Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Crafts with a Cause

My mom loved crafts. It wasn't uncommon, when I'd come home from school in the afternoon or from college on the weekends, to see the dining room table piled high with craft supplies. She was happiest when she had the time to sit down with a glue gun and ribbons and turn it into something beautiful. She spent many years running Family Fun Events at our church, where she prepared crafts for kids to do at stations around the church. Sometimes, her exuberance for craft supplies exceeded her time to make all the things she wanted - our downstairs closet in the basement was stacked to the ceiling with mosaic pieces, glue, paper, markers, and sundry other materials.

And it's not just my mom. My whole family has a talent for making things. My grandmother was one of the first Bachelor of Arts graduate at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and she is an incredible painter. In the days before digital designs, she worked as an artist at a newspaper, drawing women's clothes and shoes for advertisements. 

My sister is craft-maker extraordinaire. She can crochet a scarf in one episode of Gilmore Girls and has made me countless skirts/dresses/shirts/shirt extenders (you can ask her about that last one). My godmother graduated from MICA and is a painter, art teacher, artist, and social entrepreneur. My cousin is an amazing photographer and graphic designer. While it's not the traditional sense of crafting, my dad, brother-in-law and godfather are all extremely handy and make patios, benches, tables, fences, decks, arbors, you name it (my dad can also sew and repair pretty much anything and has been known to make great dollhouses and backyard swing sets!).

Me, though? Craft talent completely skipped me. I'm not good at fiddly things and my fingers always end up coated in glue and glitter (quite similar to my adult crafting experience, in fact). Also, arts and crafts just bore me to tears. As a child, sitting at a table messing about with things made me super impatient. As an adult, I get annoyed with any crap I make because it ends up being clutter.

So when I told my family by email that I was planning to start a craft group at St. Columba's, my sister's reaction was an all-caps "WHAAATT?!?!?!!", seconded by my godmother. Crafts, while they are very much my family's "thing", are clearly not my thing. 

But little by little, over the past six months, I had begun to see how a crafts group could be a ministry for the church of St. Columba's. The idea of Crafts with a Cause came out of several conversations with people in the Mission Partners and the church about ways to engage the community more. It seems like in churches there are always random bits and bobs (v. British phrase) floating around and our Junior Church room was piled high with craft supplies from bygone years. I had a lot of random raw materials and the idea that it would attract a wide variety of people who might benefit. 

But getting it started was much harder than I expected to start a simple church group. After seeking approval (and all the official things one does to start groups at a church), and lots of back-and-forth internally, I finally settled on the idea of a once-weekly, daytime crafts group that makes crafts not just for fun, but for a purpose. (This is because of my aforementioned dislike of useless craft items that float around taking up space.) 

A huge part of the inspiration for a crafts-themed group was Christian Service Group, run by Mrs. Hilma, at Ascension Lutheran (my home church). My grandma was a member for years. The group meets once per week to make and organize supplies for other groups around the church and the community. They even painted cute vegetable-themed paperweights for the Pigtown Farmers Market last year (of which I was Market Manager). Mrs. Hilma gave me some ideas for crafts, and I love this little connection with my home church here at St. Columba's - it's a tiny piece of Ascension legacy here in England. 

After figuring out the basic idea, I started learning how to advertise. I made a flier and took it around to various York institutions, all of which said oh, yes, thank you, and then when I'd revisit that location it would have disappeared.... Another thing I realized after the first few sessions was that although the group was initially designed and geared for seniors, it could include seniors and also benefit lots of others, so I changed our fliers/mission to be a crafting group for all. (This has been good so far.) 

I learned that the best way to get people to come is the old-fashioned way - with flyering doors and posters on the railings of the church. I also pass out fliers at Carecent (the homeless breakfast program where I volunteer) and target people who could really benefit from a weekly meet-up. 

I was also struggling with coming up with craft ideas and supplies on the cheap - it was so easy when I had my mom's closet at my disposal but now I am realizing just how expensive crafting can get! I realized quickly that I needed to supplement the random craft supplies in the building with other actual necessities - glue, string, tape, scissors. 

