Monday, May 23, 2016

31 things I learned from cross stitching

Ta dah! Traditional birthday blog! Yay! (Or Not Yay, depending on your attitude about these annual posts). If you're interested in the archives, here are my 28th, 29th, and 30th year posts.

This year, I thought I'd mix it up a little and compose a list of 31 things that one of my favorite pastimes, cross stitching, has taught me about life. If you dare, read on.

[Also, none of the pictures in this post are stock photos; they are pictures of items in my own stitching collection -- get ready to cringe at how many things I have stitched (and remember there's plenty more where this came from. Yikes.).]

1. Thank your elders. 

When I was 10, the mother of a childhood friend bought me my first cross stitch kit. She spent an evening teaching me and her daughter all the skills I would need to continue on in this very happy hobby of mine. So, Jill Bell, wherever you are, let me offer a very sincere Thank You, for so patiently spending time with me on that fateful night, circa 1995.

You may lose touch with certain people in your life (I desperately want to find my 5th grade teacher who told me to "Keep writing"), but thank the ones who are still within your reach. Our words go so much farther than we can imagine.

2. Appreciate the picture slowly unfolding before you.

I've often described cross stitching as the slowest way to build an image -- hundreds of tiny stitches covering tiny, graph-paper-like canvas, slowly, slowly create a picture. So why do I bother with it?

Well, I love being able to see my progress, no matter the tempo at which it comes. Five minutes spent stitching with red thread and Voila! Ernie the Muppet has a nose. Several hours later and his pal Bert comes into existence.

Your future will never be clear, and you will find yourself asking what the EFF am i doing with myself and my life? Look around at the canvas, and enjoy what's there. Look forward to the final image, but enjoy the progress and the process of getting there.

3. Seek out joy.

Stitch Muppets! A friendly dragon! A turtle with a snail on its back!

Why? Because these cute little nuggets make people happy! Do things that make you and others happy, plain and simple. Doing so keeps us all going.

4. Know that a little tension is helpful. 

In cross stitch, we use embroidery hoops to hold our fabric taut. It is so much easier to sew for long periods of time when your canvas is pulled tight.

Too much tension in life is bad, yes. But a little stress, a little fire under you to get yourself moving and chasing after the things you love? Not so bad. If you feel yourself getting bored, take some action. It may feel like unwanted effort to get started, but you'll thank yourself later.

5. Spend some time with yourself.

Look. We need -- NEED -- each other. We are made for community, and I will wag my little finger at you as much as I have to to get the point across that you SHANT MAKE YOURSELF ISOLATED.

But if you move too fast and never stop to get to know yourself, you might get a little sad, a little confused about who you are and where you fit in this world. So take some time to figure out what makes you tick.

(And find a hobby like cross stitching that helps you to reset. Something that makes the time pass without you realizing it, during which you can think quietly about things that are important to you.)

6. Use your resources to make friends.

What do I do with my leftover lengths of embroidery thread? I make friendship bracelets, of course!

This world is teeming with people who can make you happy, who are out there waiting to meet you. Get out there and meet 'em. Connect. Love. And relish it all.

7. Don't worry how the back of your canvas looks.

The front of a cross stitch project looks like this:

The back looks like this:

The interworkings of our minds are sometimes going to be a mess. We all may look like we've got it together on the outside, but allllll of us are asking questions about who we are, whether we're good enough, are we going in the right direction, did we take a wrong turn?

You're good enough. And you're right where you're meant to be.

Love yourself, and know that we all have knots inside of us. Don't let that interfere with your ability to shine and share your own, unique beauty with the world.

8. Embrace your old soul.

For me, my old soul comes through in my voracious reading, my 8:00 bedtime, and, you guessed it, my incessant stitching.

If something makes you quirky or doesn't quite fit with your generation, who cares? Whatever it is is too precious to be lost, so latch onto it and run with it.

And go to bed at 8 if you want. You have my, the birthday girl's, official permission.

9. Give, give, give. (And spoil babies).

By and large, I give my stitching projects away as gifts. (I know, I'm practically a nun.) They make people so happy, and cliche as it is, that makes me happy.

Most of what I stitch, too, are baby bibs or things to hang in nurseries.

If you don't give things, give of yourself. Your time, your listening ear, your spare bedroom when someone comes in town to visit. You won't regret it.

10. Remember that life is not a coloring book. Fill it with color, even if there aren't clear lines drawn for you.

In cross stitch, we stitch all of our X's (hence the name, cross stitch) first. Then at the very end, we add in that black outline stitching to make the image pop and become more defined.

Almost done...

...annnd, done!

My Pops reminds me that I have to chase my dreams, "because they won't chase you."

Don't wait for someone to draw lines for you to fill in. Just do what feels best, what adds color and good vibes to your life. God willing, the clarity of whether you're doing the right thing will eventually follow.

11. Don't limit yourself to one thing.

Abby refers to my cross stitch as my "crack," because I am, well, fine, addicted to it.

