The idea of self-care sounds, well, selfish. And to be selfish is bad.
At least that’s what we’ve been taught since we were toddlers. We were told to share even when we didn’t want to and to apologize whether or not we felt it. We, as women especially, are told by our parents, caregivers, teachers, and society to hold our tears, lower our voices, and take one for the team. The idea of putting others ahead of ourselves becomes more and more ingrained as we get older. To love someone is to put their needs above your own. We are taught, either directly or indirectly, to sacrifice in all the roles we play: wife, partner, mother, colleague, friend, daughter.
All my life as a Palestinian-American I was taught to put others before myself. It is a good lesson. It is a noble endeavor—and yet it can go too far. There never seems to be a limit. Even when I want to say no, I am embarrassed and feel compelled to say yes. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. There have been so many times over the years that I’ve stayed up all night preparing food for a dinner party, the whole time berating myself. Or the countless times a friend has called to ask me to visit or to go out or to let their kids come over, and I just said yes. Because that’s what I do. It’s what I’ve been taught by my parents. The culture my father and grandparents brought with them from Palestine was very clear: people come first.
I grew up in a house that seemed like it had a revolving door. We always had guests over. Relatives would stop by for coffee and stay for hours. We’d serve a set menu of “courses” that we all knew by heart. From the moment guests entered the house, we all took our positions. Our parents would sit with them in the living room, and me and my sisters would head to kitchen to start making tea. Tea was served with biscuits, followed by fruit, followed by American coffee with an assortment of cakes, followed by mixed nuts and water or more tea. Sometimes visits went into overtime, and we’d find ourselves pacing the kitchen asking, “What else can we serve?” Last thing was always Arabic coffee. When you served Arabic coffee, it meant the visit was over.
Luckily, there were five of us, so there was always someone to help or cover for whoever needed to study or work. But someone had to cover that kitchen. Now that my mother had teenage daughters, she was free to work and socialize, and we took over the household duties. But she never took time for herself. My mother worked full-time. She commuted from Brooklyn to Manhattan and back every day on the subway. But she never came home and locked herself in a room for some quiet time. She never took a Saturday spa day. When we shopped for clothes, she never bought anything for herself. Or if she did, she left herself for last.
It’s a common story. Most women can identify with this. Once I became a mother, I fell into the same pattern. My husband worked, and I stayed home with the kids. I breastfed and we practiced attachment parenting. My five kids are all two years apart. I was stuck in a cycle of breastfeeding, weaning, and potty training. My entire day was filled with children, housework, and cooking. If friends came over, it meant more of the same. It wasn’t that I was unhappy—just unfulfilled.
Again, it’s not a new story. Many women can relate to this. In my case it was babies and cultural obligations. To someone else, it’s a demanding boss or husband, an overwhelming friend or sibling. We all have stresses in our lives. But we don’t know what to do about them. We know we need to take better care of ourselves physically; we diet or go to the gym. But we don’t take time for ourselves emotionally or mentally. We don’t prioritize ourselves.
Self-care is literally defined as anything you do to care for yourself. It can be anything: a walk, a deep breath, a quiet moment of reflection, or a full-on spa day. And yet very few of us take the time. The problem isn’t just the physical, it’s the mental. Whenever I did get a chance to have alone time, I’d spend most of the time watching the clock or thinking about how the kids were doing.
Until recently. Once my youngest started going to school, I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I started taking yoga, and it was the first step toward finding my center. After every class, there would be a kind of prayer to remind us to set our intentions for the day, to be mindful and gentle with ourselves. Just those simple reminders resonated with me. I felt lighter. I felt hopeful and empowered to take on the day. But then I’d leave and go back to reality and get bogged down in the routines of the day.
Then I was invited to join a women’s circle by my yoga instructor. It was a workshop of sorts for women to discuss the idea of courage. I am not one to try new things, but I was intrigued. When I entered the room, it felt like the first day of school. Everyone was just looking around at each other, unsure of what to say or do. We sat in a circle and began to introduce ourselves, and as we did, the anxiety began to fall away. It became clear that we were all looking for support in some way. We all wanted to feel like we were not alone. Because the reality is, we all feel like we are. We buy into the lie that we need to do everything. We are afraid and ashamed to ask for help. The more we feel the need to accomplish on our own, the more we tend to neglect our own needs.
The purpose of this women’s circle was to learn to be our most authentic selves—to break out of living by habit, the tendency to just go through the motions, and truly listen to our needs. Emotional distress tends to settle in our bodies in various ways; we feel anxiety in the pits of our stomachs or our necks and shoulders ache from the burden. But what if we could let go of our emotions instead of holding on to them? Emotions are just emotions, not good or bad, and they only need ninety secondsto course through the body. Ninety seconds! Allow yourself to feel it, and then poof! It’s gone. This idea changed my life. Before, I would get angry with my kids for something which would lead to me ranting about how they don’t appreciate me or how they never listen. But after learning this ninety-second gem, I began to give myself a moment to breathe and then tackle the problem. I taught it to my older kids, too. It’s a work in progress, but it was a tangible tool I could remind myself to use.
I was not living my best life. The most helpful part of being in the women’s circle was realizing that I was preventing myself from feeling fulfilled. I have always wanted to be a writer, but I was afraid of rejection. There were so many stories I wanted to tell about our travels through the Middle East or raising children, but I wouldn’t write anything down. Forget submitting, I wouldn’t even put pen to paper! But in the circle, I realized so much of that fear didn’t come from anything real. I had never had anyone read my writing and say, “This is crap! Never do this again!’ It was all in my head, as so many fears tend to be. My wonderful coach asked me to go back to my earliest memory when I felt my voice was silenced, and I realized that while I was never told not to write, I was also never encouraged to. Culturally, while I was growing up, girls weren’t told to follow their dreams. We were told to get married, start a family, and then follow your dreams if your husband was okay with it. I internalized those messages. My writing became a dream just out of reach. I encourage you, dear readers, to sit in a quiet place and really think about what’s holding you back. What’s keeping you from following your dreams? Or simply taking an hour for yourself?
