Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Skillful hands, two siblings and other stories

My aunt Laura died in January. She was eighty-five, brilliant, unfairly gifted and scary-excellent at whatsoever she undertook. She grew up during the war, married and raised three sons, part of which as a single mom. She loved music - sang it, played it, taught it, arranged it, conducted it and for a time oversaw the setting up and management of music curricula and programs in the schools of Singapore. When she wasn't busy with music, she was sewing, baking, painting - it was always one thing or another, she delighted in anything creative, and she was very good at it. Like award-winning good, in that gut-intimidating and awe-inspiring way that one so often appreciates in perfectionists.

Auntie Laura was diagnosed with chronic leukemia in her last year, and she fought it with the same resolve and matter-of-factness with which she’d handled much of the other hardships life had thrown at her. During those twelve-ish months, she went about business as usual while accommodating the nastiness and inconveniences of her new normal: chemo, fund-raiser galas, blood transfusions, family gatherings, blood tests, church choir, hospitalizations, her sister-in-law's funeral, chemo, my Dad’s funeral, transfusions, flying to Australia to attend her granddaughters’ graduations, more blood tests, Christmas, more chemo, then no chemo, just the pain shots and the quiet final waiting days as she slipped in and out of lucidity. 

One year. 

I’d lost my Dad in that year. And, in a way, my Mom, too - the part of her that was whole and fearless because of him. The day I got the phone call with news of my Dad, I'd thought it was Auntie Laura. After all, despite the doctors' optimism, her prognosis - and its impending outcome - was no secret, and I’d been anticipating it, even trying to make peace with it. What I hadn't expected was losing Dad before her. Nobody had. Everyone was forced to shift gears, even Auntie Laura herself. There she was in her wheelchair, playing hymns on the rental keyboards while my uncle led the singing. We were all stunned stupid, yes, but how surreal it must have been for her to be sending off her younger brother, to be standing before suddenly-bereft relatives and recounting memories of him, of themHow, as children post-war, she’d babysat my Dad, hefting him in her arms as she’d tried - and failed - to play tag with the neighbors. How, when her first marriage ended, Dad became a second father to her sons, teaching them the joys of boyhood: making wooden boomerangs and cherry guns, swimming in the ocean, hiking in the woods, sitting in contented silence by ponds and storm drains as they waited for fish to bite. How, years later, they'd furbished her first home, Dad and her sons working together on the cabinets and split-level floor while she painted artwork on the walls. I remember sitting wide-eyed at my Dad's memorial service and drinking it all in. Before, there’d only been allusions to those stories, fragments of fables at best, carelessly tossed out whenever the two of them were in the same room, ribbing each other in that slightly crotchety way of elderly siblings. I think I’d only truly understood the bond between them after my Dad died. In hindsight I see it now, of course: this is what family does, how family loves.

It’s hard to think of Auntie Laura's death as separate from Dad’s. Not temporally (obviously I'm fully aware of when either occurred and the specific emotional and social repercussions after) but in the way of compartmentalization. My brain knows to uniquely grieve each loss and honor the memory of each person, but my heart senses only the aggregate volume of what I no longer have, and there are no shades to that. I suppose losing them within months of each other was a big part of it. Also, their colorful personalities - both leaders and movers, equally matched in a close-knit family in which we were all someone to everyone else. But - and perhaps most pertinent of all - I relied on them both to keep Singapore feeling like home. Initially, they were simply kaki-nang - my own people - the constants to which I returned in order to remember who I still was while miles away from who I'd once been. Later, I'd leaned on Dad's grounded presence to keep me buoyant during Auntie Laura's illness, and I'd drawn strength from Auntie Laura's immortal resilience to move us all forward in the wake of Dad's death. 

Logistically, too. With the memory of flying home for my Dad's funeral still achingly fresh, I found myself on a plane returning to Singapore for Auntie Laura's. While in transit in Amsterdam, I'd opened my laptop and prepared to write what would eventually become that blog post about finding words to process Dad's death. It'd felt daunting, but necessary, and to motivate myself, I'd reasoned, "Quit procrastinating - you're already one death behind, for pity's sake." It was all at once pathetic and hilarious and I'd laughed, right there in the middle of all those people in Schipol, at how ludicrous it all was, how it felt like Groundhog Day: the Bereavement Edition, a looping rerun in which we were forever scrambling to keep up while miserably backsliding into a psychological wasteland. 