Along the way, I enlisted a friend and congregant of St. Columba's, Jack, to help me out. He is retired but you wouldn't know it from the amount of things he still is involved in. He morally supports us and also comes to make teas for the group (this is a serious job here in Britain), even though crafting isn't really his thing. Other members of St. Columba's have been really supportive and invested as well. 

The third challenge to the group was figuring out what causes would actually want our crafts. This has gotten way easier as time has gone on. At first it was a challenge and we made pocket calendars and cards for homeless guests at Carecent (which was sort of a gimme, as at the time I was organizing the Winter Support Bag program with members of St. Columba's, and we could just tuck those items into bags of supplies for homeless people in York). 

Then we made bird feeders for overwintering birds, clay pots to donate to a senior group that needs raffle prizes. Many of the materials were cheap or recycled (which pleases my environmentally-conscious self). I still didn't feel like these were sustainable type crafts to help communities in need, as fun as they were. 

But then I connected with the coordinator for the Street Angels (a St. Columba's Mission Partner). This lovely woman is also a volunteer for Operation Orphan, which donates warm clothes to vulnerable children in Moldova. She came in and did a special session where we learned about her work (and her friend came as well). I did some special outreach for this series of three sessions that began in January. 

Because it was a session that was particularly relatable for many people, we had a huge turnout. People who knew how to knit or crochet taught the others. I'm a beginning crocheter - I can't be my sister's sister without at least knowing something - and because this is my fourth attempt at learning I'm finally getting the hang of it! 

Other crafts I have planned are more specifically targeted for groups in need. This week, we've started our first project as a group. We're making a bunting sign for the Oxfam charity shop to hang in their window that tells people to come volunteer. This is in conjunction with another program I'm running at church called Fairtrade Fortnight (since Oxfam supports Fairtrade, it's on-message). Oxfam also donated us a TON of supplies for only two pounds, which did my bargain-hunting heart good. (I told Derek and Isobel this, and Derek said he thought I was becoming more and more British every day - thriftiness being such a virtue here.) 

Somehow I suddenly have the next two and a half months planned out with solidly fun, simple, affordable, and useful crafts for groups in York. I'm amazed, but it really is because of all of the years of my mom crafting in my vicinity. Many of my ideas come from her projects for Family Fun Events and other activities. No matter how much I tried to avoid it, I think I soaked in some of her expertise and enthusiasm and it got buried really deep down. So now my latent craft-enthusiasm is surfacing, at least for this year.  

And I'm pretty sure my mom is kinda laughing at me right now. All the years I hated on crafting, and now here I am, brainstorming, shopping, and prepping crafts for people every single week.

The weirdest part? I'm totally loving it. Crafts with a Cause is one of the highlights of my week. I love the creativity of planning and the thrill of the hunt for craft supplies. I also even like doing outreach, even though talking to people in a persuasive kind of way is usually my least favorite thing. 

The biggest reason I love it, though, is the people that come. Several of the guests at Carecent (which is the homeless breakfast program where I volunteer every Monday morning) come, a fellow volunteer friend, some church members from St. Columba's, and the wife of our organist all attend and consider themselves a part of the group. I love getting to know these people better because of CWAC. I'm hoping more people come as time wears on. 

And excitingly, some folks from the neighborhood have become more-or-less regulars too! Connecting with the local community is something that Derek (my supervisor) feels strongly about us pursuing as a church, so I am quite pleased that this group can help achieve that goal. 

Last week was one of the most special. A few guests from Carecent had come, as well as a woman who uses crutches or a wheelchair to get around. We were having a really good conversation and one of the Carecent guests mentioned to the woman about how she must have a hard time getting around (it was relevant but I can't remember the details). He was worried immediately that he'd offended her but she looked so astonished and said, "No, you're absolutely right. No one ever acknowledges that, thank you." She continued and said that it feels like people just look past her when she uses a wheelchair like she's not even there. One of the other women, who is homeless, said she feels the exact same way about sleeping on the streets. It was such a powerful conversation. 