When an opportunity for an open call for writers came up, I decided to do it. Whether or not it was accepted, I was determined to get over the fear. Thankfully, instead of all the voices in my head telling me I couldn’t, I finally felt like I could. So I did. And I was successful! My writing was accepted and liked. What a feeling to hear someone has read your stuff and liked it. With that newfound confidence and validation, I started going after new opportunities.
Not everyone will be able to join a women’s circle or have a coach, but we can all help ourselves. We can all take time from our days to take a deep breath. We are worth the time. This may be our biggest challenge as women yet. But healing ourselves will heal those around us. My kids have seen me realize my dreams, and it has inspired them to do the same. Holding ourselves back does not help anyone. Forcing ourselves to do for others when it is draining us only creates bitterness. It is not selfish to take care of ourselves mentally, emotionally, spiritually, or physically. It is imperative.
In October of 2004, my mom picked me up from my college dorm and drove me about twenty miles up Interstate 79 to Edinboro, Pennsylvania, where we pulled into one of those perfect, Desperate Housewives-type neighborhoods with the immaculate lawns and minimalist traditional houses just a few inches too close together.
We parked in the street in front of one of these houses; the driveway was too packed with minivans and station wagons for us to fit. Also, I got the impression that my mom didn’t want to be trapped. If she felt the need to flee, street parking would enable us to up and go without any awkward car shuffling.
My mom had brought along four grocery store bags filled with photographs and memorabilia from our recent vacation to England, and we hauled them up the walk to the front door, which was opened pre-knock by a smiling woman in a red tracksuit and white athletic socks. Her grip on the doorframe made it look as if she’d slid to a stop Risky Business-style.
“Ginny! Hey girl!” this woman said to my mom, who was not a “Hey girl!” type of woman. She turned to me and smiled. “You must be Mike. I’m Mrs. Costa. Come on in!”
We followed her into her perfect home. The color scheme was light blue and cream, and the walls were adorned with photographs of a perfect family unit. She advised us to remove our shoes and led us to a door on the far side of her open-plan kitchen. We descended a set of stairs and emerged into Scrapbooking Narnia.
My mom and I gazed up at the shelf-lined walls like Belle in the Beast’s library, dazzled by rows upon rows of glittering books, sticker packs, paper sets, and collections of colorfully gripped razor blades arrayed on surgical trays.
Rows of tables were arranged in the center of the basement, accessorized with clear plastic discard bins hanging from the edges. About a dozen middle-aged women were seated at the tables, gabbing and crafting like Santa’s elves while sipping wine coolers.
We introduced ourselves and joined them at the tables, where Mrs. Costa proceeded to take us through the basics of scrapbooking. She started with the essentials: tape runners, corner cutters, die-cuts, stickers, journal boxes, paper, paper, more paper, and of course, scrapbooks. Then she showed us how to add pages to scrapbooks and how to tape paper onto the pages. We learned that nearly any mistake could be corrected with the right combination of patience, tape, and the magical fix-it tool (which is basically a piece of plastic – rounded on one end and pointed on the other – that allows for the scraping up and pressing down of tape and stickers). She showed us the best way to edit photos, both for page aesthetics and for the photos themselves, enabling us to crop bad angles, cover unwanted rumples with stickers, and make our complexions dazzling with the right color of mat.
Thus instructed, we got to work. As we did, Mrs. Costa brought my mom a wine cooler and me a Diet Coke, and we casually chatted with the other scrapbookers. Mrs. Costa herself didn’t scrapbook; instead she bopped around, helping to cut photos, choose stickers, cover pages in protective plastic, or offer any other scrapbooking assist. The majority of the other ladies were working on books about genealogy or Disney World, and generously provided us with tips and examples.
Though the typical scrapbook looks like it’s constructed page by page, the reality is that a lot of work should be done before the first photo is placed. Photos should be organized into the order that they will appear in the book, then grouped by potential page, then cropped. Paper for backgrounds needs to be pre-chosen, particularly if you plan on matting your photos before actually putting them into the book. (You should.) Supporting materials – brochures, menus, stickers, journal boxes, etc. – need to be chosen ahead of time and also cropped and/or shaped.
This all felt very overwhelming the first time. My mom and I were slow, careful croppers. We obsessed over potential color schemes, eventually choosing pink and green to accentuate the colors we’d experienced in English gardens. We looked around at the other scrapbookers’ immaculate pages, so vivid that I could practically feel It’s a Small World’s artificial river lapping at our feet, and felt jealous and inadequate.
Despite the friendly atmosphere, I felt out of place and uncomfortable. On the one hand, I was a nineteen-year-old boy in a group of scrapbooking forty-plus women. An obviously gay teenager in the heart of Republican Americana. What could be more traditional than women gathered around the crafting table? And there I was, an interloper, the opposite of traditional, bringing the stain of maleness (the double stain of male-on-maleness) to this dainty female gathering.
On the other hand, scrapbooking represented everything that a formative gay male was supposed to reject. Online dating sites were filled with guys looking for masculine guys only. Gays were supposed to be breaking stereotypes, doing manly things, not picking out stickers with our moms.
But as we cut pictures and listened to stories about football games, unbelievable Disney deals, and local politics, a Zen-like relaxation overtook me. Every group of matted photos was an individual memory, curated by my mother and me for an audience of ourselves.
We went back the next week, and as we progressed from cropping and organizing to placing background paper and arranging our pages, my feelings of relaxation turned to subtle joy. Part of this was the simple pleasure of being in a group whose only connection was shared creative expression.
But more than that, the joy began to flow from the scrapbook itself. It started as a stirring in my stomach, a giddy excitement achieved by trimming what had mostly been a lousy day trip to Dover into a beautiful one-page ode to the city’s famous white cliffs. Eventually every piece of our trip fit into the book like a piece of our own intricate jigsaw.
That giddiness grew as we found the perfect places to stick the menus, brochures, business cards, and even coins that we’d squirreled away on our trip. Scrapbooking solved some sort of organizational compulsion that I didn’t even know I’d possessed, and the ability to make the useless useful was intoxicating.