When I'd finally emerged from the fog, however, I'd had the sense that I'd been stretched thin across the grief spectrum. I knew what it was like to lose someone utterly unexpectedly, to be reeling from the shock of it and be months adrift before feeling even a semblance of true, pure emotion. I also knew what it was like to lose someone incrementally, to staunchly deny, to fervently hope, to supplicate, to wait, to watch. In the beginning was guilt at being unable to mourn each loss for itself, for subconsciously comparing them and weighing the merits (or unbenefits) thereof. After all, if the stories in my grief support group were any indication, there were practically infinite ways to lose a loved one, with each more horrific and traumatic than the next. I listened to them all: the strain of protracted caregiving, the pain of being blindsided, the relief that the suffering was over, the gratitude that there hadn't even been time to suffer. Ask me which I prefer, I'd reflected morosely at the end, and I'll tell you that there are no winners.  And there was more: I remember feeling levels of bonkerdom that were as frightful as they were comical, and seasons of rabid hope that plummeted instantaneously into crises of identity and faith. I swore I was a bad daughter and an even worse niece, toggling between dead relatives, missing one more than the other on any given day, then both at once, then neither at all. Eventually, I declared myself unsound; what other rational explanation was there, really? I know better now, though: this, too, is normal, this compounding of multiple losses. Long before this global pandemic and its existential angst joined the party, I think I might already have been hanging onto sanity's flimsiest threads.

That said, while losing Aunt Laura was brutal, it was also unexpectedly healing. There was much to be thankful for. Had it happened even a couple of months later, for one, we'd have had to contend with social distancing and other restrictions. As it was, we were blessed to have had time to be with her as her body shut down, to meet her various needs as they arose. And we were able to enjoy her company and be edified (and inspired) by her dignity; she was wonderfully upbeat and sharp throughout, save for those last few days when the pain medication brought her comfort at the expense of her reality. She continued to sew throughout her illness, turning out Menagerie animals and other projects during the long hours of chemo and between hospital visits. When those visits stretched into indefinite stays, her sewing machine was moved in with her. Her hospital room became her new creative space and she picked up and continued her WIPs without missing a beat. Doctors and nurses stopped by to browse and buy, and her finished projects found their way to local charities and fundraisers. Every now and then, I’d get an email from her: look what I finished today! How do you attach the ears? Can you make me a pattern? Guess how much this-and-that raised at the auction?

With her troop of kangaroos and other friends; credit: Kum Kit Chan (Uncle!)

I can never overstate my wonder at watching her Menagerie collection grow. Aunt Laura was a highly accomplished seamstress, the kind who drafted from scratch and taught other people to draft from scratch, who was fast yet precise, who could spot a bad fit from a mile away (and might say so to those within earshot), whose eye for detail and excellence in workmanship were unparalleled. She was the artist who'd impressed her quilting instructor with the backside of her quilts because the allowances were so assiduously finished, the knots so meticulously tied and neatly tucked away, to the point that the perfect alignment of print and intersecting seams on the right side were almost a non-issue by comparison. She was also the teacher under whose tutelage I learned to play the piano (when I didn’t actually have a piano), to smock, to love and value a good seam, a great fit, an innovative design. To behold her, years later, sewing stuffed animals from my pattern - a project almost accidental in its inception so many winters ago - I had no words for it. I was thrilled, of course, but somewhere in the delight was something bittersweet: another facet of loss, perhaps. Not for the quality of Auntie Laura's work - the woman was still ferociously unpicking seams that she considered subpar - but of the seamstress she'd been, the one with the energy and drive to make breathtaking bridal gowns and award-winning quilts, who stepped up to make my entire maternity wardrobe when I was expecting Emily and too encumbered by my job to even shop, let alone sew.

This, to an extent, is familiar to us all, even those of us who haven't yet lost a loved one. Psychologists call it anticipatory grief. I remember feeling this even as a child, although I didn't know its name at the time. Sometimes it hit while watching Mum or Dad sacrifice something so my brother and I could have a particular toy or a fun weekend out. Other times it was an obscure realization that while Mum or Dad were unspeakably precious to me, I would someday grow up, leave home and never again access that moment beyond a memory. I felt it the first time I moved to Minnesota as a student, and again as a wife and mother, marveling at the implications of those changing roles and own parents' evolving participation in them. And I’ve felt it whenever I reacquainted with my extended family in Singapore and calibrated the missing months in the lines of their faces and the changes in their gaits. This past year, I recognized those stirrings again, more ominous because of the looming loss at which they hinted: Auntie Laura was ill, had not been home for weeks, did not have much time.

