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School’s Out Forever (?)

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FOLLOWING: @jamieleecurtistaete

Although Baltimore will always be in my heart, it is not currently where I rest my head. In 2017, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to pack up and move my life to western North Carolina to attend Haywood Community College’s Professional Crafts program. When I graduated with a degree in fiber in the spring of 2019, I immediately re-enrolled in the furniture program that started in the fall.

Inspired by my grandparents, I have been trying for years to find a way to integrate their labors of love—woodworking for my grandfather and textiles for my grandmother—and it finally felt like things were coming together. You know how it feels to step on a moving walkway? There is a little trepidation and maybe that first step is a misstep, but then you are off and gliding along. Immersing myself in this practice felt like that.

School hours were long and the work itself was physical, both in weaving (our mainstay in the Fiber department) and woodworking. To keep myself going, I took a job at school as a studio assistant in addition to the two freelance jobs I do from home in the evenings and weekends. I didn’t have a lot of free time, but every morning, without fail, as I drove to school I would think about how lucky I was. What an amazing gift I had given to myself: A woman in her 40s who said, “Fuck it, let’s go” and found a new home and space to create. Every day was a challenge with great lessons in failure and sprinkles of success. My classmates are inspiring people, my teachers are bottomless wells of knowledge. And then… the lyrics from Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out For Summer” began playing in a loop in my head and took on a new level of seriousness.

I want long, impossible projects, so sweaters are the thing even though the weather is warming up by the minute. And maybe another walk.

No more pencils. No more books. No more teacher’s dirty looks.

No more of the routine and rhythm that has given my life purpose over the past two and a half years. No more long studio days that tested my tenacity and brought meaning back to my life through making. No more teachers patiently hovering over my router set-up so I don’t slice off my fingertips. Isn’t that how the Cooper song goes?

The demands of school and work create an intense focus, like being on fire with ideas yet still having the spare energy to coax them into existence. While making one project, I’d be conjuring up the next and then get a crazy sideways idea about something else. I dreamt of furniture design nightly and I was in a state of flow. I was all systems go. And then the rug came out from under all of it and those frantic feet of mine were floundering in mid-air.

First we were sent into an early spring break, which meant a week of news and fears and texting with friends and updates on symptoms and calls to faraway parents. My entire body needed something to do, a way to manage the anxieties and cope with the changes. But what? Housebound and locked out of the sanctuary of the studio, what was there to do? The only answer I could come up with was to find a way to create and keep going whenever possible. And when that became too much, to rest as if it was a sacrament.

My days are developing into new, loose rituals of making things and making time to process. I stopped drinking coffee and switched to tea. Who needs to be that awake anyway? Instead of hurriedly brewing up a carafe and running out the door, there is now morning tea with the old dog for company and a walk. Then some time on the computer with breaks to keep the dog from becoming too bored with me. If I’m stuck, I’ll spend time playing music or listening to music and knitting. I want long, impossible projects, so sweaters are the thing even though the weather is warming up by the minute. And maybe another walk. The parks are all closed so our new park is the abandoned parking lot of the mega-yoga studio across the street.

Just like sweaters in the summer, I love doing unsuitable things just for the doing. So many old sewing projects are seeing light again. Scraps that had been saved for years are finally finding use as I try my hand at mask-making to send friends who have requested them. A nurse friend wants some hair caps. Sewing is my angry sport but I’ll do it with love in my heart for these people.

I honestly don’t want to leave the house. I am fine here. I’m not bored. School has been my reason for wearing “outside” clothes and interacting. With that gone, I have no problem heeding the restrictions. My inner hypochondriac thanks me. I do desperately want to see my friends and bear-hug them and laugh. And I wish that I were in a community of creators sharing ideas and getting feedback on designs, but I don’t dare risk it and I don’t want anyone else to risk it either. Our days will come. And those days will have new meaning for all of us.

Out for summer. Out ‘til fall. We might not come back at all.

There are so many questions. How will this program transition to online learning? Sure, there are lecture courses that are easily streamed, but what about the table saw? I propose building a small-scale timber frame cat house for the little kitty who has started visiting. But what about materials? What about tools? I brought what I could bring home, anticipating at least a semester without studio time. But I don’t even know where to begin and it is taking a little while for my teacher to wrap his head around it too.

I know that I can’t live in this limbo state. So I do the things I can. I finish setting up a loom at home and use leftover balls of yarn that I’ve saved for years to just weave. Plans for this particular warp are out the window, replaced by this thirsty need to just weave something, anything, to just get lost in the mechanical sound of the loom and mechanical movements of my body.

School’s out for summer. School’s out with fever.

It was gloomy, cold, and cloudy here when the quarantine first started, but some special days the sun actually shines and the light inside is warm and inviting. The quality of light now is the organizing basis of my day. Mornings are for the couch and the computer or just tea time with the dog soaking up the early rays. The kitchen starts to look sweet in the afternoon and that’s where I have some wood finishing samples and a carving kit set up on some deflated cardboard boxes. The best time to weave is from 6 to 7:30 p.m. when the sun is setting on the converted porch where the loom is. I’ve thought a lot about this and the only thing that I feel confident about contributing to the world is my compulsive need to make things. So I just keep moving around, putting down one project and picking up another, “fighting vainly the old ennui,” to borrow from Frank Sinatra.

When all else fails there is rest. And there are cans of beans. On the hottest day of the year so far, I made lentil soup in a true representation of my mental state. Soup on a hot day, time spent trying to fold a tarp in a wind storm, frustrating attempts at dog grooming… nothing makes sense and everything feels absurd.

School’s out completely.

I wonder about my school’s future and my future at school. Will tuition payments be possible after a few months with limited income? Will the program even survive? In an attempt to stave off the panic that comes from these questions, I investigate other options and find a lot of suspended animation. Turns out, many colleges and students have these same questions. No one is planning for the future, just waiting on it.

In my heart there is an unquenched desire for making, so when all else fails that is what I will do. For now, I’m managing uncertainty and insecurity one pass of the shuttle on the loom at a time, one row of knitting in the round, one stitched row on the sewing machine, one song, one walk, one stab at chip carving, one coat of finish, one round of sanding, one meal of beans, one nap, one FaceTime with a friend, one moment at a time.

All of this is my way of coping, and I hope that you can take care of yourself however is best. Maybe this creative urge resides in you too, and you will dust off that old sewing machine or sharpen up or chisel and get to it. Or perhaps you are tired, and it’s most important to get some fucking sleep.

Some of you have a ton of energy, so do those bodyweight exercises and clean behind the refrigerator. Some of you need to cry, so cry. Some of you aren’t sure what to do, so be unsure. Right now we can’t leave home, and after this is over we can never “go home” again because the world is a different place.

The antidote to the greed and selfishness that got us all here is kindness and compassion. They say that begins at home. Lucky us.

empty studio shots (L) Amy Putansu + (R) Brian Wurst

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