “trick” was to make some darts in the shirt, which gave her several inches of extra material bunched inside of the shirt to swim around in. And it STILL didn’t fit well. Thankfully, Claire is very sweet and appreciative, and she still wore the shirt a few times and told me how much she loved it before quietly tucking it into the bottom back of her drawer. On a trip to Birmingham to see my family a few months later, we ended up gifting the shirt to my dad, whom it fit almost perfectly, so I was happy that the whole garment wasn’t a wash. But I was still interested in finding a more flattering cut of this shirt that would fit a woman’s body without being so fitted that it sucked things in and pushed things up (think androgynous button down for a curvy female figure). At the time, Colette patterns were the only indie brand I was familiar with, and there were not as many competitive brands offering other patterns and designs as there are today, so I didn’t really think my dream button down pattern was going to be realized.

And then, several months ago, I got sucked into the sewing blog rabbit hole. I was introduced to SO many indie pattern designers who were offering PDF downloads and printed versions of their patterns for sale online, and it was as if a whole new world had opened up to me. Now big company pattern brands (McCalls, Vogue, Butterick) were not the only options available for a home seamster, and the indie designers were creating things that were a lot more interesting/fashionable/unique than most of what the big companies were offering (don’t get me wrong, I love a classic Vogue pattern as much as the next person, but I also love versatility and detailed pattern instructions and also, NOTHING BEATS A BLOGGER SEW-ALONG)! Indie designers seemed to have such fresh perspectives on sewing and pattern making, so you can imagine my excitement when I stumbled across indie company Grainline Studio’s Archer pattern, a simple button down (or button up, depending on your personality type, I guess?) pattern fit for a (typical) woman’s body. Claire’s measurements fit into a straight size with no extra grading required, and once she picked out some fabric (pink ladybugs on a white lightweight cotton), I whipped it up for her in time to wear to my brother’s wedding in late summer, with an unintentionally gigantic matching bow tie and handkerchief.

the dapperest.

the dapperest.

The fit was absolutely perfect, and she felt comfortable in it. Compared to the men’s Negroni pattern, the fit was slimmer in the shoulders and chest while still allowing room for boobs, and there was a slight curve in the waist to make room for hips. In general, the shirt just kind of skims over her figure without providing so much room that it overwhelms her frame. After the success of the first Archer, Claire immediately wanted to pick out lots more fabric so that she could have a closet full of them, but so far I have only gotten around to making one more version of the shirt, this time long sleeved, which she received on her birthday last year. IMG_1733I love this pattern, and I actually plan on making one for myself…someday. Aside from the fit being so flattering, the pattern instructions were good enough that I didn’t need to follow the accompanying sew-along…well, up until it was time to sew the sleeve cuffs and pleats. That part was brand new to me and I needed extra visual help to figure it out, but the sew-along provided all the info I needed to finish those details. Highly recommended pattern, A++, two thumbs and two big toes up, yay, team, etc. etc.

Pants: A Pain in My Ass

After making some very cute mid-to-high waisted shorts from a vintage Simplicity pattern a spring or two ago, my interest in making pants sky-rocketed. I have always hated shorts on myself; I felt like my legs were too short and curvy for them to be flattering, which looks even dumber written out on my computer screen than it sounds in my head (there is no such thing as “too” anything when it comes to bodies, but whatever, body dismorphia strikes again, etc., blah blah blah). But the simple, non-pocketed silhouette and high rise of the shorts made me feel like my body was proportionate in them and I became pretty infatuated with the look, leading me to believe that I might be able to make the perfect fitting pants for myself that I never seemed able to find in stores. I generally don’t like pants. Skirts and dresses are my go-to, and now that I live in Los Angeles I can almost get away with hardly ever having to wear pants except on the chilliest of winter days (think 50 degree-age, which is about as low as it gets in the day time). That said, I have come to appreciate the ease and functionality of wearing pants more often now that I have a dog that needs walking three times a day. It took me years to finally cave in and invest in some skinny jeans, and even then I wouldn’t consider a pair unless they had a good stretch content and a high waist (the low rise, butt-crack threatening, boot-cut fit of the late 90’s and early 2000’s was a real travesty). But sometimes I don’t want to wear jeans! Sometimes I want to wear bottoms that are a little more classic, that don’t leave seam lines up and down the sides of my legs after several hours of wear, that feel comfortable AND slimming, but don’t leave a 3 inch gap in the waist area from the difference in size between my waist (small) and my booty (not as small). Perfecting the Simplicity shorts pattern was the first inkling I had that I could make an awesome pair of pants for myself that would fit well and make me feel like I looked great, but I didn’t actually take action til Gertie’s second book came out. In it was a pattern for a pair of slim fitting cigarette pants, which I think is pretty similar to a pattern she released through Simplicity before her second book was available. I adore Gertie’s patterns, and have been hooked on her work ever since I got her first book of vintage patterns a few years ago. Hers was the first set of patterns I used that seemed to fit my body right out the gate- they required little to no adjusting, unlike the patterns from the big companies which always seemed to run at least a size too large and never fit my proportions very well. Gertie’s waist-to-booty ratio was a dream come true for me (her pencil skirt pattern fit me so beautifully I think I teared up when I first tried on my wearable muslin), so I had high hopes for her pants pattern to work well for me, too. Fortunately, it did not disappoint. The fit was incredible, and I didn’t have to grade between sizes or anything. That, however, was only the beginning of my pants learning curve.

Cue dramatic music.