She was turning out Menagerie critters left and right, though, she’d reported with satisfaction. She’d been eyeing the elephant on my blog and wanted to make it; could I send her the pattern? 

Yes, I’d emailed back. Let me make a second muslin to refine the seam alignments and correct something funky about the toenails and ears, and then I'll mail the templates over. 

OK, she'd replied. Can't wait. Also, can you design a koala for me? And I really like the owl. Can you re-send the file for that chicken that lays eggs? And thanks for the mini birds. I’m going to tweak their heads because they’re a bit fat. Do you want to see? 

Typically, patterns - or even templates - don’t leave my sewing room until I’ve ascertained that they’re fit for other people to use. This is part principle, and part idiosyncratic: I often make early drafts on random scraps of paper with notations and cut-and-paste sections hinting at revisions that only I understand. Two to three additional muslins go into refining those templates before the results are consistent enough for other seamstresses to replicate in their own sewing rooms. After which I’d still have to document the sequence and streamline the instructions. It's a time-intensive process and invariably longer than I anticipate. 

Time, though, I didn’t have the luxury of. So I prioritized Auntie Laura that year and put everything else - even the blog itself - on the backburner. I sent her the templates and instructions, imperfect and vague and skimpy, and trusted that her skill and powers of improvisation would take her the rest of the way. I designed the koala she'd asked for, and mailed the prototype to her home so she'd have a 3D model to facilitate her work. I rephotographed the owl so she could have about a thousand different angles from which to remotely scrutinize it. We emailed back and forth about the birds' heads, the koala’s ears, the elephant’s trunk, the frills on the owl’s chest. And she proudly sent me photos of the results, including the magnificent white peacock she made for the charity auction, the one which drew in thousands of dollars. For months we bantered and collaborated and talked sewing, blood tests, the thrill of the sale, the kindness of helpers, nurses and friends. Then the emails dwindled. Eventually stopped. She couldn’t type, my uncle reported. But she's still OK. She’s still sewing. 

Until she wasn't. And then we knew we were truly in the homestretch. Via email, Whatsapp, phone calls, in not so many words, we all recognized the onset because Auntie Laura had finally stopped sewing.

I took this photo of her hands when we were last in her hospital room. 

The sewing machine, having jammed, was in the shop, she'd explained, so she was hand-stitching a fox, and there were pig parts somewhere about that needed her attention. I watched her work, as I'd watched her on so many other occasions in the past. Such strong, skilled hands. They played amazing music. They made amazing things. They taught uncountable people invaluable lessons. They worked tirelessly, toward praiseworthy results. They directed and demonstrated and corrected. They shared and gave and blessed. I stayed with her as long as I could, relishing the normalcy of that encounter: the paper templates and fabric scraps, her running commentary as she threaded her needle (still without glasses, she'd smugly reminded me) and cast forward onto the animals still on her to-do list. And then, it was time to go.

I didn’t get to say goodbye to Dad - not even Mum did, in spite of being right next to him when he left us - so I was determined to make up for it with Auntie Laura. Oh, how lofty my expectations! How thorough my preparation! Books on the Needs Of The Dying and What To And Not To Say. A video recording of my mostly error-free rendition of a Bach minuet that had special meaning to us. Deep and Vulnerable Conversations, invented and mentally rehearsed in the shower, to be staged at her bedside - I would unpack her profound influence on me and she would deliver some astounding, impactful truth, a veritable beacon of hope upon which I’d live the remainder of my henceforth transcendent life. 

