a place of repose and inexhaustible beauty

On a brisk afternoon last November, I drove to the post office to mail a package. Walking back to my car, I spied a sycamore leaf on the sidewalk. Scooping it up, I examined its interesting form and delicate coloration. The leaf was something most passersby would likely overlook. To me, it was a botanical specimen, its unique shape rendered all the more interesting in juxtaposition to the angular stretch of sidewalk on which it rested. I ferried my little treasure home, traced its outline on paper, cut out the shape, and added it to my growing collection of leaf templates.

I began collecting leaf samples in the autumn of 2014, reasoning that someday I would enjoy having the outlines of real leaves to use in some future sewing or art project. My interest in leaf shapes over the past few years has made me develop a true reverence for them. The more closely I study the intricacies of nature, the more I’m enthralled. I think this has always been true of me. Nature whispers my name and bids me draw close, and closer still…

Because I wanted to preserve late autumn loveliness, I decided to design hand-beaded leaf ornaments as Christmas gifts for our children. Happy with the concept, I wandered around our property, plucking leaf-jewels from the grass, considering which kind of leaf would make the most fitting gift for each child.

A stalwart symbol of fortitude, a white oak leaf was my immediate choice for our youngest daughter, who moved far from home last August. The white oak is not only the state tree of Illinois, it’s also a reminder of our home, which nestles on a hillside heavily populated with oaks of various kind.

A red serviceberry leaf was my choice for our son and his wife. Like the white oak, the serviceberry is native to Illinois. When our future daughter-in-law first visited us in April of 2011, she and our son posed for a photo beneath the white-blossomed boughs of our serviceberry, an airy tree that forms a lacy canopy over our garden arbor bench.

I selected a yellow river birch leaf for our oldest daughter. While the river birch isn’t native to Illinois, it’s certainly a familiar icon of home. When our family moved to this house, we planted a river birch that has become the focal point of our front yard. Also, although many miles and state lines divide us, we and our oldest daughter both live beside the Mississippi. Because a deep flowing river connects her to us, a river birch leaf seemed just the right choice.

These hand-beaded leaves, traced from actual leaves gathered from around our property, were my favorite Christmas offerings to our far-flung children. I hope these small tokens of love will remind them of our strong family roots and encourage them to be attentive to nature’s loveliness…


My family and I redesigned our Christmas tree this year. We left in boxes the baubles of previous decades and invented a new, woodland tree. At the top, we hung a simple star of braided straw, and a graceful papier-mâché bird with outstretched wing. We tucked among the branches a fox, a deer, a raccoon, a pair of winter-white wrens, a glistening acorn. There was a delicate sprinkling of wooden stars, and a quiet cascade of wooden snowflakes. Gone, the bright-beaded garland of yesteryear. In its place, the soft glow of undulating gold ribbon, gleaming like late summer sun on the Mississippi…




Before Christmas dinner, my loved ones clasped hands beside the sparkling tree. All heads bowed to hear once again the familiar words of my mother’s lovely Christmas benediction. I read the words aloud for the first time without tears… Ours was a sweet, simple, natural, joyful, meaningful Christmas. I’ll cherish its memory always.


All too quickly, the holidays have come and gone. Our beloved children are back once again in their respective cities. As I write, freezing rain taps at the window. Glancing up, I notice our metal peace dove. She hangs from a prominent bough in our Japanese maple. With a coating of ice on her wings, the dove teeters precariously, just as peace seems to teeter in this uncertain world.

Braving the icy onslaught, our peace dove maintains a resolute southward gaze, as if focusing her vision on warmth, kindness, light, growth, renewal. In her beak she holds something precious: a leaf! It makes me smile… Her wings are spread wide, inviting me to rise with her above the heaviness of the fabricated world and soar free in the true one.

My true world is the real world: the world of nature –a place of repose and inexhaustible beauty where all are welcomed home.



Postscript: For those of you who enjoy reading my occasional musings, I apologize for posting them so infrequently. Since 2015, I’ve been studying embroidery, which has equipped me with a fascinating new means of expressing myself. I’m happy as can be with my needle in hand, but embroidering more has meant that I’m writing here less. I still have things to say, however, so stay tuned! If you’d care to connect with me on Instagram, I maintain a regular presence there. My account carries the same name as this blog: mypathwithstarsbestrewn .