When I look at that English scrapbook now, it’s hard to see beyond the book’s flaws. It is a twelve-inch-by-twelve-inch pale green canvas book with a simple metal plaque adorning the front cover. The plaque consists of reliefs of dainty pink and yellow flowers. Very English. It opens to a garish title page, dominated by laser-cut, doily-like stick-on letters spelling out “ENGLAND” across the top. Beneath, a cutout from a brochure showing a rail map of Great Britain is sandwiched between bright red words – “Mike” on the left and “Mom” on the right. All of this lay atop a Pepto-pink background and surrounded by stickers of airplanes, flowers, hedgehogs, and, strangely, a giant watermill.
Our stickers are placed unevenly, we failed to mat about half of the photos, and we stuck our journal boxes in the book before we did the actual journaling, which forced us to squeeze too much or stretch too little text within them.
Despite those flaws, I have nothing but appreciation for the book, and that’s because of what isn’t physically within it. The invisible feelings and details that aren’t on the pages but nevertheless still live inside the scrapbook. There is something about scrapbooking a moment that traps the events and details around that point in time. I don’t know whether or not those details are the truth or in fact just another facet of the scrapbooking illusion, but every page still takes me back into who I was then.
The first picture in this first scrapbook is of me, looking relaxed and comfortable in my own skin, wearing sunglasses and leaning against the doorframe of the hotel my mom and I stayed at for our first few days in England. The picture itself isn’t that significant outside of enabling us to remember the name of The Ridgemount Hotel. Instead, the picture is significant because the person in the photo didn’t exist.
At nineteen I was horribly self-conscious. I was tormented by a combination the fear that came with growing up gay in a rural area and the insecurity of an effeminate, formerly obese teenager. I wasn’t someone who could “pass” for straight, and I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin.
But this picture on the first page is the first I can recall of myself looking relaxed and at ease. I didn’t even realize that I’d felt so different until we began creating the scrapbook and I saw myself in those photographs and relived the memories.
Scrapbooking revealed to me that I’d felt like my real, true self in London. This made sense – it was a place where I could be myself in public without attracting unwanted attention. Later, I would move to London for this very reason.
Scrapbooking is like a Ouija board for nostalgia. Usually this ethereal force that alternately warms and stabs our hearts, nostalgia is harnessed by scrapbooking into a kind of total recall of events. To an outsider, a beautifully constructed scrapbook might look like a Photoshopped version of events — a postcard memory. But scrapbooking allows for the opposite, at least in my experience. The process of scrapbooking allows me to fully reflect on every angle of an experience.
This reflection is hard. Like most LGBTQIA+ people, I have a lot of pain in my past. Pain suffered at the hands of bullies, of society, and of myself. Pain that often made very little sense at the time of its infliction. This is where scrapbooking can help. It allows for reflection to be coupled with action. The act of sorting through memories, painful or not, is empowering. It may seem symbolic, but it’s more than that because an actual document — an artefact – is being created in the process.
For example, I have a scrapbook my time spent studying abroad in northeast Australia, one of the most beautiful places in the world. However, this part of Australia was also at the time quite socially conservative, and gay activity was restricted to the Internet and a few gay clubs. In building my scrapbook I thought back to hurled slurs, having my boyfriend (who was closeted) deny my existence, being called “Gay Mike” by everyone, including my closest friends.
Unlike my trip to England, I did not feel at home in Australia. Scrapbooking, though, allowed me to control how I remembered Australia. It may sound as if I’m putting a rose tint on the past. But pain can’t be erased with the cropping of a photograph or the addition of stickers. Pain, shame, fear, and embarrassment are all tattooed on my skin. But scrapbooking my Australian experience allowed me to declare what I wanted to take away from Australia. I fell in love. I was independent for the first time. The nature was beautiful and I met some of the best people I’ve ever known. I frolicked on some of the world’s most beautiful beaches and saw some of the world’s weirdest animals. My brother visited, and we had an absolute blast.
Those are the things in my Australian scrapbook, and I look back on that time with joy. I don’t forget any of the bad things, but my scrapbook has allowed me to keep those bad memories at bay, to prevent them from smothering the good ones.
Beyond what scrapbooking gave me mentally, it had tangible benefits as well. The actual skills associated with scrapbooking have aided me countless times in my career, most significantly in the field of advertising.
Work took me around the world, and I spent 2007 to 2011 living in London, Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Hong Kong. In the fall of 2011, my husband and I made the decision to move to the United States, specifically to New York. I just had to find a job. New York City’s advertising field is notoriously competitive and overflowing with eager job hunters with endless reserves of creativity and technical skills.
I arranged a series of interviews and arrived in New York from Hong Kong with a briefcase full of résumés and a portfolio of great international clients. However, it felt like something was missing. When I got to my hotel in Manhattan, it dawned on me what I could do to set myself apart. I called my mother and had her run to Mrs. Costa’s and get me the shiniest scrapbook she could find. She overnighted it to me along with a heap of supplies. Luckily I’d given myself an extra day to recover from jetlag before my interviews, and as soon as my things arrived, I set up shop in the hotel’s business center, printing, cropping, and sticking my working life into a silver, star-adorned scrapbook.
I didn’t know whether I would be successful, but I was relatively sure that no other candidate for a senior role in a New York advertising job would have a scrapbooked résumé. One of the lessons that scrapbooking had given me over the years was that personal moments count far more in a scrapbook than the generic, no matter how stunning that generic moment was. As beautiful as the Eiffel Tower is, everyone has seen a picture of it. Scrapbooks are for showing yourself posing with a stranger in front of the Eiffel Tower, eating a dozen croissants, or looking awkward in a beret.
So I focused my scrapbook résumé on the personal. I had my education, agency experience, and client list, of course. But I also showed myself sitting fireside with my boss on retreat in South Africa’s Karoo desert and eating spicy soup on a business trip to Shanghai. I included pictures of myself running the London Marathon and posing with friend on Hong Kong’s Avenue of Stars.
I got the job and took that scrapbooking experience to the agency with me, advising colleagues on how to creatively present work to clients and how to pitch for new ones. And I kept scrapbooking for myself, which helped me not only to remember what I loved about my life but helped me reflect on what I didn’t.
Which is also how I ended up leaving advertising. In focusing my scrapbook résumé on the personal, I also identified what it was that I loved about my job. I loved the travel and the people, the new experiences. What I didn’t love was the work. In looking back at the scrapbook now, the signs are all there. I reflected on educational experiences warmly and thoroughly and skipped over entire years of actual work experience. Most tellingly, I included a page in my scrapbook about how I dreamed of being an author. Who applies to a job by telling potential employers they want to be something else?