The reality, however, was as matter-of-fact as she herself had always been. There were no actual goodbyes, no falsely-positive See You Again Soons, no life-altering words of wisdom. I remember holding her, warm and light-boned and ever so frail. I remember the smell of her hair, newly washed and neatly clipped back (so as to be out of the way of her work). I remember thanking her for . . . well, everything, I think. I remember her not saying much back. And somehow, it was oddly right. Wholly authentic. I wonder now if it wasn't because we’d already spent our lives being the important things we’d wanted to say to each other. Regardless, in some serendipitous way, it gave me peace about letting Dad go without the Hallmark send-off of which I’d initially felt so cheated. Perhaps goodbyes were overrated. Perhaps the good Lord knew us better than we knew ourselves. Perhaps the entirety of our relationships are the hello and farewell and all the important words in between. What a lesson. What a gift to be left with. I like to think that Auntie Laura helped me with that without even knowing it. 
It was the strangest thing, leaving the hospital, seeing her still earnestly stitching away, knowing I wouldn’t see her again on this side of heaven. It felt cruelly premature, for all the present reality of that moment. And not for the first time, I wished I didn’t live halfway across the cosmos, navigating grief by the rules of time zones and geographical miles. Yet I am thankful. For being able to say goodbye at all - regardless of how it eventually played out, is still a gift I don’t receive lightly. I forget now what other work projects I'd shelved in favor of readying those templates for Auntie Laura but I remember being aware that that entire year, those email conversations, our shared interest in sewing, even Menagerie itself, were all gifts. My heart, bruised as it was, had somehow found space to be thankful.

That is not to say I'm immune to the prickly jabs of grief. At least for a while, I expect to feel wretched every time I hear a hymn. Not only because of Auntie Laura's vast knowledge of them but for the memory of a rogue alto in her Easter cantata choir (she'd cajoled; I'd said OK fine, and surprised myself by loving every minute of it). I haven't been able to enter a JoAnn store without remembering that I no longer get to send yards of fabric home to her for her latest fundraising project. When I was sewing masks for first responders last month, Auntie Laura was constantly in my thoughts - were this a different year, a time when she'd been well, she'd have mobilized her small army of sewing helpers in Singapore to mass-produce masks for all and sundry. And I'm well aware that every now and then, I'm going to be ambushed by a memory of her and Dad sitting around our dining table together, chopsticks a-waving as they opine current affairs and each other's deplorable behavior and music tastes. 

Laura in her early years.

It's funny: I'd wanted this post to be warm fuzzy sunshine in the way of typical tributes and celebrations-of-life. Especially after the rawness of Dad's post and my conviction that Auntie Laura's illness had given me time to process her death in a way that mirrored everyone else’s experiences. And I’d had grand plans to recount all her accomplishments (of which there were many) and virtues (likewise) and downplay her flaws (ditto). 

Obligatory brag photo: 
one of many cakes Laura made for exhibitions and competitions. 
This one, as remembered by one of her sons, 
is entirely cake with no supporting inner structures.

Instead, it turned into this: yet another essay on the elusive nuances of grief. But maybe that isn't an altogether terrible thing. I see now that my loss isn’t a measure of her amazingness and the piecemeal accolades she’d amassed throughout her life. Rather, it’s about my Aunt, the person of weeks and months and years, and our shared decades of that everydayness. And it's also and ever about family and how, when one has been raised by the proverbial village, it's completely rational (and OK!) for each loss to feel profound and communal, private and universal in equal measure. 

Laura, with LiEr, circa 1970s
Finally, it was an opportunity to revisit Menagerie through the eyes (and hands) of someone who derived purpose and happiness from a project that came out nowhere and of whose market value I'd always been slightly skeptical (how many people have space in their homes for that many stuffed animals?). When I fire up the sewing machine again and return to the critters of Season Two, it's going to be extremely bittersweet. Hurrah for the fun Auntie Laura had with it! Bah for the reminder that we will no longer have conversations about it. 

Grief is a strange thing. For something so paralyzing, there is so much about it that involves doing. Particularly in these crazy times, it's been defined by all the ways we are unable to carry it out: rituals of closure and in-person processing and support, to name a few. Certainly in the beginning, grief is that, and perhaps it is sweet providence that the adrenaline and cortisol drive us so forcefully to tie up the loose ends in those raw early weeks. But when the slump comes, when the weeks turn into months and years and we slowly realize that this loss isn't temporary, is indeed our new normal henceforth, doing is not sustainable. Grief for keeps becomes - quite necessarily and organically - less about doing and more about being

This quote on Facebook says it well: "Be the things you love most about the person you lost." 

One year after losing him, I've found myself already leaning into that transition with my Dad. And now, too, I must, with Auntie Laura. They are a pair, those two. So different yet so alike. And so much good in each of them, not only to remember as theirs but also to inherit as mine. Crazy passion. Infectious creativity. Quiet generosity. Skillful hands. And a bar set high. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

New Gouache Kits Now In Stock!