My best wishes to all for a beautiful, nature-filled 2018! xo

A return to my roots

Prairie Lights, my favorite independent bookstore in Iowa City, recently informed me that this week, May 1 – 7, is Children’s Book Week.

The words, “children’s books” contain the exact number of syllables as the words, “treasure trove”, and to me, these word pairs are synonymous and interchangeable. What marvelous magic a children’s book wields! I keep a running tally of many favorite things, but I’m quite certain children’s books rank among my topmost five.

I can’t let Children’s Book Week slip by without mentioning a book I adored as a child, a book whose wisdom set me on a path that shaped me into the person I am today. When I was small, not only was I certain the book I mention was written just for me, I felt I was its main character – a lonely little girl who lived by a pond and wandered through nature in search of someone, anyone, to play with. I was that child, right down to the light cotton dress and white anklets. Allow me to introduce to you this beloved book: Play with Me, by Marie Hall Ets, The Viking Press, 1955.

Reading about Marie Hall Ets in Wikipedia, I learned that she won the Caldecott Medal in 1960 for her book, Nine Days to Christmas. I also learned that between 1945 and 1966, she was a runner-up five times for the Caldecott, an impressive feat exceeded only by Maurice Sendak, who had seven titles which nearly won the prize. (Books that almost were awarded the Caldecott are today heralded as Caldecott Honor Books.)

In Play with Me, text and illustration weave a beguiling tale. A little girl goes off to the meadow in search of a friend. One after another, she asks the creatures she meets, “Will you play with me?” But each one leaps or flies or bounds or slithers away, and she’s left alone to console herself by sitting quietly on a stone to watch bugs making trails in the pond. She is too preoccupied to notice the tender presence of a benevolent sun.

As she sits without moving, her sadness turns to joy as one by one, the meadow creatures quietly return. She realizes that now, all of them are “playing” with her. By becoming observant and unobtrusive, she accumulates a rich circle of friends.

How many thousands of times did I turn the pages of Play with Me, poring over every detail? Young sapling that I was, I absorbed the book’s simple wisdom and carried it with me to the woods surrounding my home. I learned to sit noiselessly among the trees to better observe squirrels and birds. If I didn’t move a muscle, I was rewarded with chances to watch frogs and turtles and ducks by the pond. Sitting quietly, waiting to catch a glimpse of woodland creatures, I spent entire mornings and afternoons studying spring ephemerals while learning to distinguish the songs of many birds. I discovered that a lonely heart is curiously not lonely in the woods: feathery ferns reached out to caress me, violets and spring beauties smiled up at me, oaks and maples waved with glad hands, birds welcomed me with song. I was rich in friendships, there on my wooded hill… (Years later, not surprisingly, another book that captivated me was Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. I, too, was a dreamer who lived in the woods by a quiet pond.)

It’s really no wonder I grew up to be an introvert. My mother was a poet, and I was raised in her airy home; I spent most of my waking hours in nature, and when inclement weather kept me indoors, I’d page through books or draw flowers or listen to my favorite records. (When I was small, the soundtrack of Bambi was my special favorite.)

For quite a few years now, I’ve described myself as a Hobbit. I vastly prefer nature and the comforts of home and hearth to adventures. I almost always choose solitude over society. Given my inclination to prefer quiet, the terrible accident in October of 2015 that hobbled me for a year and a half was not perhaps as punitive for me, the introvert, as it might have been for an extrovert. Nevertheless, being confined day and night to a chair with a painful, shattered ankle was a trial for me. Once again I was that lonesome child who wished someone, anyone, would come and keep me company…

When one is badly hurt, one can tend to grow quiet, shrink inward. My inner survival mode caused me to withdraw deep into my own roots to wait, to hope, to dream. Just after Christmas of 2015, I decided that since I had to sit day after day in a chair to elevate a throbbing ankle, I might as well put my time to good use. I decided to study my mother’s embroidery books. And that’s just what I did. I spent the early months of 2016 reading about and practicing every single stitch in those books. And in the process, I discovered that all those tiny stitches had become for me a new lexicon, a language I could use to express myself.