The first muslin I made was out of some leftover wool herringbone with a slight stretch, and I was secretly

these don't look nearly as bad as they feel

these don’t look nearly as bad as they feel

hoping they would be wearable, cause the material was great, and who doesn’t love a wearable muslin?! I finished the pants, held my breath while I tried them on, and squealed cause they fit so beautifully- no gap at the waistband! comfortable! slimming! go, team! But holy shit, they were itchy as all get-out. Which is no surprise since they were made out of WOOL. ‘Okay,’ I thought, ‘no big deal, I will just line the pants with a silky type fabric and I will be good to go!’ I bought some inexpensive lining material and looked up some tutorials on how to line a pair of pants. But umm…lining slim fitting cigarette pants isn’t actually a “thing”. photo 5

Like, maybe people have done it with success, and kudos to them, but for me, it just wasn’t happening. Nevermind the fact that my lining wasn’t the right kind of material and didn’t have enough give in the right directions to fit comfortably over my legs, but they also just kind of bunched up inside the wool and twisted around and got caught in all the wrong places, even when tacked down to the wool pants’ seams. It was kind of like trying to wear a slip under a pair of tights; the pants were too slim fitting to allow room for what was essentially an entirely new pair of pants.So the wearable muslin was obviously not gonna work (and no, I was not the least bit interested in wearing pantyhose underneath my pants to reduce the itch factor- what am I, my mother??) but at least I knew that the pattern fit perfectly.

I decided to try the pants in a better fabric, this time a high quality stretch denim, which worked much better, except that now, with a thinner material than the wool, I started to obsessively over-fit the legs of the pants, taking them in more and more, over and over again, so that when I finally finished them, they were so tight that not only could I BARELY stuff a foot through the leg opening, I could also barely bend over. The calves of these pants looked like they were painted on. Which perhaps is fine for a photoshoot or something, but not very realistic or functional for every day life.

admittedly weird choice in zipper color.

admittedly weird choice in zipper color.

I’m not sure if these jeans are wearable cause I haven’t worked up the energy to spend the 5 minutes it takes to put them on, I am guessing no. I am considering cutting them off below the knee to turn them into a 50’s style capri, and maybe the fit will be better then, but so far they are still folded on a hanger, mocking me in the corner of my craft room.

Okay, so THIRD pair of cigarette pants! Moved onto to a green stretch cotton twill, kept the pockets (although I hate pockets on trousers) and this was my very first success, except for one weird adjustment that needs to be made: the front seam

no idea why the color looks messed up in the photos- in person you can't see it, i swear!

no idea why the color looks messed up in the photos- in person you can’t see it, i swear!

dips down a bit, and rides on my waist slightly below the sides and back, so I am going to add just a touch more material to the front seam allowance to see if that helps at all- it’s not the rise or crotch cause everything fits perfectly everywhere else, and if the crotch were any higher I would feel like I was wearing a front thong. Otherwise, the pants are perfect!photo 7

With the success of this pair, I decided to try another in a fabric with the same amount of stretch made with a beautiful paisley pattern. I fall in love with pants like this all the time at JCrew, but their bottoms consistently fit me so terribly that I stopped even trying them on years ago. Anyways, by this point I was an old pro at making this pattern, and I was super excited to add these perfected pants to my wardrobe, so in only a few hours over a couple of days during the Christmas holidays I was able to sew them up and give them a try. I waited to attach the waistband to make sure there were no fit issues and…I…couldn’t…even…pull them up…over my KNEES! In horror, I stretched and ripped the pants to try and pull them at least up to my waist, but I couldn’t even get them past this here booty, despite the fact that I had made this pattern several times by this point and I knew that the sizing was perfect. And then I realized my (HUGE) mistake…in my haste to get this pattern started, I didn’t pay attention to the direction of stretch in the fabric, which just happened to run perpendicular to the selvage as opposed to parallel to it, the way most knit fabrics I have worked with run. So my pants could stretch real long from top to bottom, but there was practically no give whatsoever to go around my legs, meaning it was nearly impossible to pull them up over the widest parts of my body.

see?

see?

Oh, was I mortified! But also kinda sorta happy to have learned a valuable lesson in all of it- ALWAYS CHECK TO SEE WHICH DIRECTION YOUR STRETCH GOES WHEN SEWING WITH KNITS. Perhaps, dear reader, this can be a lesson to you (if you haven’t learned it already, which you probably have, because NO, DUH) so you wont have to waste some beautiful fabric on a really silly oversight like I did. I should have KNOWN something big and terrible was about to happen with this garment. In hindsight, I realize that I have a tendency to make lots of little mistakes before I make big ones. Case in point: with this one pair of pants which, as I mentioned, I had already made SEVERAL times, I managed to sew the back of the pants to the front of the pants with the wrong sides together, AND THEN, once I took out all my stitching, I managed to sew the two front legs together at the inseam, effectively created a long, very ugly denim skirt. Quick and fast sewing is just not really my forte, and the bigger of a hurry I am in, the more mistakes I am apt to make. Coincidentally, the more mistakes I make, the less likely it is that the garment will actually be wearable. It’s all in the math, I guess.

So. In total, we have one pair of jacquard pants ruined, one (possible capri) denim that I most likely wont be able to sit down in without getting a yeast infection, one perfect, pocketed pant in green khaki, and an itchy herringbone wool w lining that, having tried on again so many months later with new eyes, I’m thinking might actually be salvageable. The lining inside is too tight around the calves, making the fabric pull when I walk, but I think I might have enough seam allowance left in them to take them out just a bit more. If I can get them to *comfortable* status, I will definitely wear them, because the fit is great and not as funky looking as I remember them being (although this last try-on has further convinced me that I need to take the zipper in just a touch). WOW! Another lesson learned! All garments thrown into the BUTTHOLE BIN should be tried on no less than seven weeks later to reassess fit, functionality and likability. This wont be the first time I reacquainted myself with a discarded unfinished garment, only to find out that it was indeed worth rescuing. I like doing that. Cause I HAAAATE throwing disasters into the BUTTHOLE BIN.

Oooh, that’s a really great idea for a future post, eh? Taking a walk down BUTTHOLE BIN lane?

New year, new rack.

