Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Kindness of Strangers

Oh wretched back, that fails me at my hour of need.
Sometimes I wax Shakespearean when I'm in pain.
You should've heard me when I was in labor. It sounded like King Lear in the delivery ward (ba-dum-bum)...

In case you didn't know, the human body miraculously loosens its joints when a woman is going to have a baby.

The part two of this fact is that it takes months for the joints to settle back into their comfortable places again.

During which time period, backs can go out.
Especially if you lean over all wonky with a whopping 21-pound-baby in your arms.
Silly Mama.

ANYWAY, I digress. Nevermind the abysmal depth of my suffering-no, no, I'll be...(hand on forehead)...alright.

Actually, I wanted to talk today about the kindness of strangers. There's so much bad news. Economy. Politics. The owner of Segway dying because he drove his Segway off a cliff accidentally. (Look, I know it's tragic, but don't pretend you're not laughing, too.)

And in the midst of the suffering, and bad news, and egg recalls, let's celebrate the kindness of strangers, upon which Scarlett depended so much.

Recently, a Kind Sir sponsored a giveaway on this blog. A beautiful wooden bowl was featured. I enjoyed interviewing him, and I loved giving something away. I've been too poor lately to be able to give much away, so it was a blessing to bless someone else with someone else's blessing of a woodworking talent.

Unravel THAT.

Anyway, the Kind Sir, being kind, so thoroughly enjoyed being featured here at the Big Red Couch that he said he wanted to send a small thank-you gift. This took me aback, but I thought it was kind, so I said that'd be fine.

In the mail yesterday, Kind Sir's wife sent a beautifully penned thank-you note (I've never met this charming couple) with a delicate, crocheted bookmark in it, which was handy, because I'm reading a thick paperback book right now and keep manhandling it by leaving it upside-down and open, because I don't have a bookmark, which is ridiculous, because I read so much. All my bookmarks are in storage.

So I thought that that was the kind gift, and then she wrote that the kind gift was on its way, but she wanted to express appreciation in the mean time through this delicate, handcrafted bookmark.

Now, I don't know about you, but the tender kindness of strangers that transcended online interactions was very touching. It's been so dark, lately: no one has jobs, and everyone is losing their house, and fish in the Gulf of Mexico are dying, and Peruvian miners are trapped, and I put my back out - which of course ranks right up there with the rest - and I was touched. I just thought it'd be fun to host a giveaway. But it seems, it was more than that to this artisan.

It got me thinking about other strangers' kindnesses: the time someone helped out when I was in school and foolishly ran out of gas on the side of the road; the times people held the door for me when I was a thousand months pregnant; the time a lady paid for my latte when I realized I didn't have any money in my wallet; the times tired-looking folks at the grocery store tell me to go ahead of them since I have two things and they have twenty; the time an anonymous someone paid for my senior trip in high school (still don't know who...); the time people have called out, saying "oh! your scarf - " or "oh - your change!" or "oh - your glove" or whatever I have forgotten or dropped; the time a bunch of women I'd never met came to my baby shower and shocked me with their generosity; the time...

The time.

I am so thankful, today, for the kindness of strangers; for Providence wearing L.L. Bean turtlenecks or Reebok sneakers or whatever you randomly notice about the person standing in front of you or behind you or next to you, who you don't know, but who is kind.

I hope today you can quickly think of several instances in which strangers were kind to you. Strangers who held a door, or gave your car a jump, or paid your grocery bill, or left a note on your windshield saying "it was me that put that dent there, here's my insurance information," or said "wait - your change!" or "no, go ahead of me, it's okay"...

Please share a few of these experiences with the rest of us.

I am so thankful for the kindness of strangers. I bet you are, too.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Bowled Over: Giveaway!!

This giveaway is now closed, but feel free to enjoy my chat with Jim from the Etsy shop "A Fresh Twist," and enjoy his work!

The WINNER of this beautiful, hand-turned red oak bowl is

Tune in for upcoming giveaways...including one that is yummy!

I really enjoyed hosting a recent giveaway - it was so nice to share! I am ridiculously pleased to introduce another giveaway - and this one is all about Jim...

Jim makes bowls. Beautiful wooden bowls. (Read more about him here.) And Jim has made a beautiful wooden bowl out of red oak in honor of the Big Red Couch. Jim and I chatted a little bit and I was fascinated to learn more about woodworking.

This is what I love: not only has Jim hand-turned a red oak bowl for the Big Red Couch, he provided photos of the process, so you can see the bowl being born. I absolutely love this.

So, without further ado...

1. So, Jim, I have to ask: did you get an "A" in shop class? How did you begin woodworking?

Actually, my wife bought me a lathe for my birthday a couple of years ago, and I was immediately hooked. The process of "turning" something that is going to be thrown away or burned up into something useful and beautiful is a very rewarding experience.
In the beginning, I read everything I could about turning, and indulged in a lot of trial and error. Sometimes the wood flew off the lathe and bounced around; thankfully things stay on much more now. For Christmas the next year, my wife upgraded me to a better lathe. I had completely worn out the first one, (motor, bolts, belts)!