We are happy to announce that Emily's Etsy shop is all stocked up on gouache kits! Over the weekend, she was busy putting together more of the four original kits as well as creating new color swatches and painting inspiration samples for four new ones. 

It's always fun to peek behind the scenes at the making process, so here are some photos from the last couple of days. 

Prepping palette cards for the four original kits

Developing new color palettes

WIP: Inspiration painting for Pretty Pink Florals, one of the new kits.

The final eight (for now)!

If you've just joined us, you might enjoy reading about Emily's gouache kits in this earlier post

Here are the original four - Ocean, Potted Plants, Sunset and Rainbow,

and here are the new ones:

Downtown Weather

Orange Grove


and Pretty Pink Florals

just in time for Mother's Day :)

You can also buy a kit bundle, which gives you all eight kits for $35 (which is like getting one free!). 

If you'd like to order larger numbers of kits than what she has in stock, you can convo her directly via Etsy or send her an email at emilymaeetsy(at)gmail(dot)com.

Happy painting!

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Lavender Chai and Gouache Kits Update

Happy Sunday!

I'm stopping in today to give everyone a quick update on Emily's gouache kits, which are currently sold out in her Etsy store.  She is so thrilled by your overwhelming support - and everyone's interest in gouache paints in general. The kits flew off the virtual shelves, as it were, and she spent all of yesterday happily preparing her orders and restocking the shop. At one point, we ran out of supplies but fortunately a nearby store was able to offer a curbside pickup. At the same time, I was working out how to fulfill a custom order in my own Etsy store with just my stash materials and some creative substitutions because my go-to supplier wasn't open. Both reminded me that we are living in very different times now, and times like these sometimes call for mental acrobatics and a lot of flexibility.

Updates now:

First, yes, there will be more kits in Emily's shop by the end of today! Yay! Please check in later this evening.

Second, Emily is preparing some new color palettes for future kits. Restocking supplies and materials has necessitated upping the price of upcoming kits to $5. Domestic (US) shipping is still free, and we think it's still a steal, but we thank you for understanding, regardless. Current kits are still $4 (including the ones being restocked tonight).

Third, if you don't see a lot of action in Emily's shop after the weekend, it's only because she's back at (online) school while also prepping the new kits and palettes for you. She says she should have some exciting new paint colors and paintings midweek, as well as more of the four original palettes. I'll post a blog announcement then so you can go shopping.

Fourth is a special thank you to my readers who bought kits. Your support and enthusiasm mean so much to Emily. She's been working hard to get your orders ready to ship once your payments have been received by the bank. The weekend always delays this a little but we'll get it in the post as soon as we can. When you've received your kits and have had a chance to try them out, please would you consider leaving a review on LavenderChai for Emily?

Finally, I thought I'd share two things:

Here is one - of many - article(s) explaining the difference between watercolor, poster and gouache paint. It might be more technical than most of us need, so scroll and skim as you feel inclined.

And here is a picture of Emily prepping kits. You can't see it, but she's smiling (and concentrating).

Have a lovely weekend, all!

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Lavender Chai

Hello, friends! I hope everyone's still sane out there. The children have finished 4 weeks of Room School. Were they much younger, so that their learning were still very much parent-helped, I might have called it House School. The reality, however, has been much more like three separate classrooms from which the respective children emerge for lunch and bathroom breaks - or to locate and kidnap a cat for company and moral support. Occasionally, I get invited into their lessons in a consultant role, or I hear the muffled conversations from a videoconference with classmates. Otherwise, school proceeds in spite of me or their Dad, and for those few morning hours, when the house is still, it feels almost like the World Before.


Life has been very, very strange. Some of it has been hard on the kids. We learned today that we will not be returning to school this school year. My heart aches for the graduating seniors - 5th, 8th, 12th graders, and the preschoolers preparing to transition to kindergarten. But also for students in all the other levels, for their own missing milestones and hijacked opportunities. I've heard the murmuring on social media: no closure, no rituals, no defining rites of passage. It's abrupt and anticipated all at once. Grief is a complex, gnarly thing. And it is both disconcerting and comforting that we are all experiencing it together (while obediently spatial distancing, I mean).