But if I do "crack" for too long in one sitting, I get sad. In addition to a hobby that brings me much contentment, I need people. And words, and food, and fresh air and exercise.

Mental Health Management 101: don't let yourself sit too long doing any one thing. Change your activity, and change your scenery. Otherwise you might start to feel down or simply agitated. You can always come back to that book you're obsessively reading, but stepping away from it temporarily will increase your longevity.

Also get out tha house. Love on people and let them love on you.

12. If the cat lies on your work, don't get mad. Take a break. 

Max is famous for lying on my stitching supplies just after I set them out for use. This is not always my favorite thing.

But then I take in his cute face and my annoyance melts away. He wants to be near me, and that's sweet.

If a pet, or a child, crawls into your lap, just soak it up. Soak, soak, soak.

13. Take time to organize, but don't lose yourself in a mess.

The case that holds my embroidery floss is one of the few corners of my life that is organized. And even that gets sloppy at times.

Being a messy person has occasionally caused me to truly feel bad about myself.

But you know what? Clean room or no, I have lived. I don't look back on any one of my positive experiences and wish I had instead spent that time making my bed.

Sure, sometimes you just have to refresh the cat litter, but try not to beat yourself up if things around you aren't up to the Martha Stewart standard. (I particularly offer this advice to parents of young kiddos. Trust me, you're doing a great job, even if your living room is strewn with toys.)

14. Life is your canvas. Roam around on it however feels right to you.

There are two major varieties of cross stitch: counted, where you follow a graph to create your picture; and stamped, where the image is printed on the fabric and you use thread to match the colors of the pre-printed ink.

And then, there are people who just whip out blank graph paper and make their own patterns.

Whether you're someone who likes rules, someone who needs a guide, or someone who needs to blaze her own trail, guess what? It's all cross stitch (or, ya know, getting the job done) in the end. Just do what ya gotta do to be you, and enjoy the ride.

15. If you can, take on an affordable hobby.

My collection of cross stitch kits is out of hand, I admit.

But the pastime is relatively cheap. A kit, on average, is about 15 bucks, and one kit takes me several days or weeks (or months or years) to complete.

I mean, do what you gotta do, and if it costs a bit, then Godspeed to you. But try and find something that you can do in times of both richer and poorer.

16. Wet your whistle.

As a cross stitcher, I always moisten the end of my thread with some good old fashioned spit to better thread the eye of my needle.

So I keep myself hydrated, with an adult beverage, some fizzy water, coffee.

Drink lots of water, and make lots of coffee (or cocktail) dates with your pals. The former will keep you feeling even and, well, so will the latter.

17. Use a writing utensil to mark your path.

I use a marker to indicate on my cross stitch graphs the stitches I've completed. It keeps me from getting off course, and prevents re-counting of squares I've already counted.

And I write about my experiences. Not so much my cross stitch experiences, but my other life experiences. Now, you don't have to be a writer, but take some time to document your journey. Journal, blog, write a letter. Writing helps us process confusing times, and the research shows that it helps us remember, too.

18. Keep your hands busy. 

If you find that you can't turn your mind off, turn your hands on.

I (obviously) do this quite often by way of stitching. But there are approximately 8 billion other things you can do with your hands to combat anxiety that may be creeping into your life.

Anxiety's pretty darn common (and so is depression), so don't lose heart if they visit you. But know that they don't have to rule you. The transfer from head to hands is extremely powerful in adjusting our thoughts from negative to positive.

19. Don't doubt it: Eyes really are windows to the soul.

Let's play Spot the Zombie for a sec:

If you guessed Daisy Duck, you would be correct! Why? Because the girl's got no eyes!

Until I add pupils to the characters I stitch, they exude very little personality.

Let's have some real talk for a sec: eye contact can be a little weird. There's a reason it makes us squirmy and urges us to look away. Because it's important.

Pay attention to your friends' eyes, and facial expressions. There may be something there that they're not telling you out loud.

20. Sometimes life will be bland, and you just have to get through those parts.

I loooove to stitch. But I haaaaate to stitch white thread onto a white canvas.

Oh, my poor eyes.

Not to mention it's booooring. I always want to be stitching in color.

My dear friend Courtney and I have reflected several times on the humdrum of life. What to do with it? Well, in 31 years of life, I've come to accept that you just have to live through it. Breathe. Take a shower. Go to work. It will pass, and excitement will come along soon enough. And while you're waiting, take no shame in enjoying the little things. They will get you through.

21. Make your daydream your DREAM. 

I literally daydream about stitching. I zone out at work thinking about whatever book I'm currently reading. And I zip down the freeway composing essays in my head.

Find whatever it is that distracts you from the very real, very tangible life around you, and go after it.

But don't crash your car while you're daydreaming.

22. Know that sometimes a scrap just needs to be thrown away.

When a piece of thread gets too short to comfortably work with, I toss it. I can always go to Michaels and get more.

If a job, or relationship, or a clunky old car is bringing you down, consider the situation really really carefully, and ask yourself if you need to part with it. Bear in mind that several relationships are worth fighting for, but if one is hurting you, then be honest with yourself about it.