2. How did you go from crafting bowls in Michigan to setting up an Etsy shop online?

After my new lathe, my output increased. We had bowls everywhere. People would come over and say how much they liked them. My wife bought a cabinet with a glass door at an antique shop for my bowls. When that was full, she and my two boys made a bigger cabinet with handmade stained glass in the front doors. Soon that, too, was full. My wife had bought some pottery through Etsy in the past and she suggested that I sell my bowls there. It was great setting up the store and I have enjoyed it so far.

3. I see beautifully shaped, crafted bowls - but I don't know anything about the creation process. Can you summarize the steps between a hunk of wood and a shiny, curved dish?

The process of creating is different for everybody. Ask three wood turners what their techniques are for turning and you will get three different answers. I use various tools to carve the wood and the process may take a couple of hours or a couple of days depending on the complexity. As the wood spins I guide it to the shape I have in mind. Other times the wood persuades me that something different would be even better.

4. What's your favorite thing that you've made?

That's a hard one. Probably my favorite piece is the holder for my wife's paint brushes. Made of slightly-spalted maple, it curves in at the middle and flares out on the top and bottom. I like the shape of it and the way the wood looks, but I also like that it helps her to create works of art.

5. Do you ever wonder where your creations will end up - how their story continues after they leave your hands?

I think about this one a lot. I hope that people get use, or possibly even inspiration out of my creations. Who knows where a bowl may end up or what use it may have? The longer a bowl is around and passed on, the longer and more interesting a s
tory it has to tell. I hope that people get as much enjoyment out of them as I do in making them.

And now, for the important part!
Enter to win this very bowl!

Visit Jim's shop, A Fresh Twist, at Etsy, and share your favorite item from it in a comment below. Be sure to include your email address. That's it!

Contest ends at midnight central time on Friday, September 17, 2010.
Winner will be chosen by random.org and will have 48 hours to respond once notified.
US and Canadian residents only. One entry per person.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Ashes in a Box

In ancient Egypt, the dead - the wealthy, at least - were mummified: stuffed, wrapped, and buried with mummified servants, pets, and loved ones in preparation for an immediate afterlife (in which one would desire one's servants, pets, and loved ones).

Below Rome, tourists can walk through echoing catacombs - miles of which are still relatively unexplored - where people were buried, underground, paintings on wet plaster occasionally depicting what the deceased did in life.

In Germany, Martin Luther wrote practical instructions on how to dispose of plague victims to contain the spread of the disease in a way that was both respectful and sanitary. (outside the city)

Across the ocean in Great Britain, you can find tombstones with -er - quite a few names on them. When you live on an island, real estate is scarce. Sometimes graves went several coffins deep.

In modern-day North America, apparently you visit the post office.

Oh, not always. Sometimes there are notable funerals when a sobbing (drunk?) family member sings Frank Sinatra's "I Did It My Way" in tribute of the person up front. (That was an interesting experience.)

Occasionally Catholic churches offer columabariums for the..deposit?..of ashes on sacred space, in a quiet, reverent atmosphere (no Halloween teenagers leaving Budweiser cans on tombstones).

But a few weeks ago, I went, with my mother-in-law, to the Post Office.

It started this way:
"Oh, Joy, did you see you got a card from the mailman for a package pick-up?"
"Yes, I've been putting it off, I dread going."
(to myself: Hmm, what, did J.C. Penney's mess up an order or something?)
"I think it's Mother's remains."
(in my head: WHOA, holy cow, didn't see that coming, no wonder she's weirded out.)
"What?? That's right, there was only a memorial service. It's taken this long?"
(to myself: That's right, Grandmommy donated her body to scientific research, and I guess...I guess now, they're done.)
"Do you want someone to go with you? That's not the kind of thing you should have to do by yourself. I'll go."
"Oh, I'll probably be alright, it's just weird, I mean, it's her - at the post office. I've been dreading this ever since she passed. I guess the university is done. It's just so random that it's now."
(in my head: no woman needs to go pick up her mother's remains at the bleepity bleep post office by herself. I'm going.)

And so, we went. To the post office. To pick up Grandmommy. Kind of.

My sweet, sweet mother-in-law was shaky. She blinked a lot. And then we saw the line. A cold, practical, bureaucratic line over 20 people long.

We were going to have to look at Disney stamps while she waited for her mother's ashes? In a crowded post office in a strip mall?

She gritted her teeth. A long line meant Keeping It Together all the longer. Thankfully, southern women are good at gritting their teeth.