Aside: I have grown quite weary of hearing the term "social distancing". I've decided to call it "spatial distancing" instead. It feels more hopeful: we're simply spaced apart while still being connected socially.

But I digress. Let's return to the children and their new routines. One thing they've said they do like about their new school arrangement is how quickly they can be done with their schoolwork most days if they stay on task. This translates to free afternoons and evenings for random pleasurable pursuits. Bike rides around the neighborhood and slime-making in the garage, for instance. Lots of baking and even some cooking. And experimenting with new media. Like gouache paint, which Emily has been enjoying. 

This was new to me, so in case it's new to you, too, gouache (pronounced 'g-wash') paints are like watercolors but more opaque, so you can layer them over each other like acrylic but they're re-wettable after they dry, like watercolors. 

Emily's had so much fun with them that she's made mini kits and mailed them to her friends to share the love. Mini paintings, Emily says, are more accessible than larger ones - particularly if you're new to watercolors, a full-size painting can feel a little intimidating. But anyone can finish a little one like this (they're the size of Polaroids), and they're so cute. 

See? Eee!

We now have two very exciting announcements:

One, you can now buy these mini gouache paint kits! Because . . . (drum roll) 

two, Emily has a brand new Etsy store Lavender Chai

Some of you might remember that she and her good friend Sophie launched their joint Etsy store Owl & Hedgie last year. That's where they've stocked their traveler's notebooks which they'd worked on together. Lavender Chai is Emily's second - and solo - store, and where you'll find her gouache kits.

Come on the tour!

Each kit comes with a palette with dots of gouache paint, a blank 2.75" x 3" watercolor-paper card, and instructions. The watercolor card comes edged with removable painter's tape to help the paint stay within the frame.

Don't be fooled by the tininess of the dots - if you're familiar with watercolor, you'll know that a small bit goes a long way. The combinations were endless, but Emily picked four to start -

ocean, rainbow, sunset and potted plants:

They're so easy to paint with - all you need are a paint brush (any kind) and a container of water. 

Dip, wet and paint!

Here are some sample pictures she painted,

with the four color palettes.

They're only $4 each and if you're in the US, the shipping's on us! Everyone from little kids to adults can use them, and they'll make thoughtful and creative gifts. Send a couple to friends stuck at home like Emily did. Surprise a creative mom (or grandma!) with one of these tucked into a Mother's Day card. Or a favorite teacher to say thank you for holding the fort. Or just save one for yourself - if you've ever wanted to try watercolor or in this case, gouache, this is a perfect chance to give it a go.

Come visit Emily's new Etsy store! We'd love to put a set or two in the mail for you! 

Also check out Lavender Chai on Instagram @ lavenderchaico to see more pictures of paintings and the kits in action. 

Monday, March 30, 2020

A Hopefully Useful List of Things To Do

The kids started e-school this week. How strange to be at school and yet not at school. To be listening to lectures and taking notes in their own rooms and then emerging to meet each other at Arbitrary Lunchtime. To feel like the only student in their virtual classroom because so much of the teacher- interaction is one-on-one now. To miss the commute which, inconvenience aside, psychologically demarcated where and when school began and ended. Everyone is saying that this is the new normal now; we will surely adjust. Still, I miss Old Normal, don't you?

These are hard times, friends. No one will dispute that. It's a mad, mad world out there, and some parts of it are scary. But for some people, it's also a mad, mad world inside, particularly if you're not accustomed to working from home (or being at home full-time with the kids). I took stock today and realized I've actually been a stay-home Mom for 15 years. For 11 of those years, I have also worked at home, albeit by choice, not necessity, and in a self-employed freelance capacity. Now it was true that some seasons of those 11 years were more professionally stressful than others, such as when I was collaborating with publishers and clients of other organizations - I remember weeks of working through illness and fatigue to meet deadlines. But there was always the option to step away from commitments without any adverse consequences. It was a sweet deal - and a privilege I didn't take lightly - to watch my kids grow up while I dabbled in something I loved doing and sometimes got paid for.

However, I also remember that all that work - whether hobby or paid gig - happened on top of being a mom and wife, plus cooking, supermarketing and keeping house. And until the kids were intellectually engaged in their respective schools, they were home with me, underfoot and eager to learn, to see, to ask, to do. Those were wonderful days, but they were busy days.