COAT rack, that is! (ba dum ching)

When we first moved to LA, my wife and I rented a really cute house across from a beautiful, hilly cemetery and started to try and build up our pitiful collection of furniture. We had lived in furnished spaces for our previous four years in Vancouver, and everything we had kept in storage in NYC was cheap and ugly and falling apart. It was the need for a nice, big, solid dining room table and my disgust at how expensive furniture can be that inspired me to try and learn how to build it in the first place. Anyways, as you can imagine, in our first few weeks in Los Angeles making our new home, there were tons of trips to Home Depot, and just as many to the Rose Bowl flea and Ikea and World Market and Target and vintage home goods stores, where we could fill in all the holes of what we needed but could not make for ourselves. Our unfurnished rental had a large living room with a fireplace and a tall, arched ceiling, but no foyer or entryway space, so on a whim, I purchased a ridiculously (and unsurprisingly) overpriced iron coat rack from World Market. expensive ass coat rack

Full disclosure, I love/hate World Market. Their aesthetic is awesome, but their quality is shitty. Sometimes I just go in there for a little inspiration and a root beer, but I complain the whole time about how we shouldn’t buy anything cause it’s just gonna break unexpectedly.
So anyways, a few months after moving to LA, we bought a house and had to move again, with all the furniture we had made work for our rental space. Most everything translated well in our new home, including the the cute antiqued coat rack, which has provided an excellent space for us to put all our leaving-the-house shit for the past couple of years. However, this year when we got our Christmas tree, we had to move the coat rack out of the way and into the office to make room for it. And holy shit, what a difference the absence of a coat rack made! Our house is bigger in square feet than our old rental, but the living room/dining room is much smaller, and the ceilings are normal height. It was only through living a few weeks without the coat rack that we realized how awkward it had been in the room and how much space it took up.

photo 1The above photo doesn’t really do it justice, so you will just have to take my word for it- it crowded the area and ruined sight lines to the big window we have in front. So we got rid of the thing, kept it in the office for the holidays, where it continued to be in the way and take up too much space, but was less obvious. I needed a solution, something to house our bags and scarves and jackets, but something that didn’t involve having to use that bulky (expensive) coat rack. You see behind the rack to the wall next to the chalkboard? All the empty space on the left side? I hated that about as much as our huge rack (!). It was only apparent when you closed the door, but that space was usable and felt weirdly empty with nothing there. So, problem solved: get rid of the coat rack in the house and make a wooden something-or-other to hang on the wall in that empty space.

The next part was pretty easy; assembling some hooks and proper screws and finding a nice old piece of wood to reuse (this was from a shelf that had mostly fallen apart in the backyard when it flooded/ rained for the first time in a year). photo 2Claire sanded the board down but kept most of it as is cause the color and distress in it looked nice, and I screwed in some hooks on the front, and a few smaller ones on the bottom side of the board). photo 3

Positioned her on the wall, screwed her into the stud (!!)) and voila! Bye, bye, iron coat rack. The hooks used don’t all match each other, cause I couldn’t find four of the same ones, but I kind of like the mishmash look of them all together- plus, you can’t really see the hooks when they are covered in chilly weather accoutrement.

Final look: photo 5

Cleaner, opens the space and makes it much brighter, and provides a better spot for our armchair (not seen in the pic) which used to be shoved up next to the coat rack. The room looks so much bigger and less cramped, and I love being reminded of how important it is to rearrange furniture every once in while. Sometimes it just takes new eyes to recognize old problems. And speaking of old problems, I have a bulky expensive coat rack to give away if anyone wants it.

Popover Poncho

Being a better blogger (BBB) has been on my list of priorities for months now, and it’s probably not a coincidence that I am trying to do it right after the new year. I’m not that big into resolutions (or maybe I am? but I just think of them as goals? and I do them throughout the year?). But I do know that I appreciate the energy and motivation that a new year brings- my favorite part about the holidays is taking all the decorations down and cleaning up and having a clean slate. I’m the (relatively annoying) kind of person who refuses to start a new project til the last one is cleaned up and everything is neatly put away- I don’t like starting new ideas with old mess in the way. Anyways,  I can’t complain about my 2014, but there is *always* room for improvement, right? So I am jumping on the LET’S DO THINGS BETTER IN 2015 bandwagon and hoping that I get better pictures of my projects so that I can post them here and talk about them and…you know…do whatever else one is supposed to do on their blog.

So here goes.

Today, Claire and myself, accompanied by my in-laws, finally made it to the Arboretum. I figured it would be the perfect opportunity to wear the Popover Poncho by April Rhodes that I made over Christmas break, so I layered it over my Snowbunny Sweater (which you can’t see) for extra warmth, due to the recent *cold snap* that we got here in Los Angeles a few days ago (east coasters, hush that laughing).

poncho pullover_yellowleaves

This is the first pattern I have made from this indie brand, and it was really great- straightforward directions, and a quick sew. The photos with the instructions sometimes didn’t translate well to the written directions, but it wasn’t hard to figure out. It would be a little tricky for a super beginning sewer, but certainly not impossible. The only unfortunate thing (for me) is that the pattern is only available as an at-home print-out, as opposed to having files for at-home printing AND print-shop printing. I hate printing patterns out at home. I always re-use paper from the backs of old scripts/sides to print the patterns on, and my printer is great and efficient, but inevitably there is always some sort of mismatching with lining up all the lines from the patterns and I end up having to fudge the edges to ensure a smooth fit, either clipping off or adding to the pattern allowance (and before you ask, no it’s not my printer or the fact that I re-use paper- this mismatch has happened on every printer I have used, regardless of whether I use brand new or old paper). Printing patterns out at a shop costs more money, but it saves times and ensures that the pattern is perfectly adjusted, and it doesn’t waste any of my precious (and expensive) printer ink. Anyways, at-home vs printer shop is a personal preference, but I like when both options are available (thank you Heather @ closetcasefiles for showing me the light)!