At that time, I couldn’t go to the meadow or wander by the river. I couldn’t even get out of the house without a wheelchair. But with needle and thread for a magic carpet, I was no longer chair-bound. I was free to lose myself in a world of my own imagining, a comforting place filled with beauty and peace.

I’m able to get around on my own again, thanks to a pair of custom orthotics, a pair of sturdy, if unfashionable, shoes, and the great good help of my wonderful physical therapists, Laura and Shari. I’m able to walk by the river or visit the woods. I can spend time in the garden. But I continue to spend hours filling hoops and fabric with the things I knew and loved best as a child: flowers and trees and meadows, birds and butterflies. Having grown accustomed to the deep solitude and isolation of an overwhelming injury, I’m less inclined to talk. I’d much rather speak with needle and thread. Whereas writing is often laborious for me, I find that embroidery is light and pleasant and marvelously meditative. When I take up my needle, I’m not only deep in my roots, I’m growing. I’m creating. I’m happy!

These musings bring me back to Children’s Book Week and the charming book that set my feet on a path which led to the quiet joy of making friends with nature. To celebrate Children’s Book Week 2017, I’m going to order a copy of Play with Me and donate it to my local library. There are lonely children everywhere who long for a companion. What better companion than a wonderful book?

(All embroideries shown here are my original designs, © My Path with Stars Bestrewn.)

a pattern of my own choosing

0192_a pattern of my own choosing

While rummaging around in the old hand-painted storage chest that houses my collection of fabric, embroidery floss, and pattern books, I unearthed a piece of unfinished embroidery I began designing years ago. I imagine I set the project aside to work on making a gift for someone else – a Christmas ornament, perhaps. Life got busier, days dissolved into years, and I forgot all about this half-finished patchwork until I unrolled it and held it again in my hands. I was surprised by the prettiness of the intricate patterns I devoted my time to years ago. I thought to myself, it’s funny how the process of creating a work of art –whether it’s stitched or composed or painted or sculpted or written– can be so much like life: when you’re deep in the middle, you can get so close to it, become so accustomed to its contours, or so annoyed by distractions, or dejected by your mistakes, that you can’t see it clearly anymore; you can forget how beautiful it is.

The embroidery I used to create this piece is called blackwork. Blackwork, which was at its zenith in the days of Henry VIII, was worked with black silk thread on white linen to create patterns that mimicked lace. Only the wealthy could afford to wear costly laces at that time, so those who desired the look of lace and were deft with a needle worked to transform strips of linen into lacy, expensive-looking collars, cuffs, and sleeves. Here’s a photo to illustrate how blackwork looked in its heyday:

0192_wiki image of blackwork

[Photo credit: Wikipedia]

Although the patterns in blackwork appear complex, they’re actually easy to stitch. Each design is created by outlining a shape with a running stitch, then by sewing one simple, straight stitch after another to form a pattern.

I run my finger over my own tiny stitches and meditate on this unfinished piece of blackwork. The flight of years, the joys, sorrows, sunlight, and shadows through which I’ve passed have made me view this piece differently now than I did when I began it. These stitches have moved from something merely decorative towards something more metaphorical.

I examine the varied patterns. Some are delicate and spare, others are heavy and intense; some step forward with warmth and presence, others are cool and recede. How very like people these patterned squares are; each one is unique, and beautiful, and connected to the others around it. What a diverse, yet harmonious, gathering this is…

You might care to guess which square is my favorite.

I’ll tell you: it’s the unfinished one.

0192_a pattern of my own choosing, closeup

Why? Because it holds possibilities. It’s not too late to go back and begin again with a brand new color, or even an entirely different pattern. Just as in life, it’s not too late to change, and that’s what I find appealing.

However, I’m content with the color and pattern I’ve chosen, so now, all I must do is take up my needle again. It’s been a long time, but I know how to do this, of course I do! Just as in life, I can move forward at any time with a pattern of my own choosing.