Eventually, I left advertising and went back to school to be a writer. I now teach, too, which is another area where scrapbooking knowledge proves to be a helpful arrow in my quiver, though a young male teacher telling a group of millennials that he scrapbooks is also a recipe for instant criticism.
Which doesn’t bother me much. In learning to scrapbook, I learned to focus on what’s really important. Sometimes what’s really important is cropping your midsection or ex-boyfriend out of photos. Sometimes it’s adding a hundred stickers to a page to emphasize the importance of an event. Sometimes it’s holding on to the smallest memento of a person or place. And sometimes it’s choosing to let something go.
Memoir is getting naked in front of a room full of strangers and saying, “Here are my stretch marks, here are my fat rolls, here is my cellulite, and here is the irritating boil on my ass and my reoccurring chin hair.”
One is not allowed to wear Spanx, utilize Instagram filters or self-tanner in memoir. To be authentic, the author has to expose it all — the lovely, the ugly, the funny, and the humiliating. That transparency is what makes memoir relatable, powerful, memorable, and interesting. It is also what makes memoir a difficult genre to write.
In revealing one’s experiences – joys, accomplishments, trials, and traumas – the writer is exposed not only to strangers, but to loved ones and friends. It is one thing to stand in front of strangers – unapologetic in one’s nakedness. It is a whole other thing to say, “Hey, Dad! Hey, Mom! Check out this foot-long stretch mark. No, it’s cool. It’s out there. Anyone can just Google my name and see it. Aren’t you proud?”
This exposure to my loved ones sometimes renders me creatively impotent in the midst of writing a piece. It gives me fear-induced stomach cramps when submitting. It makes my voice shake when I’m reading in public. It makes my thumb freeze up over the “Share” button on Facebook when a piece I am proud of is accepted for publication — fearing not only criticism and judgement, but also praise and that confusing-without-the-benefit-of-tone-or-facial-expression response of “Wow!”
However, it is not just my exposure that I need to be concerned with. As a memoirist, I have a moral responsibility to the other people I write about. I can justify showing the world my naked ass without the benefit of Spanx, but I cannot justify lifting my aunt’s skirt over her head, regardless of how important her exposure is to telling my own story authentically.
My life (and as a result, my memoir) revolves around my desperate lifelong search for love as a sort of adhesive to fill in and hold together parts of myself that were long ago shattered, broken, or left incomplete. That love has taken on many forms over the years — puppy love, obsession and control, unrequited love, abuse, lost love, and motherly love — but the love I always found most easy to access was baited with sex. The psychological, biological, and even astrological reasons for this are some of the subjects I explore in my writing. To write memoir well (to counter that impression of navel-gazing confession by expertly swinging between various theories and confession, so as not to bore the reader), one must ground one’s personal experience with something more solid and research-based.
Unfortunately, this psychologically driven exploration of my life and behaviors leads to the inevitable exposure of others. My father, my step-father, my mother, my friends, my children, my grandfather, my grandmother, my siblings, and my lovers are all placed under a flaw-revealing blacklight. I may be holding that blacklight over my own head (giving myself the most exposure), but they are revealed in the ambient light. They are also reduced to their relationship to me. Their memories and experiences are not fully explored and explained. They are incomplete.
This moral responsibility I feel for my characters can be debilitating. I am not afraid to expose my rapists, my abusers, my bullies. As Anne Lamott so wisely stated in her book Bird by Bird, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” But it is a different matter to expose the sins of my family, their dark secrets, and the roles they may or may not have played in my psychological deformities.
Teachers of memoir writing offer some common techniques to counter this particular struggle. One is to change the names of the characters, and the other is to create a composite character (a character made up of traits from multiple people). These techniques are useful when one is writing about one’s high school bully, best friend, or even a lover (sometimes), but one cannot often disguise one’s parents, family members, or children this way. They will recognize their own cellulite or odd moles, regardless of the fake mustache applied to the lip of their character.
I have been sitting on a piece of memoir about my promiscuous youth for almost five years. It is, in my humble and usually self-deprecating opinion, the best thing I’ve ever written. I am proud of it. However, at the heart of this story lies a family secret — a secret that is not mine to share, despite how it affects me, my life, and my relationships. I have changed the names of the characters. I have chopped and edited important scenes. I have attempted to convince myself to submit it as fiction, but I can’t.
One might wonder why I bother to write memoir at all. The struggles seem to outweigh the benefits. Why do I put myself or those I love through all of this? Why not just write my story and submit it as fiction? I guess the simple answer is because I truly believe in the power of memoir — specifically, its ability to give others the courage to speak the unspeakable and to allow them to be vulnerable in the face of my vulnerability. Memoir validates my memories and experiences while also validating the memories and experiences of others. All of the anxiety I experience while writing, submitting, reading, and publishing my memoir is temporarily relieved when I receive confirmation of this validation from someone who has read and strongly related to my work. There is an instant intimacy created through our related experiences. And is it not intimacy that I ultimately crave?
My first public reading of memoir was in a packed coffee shop filled with my graduate school professors, my fellow students, a few of my friends, and my oldest son. My voice shook through the entire first page; I couldn’t look up from the overly-familiar-from-revision words on the page. The audience laughed, gasped, and “awwww-ed” in all of the right places. And despite my certainty that I would have a heart attack in the middle of this written reenactment of my rape and suicide attempt, I didn’t. After stepping down from the stage to the supportive applause of the familiar crowd, a handsome middle-aged woman in a broom skirt and an oversized knit sweater approached me. She had tears in her kind eyes. “You are incredibly brave,” she said as she embraced me in a surprisingly strong, sandalwood-scented hug. “I experienced something very similar in my teens and I found your story inspiring. Thank you for sharing it with me.” She said all of this as if we were the only two people in the room, and for a moment, it felt like we were.
I have had other moments like this after I have publically read or posted my work. Some express their shared experiences to me in a private message on Facebook, some approach me personally (shy and refreshingly sincere), some confess to me in drunken interactions at the bar. But regardless of how they do it, I feel a powerful sense of validation from this solidarity and shared vulnerability. They see me and I see them, fully and completely — my flawed fellow humans, naked and unapologetic.
