Grits and Purls

Spinning yarns about the grit of life

Close-up of coloured buttons

“Nothing feeds the center so much as creative work, even humble kinds like cooking and sewing. Baking bread, weaving cloth, putting up preserves, teaching and singing to children must have been far more nourishing than being the family chauffeur or shopping at supermarkets or doing housework with mechanical aids. The art and craft of housework has diminished; much of the time-consuming drudgery—despite modern advertising to the contrary—remains. In housework, as in the rest of life, the curtain of mechanization has come down between the mind and the hand.”

I first read Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea more than twenty years ago and thought “Wow.” As I read it for a second time, I think “Wow. This was written in 1955, and it’s even more relevant today.”

“Mechanization has come down between the mind and the hand.”

That is a loaded sentence applicable to far more than housework. I can think of almost no career, except research in the sciences or perhaps medicine, that requires a novice practitioner (one who has been educated, who has prepared the mind) to spend years “apprenticed” to a professional, learning how to connect the mind and the hand. Teaching does require student teaching, and in some cases tenure, but rarely does the journey to tenure involve any formal mentoring. Clerking for a Supreme Court justice might serve a similar purpose, but most lawyers don’t have that kind of experience; it’s certainly not required. Many of the trades such as printing, carpentry etc. seem to be losing the mind/hand connection. People come out of school with certificates and go straight to work without any steps such as apprentice, journeyman and master to allow them to connect the mind to the hand. And it’s less common today for a child to spend time at mom or dad’s side in the kitchen baking holiday cookies or learning to sew or work with wood at the tool bench.

Perhaps it wasn’t so weird that when I found a free half-day I delighted in taking the few minutes required to sew a couple of missing buttons on some shirts. Sewing buttons on shirts is no great feat of needle-and-thread prowess. But it is an act of creativity. And it is a task that has a purpose, returning a garment to a state of usefulness. The simple act of using my hands to sew on buttons was an incredibly refreshing and centering experience.

As I pulled the thread from the wrong side to the right side of the fabric and back again, I thought about the rhythm of Anne Lindbergh’s words and of waves washing up on sea shores, and tides moving in and out.

Many of my friends who, like me, are professional men and women, have hobbies that allow them to create, to connect the mind with the hand to produce something useful. Some of them have master gardens and spend hours canning and preserving. Others bake breads, others are masterful at paper art, creating beautiful cards and scrapbooks to house their cherished memories. Others knit, sing, or make jewelry. It doesn’t matter what they do, just that they spend some time creating—using their mind while they work with their hands toward a purposeful end.

Lindbergh was writing to try to center the wheel of her busy life as wife, mother of five and author. She was looking for balance in a life marked by schedules to keep, overbooked calendars, expectations to meet, and children to raise. As she writes, she discovers much, the power of solitude and the centering of creative work, even, to use her words, the “humble kinds like sewing and cooking.”

And she’s right. Just simple, humble act of sewing on a button drove home that point this weekend.

© 2010 Michele Arduengo. All Rights Reserved.

2 thoughts on “The Humble Button

  1. Isobel says:

    Hi Michele,
    I really enjoyed this article and your refelctions. I agree that creating something relaxes and refreshes the mind. Also there is an aspect of being in complete control of the outcome when making something (mostly!), and this can be a respite from other situatuons where we do not feel so much control.

    1. Michele Arduengo says:

      Hi Isobel,

      I’m glad you liked this one. But control? The closest I have ever come to losing control is when a very enthusiastic toddler was helping me count while I cast on my knitting…not so sure about control…


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