How do I begin? It’s simple, really: day by day, moment to moment, breath by breath, stitch by stitch.

Just look at this beautiful work of art I’m creating.


(This is the second in a 5-day Photo/Story Challenge series. I was nominated to this challenge by Kristine, a wonderful writer and friend who blogs regularly at candidkay.)

For the love of an 18th century sampler

0030_For the love of 18th c. samplersII

These two photographs are a companion to my previous post (Love, our subject:). I’m including them here to chart my progress, and to encourage myself to keep working at reproducing this intricate 18th century English sampler. Completed in 1780 by eleven-year-old Sarah Brignell, the original is on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. I chose to reproduce this sampler because of its imaginative floral border and because of the primitive cartouche that appears in the center of the piece. Within this little globe are a girl, a tree, a stag, a bird, a butterfly, a flower, a green meadow, blue sky, a smiling sun – a child’s version of Eden. I’ve never seen another historical sampler that looks like this one, and I find it charming.

0029_For the love of 18th c. samplersI

I’ve spent some of the pleasantest hours of my life with a needle, floss, and a piece of cloth. This Sarah Brignell sampler is the third and most difficult one I’ve attempted. My motive in choosing it is that I want each of our three children to have one of “my” samplers as a keepsake someday. I’ve finished two already: The Chase sampler, which was completed in 1760 in Newbury, Massachusetts by 11-year-old Mary Starker (the original of which is part of the Williamsburg collection), and an English sampler completed in 1832 by 7-year-old Ann Pasfield. (Yes – she was seven years old, a precocious child to say the least.)

As I mentioned in my previous post, the ongoing challenge of the Sarah Brignell sampler is that the words of its hymn are worked with a single strand of black silk floss over a single thread of 35 count linen – which means there are thirty-five strands of linen to the inch. In the case of this sampler, it also means there are thirty-five cross stitches to the inch – incredibly tiny. I’ve had quite a time of trying to see what I’m doing. Although I’ve worn bifocals for several years, bifocals alone are insufficient for this task. I attempted to work with a needlework magnifier perched in my lap, but found it far too cumbersome. It’s the same reason I’ve never been able to work with an embroidery hoop – it gets in my way and feels artificial. I suppose I’m a needlework purist of sorts – I want nothing between me and my embroidery. However, in the case of the infinitesimal stitches required in the Sarah Brignell, I needed help and ultimately discovered that putting a pair of reading magnifiers over the top of my bifocals worked perfectly. And that, my friends, is how I earned one of my family’s affectionate nicknames: Six Eyes.

Sometime, I’ll tell more about my love of samplers and needlework in general. For now, my embroidery chair in the sunroom beckons. I think I’ll put Ola Gjeilo (my latest favorite composer) on the stereo, unite with all the unsung embroiderers of days long flown, and focus (all six of) my eyes on a work of love.

Love, our subject:

0028_Love, our subject

With a single strand of black silk floss, I spend the better part of an afternoon embroidering the word “l o v e” in minute cross stitches  – 35 to the inch – over one thread of fine-woven, ivory linen. (The word is part of an exquisite 18th century English reproduction sampler I’ve been working on for several years.) As I work each microscopic stitch, taking care to keep my thread’s tension light and even, neither too taut nor too slack, I unchain my thoughts and let them wander. I think long on love. I wonder why this four-letter, one-syllable word can be so delicate and diaphanous, so difficult to execute on fabric, to effectuate in life. Love is what we wish to give, what we hunger to receive. It’s what we dedicate our lives to, this sacred, abstruse word we’ve sought to define from the dawn of collective consciousness. “Love, our subject:/we’ve trained it like ivy to our walls,” says the poet, Adrienne Rich. At last, I complete the word, secure my needle, and close my eyes, fabric in hand.

“L o v e.”

I am able to extend a finger, run it lightly over the tiny topography of letters, and read the word whole, like Braille. Somewhere in my heart, a poem yearns to find release. Where are the words to give it wing? I can only ask the roving wind. What I do know, what I can simply say, is that love – prismatic, manifold, undefinable, so worthy of all we can possibly give to it – is not easily captured in black and white.