It's an eclectic group of people who attend, and I think in that way it's achieving one of the purposes of my role here, which is to open the church up to more members of the community and make people feel welcome. I feel a thrill when someone new walks in the doors. 

Lots of things remind me of my mom, and Crafts with a Cause makes me think of her all the time. I feel her presence when I'm standing in the small crafts room that contains my hodgepodge supplies - I know she's looking over my shoulder and would be inspired by the items I've collected for future sessions. I can sense it when I'm standing in Boyes, trying to pick out affordable supplies (she was all too aware of my angst and annoyance about any sort of shopping). And I feel it when I'm welcoming new members to the group, because she was passionate about our church being a welcoming place for all.  

At times, it is hard to be doing something so near to her heart without her here to offer me her advice and crafting knowledge. But it also a great joy for me to create something that she would have loved so much.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Quotable Quotes

I love collecting words. In the absence of much time this week, I wanted to share a pictoral blog of some of my favorite quotes that I've collected so far into my YAGM year! Some are funny, some are thought-provoking, and some are just weird.

Mostly, though, I love how the power of words is apparent everywhere.

Thanks to Shantonu :)

(From a hike Shantonu and I did in the Yorkshire Dales town of Settle)

Shantonu's life motto!

My all-time favorite quote of the year

From the Elephant Cafe in Edinburgh

This is hard to see - it says "Celebrate the things you love. A hobby. A passion. A person." or something like that. I just liked the "Celebrate the things you love" bit. 

I would amend this for me to say, "Hot Chocolate" or "Tea"

My friend told me this reminded her of me. Don't think that's a compliment but it's completely true.


A poem on the wall of a giant building. You can read the text here

The best for last...this is a poster in a shop window in York and it makes me laugh every time I see it. 

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Piano Lessons

Since early October, I've been taking piano lessons. Taking piano lessons was one of my Five Resolutions for Being 25 this year. The process of taking lessons also illustrates my favorite thing about the universe: when you ask, it answers.

I've always wanted to revisit piano. I took lessons on and off during elementary school and never got past the basics. Probably actually practicing might have helped. Since then, a combination of lacking time, money, and follow-through have prevented me from pursuing the aforementioned goal.

Part of the reason I ended up taking piano lessons was simply the rhetoric I've been fed around finding yourself during your service year. A piece of this is that people always seem to tell you, when you've told them you're doing a year of international service, that you're going to have so much time on your hands. This, they excitedly tell you, means you can pursue all kinds of new hobbies!

Honestly, this always made me cringe a tiny bit. I love and spend time on any number of average-middle-class-white-girl hobbies: cooking, writing, reading, Zumba, yoga, running, etc. But I didn't think England was the place to necessarily grow my affection for these hobbies; they're a big part of my life already and it was fine and all that.

Frankly, what I really wanted was more time to watch Netflix, which I never seem to make time for at home. But that is not a socially appropriate thing to say when people ask you what you're planning to do to entertain yourself during a year abroad. (Really, though, catching up on Gossip Girl has been soooooo goooood.)

I can't exactly recall when I decided officially I wanted to take piano lessons here and that was going to be it - my YAGM year hobby. I think it was partly because music is a huge part of life at St. Columba's (I'll write more about this later on in another post) and I was inspired by the gusto with which my host community is involved in musical endeavors.

When I decided to take piano lessons, I also decided I'd continue a little life experiment I've been practicing over the last year or two. I've been having the experience where if I actually voice my needs, they tend to be met more. Perhaps this began when I realized Shantonu couldn't actually read my mind and I needed to tell him how I felt if I wanted him to know (ugh. men.), but it got bigger than just growth in my romantic relationship.

If I had a weird medical complaint I started mentioning it to people to see if they had experienced something similar and had solutions. I started bringing up when I wanted to find something or remember something. If I needed a random item, I'd casually drop it in conversation as much as possible to people. Lo and behold, solutions to my problems/answers to my questions/things I'd need would start appearing!