Claudia’s studio was perched in a corner of the second floor of a rickety old nineteenth-century mill that had been converted into artists’ spaces.
It took up a double city block in the crusty New England hamlet of Easthampton, Massachusetts. You could wander around the building for hours, peering into studios and wondering what kinds of production lay hidden behind closed doors. The utility sinks in the hallways were scuffed and stained from years of paint, dye, and glazes scrubbed off hands and elbows and tools. Behind one door, a potter pressed dried leaves into sheaves of clay. Down the hall, a fashion designer commandeered a room full of machinists making handbags. There were other bookbinders, like us, but with their own niche; one worked with metal plates and hinges, another did one-of-a-kinds and made her own paper. On the bottom floor, the glass blowers’ molten wads inflated to airy bubbles, their metal poles suspended over the ribbed metal ramps that slanted into the parking lot.
Beyond the wide berth of the building, the Oxbow River bent around a ragged edge of forest, an elbow of blue under the sky.
At Claudia’s we made books from paper and cloth and leather and thread. We flipped folios with clean fingertips and stitched them together with long lines of linen run through beeswax. We slicked them flat with a smooth file of bone held in the palm. We hummed along to Afro-pop on the radio. We broke for lunch at noon.
Claudia’s studio was a corner on the second floor, with dusty factory windows and long work tables. The floorboards were uneven as a buckling pier, splintery ridges encrusted with old dog-eared clips of linen, pared leather, and lumps of glue. Shelves lined the walls stuffed with bolts of binders’ fabric. Rolls of leather with scrappy, irregular edges in bright colors slung out from the racks as if trying half-heartedly to escape.
The dyed leather was used for the covers of deluxe editions. Having enough of one color was part of the problem-solving. Editions required consistency, and with hand-dyed skins, we scrutinized the shades at hand and selected them to match with near perfection. Each buttery skin was fitted for maximum usage with as little scrap left over as one could manage. The strategy was to place the board template just square to the edge of the last traced rectangle, avoiding the calloused crescent around a stray bone hole. Before you traced, you had to be sure your territory was without any blemish or meaty thickness. And we always made several extra—some would get wrecked under the pairing blade and others discarded if the tooling went crooked.
Claudia liked to tease me about how much I’d sigh during the workday. I’d zone out to the cobwebs dancing in the breeze or close my eyes to the sunlight breaking through the windows, the smell of beeswax warmed in the palm and the smoothness of the bone folder against my thumb. Then I’d snap out of it and unknowingly expel a huge exhale. Mostly my thoughts were straying to why. Why was I here, not just in Claudia’s workspace, but in this life, in this body, in this mind? Maybe these are the thoughts that preoccupy the minds of most new adults, but I struggled to reconcile my existential wonderings with the daily tasks of living. Newly out of college, I was taking both an anti-depressant and an anti-psychotic. I felt split, bent, cockled as the books I fished out of the bathtub at night, when I roused, suddenly, to find myself in water. In bed I rolled like a bolt of leather in Claudia’s storage shelves and did not dream. Each morning I got in the car and drove a flat ribbon of country road to the studio. If I passed a deer, a wild turkey, or an eagle soaring overhead, I hardly noticed.
A well-bound book is exactly the same width at the spine as it is at the edge. You have to accommodate for the thickness of the thread in the way you design the binding. Do it sloppy and the book bows out at the edge in a V or sags pigeon-toed from the spine. It needs to be straight-backed, with an even integrity, a weightless flip of pages, square, solid, light and luminous.
An edition might be twenty, or thirty-two. Or any number, really. One. Sometimes it was just one.
Barry Moser’s bible was an edition of four hundred. That was why I had a job. All in all, it was close to a thousand bound books we made: eight hundred vellum-bound editions plus one hundred deluxe editions, with a lot of extras in production in case damage occurred at any step. Claudia had to hire three extra assistants for the bible project. Lisa and Alice and I joined Marc, her long-time apprentice. The five of us spent long days folding and pressing and stitching.
Each bible was a two-volume mammoth bound in goat vellum stamped with gilt lettering in a buckram box. The vellum was white and the pages were white with a soft deckle; even the binding tabs were white, horny and pocked with tiny pores on one side, soft leather fuzz on the other. Everything in it was white except for the ink, which was black, with the occasional bright red heading letter. The paper was handmade in Texas, letterpress printed, sent to the artist for the wood engravings to be printed, then on to us to be collated, folded into signatures and sewn into place. Our fingers ran the ridges of the faces of Moses and Noah. Some of the faces we recognized. Barry lived one town over and used local models.
One day a week I went to Barry Moser’s studio to act as his assistant. While I organized his press and prints, I marveled at the intricacies of his engravings, and wondered how the models felt being captured in character for posterity. I imagined the conversations Barry initiated, inviting strangers and acquaintances to pose for photo shoots at his rambling house way out in the country packed with rowdy dogs. Was everyone he asked willing and eager to pose for him, this renowned illustrator? Who felt lucky, who was skeptical, who declined? Not all the models were nude but some were, particularly a teenage pregnant woman who appears in the bible in several prominent prints. Somehow, he proved himself trustworthy, this white balding man with a big Southern accent, doughy hands, and an eye for beauty. How did this young pregnant woman come to disrobe for him in his studio under photography lights, offering her ripe youth, her stillness? What long stretches of silence I imagine etched the room, while her corduroy bellbottoms and tank top lay in a heap on the floor, and Barry’s pencil worked over the paper like so many tidelines washing ashore. Did he choose her because he knew she needed the money? Or was it just her look, something in her face that captured him, a velvet beauty, her burgeoning hips?
I was modest and shy at Barry’s but secretly a part of me wished he’d ask me to model. I had never been looked at for hours or appreciated as art—and I craved it. I wanted someone to see my body as worth recreating in line. If an artist spent their time tracing my body, incorporating my face into their design, I might allow myself to feel valuable in a way I had not before. I wanted to be an artist as much as I wanted to be art. If I were transformed into image, captured as such, I might finally see myself as lasting.