I made this cape out of a medium to heavy weight herringbone wool and lined it with a soft grey knit from my favorite fabric store in Los Angeles called- what else? The Fabric Store! They have the tidiest, most perfectly curated fabric shop I have ever been to, and their selection hits all price points, but the quality of even their lowest priced fabric is excellent. I am so thrilled to have discovered this gem of a store since I refuse to shop at Mood and Michael Levine’s, though a great source, can be a little overwhelming and time consuming. photo 5

So, since this is the first time I have tried to purposefully blog about a handmade garment, as opposed to just posting a picture of it on instagram accompanied by a few emojis and linking it to tumblr (the plural of emoji is emoji, right? Like fish? Anyone know? Or care? Besides me?), I realize that my blogging skills are WAY lacking in the photo department. I should have gotten pictures from different angles and sides instead of posing for the same series of head-on shots in different locations. SORRY, I’M NEW AT THIS. STOP YELLING! I kind of hate taking picture in public spaces. I feel so embarrassed, cause it makes me feel vain, which is silly, because I don’t think there is much wrong with being vain when you can still acknowledge and appreciate the beauty in others, but we live in a culture that doesn’t have a lot of experience allowing women to relish in beauty that isn’t meant explicitly for the male gaze, and also, documenting oneself in photo form has a bad rap which is a shame, and also, WHO CARES what anyone else at the Arboretum has to say about me posing with my cape?? (queue Big Sean’s “I Don’t Fuck With You”, my official 2015 anthem).

Okay, so, I guess that’s it! First DIY blog post of the year? DONE! And I have so many on the back burner just WAITING to be photo documented so I can bore anyone who stumbles across this site with details about my adventures in DIY-ness. I am so excited! Let’s see how long this blogging enthusiasm lasts! Anyone care to place a wager?

 

DIYing It Up

Thanks to a blog post I read in November of 2012, I was introduced to a new book that had just come out, called The Handbuilt Home, by Ana White. It was purported to  be a book that gave easy, comprehensive instructions to make furniture, no matter your experience level. On a whim I put the book on my Christmas list, and on the plane ride from Florida, where we spent the holidays with my family, back to Los Angeles where me and my partner had just moved, I read the book cover to cover and was penning a list of all the things we needed to buy at Home Depot on a drink napkin. Since putting all our stuff in storage in New York and spending 4 years in furnished rentals in Vancouver, we had no furniture to speak of, and more than anything, we needed a table and some places to sit; our first days in our LA rental found us in one primary spot in the house: a mattress in the middle of the living room floor, where we slept, ate, watched tv, read and cuddled. It took hardly any time at all for the coziness factor to wear off.

Anyways, my logic was this: we could either spend over a thousand dollars on a finished beautiful dining room table, or we could spend half that money on tools and materials and build one ourselves. Then, if we found the process to be fun and worthwhile, we could KEEP building furniture, making the investment of tools more cost effective with each project. Unfortunately, after our first two projects (a Farmhouse style dining room table and a matching bench), Claire’s interest had waned, but mine grew, and over the past year and some change I have continued to build furniture by myself, becoming more competent and taking on more challenging tasks. So far we have built the aforementioned dining room table and bench together, and I have worked solo on a coffee table, bookcase, printer console, upholstered vanity stool, and a rolling kitchen island, along with a slew of other smaller woodworking projects.

I wanted to share my latest furniture DIY creation here on my blog, because it is my most ambitious project to date. We recently got a master bathroom renovation to turn our tiny, barely functional hallway bath into an en suite with much more space and efficiency. In trying to make the most of our budget, I decided to take on the task of building our vanity, which, if purchased in the style and materials we wanted, would run us no less than $1500. With some free plans from Ana White’s website and a bit of advice from our contractor, I built the tile topped vanity from scratch and tiled the surrounding backsplash for $490, and it was custom built to fit the exact measurements inside our new bathroom. The project took about 11 days from start to finish, and the most difficult part of the whole project was the tiling. I had never tiled before and it was WAY more intense than I anticipated- I sprouted stress-induced fever blisters within hours after all the grouting was complete. I don’t think you can put a price on fever blisters, but all in all, the project came out beautifully and I am very very proud of it!

vanity1

I built the wood part of the vanity in my garage and when it was ready for the next steps, our reno crew moved it to the inside of the bathroom.

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I had to space out the tiles to get an idea of placement and figure out which ones I needed to cut.

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I had no idea that tiling was such an intricate process and that there were so many PIECES involved! Edge tiles, corner tiles, border tiles…the list went on and on! Thankfully we used a simple subway style tile for our vanity so our local hardware stores always had what I needed.

vanity5

After adhering the tiles to the surface and edge of the vanity, they need to be taped so that gravity doesn’t pull them down and the edge pieces fall off.

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It took a while to find the perfect knobs and hinge hardware for these cabinet doors, but we eventually found some pretty crystal knobs that elevated the Tiffany blue color of the vanity (which was spray painted for a smoother finish).

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Tiling is complete here and the sink was installed by the reno crew. The sink was purchased at the Habitat Rehab store for only $20, and it was like brand new!

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Finished vanity with tiling, and you can spy the gorgeous black and white penny tile underneath (a tiling project that I did NOT undertake- I left that to the professionals!)

 

 

Love (& Marriage?)

Although my recent wedding (if one could even call it that) was small and private, as a queer woman I feel compelled to share some of the details of our decision to get married. It’s really important that members of the LGBTQIA community are able to contribute their own experiences to the world, regardless of their subject matter, because we have lived so long in a society where our collective experiences have been suppressed rather than encouraged. Ours is a very simple and familiar tale of love, not unlike the stories that so many same sex couples have, and that’s where it’s significance lies; we want to be relatable and understood without people losing sight of the differences that make us unique. The more we share our stories and who we are, the less stigma I think there will be to recognize people from my community as whole, full formed individuals. We are not OTHER, we are others.

 

As a child, I never ever dreamed about having a wedding, and therefore never ever wanted one as an adult. In fact, my feelings about weddings have always been unromantic and complicated and they became even more so after finding myself in a loving relationship with a woman; who even wants to entertain the idea of having a marriage that your government won’t technically allow?

The beginning of my distaste for marriage in general was born out of defense. As I have mentioned before, I grew up poor in the deep south with parents of different races, but what seemed at times to set me apart more than any of those things was the fact that my parents were never married. The horror on people’s faces, adults and children alike, was obvious. “Why don’t you have the same last name as your Dad?”, they would ask. “Um. Because my parents never got married so I just have my Mom’s last name,” I would answer sheepishly, and then they would look at me like they didn’t know how a child like me could possibly exist.

This seems to be a recurring theme in my life.