It was hot, and smelly, and she stood with the little card in her hand, as if she'd just ordered a sandwich at a deli. Thankfully, the postal workers waved "pick-up's" ahead. We went to the counter. She handed over the card. The big, bustling man behind the counter bustled into the back room.

We stood. She blinked rapidly. I patted her shoulder awkwardly.

But a few seconds, then a few minutes, then I was trying to make weird we're-waiting-to-pick-up-ashes small talk.

It started to get tense.

They weren't...

They weren't having trouble finding the box, were they?

Sweet mother-in-law began to voice this concern. We'd stood at the counter for at least five whole, long minutes. Others came and went. Someone came over to make sure we'd been helped. Customers filed through the long line.

A big, bustling, worried employee finally returned to the counter.

"We're, ah, having trouble locating your particular package."

My sweet mother-in-law is so sweet. All she said was - tearfully, haltingly - "but it's my mother's ashes." She didn't even have to raise her voice. The big, bustling man looked like - well, like he'd seen a ghost. With a "just a minute," he disappeared into the back again.

I, on the other hand, was getting ready to send sweet mother-in-law into the lobby while I had a loud conversation in front of a crowded afternoon post office with a postal worker whose collar I was gripping from across the counter. My adrenaline was pumping. Whether or not she realized it, if she didn't leave the post office with the box of Grandmommy, there was going to be A Scene.

Luckily, however - after sending her blood pressure through the roof - the big, bustling employee returned from the back, box in hand. Looking...wary. *$&#less. Fearful.

"Please sign this. I'm so sorry for your loss (very reverently)."

Then he looked at me. "I'm so sorry for your loss."

Then we were on our way, and my adrenaline began to abate, and now sweet mother-in-law was blinking very hard and mumbling, "it's so small. The box is so small."

And I knew she was thinking about how it couldn't fit her mom - how all that was left of her mother fit in a small 8 inches by 10 inches box that had been shipped in the mail alongside Sears curtains and care packages and late birthday gifts.

It had been over two years since Grandmommy had passed away, but finally, finally - through the United States Postal Service - sweet mother-in-law had gotten her back.

But in getting her back, she realized all over again how truly gone she was.

Sweet mother-in-law pulled herself together - again - and announced she needed some new shirts and wasn't there a sale and shouldn't we browse before looking at urns? In my opinion, she was entitled to whatever she needed to do to get through such a bizarre day.

We browsed sales and avoided the topic, until she brought up her mother. Then I listened and asked and let her talk. And let her get on to other topics, almost desperately, sometimes. We talked of family and childhood, memories and grief, hope and humor.

"Maybe the urn should wait until another day."

Hmm. I knew it really should be now or never - strike while the iron is hot. I gently pushed.

We went urn shopping.

Not stuffy funeral home silver urn. No, decorative, pretty urn at a home decor store.

Once again, finding just the right resting place is no easy feat. A plot in a cemetery is normal, straightforward, simple. Even coffin-shopping is expected; there are salespeople and over-priced caskets, but at least it's...well, normal.

"What do you think?"

Oooh. Tricky question. It's the same question a bridesmaid gets asked by the bride when she's out wedding dress shopping.

"Well, I think if you can't find anything you really like here, we should probably go somewhere else and keep looking. But - it's different if it's a matter of not finding anything that will be perfect for your mother. Nothing will be good enough, because none of these will actually contain all of who she was, even if it holds her ashes."

That seemed to help soothe her thoughts - and fears.

The loudspeaker came on: the store was closing. Sweet mother-in-law chose the urn I thought she'd probably end up taking home. We went home.

We told my father-in-law about the close call at the post office. "What would they do, file a missing person's report?" I gave a spear-you-to-the-wall look in his direction and very deliberately made my face and body language mournful and sensitive as I turned to my mother-in-law, who was fumbling with the post office package. (The truth: it was hard not to laugh at the quip, and he's a dear, dear soul.)

But now new hurdles emerged. The university had mistyped Grandmommy's middle initial on the donor thank you letter. And there was a black, plastic box with her name on it, but...no instructions.

Were the ashes in there loose? Were they in a bag? And how in tarnation do you open the thing? We poked. We prodded. No one wanted to pop it open only to have a plume of Grandmommy's ashes erupt into the air. Finally, sweet husband gently pried it open.

They were in a bag.

Thank goodness.

Sweet mother-in-law transferred the bag to the urn, and the urn to a high bookshelf. She called for Grandmommy's portrait to be propped next to it, and sweet husband spent a half-hour adjusting fake plants and picture frames and urns until she was satisfied.

Grandmommy had finally made it home.

Loverly Winner

Congratulations, Melissa Ruktanonchai! You won the Loverly earrings featured on Etsy.

Didn't win this time? Fear not. More giveaways to come in the near future!

Thursday, September 2, 2010


I promise to tell you the story of the time - this summer, mind you - that I went with my mother-in-law to the post office.

To pick up a package.