From time to time I’ll feel a vague, inchoate desire to make something. Sometimes it finds expression in baking bread, making red sauce, or having friends to dinner. Sometimes (all too rarely) it results in me emptying my mending bag, sewing on buttons, closing up seams. I can remember a time when it took expression in sketching on pretty much a daily basis, but sadly I’ve fallen out of the habit, and the ability has atrophied. I still make masks, but they are more often motivated by specific projects or commissions these days; less often do I turn to it as pure impulse. Sometimes the house gets cleaned, lemon and lavender scents clearing my head and my mood, clean, uncluttered surfaces letting my eye come to rest.
And once every great while, the desire to make will find expression in making friendship bracelets. You know what I’m talking about, right? Well, maybe if you didn’t go to a pinko-commie-Quaker-pacifist-hippy-dippy-crunchy-granola college, you didn’t come across them. They’re those colorful little ribbons of macrame, made with embroidery thread. They're given as gifts to someone special (not exclusively romantic partners), tied on the wrist, or in some cases, ankle, then worn until time, sweat, and showers causes them to break off. Almost everyone in my school wore one or two at some point.
From the very start they satisfied some deep needs in me. First of all was the need to play with color in a very basic way. I love rich, deep, super-saturated colors, more jewel-tones than neon. I don’t usually care much for pastels; I like colors with the courage of their convictions, and usually pastels just look watery and wimpy to me (as in all things, there are exceptions). I’m generally disappointed in the colors of men’s clothing. Maybe there will be an ultramarine blue, a tomato red, a green once in a while, less often a lavender – and even then they are shades I find boring or unappealing – but most of what one sees is black, grey, khaki, white, the least interesting browns one can imagine, and of course, navy blue; this is what real men, at least in the United States, are allowed to wear. Anything else runs the risk of making one look frivolous, if not downright faggy.
I like blue. I wear blue. I wear a lot of blue. But the colors that really get my juices flowing run more towards pine green, deep violet, Tuscany yellows, and copper reds just to name a few. In recent years I’ve come to appreciate fire colors like never before, reds, oranges, yellows, (I think coinciding with a lifting in spirit, and greater willingness to be seen) but even then I don’t want them to look like they came from a Crayola box. A SMALL Crayola box. Primary colors in general bore me, especially the most basic blue and red that exist out there (often even in the plaids). I think I would like them well enough, if they weren’t so damn ubiquitous.
So anything made with embroidery thread is a good antidote to all this. They were meant to be used purely for decoration, so there is no need to bow to utility. Every possible color and shade, is available. Just browsing at the store is a delight to the eye. What’s more, the bracelets allow you to explore colors in combination. How will this teal look next to this magenta? How about if a lavender is placed between them? Can a yellow be added, or will it just spend the whole time screaming at the lavender? And what about pattern? The repertoire of the friendship bracelet is limited to angled rows, chevrons, diamonds, and something I call alphas (basically diamonds with an inverted V attached), but that still opens up an array of possible color and pattern combos.
Maybe this need for color would be equally satisfied by finger-painting, but that’s not the only need it fills. I also find a great satisfaction in making knots. In the simple act of joining threads, the image of healing is never far off for me. Then there’s the pleasure in watching the pattern take shape, rows of knots slowly accruing, like weaving but with much quicker results and fewer equipment needs. Also like weaving, the process of tying knots becomes a great gateway to a trance-state, what Abraham Maslow called ‘flow’. At the very beginning of the process I may need to focus on the task so the threads get put in the order I want, but once I’ve made it through the first complete sequence, my hands can take over with only minimal attention paid by my eye and conscious mind. This is when things often rise to the surface, questions I’m grappling with, confusions I’m feeling, all the clutter in my brain that needs shaping, organizing, purging. Occasionally when I’m aware of feeling this way, I’ll choose to make a bracelet. More often than not though, the impulse to make one, even to some extent the choice of colors, will come first, and only after I’ve started do I begin to see what is lurking in the depths.
I used to have this joyful, timeless experience in a lot of different ways; like I said above, drawing used to provide it; so did putting the layers of paper mache on the mold of a mask. In 1992 though, when I had just ended my first serious relationship, I was asked to make some masks for a production, and realized that while I was working, instead of my welcome trance-state, I was tapping into a whole lot of anger. Fights were replayed, irritations relived, I wrote new scenes where I explained why his ‘let’s be friends’ approach was unwelcome and insulting... not the peaceful meditative state I was used to having during this task. I no longer envision my poor ex-boyfriend’s head on a platter when I make masks, but neither have I regained the sense of flow I once had. Someday, I hope it will return.