This blog is a record of some of those days and the adventures therein. Many of the other blogs I followed at the time were of families with kids of similar ages, and it felt like we were a sisterhood of moms jumping off each other's creative springboards. Then, there wasn't Pinterest or Instagram, or even cameraphones, and all our activities were documented long form, with time-consuming DSLR photoediting. Completely inefficient, but hey, that was a time when the crafting blogosphere felt far more intimate - and leisurely - than it does now.

I've occasionally been asked how I juggled a household of toddlers and preschoolers while running a creative enterprise and I've typically replied with practical ideas, because those were what I imagined the askers wanted. Recently, though, my replies have been a little more existential. Perhaps it's from losing Dad and recognizing that since becoming a mom and an immigrant, I've moved through the last decade feeling not quite intact, in spite of all the other ways in which life is still full. When I look back at that transition from Singapore to Minnesota, I often think of the word derailed. That it coincided with leaving the workforce and having babies added to the madness, surely. At the time, I didn't recognize the inherent loss in that madness, so I lifted my chin and threw myself into acclimatizing and embracing my new and - rather exciting, if I am honest - normal. Three years into that new normal, however, I imploded. Several sessions of therapy later, I understood that grief was not limited to bereavement; it had many other names and swelled out of many other kinds of emptiness.

And here's what I've been suspecting for some time: normal life is a series of losses. Growing into adulthood, graduating, leaving home, marrying, finding a job, having kids, launching those kids, retiring and finally, saying goodbye to parents and partners: these are anticipated milestones but even the positive ones are inexplicably bittersweet because they are reached at the expense of leaving other things behind. I don't say that to be a downer; I offer the idea instead as a prelude to hope: if losses can be recognized, they can be grieved, and we can then move forward.

This week, as I scrolled Armaggeddon-esque headlines in my newsfeed and sarcastic social media captions of parents losing homeschooling battles, I recognized it: folks all over the world were reckoning with grief. The obvious ones - the literal deaths and fears of deaths - as well as the more subtle: non-routines and non-restaurants and non-freedoms and non-compartmentalized identities. Suddenly - and not necessarily by choice - we were all stay-home parents, separated from kith and kin, having to be all things to all the people in our single living/working space. Suddenly, travel to care for an elderly relative at a moment's noice was no longer a given - a half hour drive could just as well be a 29 hour flight across the Atlantic ocean, or until further notice. Suddenly, we could no longer rely on teachers, neighbors, daycare providers, the library. Suddenly, we could no longer step out of our homes and find ourselves in familiar places in which we knew what to do, where to go, how to buy. Suddenly, strangers on the street felt foreign, were no longer readable. Suddenly, we were bereft.

And if that is not the definition of loss, I don't know what is.

There was a NYT article about this last week. And here's another one on NPR and this longer one with practical advice here. I am so glad the media is giving words to this strange, ambiguous loss of what-was and the dread anticipation of what-could-be. There is an odd relief in being in this together, in hearing the vocabulary of grief on other people's lips, I think. We have lost much, friends, and no, you are not going crazy. 

As I was thinking of all the children suddenly being home with their parents 24/7, I reminisced about  when my girls were little and we would burn entire days playing and crafting. As so many of you had reminded me then, those years went by unfairly quickly and I am so, so glad we stayed in the moment and relished them. In the spirit of paying it forward, I thought I'd unearth some of those activities to share again here. Perhaps some of you are new visitors who have never beheld the mania that was ikatbag circa early 2000s. Or perhaps, suddenly faced with hours on your hands and small children climbing the walls, you're googling stuff to keep them busy. Here follow lists of things that my kids and I did back in the day, beginning with the simplest and moving toward the utterly insane. Some of you may be thinking, "These ideas sound like a huge time commitment," and you'd be right. I was always partial to activities that would independently engage the kids for days and days after the initial prep so I could do meals and other chores while they entertained themselves. Our pretend-play setups were often born of this strategy. This kind of time may not be realistic for many of you who are working from home, so use these ideas as you are able or so inspired. I hope some of it helps.

Intentional Learning

First up is a list of sneaky-learning things disguised as games and cardboard crafts. Quite a few of these we enjoyed particularly when the kids were preschool- and pre-preschool-little. Now, I am aware that cardboard packaging is currently not highly esteemed because of its non-immunity to the coronavirus. If you can sift through the confusing advice online about how long to let Amazon boxes and takeout cartons sit out in the garage before unpacking them so they're non-infective, more power to you. The hoarders farsighted among us might even possess a cardboard stash predating the outbreak, which is even better. One should always use cardboard with respect but especially now, is what I'm trying to say.