23. Don't stray too far from fellow stitches, or you may get lost.

As tempting as it is, I don't veer off to whatever point on my canvas I want to work on at the moment. I start in the center, and work my way outward on the fabric. In making stitches only adjacent to other stitches, I can be more certain the picture I'm creating will come out accurately.

My independence causes me to want my own space sometimes. But I know that I must always return to the people in my life, to keep myself healthy, happy, and sane. None of us can do this thing on our own.

24. Don't lose the goal for sight of the stitches.

No way around it: it takes a lot of tiny stitches to complete a cross stitched image.

It takes a lot of days at the office, a lot of hours in the library, a lot of pirouettes on a polished floor, to reach a final goal.

When I look at the outline for my book and see how much I have left to write, I feel like I'll never reach the end. But when I focus on why I'm writing it, and get lost in the actual composition, I write 100, 500, 1,000 words in one sitting. And it feels like flying.

Eyes. On. The. Prize.

25. If you must become addicted to something (and most of us will), do your best to make it a healthy obsession.

Healthy is a relative term, I know. The fact that we're on point #25 of a list of 31 things that I've learned from cross stitch should leave little doubt in your mind that I maybe have a problem when it comes to employing needle and thread.

Just make sure, however, when selecting your life hobbies, that you're not doing drugs or causing harm to yourself or others, K? Thanks.

26. Appreciate your eyesight while you've still got it.

I know that stitching is going to ruin my eyes. But I'm grateful that I can see so clearly to do something I so dearly love.

Sometimes when I catch myself complaining about things like being out of shape or a little chubby, I remind myself that at least I can walk. I don't want to sound preachy or cliche, but don't take your most basic blessings for granted. They're blessings nonetheless.

27. Only stitch a Grouch; don't be one. 

This one speaks for itself. Just be nice. If you find this genuinely hard to do, you may have some stuff to work through. And I don't say this whatsoever in jest: you can seek professional counsel to work through that stuff. Bear it seriously in mind that treating people badly is not doing this world any favors; its condition is fragile enough.

28. Where you can, find the zen in tedious tasks. 

I recently spent 5 minutes talking very quickly, explaining to Alex how there are different brands of cross stitch kits, and with them come different floss numbering systems, and there are conversion charts online, and I get great joy from looking up the conversions, tagging the spools with their correct numbers, and lining up all my bobbins of floss in order.

"I'm so glad that you felt you could tell me that and not be at all embarrassed by it," he said, sincerely.

"Why would I be embarrassed?," my response.

I don't know about y'all, but I love me some busy work. A lot of people complain about it, but I find the repetition and the unplugging of the creative portions of my brain to be healing, resetting. Try to reframe your attitude toward those tasks that don't require you to analyze. Life will never come up short in the stress it has to offer, so enjoy the mindless breaks it sometimes hands you.

29. Tuck your stitches. 

You might think that cross stitchers complete a length of thread by knotting it off. While we do occasionally make knots for other reasons, at the end of a series of stitches, we actually tuck the thread through other, already-made stitches on the back of the canvas. (This is kind of hard to explain, but moral of the story is that cross stitching requires fewer knots than one might think).

This gentle practice holds your hard stitching work in place, and gets the job done just as well as a knot would.

When gentleness will suffice, seek the less knotted route in life.

30. You will thread a needle thousands of times, and that's awesome.

I thread my needle so often I hardly notice anymore.

It's overwhelming when we consider how many times we will blink, or swallow, or inhale, in our lifetime. Think of how many times, for example, that you've peed to date.

Your bladder has worked pretty hard, eh?

Reflect sometimes on how amazing our bodies are. How we don't have to concentrate on the beating of our heart. How (some of us - not I) are built to complete marathons. Incredible, it is.

31. And finally, know that your many, tiny actions can't be easily undone.

This is a thought I've been keeping in my back pocket for a while.

When you start a thread on a canvas, it's vulnerable. If a knot doesn't hold on the backside of the fabric, the thread can pull through, which is obnoxious because it keeps you from creating an initial stitch. Until you've made several stitches, you have to pull the thread lightly, until you know the end won't budge.

Now picture this: an earthquake rattles a wall and knocks a framed cross stitch piece to the floor. The glass splinters, but the image is intact.

Why? Because a giant, terrifying earthquake can't pull out all those tiny stitches you've so devotedly made. The earthquake is powerful, yes, but not equipped to undo such particular detail.

Sure, some things are going to knock us down. God gives and takes away, and it's not up to us which dreams we get to keep, no matter our death grip on them. (Phil Vischer, creator of VeggieTales, speaks to this with incredible humility in his fantastic memoir, Me, Myself, and Bob).

But I don't want any of you to feel like your day in, day out steps toward your dreams are of no consequence. I do believe that God is in the big and the small of our lives. In the final product, and in the daily breaths we take to get there.

Keep on keepin' on. You'll reach that final, beautiful image. Stitch by stitch.

Much love,
The Birthday Girl

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