They were wondering how I GOT here without a wedding, as if love and marriage were not mutually exclusive. I knew from a young age that a marriage didn’t equate love, a marriage didn’t validate a relationship, a marriage didn’t make you more important than any other couple that loved each other, but I didn’t know how to not feel embarrassed about my illegitimacy in other people’s eyes. So, like any other child, I internalized my feelings, and I grew into an adult who had a deep aversion to the idea of marriage, without ever really bothering to unpack it. This isn’t to say that I didn’t go to my friend’s weddings and cry uncontrollably as they walked down the aisle. I have always been so happy for my friends who found love, but I was happy for them BEFORE their wedding announcements, not because of them. I was happy for them on their seventh date, and happy for them when they moved in together, and happy for them when they talked passionately about their future. To me, that was legit as it got.

Claire and I had been together three years when we got our domestic partnership in NYC, and contrary to popular belief, we didn’t do it because we wanted to have a legal declaration of love for one another; we did it because we wanted to be protected by the law when we both moved to Vancouver for my work. Getting a legal partnership was about security and safety, and this was the first time I recognized that this was the most basic benefit of a legal marriage. The fact that religious doctrine said we were not allowed to get married in the church was fine with me, cause my union with Claire had NOTHING to do with the church. It had everything to do with planning for a family one day, buying property, filing for taxes, getting insurance coverage, making sure that we would be taken care of should something awful happen to one of us. A union in the eyes of the law was a pragmatic decision, and had nothing to with God. I was angry that we couldn’t have this same basic right as other couples, because I didn’t even want a wedding, I just wanted equal rights! Although our decision to get a domestic partnership was a sensible one rather than a romantic one, it was still an incredibly special day, and I will never forget it. We had chosen a pair of very simple, inexpensive rings to exchange over dinner at our favorite restaurant in Prospect Heights where we lived at the time. We enlisted my closest friend Larry to accompany us to City Hall who posed as our photographer as we filled out the necessary paperwork. We took silly pictures next to the “Marriage Licenses” sign in the hallway. When we were finished and we had our paperwork, we stood in the elevator and cried with each other as we looked down at our certificate. Despite the practicality of our legal partnership, we knew we were absolutely committed to each other, and although that piece of paper didn’t dictate the importance of our relationship, the decision to get it did. It wasn’t the domestic partnership itself that was significant, it was the circumstances that encouraged us to get the domestic partnership in the first place; Claire was leaving her job and her friends to move across the country to share a life with me, and I wanted her to come with me more than anything in the world.

As legit as it gets.

Now, fast forward four years to when we moved to our new city and moved into our new home that we own. Nothing much has changed between us, except that we have survived some very difficult experiences and transitions, and thankfully flourished because of them. I still wanted to spend as much of my future with Claire as our love would allow. But guess what. That domestic partnership we got years ago in NYC? It didn’t mean anything here in California. It didn’t mean anything outside of the state of New York. We had to go through the whole process again. We marveled at the fact that this was taken for granted by so many same sex married couples; what if, whenever a married couple moved to a new state in the US, they had to get married again? I began to think that maybe this was a smart idea, that maybe some couples who weren’t really happy together might feel more inclined to separate or re-think their relationship if they were forced to go through the process over and over again. But it didn’t feel smart to us at the time. It felt like a hassle. It felt like no matter where we were or where we went, we didn’t ever count for real.

In late June, we are in Beverly Hills at a lawyer’s office drafting up our wills when we find out that they cannot be executed until we get a civil union in the state of California. This is the very week where the constitutionality of DOMA and Prop 8 are being reviewed by the Supreme Court, and Claire is pessimistic. She thinks that Prop 8 has a chance of working in our favor, but that DOMA will never be struck down in our foreseeable future. A few days later we are both literally awestruck when we wake in the morning and read the news headlines that the federal government is making same sex marriages legal. Speechless. We just hug tightly as my tears start to fall. Now, instead of having to get a Civil Union in the state of California, we are going to get an actual marriage. We will be recognized in the whole country as a legal couple. We wont have to keep filling out the same paperwork every time we move to a new place. If something terrible happens to one of us, we wont have to worry about whether or not the other person will be well taken care of financially. We don’t have to worry about being allowed hospital visits if one of us is sick. We don’t have to worry about who gets to be the legal guardian of any children we might adopt in the future. We don’t have to pay thousands of extra dollars annually for Claire to be be entitled to health insurance simply because she is viewed as a taxable dependent instead of as a spouse. We have always known that we were the same as other couples. But now we will be treated as such. This is what I am elated over.

The strange part about announcing our union for the second time is dealing with other people’s reactions; not everyone has the same attitude about marriage that I do, and marriage means many things to different people, so merging their expectations with our reality was a bit tricky. Most everyone was really happy and excited for us, which was certainly understandable in one respect, but it also reiterated the idea that our domestic partnership we had gotten several years ago didn’t count, that THIS was the real deal. I had never thought of our first legal union as a marriage, but I did think of it as our first public commitment to each other, and that mattered, and still matters, so much to me. In some ways, that one counts even more because we had to take a leap of faith to move forward with it. Making a commitment after seven years is easy when you’ve known each other for that long, when you’ve have had seven years of ups and downs, when you’ve learned to love all the difficult parts of each other for so long. But a commitment after three years with an immediate move to another country? That was dangerous territory, something we could have easily fallen apart over.

We told a few friends and family that we would be getting our marriage officiated soon, but most people didn’t find out till I posted pictures online the day of our wedding. It wasn’t an attempt to exclude any of the important people in our life, but rather a continuation of keeping the spirit of the event low key; we wanted an intimate experience, and that’s what we got, with only our officiant and our friend Kelly (who acted as witness) present.