Possibly this is one of those experiences that resonates deeply with you; you feel as if we are kindred spirits and you have had a similar awakening! Or maybe you're like, yeah...DUH. Either way, to me, it was a revelation and it felt like a validation that the bigger universe out there responds to energy and it leads to positive responses back at you. People experience this in different ways/call it different things: God responding to prayer, the universe listening to positive energy. Both are fine, but basically, I like that it works.

So I decided to try this out again with my piano lesson needs. After I decided to take them I mentioned it to everyone who might have a random connection who taught piano. I felt awkward mentioning this to people I barely knew at the time (this was back in early September) but there's a certain amount of oh-screw-it that I'm developing in social situations where I feel uncomfortable, simply because I feel socially uncomfortable so frequently now that I just have to roll with it.

Anyway, no dice. Then I turned 25, continuing to hold out hope that I would find a piano teacher. The very next day after my birthday, I went to Coffee Morning at church. I ended up next to Isobel and sitting across from Helen. Helen comes into the church once a week to practice the organ on Tuesdays and happened to join us that day for our Coffee Morning.

The St. Columba's organ (that's a person in the background, not a ghost FYI)

Somehow the conversation led to music-learning and, as Isobel nodded encouragingly, I did my whole awkwardly/non-awkwardly mentioning that I really wanted to take piano lessons and did she know anyone and blah blah blah. Helen looked interested. "Well," she said. "I know how to play piano. I could teach you when I come in here on Tuesday mornings."

So I've been taking lessons for almost four months now and it's one of the highlights of my week. We meet in the church sanctuary, where the Organ is, and spend about a half an hour reviewing the pieces I'm working on. Helen is kind and patient (even though she tells me she doesn't consider herself patient) and she's really good at explaining things. She requires me to slow down and understand the piece, and even after she's heard "Miserable Mary" four times she doesn't seem annoyed by it.

Helen doesn't charge me for the lessons and hasn't even mentioned it ever, which is something I'm both overwhelmingly grateful for and kind of anxious about. Naturally, I think Westerners feel that things should be "equal" - money for services provided etc - and Helen's kindness is more than I can repay monetarily or otherwise. Maybe she knows I'm on a volunteer stipend and don't have a ton of money, but I think more likely she does it just because she's a very nice person.

Helen also showed me more about the organ, which was super cool. The organ is not that something I ever could imagine myself learning, but I'm starting to appreciate the incredible complexities of this beautiful instrument because of Helen. In short, she's a great teacher and I am so grateful for her.

 The piano in the church space (where we do our lessons) 

It didn't take long for me to remember why I'd quit piano in the first place. Practicing is super annoying sometimes, especially when my vision of myself is playing something like Moonlight Sonata and my reality is playing pieces like Ode to Joy. My goal is to practice a little bit every day, but it can be challenging. There are three pianos at the church and it's like two minutes away, so the only reason it's hard is that I'm lazy. When I do practice for a stretch of days, I find myself craving getting back to the piano and enjoying it more and more.

Helen has also encouraged me to keep it up, and when she sensed I was getting bored with my first piano book (an old one of her daughter's) she found another book that I could buy.

Buying that book reminded me of something I'd read in Gretchen Rubin's book, The Happiness Project. In it, she talks about how purchasing something that we really want, after having anticipated that want for a long time, can bring us so much joy. I thought of that when I went to the music store with a slip of paper given to me by Helen with the name of the piano book on it, and went through the actions of finding it, perusing it, and then purchasing it. Each action was accompanied by joy, even when we got to the check out counter and I slid my card and knew my precious money was leaving my bank account (a moment I always hate because I'm a cheapskate/poor/frugal).

It was filled with joy because the book was leading me to a goal - learning piano - and to a relationship - with Helen - that was (and is) increasingly important to me. We get to hang out, play piano, and learn about each others' lives. I asked the universe for piano lessons, but I also got a friend out of it too.