The portraits Barry created flipped as we double-checked collation. Jonah’s head emerging from the sea, the spade of a whale tale over his shoulder and between them the ragged ocean. Jesus shadowed under his crown of thorns, the sky cutaway in successive curves like a Van Gogh, as if rearranging its atoms around him. An aerial view of Paul on the prison floor in rags, alone but for the rats and his quill and paper, his bald head the focal point under the eye of some spider on the ceiling, or God himself, as if perhaps he is not so alone as one could be without faith.
Some people use the bible like a guide, a map for living.
I don’t know how often we thought of it as The Bible. To us it was just another book, bigger than most and of a much larger edition than usual. It was the faces of our town and the images of our current events: famine, suffering, raging waters, mothers with sick children, archaic only because of the text.
Smaller projects were tucked into our schedules amidst the bible. A slim volume of poetry on hand-dyed paper with a filigree drypoint tipped-in the frontispiece. A bright and brimming collection of New York art in homage to Allen Ginsberg, rich with original prints and photographs, scribbled with pencil signatures: Nan Goldin, George Condo, Brice Marden, Yoko Ono. Books that sold for more money than I made in a year. An edition of two hundred. An edition of twenty-seven. An edition of forty-two.
An artist might hire Claudia to bind a one-off collection of original drawings. A polished-up sketchbook, a sheaf of watercolors. Or to rebind an old first edition of something rare. Wormed pages foxed with brown spotting. Paper as delicate as the thin crisped flowers we found pressed within eighteenth century diaries.
The bindery air held the warm melty smell of hide glue in the hot pot. The wheaty aroma of buckram wetted with white glue to binder’s board. The rhythmic rrrrip and patter of the bone folder running the fold of a folio and the soft slap of pages flipping. The occasional Ow! or swear at a finger stick from the sewing needle. Most editions carried at least one small speck of blood from a binder’s finger, a faint brown dot, having been delicately wetted with clean spittle, the enzymes able to dissolve most of the stain, such that when dry it goes unnoticed, or if noticed, would more likely be read as a small fleck of fiber in the paper’s pulp by any eye other than a binder’s.
On Claudia’s work tables, cloth-covered bricks lay atop pages properly collated. We kept the windows cracked when the sun was strong. Clicker knives lay scattered about next to pin cushions of needles and spools of linen thread. Cob webs stuck to the outer window frames, and a thin layer of dust covered everything inside. In the winter, the radiator clanged like some ghost in the basement making a one-man band of all the building’s lost and pilfered tools.
We bound a small edition of When There WereTrees, a collaboration between the poet Nancy Willard and the artist Michele Burgess, a slim book with an olive silk cover, light enough to float on your fingertips. Each page a different hue from golden to cat-eye green to russet brown, sheets of mulberry paper hand-dyed from the barks and leaves of twenty-six different species, tipped together in an homage, like a blood bank of trees. When opened, the whole thing unfolded in a long accordion—a thick forest in brushy charcoal-like drypoints, black on green, and a concrete poem that fluttered the breath.
Central to any bindery is the boardsheer, a table that could seat ten comfortably for dinner were it not for the horizontal blade at one end and the rulers and grids embossed in its surface. The boardsheer blade runs a gleaming three feet of sharpened steel, set into a long black iron arm with a thick round handle. The blade slices through board and leather and the fibrous weave of folded papers with a hefty crunch, your reflection smeared in its violent slant.
Claudia knew something of my struggle. Through bits and pieces of her history I gathered she had gone through much worse. Death and injury scarred her past. She was mostly alone in this world. If she had relatives it seemed they were distant; we never met them. She didn’t ask about the medication I took or the way my symptoms threw me off-track some days while others I was calm and focused, but I could tell she saw what I was going through. She saw the broken parts in the process of mending, the rifts I struggled with within myself. I think she had been through something destructive in her youth. Now, mid-life, Claudia was a well-designed construction, elegant, ornate, spine straight, the fabric of her long black hair. She knew where she had been and where she was going. She’d started apprenticing for Leonard Baskin when she was a teenager. Throughout her young adulthood, she learned from all the masters she could access. She went to Europe, studied hard, practiced her trade, she was devoted. The bindery was her everything. I’ll be doing this until I’m blind, Claudia once said, or even after.
Claudia did all the gilt tooling and leather inlay herself. We watched silently, knowing we’d never want to try, nor would she ask us—errors were too costly. To emboss leather with gold she lay a sheet of acetate painted with a film of eighteen-karat over the skin. The tooling iron warmed until it was piping hot. She grasped it by the wooden handle and guided the adorned metal wheel to crunch a decorative edge into the leather, impressing the pattern quickly, each crevice filling in an instant with a thin layer of gold. Claudia had a collection of vintage wheels patterned with lines, dots, undulating twines, arrows, and fleurs de lis. She kept her wrist soft and steady for a straight line and her eye at the leather’s edge. A mistake is not salvageable. If the line wavers—that’s one skin lost.
To stamp the title in gold she compressed the metal typeset letters to a block grouted with thin strips of nickel, inserted it in the iron, and flipped the switch. Once the metal was too hot to touch it was ready to crunch into the leather with an attentive amount of pressure, too much was gauche, too little ineffective.
Before she glued tiny cut leather inlay pieces to the cover, she beveled each one. When rubbing leather inlay on a cover or spine she taught us to always lay a thin sheet of paper over it and work the bone folder lightly to prevent the leather’s spongy texture from getting pressed and going shiny.
We followed a box-making recipe to fit each book with a customized construction that contained it perfectly: an eighth of an inch here, a hair of overlap, this measurement the same as that measurement. Snug and solid, with just a whuff of air as the clamshell lid closed. We made slipcases and boxes from buckram and bookcloth, assembling them like little buildings and letting them dry between cloth-covered bricks. Later we would cut and press decorative paper to the interior: marbled, patterned, Dutch liner, or Claudia’s handmade paste papers.
I moved to Massachusetts just out of college because it was easy. I had lived there the summer before and had friends I could move in with, connections for jobs. I wanted to move to New York City but knew I couldn’t do it until I felt more emotionally stable. I worked for a year at the health food store in the town mall and then started looking for a job with an artist, plastering my flyers around town and in buildings like Claudia’s. A friend gave me Claudia’s number. It was good timing. The Bible project had just landed in her lap.