All the pragmatism and utility in the world couldn’t keep this day from being special. On a whim, we drove down to San Diego a few days before the wedding to visit my high school friend, Henry, who works at a beautiful jewelry store, and he and his wife helped us pick out two simple, lovely rings to exchange. I wanted the most non-clunky, non-showy, functional ring I could find, so that it would never get in the way of what I was doing or where I was going; it seemed to perfectly symbolize my union with Claire- always present but never a burden. On Oct. 5th, Claire and I woke up, had breakfast, and picked out what we were going to wear, outfits that (magically!) matched. Our officiant arrived at our home while Claire was still in the shower, and she sat on the couch patiently as we finished getting ready. Kelly showed up looking radiant in a beautiful lacy white dress and served as our photographer while Claire and I stood in front of our homemade coffee table and listened to each other share her vows. I cried like a baby. Claire doesn’t write very much, but when she does, it speaks right to my heart. Ours was the briefest ceremony perhaps in the history of the world, but it had all the important parts we wanted: our declaration of love for one another, our “I Do”s, and a kiss. We exchanged our perfect rings, mine rose gold, Claire’s white gold, we had a toast, and then we took some fun, casual pictures on the front lawn of our house, with our dog, Rosie. There were a few parts in the day that I had wished our families had been there to witness our exchange of love, but we plan to have a party some time this year for all our friends and family to celebrate with us. I have no idea what the format will be, and honestly, I don’t care. We got the important part done already- the rest is just fun.

It was really important for us to stick to our wishes and be selfish about how we wanted this special day to be, despite the protestations of a lot of well intentioned people in our lives. I had the dream wedding I had never even realized I dreamed up, and nothing could be better than that.

The Girl Scout Promise

I got my “Daisy Girl’s Guide to Girl Scouting” in the mail yesterday, a thick blue fancy looking binder with a magnetized closure flap on the side and a space to print out my name underneath the “This book belongs to:” tag. This binder is pretty much everything my 33 and 7 year old selves could have hoped for, although the 33 year old has a deep appreciation for the fact that this binder isn’t bright pink. Line drawings of butterflies, birds, flowers and fruit decorate the side flap, and when you open it up, the other side has big bright letters that read “Get ready to grow!” underneath a daisy with mascara on her eyelashes.

I wonder if there is a make-up application badge.

Written on the inside cover: “Girl Scouting builds girls of COURAGE, CONFIDENCE, and CHARACTER, who make the world a better place.”

I LOVE this sentence! These simple tenets, so obviously necessary for the development of a well rounded child, are the parts that seem to lose their import as we get older. Straightforward goals of having courage, confidence and character end up getting replaced by mantras like “don’t drive drunk”, “use condoms”, “contribute to a 401K”, and “remember that Hot Pockets are not a food group”. In some ways the adult credos are distant relatives to the kid ones, but they are much more distinct, more strict, more self serving than what we were taught as kids. Many of us won’t drive drunk because we don’t want to get in trouble with the law, but what about not wanting to endanger our life and the lives of others? Refraining from drunk driving should come from having integrity, not having a fear of a suspended license. And avoiding the Hot Pocket shelf in the freezer section shouldn’t just be about steering clear of bubble guts, it should also be about having the courage to make good decisions about our bodies. I wonder if a Girl Scout understand the difference.

Okay, so COURAGE, CONFIDENCE, and CHARACTER.

I can totally do this.

Next, I read The Girl Scout Promise posted on the inside front cover.

On my honor I will try: To serve God…”

God?

Shit.

I haven’t even turned an actual page of my guide book and I am already stuck.

“God.”

On my honor I will try…to…serve…God.

**********

I have never really known how to explain how I felt about God, not now, nor when I was a little girl, even though I grew up right in the middle of the bible belt.

So how will I know how to “serve God”? I ‘m not even sure of what that means exactly. Which God is the Girl Scout Guide referring to? There are a lot to choose from. I didn’t realize that the Girl Scouts were affiliated with any religious group.

Although growing up I was surrounded on all sides by churches, I was able to successfully finish my 18 years in Birmingham without ever actually being a member of one. Which is not to say that I didn’t know how to play the system. In middle school, in order to spend more hang-out time with my best friends., I started joining them at the gigantic Baptist church down the street from our school on Wednesday nights. We hung out and gossiped and acted silly as always, just within the confines of stained glass windows and the expensive perfume of the church’s patrons. Little did I know at the time that the cheap hot dog and hamburger suppers they always served on these nights were an attempt to snare church-less young individuals like myself into their grasp, the young parishioners of the church having been encouraged to invite outside guests on Wednesday nights.

When I was five years old and my single mother moved us to Homewood, a small, middle class, comparatively colorless suburb of Birmingham, we were struggling, big time. My Mom found us a small, unimpressive apartment she could barely afford in this neighborhood because it had one of the best public school systems that the county had to offer. So what if she had to work her ass off 12 hours a day and I had to come home to an empty house after school and we had to survive on food stamps and endure relentless racism from everyone in the neighborhood (“Are you one of those people that adopts those kind of children? Bless your heart!” and “My goodness, this little girl is SO clean and well spoken!“)! Upon our arrival in Homewood, my Mom went to this very same gigantic church down the street from what would eventually become my middle school, and she asked for help. She needed resources, assistance in whatever way the church could provide. My mother had absolutely no family to ask for help, since they had estranged themselves from her when they found out she had fallen in love and given birth to a brown baby. Now my Mom and Dad were separated and she had no one else to turn to. The church said they couldn’t help her unless she became a member of their congregation, and would she like to fill out an information form and attend services on Sunday to pray with the parishioners?

No, my mother would NOT, thank you very much, and she walked out of the gigantic doors of the gigantic church, crying and I imagine feeling quite lonely.

My mother had grown up very content in the church, had been the star of every choir she had ever joined, but she became increasingly aware as she grew older the incongruities of what the followers preached and how the followers acted. She didn’t want to get help from an organization whose charity was based on stipulations and judgements of who she was and how she lived her life (she had too many things stacked up against her already in this conservative southern town: young single parent, unmarried, biracial child, no college education, un-apologetically high heels). I think she was also weary of bringing me into an environment where every single person around was white. It just didn’t sit well with her.

But it didn’t keep her from walking through the doors on Christmas Eve every year with throngs of other churchgoers for Midnight Mass. We would sit in one of the rows furthest to the back while tears streamed down my mother’s cheeks, her voice joining the congregation’s to sing every song by heart. I wonder if the person my mother asked for help from the church ever recognized us on those chilly nights, scurrying out of the pew before Mass was over to avoid the crowd, and more importantly the stares.

