I have always admired people that had a natural talent and could create art. My grandmother was a very gifted artisan and teacher of economics. I remember watching her for hours creating the most amazing butterflies from feathers, flowers from organza or silk – and what a process that was! From starching to cutting and ironing the petals, then creating the delicate pistils using corn flour. In our town, she was known for the beauty of the headpieces she crafted for brides.
I wish I could tell you that I learnt everything from my grandmother and now I am a prolific crafter. The truth is that I was a bit of a spoiled trouble maker when I was young and although I loved watching her make things, I wasn’t really that keen on using my two hands. Watching her for hours is a bit of a stretch as well! It was more like I was in and out of her room for hours. But I still admired what she was creating and wished I had paid more attention!
It took a stormy summer night while vacationing at my uncle’s place at the seaside to start actually learning a craft. I was probably 10, bored and really, a pain in then butt, moaning and complaining about the awful weather keeping us away from the sea and the beach. We were four adults and 2 children crammed in a 1 bedroom tiny communist apartment with not much to do. My little brother, probably as bored and annoyed as I was but less vocal and more action-oriented started doing laps around the apartment, o
n the scaffolding left behind after the painting of the building. He was well into his 6th lap when my aunt accidentally saw him passing by the kitchen window being almost blown away by the wind. She fainted. My mom started crying. My dad was trying to decide between opening the window to let him in and looking for his belt to teach him a lesson. Have I mentioned that my uncle and aunt were living on the last floor of a ten storey building?
That night, after my brother was rescued from both the storm and my father’s wrath and was resting safely between my uncle and my aunt, the adults decided to turn their full attention towards us: I was to learn to knit and my brother was… well, he needed to rest after such an adrenaline filled afternoon. In their very flawed thinking, they concluded that my brother’s adventure was my fault! All was good in the end as I proved to be extremely talented and started knitted my first scarf. And that’s a lie! I was beyond hope, as my aunt and mother said, and it was a good thing I liked to read! Earning my living using my hands would have led to bankruptcy and starvation, they predicted!
I picked up knitting a few good years after, more out of necessity than anything else. Growing up in a communist country, shopping was not that exciting because choices in style or colour were extremely limited. There were two ways to update and feminize your look: have your clothes sewn by a tailor/seamstress or make your own accessories to add to the sad looking austere uniforms sold in the stores. The tailors were not only sewing clothes together but they had become really skilled fashion designers. We would look through older Neckermann catalogues smuggled into the country, pick a dress or a suit and present it to the tailor. I don’t remember one single time when the final product was an exact copy of the picture presented but, they usually fitted perfectly, were more on the classic look than ultra fashionable, and lasted forever.
Once I became a student, the pressure to update my wardrobe, was even higher but, at the same time, the budget was very much diminished. Although there was no tuition to attend the university, the card for the very light lunch buffet and the accommodations were not cheap. Add the train tickets every two weeks to go back home visit family and get stocked with nutritious food and there was not much left for discretionary expenses. This is when my knitting skills came really handy and provided me with a small income too! It was also calming and provided a well needed “me-time” that otherwise, in a room full of girls could not have happened.
30 many years and I am still knitting. Only now, I knit and bead! I tried beading a few years ago while taking time to figure out my professional life. Every time I finished a bracelet or necklace, I was more inspired and had more self confidence in what was to come and how to make my dreams happen. Beading helped me see the big picture one bead at a time!
Now, I love beads! Matte, shiny, precious or not, gemstone, crystal, glass, wood, metal, bone, you name it! I love them all!
Growing up in a communist Eastern European country there was not much to do as a teenager: no drugs to get high, no crazy parties with dozens of kids and flowing alcohol, no Playstation or computer games to play for days and thus avoid the reality of unhappy or uncomfortable feelings. Yet we all had to face the same problems as other teenagers around the world: body issues, mood swings, peer pressure, bullying, and so on. The only things we did were small stuff: going out on bicycle trips to the outskirts of the city to get a juice at a rundown bistro, play soccer or tennis or basketball (some of us but I was not too much of an athlete), skip a class or two just to listen to Beatles, Jimmy Hendrix, Bob Marley or Beethoven and Chopin while enjoying a forbidden cigarette and sometimes a glass of home made wine, or just spend time in the park, talking, laughing, socializing. I mostly liked to spend my time reading. For all the issues I would encounter there was a character I could identify with and find solutions for my real life. Or this is what I thought. Sometimes it would work, most of the times it would fail and I had to move on to the next problem as life was not going to wait for me to solve everything!
My parents had quite a library at home and my grandmother who was watching over us during the day had this rule: never touch any books that are on the upper shelves. Those were the forbidden books, books that she used to say were too difficult for us to understand at that age. Well, the tactic was super efficient: I read only the ones on the upper shelves but strangely enough I could never finish them as new ones kept on showing up. Being the smart woman she was, she never over encouraged me to read. There were no balloons, cakes or clapping, no “atta girl” and let’s throw her a party every time I would finish a book. She kept a very good balance between praising and nagging me about reading too much. For this reason I always saw reading not as a chore nor as a bragging right: it was just a normal daily activity, more like washing your face or sitting down at dinner table.