“Have you made any books?” she asked me over the phone.
“Yes, a few?” I questioned, thinking of some scrappy attempts.
“Bring them,” she said.
Claudia showed me around the studio, every motion deliberate, wrist curled, words annunciated. She owned the studio and her voice and body language. Her hands briskly rubbed her stiff apron. Her long black hair was a bun stabbed with a pencil. When she stopped to press a mound of metal into gold, her upper lip twitched but otherwise she held still until she was sure the positioning was perfect.
I showed her a couple of stab books I’d made with collage covers of vintage magazines held together with black gaffer’s tape from my filmmaking days. They didn’t open well, she pointed out. She asked about a small velvet cover I had made crudely on my sewing machine to fit over a store-bought journal. “This is a sweet one,” she said thoughtfully, her strong hands applying a delicate touch to the amateur machine stitching. “You can start on Monday,” she announced, closing the little book.
In the bindery, Claudia’s strong arms swung the iron bow this way to loosen, that way to tighten. What was pinched in the clamp would stay for days until it dried hard enough to withstand opening and closure on its own.
Holding a hand-made book in your hands, it is an object, but it feels almost alive. The buttery leather and cool, crisp vitality of the paper. The curve rimmed with a lip of a leather headband, the intricate spine stitched tight.
Claudia let me use the studio after hours to dye my own paper. I ordered bulk stacks of creamy smooth kitakata paper and white pulpy hoshi. One by one, I folded each sheet into small squares in the Japanese itajame method of paper dyeing. I dipped each little chunk into small tubs of dye that Marc gave me: carmine and lapis and viridian and sumi black. Carefully I unfolded each wet wad until it was its own full sheet again and strung them up on a clothesline to dry in the dusty evening air. They were Rorschachs of color, magenta and orange and indigo surprising me with their wild irregular patterns. Once dried, I layered them all between thick old blotting paper weighed down by wood boards and Claudia’s old irons so that they’d dry flat. I stored them in my flat file, like a collection of autumn leaves. I used a few of them to line small books and journals I made and I gave a few away to people who expressed interest. Mostly, I just liked to make them, to see the plain paper transformed so quickly into kaleidoscopic patterns. The colors free to bleed as far as the pulp would carry them, each layer of unfolding revealing a new arrangement, slightly different and veined with unique bands of white and irregular splotches, as if the colors were following something more like intuition than precision; beauty made from happenstance.
Sometimes Claudia would invite us to her apartment. A neatly organized city flat decked with sumptuous fabrics and epic bookshelves, the walls covered in gilt-framed art. Every object had been plucked for its unique beauty and elegance. At Claudia’s, I learned to entertain. She had a method designed to impress: Cotswold with quince paste and crackers at the start, a take-out pizza dressed up with arugula, olive oil, and salt, and red wine, always Koonunga Hill, passed invitingly to you once greeted and welcomed. She gave us culture. Together we saw the Gypsy Kings play at the Calvin. She took us to see Cesária Évora, that sad and exotic voice that we had heard Claudia hum along with in the bindery. She paid us generously, gave us bonuses, took us to Germany for an exhibition she was featured in. I felt so lucky to be under Claudia’s wing. She was a woman of the world.
I see Claudia when I spot a small woman walking briskly in a fitted dark coat. I think of her when I run my fingers over abalone buttons stitched to silk and when I catch the dusty smell of ink on paper. When I see antique marbled paper or a pattering of gold. Claudia used to tell me I was like her because I could walk into a store and go straight to the finest thing they had. Not that either of us would buy it. It was the eye for beauty and craftsmanship. “My kinda girl,” Claudia used to say of me.
In her apartment, prints and paintings cover the walls, framed in gilded wood, each one a small world, a thing of beauty, evocative, a gift. Behind glass in antique lawyer’s cases, her books are pressed together in tight rows striped with color. Atop a low white shelf, glass bowls are filled with stones she’s collected from years of walks along the beach that look like letters. The stones are cool hues of grey laced with white, rocks that whisper the shapes of the alphabet. A taffy-stretched E, the spider-web of an A, a slim slip of C. They are arranged in families, A through C, D through H. All the way to Z.
A slightly scuffed piece of paper could usually be salvaged with a white eraser rubbed gently and carefully as to not remove the tooth of the paper.
When I last visited Claudia, she was trim in a brass buttoned woolen tunic, something you might imagine a sophisticated pirate wore to tea with Charles Darwin. Silver strands whitened her thick black braid. Her hands swung wildly as she itemized her recent acquisition of European ephemera.
I remember her hands as she taught me to quarter a persimmon and her firm instructions: first, never try until it waxes rosy and readily accepts a thumbprint. It rested in her palm as she pivoted the knife conically around the calyx. Her gold-toned hands adjusted the gaping fruit to balance delicately on her fingertips while she halved it once and then again, each slice swift and sharp so as not to crush it. The persimmon, when placed on the plate, had the illusion of wholeness until she let go, and it splayed open with its own dripping weight.
Claudia could teach me everything about bookbinding if only I could snap to attention and learn it. But I couldn’t fathom mastering anything at that age. In my early twenties I wanted to roam. I wanted to wander. Or maybe it wasn’t so much what I wanted but all that I was able to do. To stay lost for a while longer.
I was half-bound, indecisive of my design.
Before it is a book it is paper, it is pulp, it is plant. It is a conversation, a sketch on paper in brushy pencil, a needle pulled from steel wire. It is the sum of processes and ingredients: flax, linen, cotton, goat skin, calf skin, wax, pigment ground from shells, from insects, pulled from trees and flowers, ink from pine pitch, from minerals and chemicals and oils. Before it is print, each letter is a metal bracket, a sculpture in relief, one brief sound.
It is an idea. It is a collaboration. It is a process-generated product. It is many hands and eyes and minds and tools. It is an edition. Of twelve, of seventy-five, of four hundred. Or sometimes, just one. An edition of one.
The six merry murderesses of the Cook County Jail have nothing on the nurses who “took care” of me when I was interred in the mental hospital.
In three mental hospitals at that. All interred. Horrible nurses. They ranged from yelling in my face to stealing art from me; many of the “best” were apathetic or tried to be chummy while providing poor medical care, with a few gems. But then, aren’t there always gems on murderer’s row? Isn’t there always the innocent?