**************

I knew this sad tale about my Mom’s plea to the church for help, so I side-eyed the constant invites I would get from my friends, pretty much all of whom attended this church. But one day I found out that this church served food on Wednesday nights to everyone who attended youth services.

I came for the hot dogs.

But I stayed for the choir.

I guess it’s genetic. I have always been a sucker for a choir, just like my mom, and this church did not disappoint; behind it’s gigantic doors lay a gigantic stage with a booming piano and a microphone. “Oh, Jessica!,” they would say (you know they couldn’t pronounce my name correctly), “you are such a gorgeous soprano! Would you like to sing a solo in our next youth choir concert?”

Of course I did! Even if it meant grinning and bearing through 45 minutes of talking about Jesus with popular kids who ignored me every day at school (I was never bullied; I was just invisible). The bible study section of my Wednesday nights at church played out like an episode of Peanuts, with an adult “womp womp womping” in the background while I doodled on any scrap pieces of paper I could find. I can’t remember learning anything about God, or myself in those classes. But I can remember the lyrics and choreography to the Christian rap we performed at my final youth concert.

Eventually I stopped going to youth services on Wednesday nights. The sacrifices I had to make in order to sing solos had become too great. Talking about Jesus all the time was exhausting considering how much real life drama I was experiencing (nasty stepdad, mentally unwell stepmom, bills not getting paid, Mom working way too hard, Mom not quitting smoking like she promised, Mom is going to die one day, what will I do when my Mom dies one day, etc., etc.) and I found no solace or comfort in the myth of a Lord and Savior whose goodness I never saw bestowed upon the people who seemed to need it the most. I found my relief in books. In drawing. In creating things that made people smile. In finding friends who were every bit as irreverent as I was. In the belief that my grown up life didn’t have to look like the one I was living if I didn’t want it to.

So.

I have no idea how to “serve God” since God hasn’t ever been anything I actually believed in with all my heart. I definitely went through a period in high school where I tried desperately to attach myself to some kind of glorious faith, like all my peers seemed to have done so effortlessly, and I have the diary entries to prove it: “I just wish E- would stop ACTING like he likes me and ACTUALLY like me! Why does he put me through this??? But whatever, cause I know that the Lord is my shepherd and I will totally get through this!” is, embarrassingly enough, an actual line from a diary entry I wrote when I was a teenager. In all my years of living a life surrounded by churches and church going folk, a shepherding Lord is pretty much the only thing that I could remember from the handful of sermons I had been forced to listen to, and I referenced it like a Jewel lyric. When I was younger, I wanted very badly to have my heart filled up with the idea of this perfect thing that would comfort me in my times of need, but I felt like a phony, like I was going through the motions of a dance I needed to learn.

I could not articulate this then, but looking back, I realize that I have always felt full, even when I was incredibly sad, or mad, or angry, or confused. It doesn’t feel like there is enough room in my heart for some foreign, uncompromising and undefined force when that space is already filled so deeply with my passion for all the people in this world, the beautiful ideas that exist around us, and my growing acceptance of all my parts, both good and bad. Maybe that’s what people mean when they say that God is in us and all around us. Maybe it’s just the concept of God that feels unsatisfying to me, but that feeling that God is supposed to elicit in you, that wonder and that drive to be good and to ignite love in every single thing you do, that power to feel whole even when you are in a dark place, maybe THAT is the feeling that people experience when they have faith in God. Maybe it’s not about a white man in the sky, which is all that my young mind could understand when I learned about God as a child; maybe it’s just about semantics.

Okay, so let me do a little revision:

The Girl Scout Promise:

On my honor, I will try:
To serve God [the world, all the curious things in it, along with the safe parts and the scary parts about myself and others, and every single little thing in between] and my country,
To help people at all times,
And to live by the Girl Scout law.

I doubt that The Girl Scout Promise allows for compromise; as far as I know, this promise has been written since the beginning of Scout-dom and has remained unchanged for all these decades. But, it says, right there on the inside cover, that “Girl Scouting builds girls of Courage, Confidence, and Character, who make the world a better place“. Well, my world would be a better place if I could redefine the Promise to better fit my understanding of it. And how much confidence does it take to stand tall, proud and unashamed for not having the same belief systems that everyone else around you seem to have?

Maybe just enough to make me good Girl Scout material?

Fingers crossed.

girl scout promise. jpeg

 

Commencement

A year ago I had the honor of  returning to my alma mater to deliver the commencement speech to the graduating class of Catawba College, Class of 2013. Since then, parts of that speech have been shared in various forms over the Internet , so I am officially posting it here in it’s entirety on my website.

 

It has been exactly 10 years since I sat in the very seats you are sitting in now, and I remember everything about this day, from what I wore, to where my family sat, to who I hung out with at the parties I went to later that evening. What stands out for me most about my graduation day however was not a sense of accomplishment, as I had anticipated, but rather a sense of disconnectedness. I felt like I was outside of my body, watching everything that was happening to me, but not really taking part in any of it. I had been prepared to feel overwhelmed with happiness and excitement on this special day, and I did feel those things, to a certain extent, but I also felt disengaged. I never examined why until I was asked to be here today to give this commencement speech.

 

This day, the one you are living now and the one I lived a decade ago, marks a very extraordinary time in a person’s life, in ways that I wasn’t able to articulate until now. We spend our entire childhoods waiting to graduate to the next level. We start off in diapers and then we graduate to big boy or big girl underwear. We start off eating mushy foods and then we move on to solids. We all know what is supposed to come next- it’s taught to us, like a story. Once we master one thing, we get to graduate to another thing that is a little more challenging, and so on and so on. We start off looking at books with pictures and then we move on to reading books with words. We graduate middle school and then we graduate high school and then we graduate college. But see, that’s where my story stopped. Ten years ago I was graduating. I was sitting on this very campus with some of these very same professors who supported me and cared for me for 4 years, and I realized that my college graduation was as far as I had been taught to go. I didn’t know what came next, and my parents and professors couldn’t tell me, either. Everything felt bizarre to me on my graduation day because I no longer had any guidelines to follow, and I felt really lost.