I never lost it with these silly little bracelets though. And that’s another part of their appeal, I think. They’re completely pointless. Wearing them until they rot off, that's the closest they get to having a purpose. Occasionally I will tie one around a gift bottle of wine, or a vase, but attempts to use them like actual ribbon, i.e. for tying up packages, rarely works. I’ve sometimes offered them as bookmarks, but they’re ill-suited to that purpose as well, for all but the biggest, thickest hardbacks. I made a big one once, just for the hell of it, and ended up sewing it into the bag I made to carry my tin whistles. It does the job okay I suppose, but something else would have probably been better. I rarely give them away these days because people feel obligated to put them on, then they worry I’ll notice it missing the next time I see them. I explain that unless they’re surfers, skate-boarders, or under the age of 20, I don’t expect them to wear it, but they don’t believe me. There was a time when I had a plethora of them, and left them tied randomly to poles and fences in Greenwich Village. I figured I’d recognize my own patterns and color choices well enough that if I ever saw someone with one later, I’d recognize it and strike up a conversation, but so far that has never happened. Chances are good most of them got thrown in the trash by disgruntled supers.
No, they’re utterly pointless, and frankly, I don’t make them for the finished object, but for the process. Sometimes life fills me too full of experience, and I need the clarifying, organizing energies the making of these things gives me.
Last night I found myself needing to stay home. I thought it was simply wanting to take advantage of having the apartment to myself, but soon I realized that I was feeling the desire to make a friendship bracelet. It’s probably been years since the last time. I think I’d been feeling the desire for a few days, so my unconscious finally just made me sit at home, declining all invitations.
Right off the bat my color choices indicated new thoughts. Black, white, sunny yellow, a dark, not-quite-wine-colored red were my choices. I got two strands of each, for a V pattern. These are not colors I would typically combine. Normally I would have seen them as the the easiest choices in graphic design, striking yes, but maybe dull from over-use, in newspapers, logos and posters all over the place. I went with it though, and soon into the pattern realized I liked it, perhaps needed the message each color had to give me.
The white thread warned me of my perfectionism, rigid thinking, my fear of looking foolish, my need for there to be absolutes. The yellow reminded me to notice the simple, quiet, daily pleasures, especially the ones I think I don’t deserve. The red spoke, yes, of passion, love, committing deeply and fully, taking risks, but also of seeing the bigger picture, and committing fully to that as well. The black spoke of mystery and nighttime (when I often feel my creativity is at its most free), of the seed planted deep, committed to its own secret growth. It reminded me to be patient, truly patient, not just pay lip-service, to the secrets working underground, according to their own rhythms.
I felt for a number of years that I was spinning my wheels professionally and artistically; in recent years I felt like I wasn’t even doing that much. This black thread told me to have faith, to trust that things have to work at their own pace. I must tend the soil, water and feed the seed, but mostly I need to leave it alone, and trust I will know what to do when the next step presents itself.
The knots spoke to me as well. They tied me to so many people in my life; to my family and college friends of course; to the new friends I’m getting to know on and off-line; to the old friends who show up out of the blue - even from out of town - with an uncanny sense for when I need them; to the cautious optimism a treatment plan is providing a loved one; to the celebration of a deep bond being made deeper, where I drank too much and kissed too much and gave straight guys noogies that they took with admirable forbearance; to the new friends and gracious hosts who once again opened their home and lives to me, revealing themselves a bit more through older friendships; to the death of a wonderful old man who had helped liberate Bergen-Belsen, and let the horrors of what he saw there move him to connect, to befriend, and to nurture; to another celebration of another impending marriage and the joy I felt in being included; to the cooling words of a good friend reading my first draft of an enraged letter, less than a week after I had done the same for her; to shared meals and late night talks that nourished me more than the missed sleep; all these bonds, all these connections were recorded and celebrated in the tying of knots.
A sense of gratitude has been growing in my life in recent months. You can see it in my blog, I think. I’m sensible enough to know that it isn’t enough however. If the only thing my gratitude leads to is bits of macrame and cheerful mooning about in my apartment, then it hasn’t done me much good. I am ready to take action, but I know I haven’t yet. It’s odd too, because the fact is I like working. At least I think I remember feeling that way. I agree with G.B. Shaw when he says "I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake." I dance with Rumi as he sings "everyone has been made for some particular work, and the desire for that work has been put in every heart." I nod with recognition – and cringe at the unwitting accusation -- when Thoreau says "be not simply good – be good for something." I say this with no self-pity, and with no need for loving denials (Seriously, I’m not fishing), but in recent years I don't think I've been good for much. I’m wary of the ego’s need for adulation being the secret motive for my work (a constant bugaboo for actors), just as I watch his tendency to insist that not doing things at all is better than doing them badly. But the need for work, the need to do, to make, that isn’t ego. It’s recognizing responsibility to life.
Goodness. What a lot to hang on a tiny piece of ribbon. By the end of the evening though, I felt like something important had been rediscovered. There was a sense of grounding: of coming home even. I don’t know what the next step is. But I think I will when I see it.