1   Cardboard shoes

2   Felt boards

3   Cardboard fractions

4   Marbling paper

5   Cardboard catapult (and projectiles!)

6   Bookmarks for coloring

7 Princesses for coloring

8   Alphabet copy books

9   Popsicle stick baskets

11   Activities with simple electrical circuits (batteries and bulbs)

12   Making a board game

13 Card Game

14   Cardboard Houses

15   Flextangles

16   Mystery Solving

17   Cardboard Spyware

18   Stand-up mannequins

Pretend Play Scenarios

I'll be frank: these require pre-planning and some serious prep work. That said, they are some of my kids' most-loved activities. Not only were they engaged for days and weeks after we first created them, the kids returned to them again and again and diversified them in other settings. Totally worth the time and effort.

1   Garden/Dirt

This is the first iteration, a stand-alone dirt bed made with foam.

A later iteration, using pool noodles in a cardboard box, was a faster build, and just as versatile.

2   Lemonade Stand (simple vendor stand)

3   Greengrocer Stand (more elaborate vendor stand)

4   Cardboard Box Aquarium

5   Carville

6   Cardboard Ships

7    Travel

8   Cardboard dollhouse

9   Germ Warfare

10   Swords

11   Transportation - Busytown

13   Art Museum

14   Vet Clinic

15   Portable Magnetic Bakery

16   Garden Center

17   Mini Mail Center

18   Maildrop & Postal Service

19   Pirate Ship

20   and add-on Treasure Chest

21   Pizzeria

22   Hot Dog Restaurant

23   Finger Puppets

Toys to Make

Unlike those in the first two categories, which the girls and I made together, and the process of which was as engaging for them as the ensuing play, the toys in this third list were made by me. They were deeply satisfying to design and render in their respective media, but they were not speedy projects. I included them here for those of you with little ones to whom to gift these and who have time - but perhaps not also those same little ones - on your hands.

1   Stick horses

The first iterations here, along with horse food,

the second iteration of the unicorn here,

and the detailed instructions here.

2   Felt confections -

Roll-and-cut-out cookies here

felt donuts and cookies with removable frosting here

and an idea for collapsible and portable baking trays here.

3   A tiered cake to stack and decorate here

4   Two projects to make with the small felt circles from the centers of the felt donuts:

wiggly caterpillars

and clowns.

5   A method for turning characters into softies

6   A rag doll with a removable dress

7   Tutorials on how to make bags without a pattern

8   Wooden confections -


an ice cream parlor

and a wooden bake shop

9   A doorway puppet theater


When the girls were little, tents and forts would keep them occupied indefinitely. Then, table tents were all the rage, so I made one. When I realized later that the ceiling of the table top was a limitation, I used a collapsible tube frame for our second tent. Finally, as our home grew more crowded with accumulated playthings, I made a space-saving hallway version with tension rods. The very last tent - a playhome for Jenna's bear draped over a kid's table - brought us full circle.

Table Tent

  Collapsible frame tent

Adjustable tension rod tent

Mini table tent

There are clothes tutorials all over ikatbag (choose the "clothes" label in the sidebar) but because I custom draft to fit my kids, many templates in those tutorials are size-specific. This is a series of simple skirts to make as we look toward the warmer months, and which are multi-fit.

(for want of a better label). These posts are about teaching kids to do stuff in general. A lot of it is philosophy but there are some actual how-tos. Most of this is what I learned from simply being with my kids and trying to help them achieve in their areas of interest. They ended up learning quite a bit, but not always the direct result of my instructing.

1   Teaching kids to sew

2   Teaching kids to run a business

5   Starting to sew in general

Self-portrait, 2009

6   How to mass-produce

Cardboard Ideas
This post has instructions on working with cardboard in general, as well as this inspiration panel, with links to some of my earlier projects.

For even more ideas, check out the Parties link (it's also under my blog banner). Not that I'm encouraging you to break rules by hosting large gatherings at a time like this (please don't), but each party is themed, and has links to games and activities, most of which are insane, naturally, (like this one), but some are also mildly educational (like this one) and even fun (like this one).

Stay well!