 

Some of you will be able to relate to this and others will not. Your plans might be set already to go to grad school right after Catawba, or to look for a job, or to plan an engagement and start a family. But to all of you that think you have your stories figured out, I want to assure you that you do not. Your story cannot be figured out yet, and you don’t want it to be. At my own graduation I was frozen with fear and unable to fully take part in what was happening because of it; the end of my 4 years at Catawba had suddenly brought me more freedom than I knew what to do with, because it was now MY turn to map out how I wanted my story to go. It was my turn to write it. I got to decide what I was graduating to next. It’s one thing to tell everyone that your story is about moving to New York City to be on Broadway, but it is quite another thing to make that story a reality, to believe in it with all your heart and to make it come true.

 

For a while after I graduated, my story was to work at Chili’s selling baby back ribs to newly married, pregnant girls that I had gone to high school with. My dad is a postal worker and my mom is a property manager. They both have strong work ethics and weak bank accounts, so though they always supported my dreams of becoming a professional actor, I knew that it was going to be all MY responsibility to make it happen. Which meant moving back to Birmingham and working three jobs to save as much money in as short a time as I could. I was miserable having to live back home in a city I no longer felt comfortable in, working at jobs that I hated, but I knew that writing my own story would not come without its’ sacrifices. Eventually I saved up enough money for two month’s rent and a UHaul, and, along with fellow Catawba grad Amy Stran, we both graduated from living at home to living on our own in Manhattan.

 

I continued to write my story, to lay out all the things I wanted to do so that, one by one, I could conquer them and move on to the next level. Everything went smoothly for a while- it was a miracle that we found an affordable place to live that didn’t have a bathtub sitting in the middle of the living room, but we did. Within our first month in the city, Amy met her future husband and I got cast as a lead in an unimpressive (but paying) Off Broadway musical. The next chapters I planned to put in my story were to get an agent, to join the actor’s unions, to become a Broadway star, and then, I guess be happy forever and ever. But it did not happen that way. Here, my story started writing itself without my help at all. After 6 months, the Off Broadway show I was in closed unexpectedly, and just like that, I was jobless and having to scrounge in our desk drawers for change so that I could have enough money to eat. I survived on peanut butter and Wendy’s Dollar menus for weeks.

 

I was auditioning all the time but not getting cast in anything, and eventually I knew I had to either get a “regular” job or move back home to Birmingham, which I could not bear to do. So. I started temping as a receptionist at a high end fashion house that makes VERY expensive gowns for celebrities to wear at red carpet events. Every once in a while I would get to the studio early to walk into the show room before the designers had come into work, and I would run my fingers over the silks and sequins on the dresses, imagining myself wearing them as I received one Tony award after another. If I stayed at this place, I knew I would have job security and benefits and a steady paycheck for the first time in my young life, but I also knew that working there would ensure that I’d never write the story I originally wanted for myself. It was a tough decision, some might even say a stupid one, but I trusted my gut, and within a week of quitting my receptionist job, I was hired as a waitress and cast in the chorus of a tiny production called “Believe In Me, A BigFoot Musical” in which I had two lines. I had no idea at the time, but Bigfoot was going to change everything I knew about where my story was going.

 

I spent my first few years in NYC trying to manage everything that I wanted to happen to me, mapping out exactly how I wanted to succeed. Some of it happened and some of it got derailed, but at one point I realized that the trick was not to get so caught up in the writing of my story, but to get caught up in the living of it. To recognize that there was power not only in changing the things I was unhappy with, but also in relinquishing control and letting myself get swept up in this beautiful life I was making for myself, the good AND the bad parts. Any normal person probably would have said no to accepting such a small role in a show like Bigfoot the Musical, but I had just spent several months behind a desk answering phones all day, so there was comfort for me in returning to what I had spent so much time nurturing at Catawba; a passion for storytelling onstage, sharing a rehearsal space and harmonizing with beautiful voices. On our final night of performance, there was a man in the audience named Frank who for some reason was riveted by the delivery of my two lines I had in the show, (more proof for all you theatre majors out there that there really are no small parts!). Frank was friends with a producer who was looking to recast the title role in a musical he was working on, and within a week I had auditioned and been cast.

 

I graduated from chorus member of Bigfoot the Musical to my very first starring role at a prestigious theatre in Philadelphia, and over the course of the next several years I joined the actors unions, got an agent and a manager, and started working regularly in commercials, film, and television. This is how my story has gone. I never anticipated that film or tv was something that I would be a part of, was something that I would even enjoy, but it is, and I do. I graduated from steady employment in the entertainment industry to falling in love with Claire, my partner, who has supported and loved me courageously, and who has become an even bigger part of my story than I ever imagined another individual would. I graduated from falling in love to feeling brave enough to take my art seriously, starting my own web comic and freelancing as an illustrator. As of last week, I am officially a published author and artist, having contributed a comic I wrote and drew to an anthology called “The Letter Q”, which is a book about queer writers penning letters to themselves as young adults. Of all that I have accomplished in the 10 years since I have graduated from Catawba, this is the thing of which I am most proud, sharing my story with the LGBTQ community in support, in love, and in solidarity. It turns out that my story isn’t about one trajectory at all. My story bounces around; it has highs and lows, it veers off in one direction and then reverses and revisits areas it passed by in other years. So far, I still have not made it to Broadway; instead I have found immense joy in crafting my own story-telling technique, connecting with other people who may not have a voice of their own, and I cherish this more than anything my 22 year old self could have ever conjured.

 

My hope for you, class of 2012, is that you embrace the responsibility of drafting your own stories with gratitude and grace, that you allow yourselves to get swept up in the beautiful, unexpected moments of your life without losing sight of what makes you feel both happy and whole. I urge you to write your stories with vigor and commitment. To allow yourself to make mistakes. To relish in the journey of your story, and to remember to always write in pencil.

 

Thank you.