Reverse Jubilee
Reverse Jubilee

Reverse Jubilee

I'm a "rescuer of handicrafts," and I'd defend this as an essential cultural role—a positively jubilee-worthy venture.

February 5 th 2010

This has been the year of "jubilee" for me as I have wrestled, in my forty-ninth year (seven sevens, you know) with the implications of my relatively rich, western lifestyle. I've been praying about it, blogging about it, wanting to want to be challenged and convicted and changed.

I often falter on this jubilee endeavour, yet one aspect of jubilee is within my purview: the redistribution of property. Yes, I've been giving away some of my surplus goods, and yes, I've been trying to accumulate less; but where I've made my greatest contribution has been in the joyful accumulation of other people's castoffs. Call it a reverse jubilee; I bring home things that would otherwise end up in the landfill (or stay forever at the thrift store). I glean from the edges of society.

I'll admit it: I have a fondness for almost all musty treasures. And a soft spot for thrift stores. But as strong as those inclinations are, I confess to a downright pathological weakness when it comes to rejected handicrafts.

Much as Holden Caulfield fancied himself "the catcher in the rye," I see myself as "rescuer of handicrafts." And I'd defend it as an essential cultural role (redemption in action) and a positively jubilee-worthy venture.

Macramé potholders are testaments to a child's first reckoning with his or her powers of creation. Charlie Brown hook rugs are, well, cheerful and kitschy. Hand-tooled belts made at summer camp (with crooked lettering and lots of stars) are things of beauty. Someone must "ooh and aah" over the Afghans made in non-complementary colours, conducive to toasty reading sessions. And that's just getting at the blatant aesthetic value of each crafty item.

What really slays me and compels my rescuing is the pathos behind each project, the vulnerability of the person who made it, and the bid that each homemade gift is towards relationship or connection. There is both risk and hope involved in the act of offering a homemade scarf to a boyfriend, in creating a pink Kleenex holder as a house gift, in decorating a platter at a do-it-yourself pottery-painting studio for your boss's wedding gift. You risk that it won't be quite right—but hope that this offering will really hit the recipient's sweet spot.

But apparently many don't hit that sweet spot, because many a handicraft ends up in the discard pile (with Barbie dolls without heads, too-small snow boots, generic vases from floral deliveries and outdated vacuum cleaners) and then in thrift shops.

When I troll my favourite thrift store, called Unique, I feel physical pain when I see the work of someone's hands for sale for—let's say—seventy-five cents. And if there's an inscription or dedication, I feel apoplectic with concern for where that relationship went wrong. What happened between, "I made this for you, Aunt Sally, and I hope you think of me every time you look at it" and the price tag for $0.75? As one of my dear friends, a therapist, often says, "There's a story there." And it's not a happy one. Perhaps it's no worse than apathy or death (with the heirs not appreciating the connection between giver and recipient)—but there's a story indeed. And it breaks my heart. And I simply must do something about it.

So I do my part to redeem the situation by giving each orphaned item a loving home. After all, Scripture is clear on our responsibility to orphans.

Let me introduce you to some of my orphans. I once bought a tea towel that had what looked like puffy-painted radishes on it. Thinking I was buying a tribute to a radish festival somewhere, I was surprised to learn later that the loopy writing actually translated to "Happy Holidays." Apparently my Portuguese is a bit rusty! I imagine the radishes were really meant to be hearts or Christmas bells… but I still love using the "radish towel" for spills in my car.

Recently I bought a watercolour that seemed to illustrate the myriad aspects of a particular older woman's life. She is pictured going out in her fur coat with her husband, selling things from a cart, writing (I feel sure) thank-you notes and drinking tea. I wonder why her progeny didn't care to keep her curriculum vitae in watercolour. I honour her life, all ordinary lives, by hanging it on the wall of my office. Our daily routines matter; there is beauty in a life faithfully lived, even in the mundane.

I'm a particular sucker for needlepoint. It is time-consuming and exacting work. And whoever does it does not have the thrift store in mind as the final resting place for such a project. So I do my part, tending a virtual graveyard of other people's needlework in my home. Some of it is in the closet waiting for the right spot to reveal itself, I'll admit, but at least it's in a real home.

Why do these things matter to me? Why am I struck with a twinge of grief when I see yet another hand-painted mug on the shelves at Unique, with "Mom" stenciled on the side? Why did Mom not keep it? Why did Mom not brag about it, show it off, or turn it into a pencil cup in her office at least? Where is Mom now? Where is the now-grown child who made it? Are they together?

Our little acts of generosity and creativity are part of the human dignity bestowed on each one of us. And our desire to honour another with our hands and with our time is one of the greatest gifts we can offer. Looking at others' gifts, even if they weren't made for me, reminds me to notice with gratitude the people in my life and their large and small gestures.

Lest my home end up a museum for rejected items, my husband balances it out with items bought at real stores—he even pays retail. But my favourite corners of the house pay tribute to the infinite worth of each person who ever stood in the yarn or popsicle-stick aisle of the variety store, dreaming of creating, wondering what raw materials they'd need to provide delight for an intended recipient.

They definitely didn't have me in mind, but their offerings have brought me joy. And these treasures remind me that regardless of my paid work or avocations, my ultimate legacy just might be "rescuer of handicrafts." That would fill me with jubilation.

Topics: Arts Vocation
Cary Umhau
Cary Umhau

Cary is Founder & Creative Director of SPACIOUS, an enterprise designed to journey with people in our common search for more in life, taking people beyond "us and them," beyond stuckness, beyond limits. SPACIOUS espouses more recess, deeper relationships, curiosity, and wonder. Cary's a freelance writer, speaker and frequent road tripper. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers from Burnside Writers Collective to the Washington Post. She lives in Washington, D.C. She can be found at where she blogs frequently on living more spaciously.


Download and Share Articles From The Comment Reader

An introduction to Public Theology for the Common Good

Want more of the same fresh, thought-provoking content delivered right to your inbox once a week?