After I landed in Canada, I stopped reading. There was no time, no money or state of mind for books. Basically over night I went from being surrounded by family, friends, books and a highly stimulating intellectual environment in a culture I knew so well to being a single mother with one maybe two friends, no material possessions, a crappy job and my own drama unfolding in front of my eyes in a foreign culture and language. Life was getting complicated and I had to get rid of a few of my habits if I wanted to stay afloat; I had no more time to myself and even when I could steal a few minutes, I was too exhausted, mentally and physically to be able to concentrate on reading. My personal life was providing me with way too much excitement to allow my brain any time or strength to analyze and understand some or any fictional characters. The television seemed to be a better mind tranquilizer.
For the first few years I had the feeling my brain was wasting one cell at a time. Back home, reading, researching and debating ideas used to be a daily occurrence. Life used to happen at a faster pace and you had to stay relevant. Working with teenagers and also in the radio industry forced me to stay on top of trends not only in fashion and music but literature, lifestyle, and the economy as well. All these on top of the most debated subjects ever: soccer and politics.
My personal struggles to fit and succeed in the new country were not the only cause of my habit change.Choice back home was limited. After communism fell, the variety of any products or services had increased but not to the scale I was faced with here, in Canada. From food to clothes to bread and beverages, they all come in a one hundred thousand varieties. To choose the best product you need is a daunting time consuming exercise. I still have a tough time going to Subway for example to get a sandwich. The first hurdle and the most difficult step is to choose the bread! I usually go for the Italian Herbs and Cheese for no other reason other than the fact that I like the way the name sounds. But I could select Italian bread, or Rosemary and Sea Salt, or Hearty Italian, Jalapeño Cheese, Monterey Cheddar, Parmesan Oregano, Roasted Garlic, 9-Grain Wheat, 9-Grain Honey Oat, Italian, Italian Herbs & Cheese or Flatbread. Wow! Did I get them all? And yet, they have no bread with olives or nuts, things that I really like! I think my feelings have just been hurt! 🙂
It was 2001 and I knew I had no budget for books at all but I really wanted to step into a Chapters or Indigo as they were the Cathedrals of my imagination. I missed touching the crisp pages of the new books, I wanted to inhale the scent of the newly printed novels, I just wanted to lose myself for one hour into my favourite playroom. I took advantage of a birthday party my son was invited to, dropped him there half an hour earlier just to be sure and drove to the nearest Chapters. The first five minutes or so I walked aimlessly around the store trying to understand the layout. Nothing made sense to me. So many faces and names that I had never heard of were smiling glamorously at me from glossy covers taking the best spots in the huge store. Big Best Seller, Oprah’s Book Club or Heather’s Pick stamps and signs were demanding your attention. Where should I go first? Who was this Heather and why I had never heard of her? Is it that long ago that I stopped following any news in the literary world? And why is Who Moved My Cheese a best seller? The selection was overwhelming! I had no criteria to sort through the madness! I felt hopelessly lost.
I wanted to visit the book store not only for the books but hoping to find a safe place where I could shut off my brain and let my senses take control and through smell and touch of books and sight of familiar faces and printed names connect the old life with the new life. After two stressful years I needed that common denominator to help me start growing roots and find a reason to pull through that period of my life that was not happy, stable or fulfilling on any level: professional or personal. It seemed that it was not meant to be. I could not recognize any names, the titles were absolutely hilarious and most of the books were dealing with self help – a subject that I have never been a big fan of but it seemed to be a big hit here. It looked like my only hope of finding a familiar place inhabited by familiar characters was impossible to find.
Feeling down and still having some time before I needed to pick my son up, I moved towards the back of the library. It was quieter and I thought I could just grab a book, no matter which and read for a few minutes. I thought I also saw a sale sign and I had developed a real attraction for it that I am still fighting to get over! I got closer and my eyes lit with happiness: all Penguin Classics were on sale. Familiar names on small, unattractive covers ( from a commercial perspective) were waiting patiently for somebody, anybody to take them home. I did not have money to spare but, I had to find a way to take a few of these with me. Shoplifting crossed my mind for a second or two, but the thought I was the only “responsible” adult in my son’s life killed that thought. I took a quick executive decision and decided to splurge and not think about consequences! I picked up John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Aristotle’s The Politics and Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple, Caesar and Cleopatra and Captain Brassbound’s Conversion . All for the huge amount for me at that time of CAD $16.90.
It was one of the first moments I felt good in my new country. I was impressed and I admired a lot of things here but at the time I had little or no reason to feel good about me or my decision to emigrate. But now, holding tightly to the books I felt like I was getting back some of the old Michaela and I liked that one so much better.
In time I learnt how to filter through all the best sellers that pop up almost on a monthly basis; I learnt that best sellers are not necessarily the best read, quite the opposite. I learnt that Heather is the CEO of Chapters and quite a good book critic on whose opinion I have based some of my purchases before the Internet and Amazon and Google took over. I learnt to deal with choice although at times I still feel overwhelmed. I feel better about my decisions and about myself but I still fight the occasional mood swings when I miss my old self and my old friends.
In the meantime, I managed to cover some of my walls with books and I feel the happiest when the house is quiet and warm, I am curled on a couch with a book in my hand and a hot tea at my side. That is when I finally feel at home.
“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” Jorge Luis Borges