It’s hard to remember the innocent ones or the doctors who didn’t just pass me off. I learned the drill. Check off the correct boxes each day and get out quickly. The system is stark and scary and you get fed too much sugar and not enough exercise. Some of your fellow interdits are in to dry up; some have what you have and stay busy: don’t know what to do in group sessions, the outside’s just been too much, it’s all a crushing blow. And then there are the ones who are going to the state hospital. And they scare you. They downright scare you.
Pop. Your father’s assaulted you. Six. There’s aspirin waiting at the place you’ve been staying. Squish. You’re admitted and the new psych meds feel like the worst upper ride you’ve ever been on. Uh uh. You did nothing, you really did nothing. Cicero. You’re stuck here and you can’t get out without the right steps, the two-step, the back step, the Oh-God-Why step. Lipschitz. Shit, and now you’re making art.
I’ve made art before. I crash landed in an arts atelier in college, a collective that held a whole floor in a downtown building in Atlanta. It smelled like paint. It sounded like Tosca turning on the record player. It was called the Ballroom. At first, I understood paper. I was a poet and, inspired by another poet, I would not only read my work on stage, but I would frame my work and hang them on the wall. They sold. My friend invited me to exhibit in a miniature works show and I again turned to paper. It also sold.
So, I sold and I went fallow for a few years and I left Atlanta. And the Ballroom closed and it was horrible, but a house opened, a new Ballroom, and all was well again. In New York, I took up embroidery. I went to a free workshop in the park and I stitched up two cherries and I was a natural. I started to make miniature embroidered jewelry and mixed media jewelry and I sold them in a small boutique where I worked. I went on to make fabric and mixed media jewelry, which I sold in the gallery I ran for a time in Bushwick, and eventually on to fabric artwork, which I lit into and exhibited in Philadelphia.
Fabric artwork and mixed media stayed with me through Philadelphia and back to Atlanta, where I kept exhibiting, now for trade. I liked trading with other artists. I liked exhibiting in open call shows. The pressure was less. While I’d been featured in several papers in Philly for my last exhibition there, I hadn’t sold and I’d felt very out of place and I wanted to shrink back from everything. After all of that—the failed show, the relocation, the group shows—I took another break. I’d like to say it was as nice as the first break—a trip to France, years in New York, a ton of good marijuana, video games, fun and laughter—but it wasn’t. It was another failed marriage, an eviction, some transience and homelessness, the street, the shelter system, and the hospital system.
The hospitals had one thing going for them: art supplies and/or art rooms. The shelter in between had nothing; I thought the paper in the bookcase was free, but it was another woman’s and I got in trouble with her and apologized and let it all go, much like the coat I tried to take when I first arrived and didn’t realize the hooks were for people and the free bin was the only free spot for clothing, unless the Chaplin took you to get clothes from the store, which she did. It’s horrible being a newbie in a shelter when you’re staying for a while and there’s no one to guide you, because there’s not anyone at the shelter in Huntsville. Asheville’s shelter was good but not Huntsville’s, though I did make a friend. Still, apologies run true and I was able to navigate quickly. I was soon bumming cigarettes with the best of them and smoking the butts in the ashtrays when there was nothing left to be bummed.
The first and second hospitals were good for me. If you take the medication roller-coaster as good. It felt like taking speed, what they put me on. I went through waves of rushing symptoms in terms of gnashing my jaw and producing at lightning speed. I don’t remember what they put me on, but it was strong. I think it’s some of what they have me on now, some of which I’m currently tapering off because of the lasting effects. It’s taken a shift in psychiatrists, but that’s another story. They were horrifying, those initial doses of medication. But I made art through them.
By the third hospital, which had crayons and colored penciled and all the like, seven months after the shelter and the second hospital, I was too tired to produce.
I picked up something then that I use even now: a rapid, almost manic creative process using only what’s available on hand, basic office and school supplies. If it can be used in an office or school, it’s fair game to me. If not, it’s not. I started on abstract art and collage in the first hospital. I threw pencil on paper and tape—dirty, mucked up tape. I developed an intense love of using layers of white on white. It was like a great unlocking; and, while I hate that the medication did it, I can at least say I got something out of it. I got something out of all the turmoil and trial.
In the second hospital, I started documenting. I drew everything I saw: orange juice lids, cones in the gym, crayons. I drew paper hearts taped to the window. I drew and drew and drew. I drew through them holding me down and shooting me with sedatives. I drew through my first cornrow braids, done by another patient. I drew through friendship and interminable TV and an art row where I painted little white mold objects—forgive me, I do not have the name of the material, it cannot come to mind—for members of my family. I drew through visitations that were awkward and hopeful for everyone. I drew through the pajamas my mother gave me that she used to wear.
The third hospital was another fallow time. I was exhausted and struggling to let go of my first career and become a full-time artist. I watched a lot of TV.
But I was able to come through again in the summer of 2017, able to re-center and settle into the life my soon-to-be husband allowed me, able to make art full-time without any other responsibilities. As I healed from my final stint in the hospital, I began to thrive.
And I’m still drawing. I draw dilapidated signs now—anything around Huntsville that catches my eye. And I make multi-layered collages about race and parity. And I write about disability and mental health and ponder mental wellness and using that term instead. It’s all therapy and psychiatric appointments for me and revisiting my diagnosis and understanding whether I’m just an artist and this is why I am the way I am, or if I do need some of this medication because of something bigger, for survival. We’ll start a family soon and I want to be able to tell them: Mommy is a fighter and we all need a little help sometimes and we all manage to get through holding each other’s hands.
And there’s always art to be made.
I would like to think I didn’t murder my life through this horrendous and gut-wrenching process—that I’m being let out on parole and not put away for life. I’m dancing with myself. And I’m dancing for myself and for justice and for those who have given up hope.
And documenting it all the way.
top photo: “trashcan 3” by Alicia Cole
Makers on Making features printmakers, writers, knitters, crafters, painters, photographers, textile artists, and anyone else involved in art. These pieces delve into the psychology of making, the lessons we learn from success and (often more usefully) failure, and what it is to be a human authentically and emotionally involved as a maker in our world.