Art Therapy


I believe in the power of beautiful fibers. Nice clothes. For everyone, but especially for Owen.  Not necessarily fancy, nor expensive.  Not uncomfortable!  Certainly nothing that would interfere with self-dressing. I mean clothing in soft rich colors, that brings out the best in a person’s complexion, made out of quality fibers: cotton, linen, wool, silk, bamboo.

You may think I sound like a snob. Yep, I guess you’d be right.  I am. But I’m not that kind of snob! To me the label doesn’t matter, except as a guide to how a garment is made. Old, new, or second hand doesn’t matter. The crafting of a fabric and of the garment made from it is something I notice, and I think most people do subconsciously. When I am around people who dress joyfully, I feel the joy expressed by their clothing, it lifts me up.  The difference between that and just putting on any old clothes is like the difference between delicious dining and Spam for dinner.  It’s the difference between delight and fatigue.  The women and men who take the time to dress up are an inspiration, bring a smile to my face. They are like walking artworks, and their effort an act of charity. I do not always bother to take real care in dressing myself — sometimes life says you just gotta go for the Spam.  But I always appreciate people who do. Clothes are not the most important thing around.  Still, snob or artisan that I am, I can tell from a distance, at a touch,  wool or cotton or silk garment from one dredged out of petroleum.  Petroleum, in my opinion, has no business becoming a fabric.

I do my best to put Owen into nice looking clothes. Again, I don’t mean formal or dressy ones, and function is key. Owen needs elastic waist pants, and he can’t do button up shirts. But that doesn’t mean he has to spend the rest of his life in grey sweat pants either. You get treated better, out there in the big world, when your colors harmonize and your fibers are nice. You look like someone cares, and there’s power in that. You know how Harry Potter was protected from an infant death by the power of his mother’s love?  Well. There you go.  We muggle mothers may not know magic spells, but we do what we can.

My husband for some reason lacks these sensitivities to color and fiber. When Edward helps Owen get dressed it might be in colors that clash, or are shapeless, or have some leftover food on them.  Hard to take. Usually I don’t try to take it – I change Owen’s clothes.  And luckily Edward laughs.

Owen has his own ideas about good clothing and the lack of it. The lack of all clothing may be his most preferred mode – although thankfully he is not one prone to public stripping. Most days he is resigned to his clothes. But Owen does not share my fondness for collared shirts.


I think it’s the placket down the front, with the buttons and button holes in it, that irritates him. Some of them are itchy. He’d prefer a T-shirt. Even a t-shirt is not safe from peril though when Owen is unhappy, or life is boring or frustrating.  He bites them, chewing holes, sometimes (shudder) ripping.  He can’t express himself easily in words, so if the air conditioning is too cold or the music too loud on his van, if he’s thirsty or he’s hot, if he is feeling grumpy to be prevented from snatching some bottle he particularly likes, that defenseless, irritating shirt is right there on his chest and takes the brunt of unexpressed emotions.  Like Rudyard Kipling’s rhinoceros, Owen rumples, bites, chews that outer annoying layer, til he looks nothing like he did when his mama sent him forth.


Once upon a time Owen had a great collection of richly colored knit shirts with collars. They slowly developed a smattering of small holes, as if moths had been busy. Edward is more sensitive than I to these holes in the fronts of Owen’s shirts.  He may not notice color and shape, but he does notice holes.  While I was still stubbornly refusing to jettison what in every other way was a really nice shirt, he was shaking his head at me  – honey, pitch. Oh no! Throw out shirts? What a crime!! Perfectly good, but for 15-20 holes of varying sizes!   It felt like letting Owen win, in the negative sense. I absolutely favor Owen winning in any positive sense. But isn’t one of the basic rules of life  don’t eat the quality fibers?!!

I was embarrassed to think I had been buying new shirts all those years for Owen to destroy.  I began to shop thrift shops for richly colored collared shirts.  But when he came off the van this summer wearing a formerly sharp-looking dark navy and white pin stripe LandsEnd shirt ripped across from placket to shoulder seam, that was it.  My last straw.  I culled all the chewed and bitten shirts from his closet, from the corners of laundry shelves, and from my dusty sewing basket.  I stared darkly at the huge mound of lovely colors that had been Owen’s clothes, trying to prepare my mind to throw them in the trash. Talk about building sandcastles in a storm!  What could be done about such staggering wastefulness?…

Then inspiration struck.  Taking up scissors, I cut one chewed shirt round and round diagonally, into a long strip. I kept going, right up through those holes, to the collar. Then I cut up another shirt.  Combining those rich colored fabric strips into pleasing threesomes, I then began to braid them.


Ha ha! Who’s won now? I thought with great satisfaction. I began to sew them into a spiral, round and round making a larger and larger circle of colorful braids from shirts. It helped the progression of the rug that I was sick with a horrible ear infection for about three weeks. I had to sit still, so I sewed–

                      (Above: Owen and I spending a peaceful summer afternoon, sick in bed)

There is certainly no shortage of raw material. When I get it done, those shirts will become a rug for Owen’s floor.  It’s true that Owen could still get the last laugh, if he pees on it.  (Bronwyn says she’s betting on Owen.)  Still, I have not been bested in the fight for beauty – those shirts, like so many phoenixes, will rise again! It is immensely satisfying.  And rugs can be washed.

Our niece Amara is studying art therapy and counseling at Southwestern College, in New Mexico right now.  In her program she is learning to help people use artwork to heal from trauma.  Chatting with her by cell phone this summer, and texting photos of the colorful shirt rug in progress, I realized that I was living proof of the effectiveness of her program.  When rage and frustration can be channeled into something else, something new, it fills a void – it gives us hope. It satisfies a longing.  Maybe it gives some control, or the illusion thereof.

Things are always breaking, always falling apart. Chewed shirts continue to arrive in my laundry stream, and determinations have to be made: “How chewed is too chewed to wear?”  The creative process may be less an activity than a mindset, a transformative way of seeing.

The rug of braided shirts, born of Owen’s frustrations, and his mother’s frustrations, and the deaths of innumerable shirts, is a symbol in my life for the remarkable way that life goes on being created, too, right along with destruction, and joy goes on being created, every day, out of the shards of whatever is left.

Summer car trip


Hmmm. Maybe I’ll keep that shirt rug for a morning meditation mat.

“Once More Into the Breach—!”


End of summer. August  crackles into September. The burnt, weedy lawns and tired, browning woods of Maryland get a reprieve while the September 1st rain falls gently over everything today.

What a summer it has been! Full of rich and varied experiences, some colorful, some painful, some just satisfying — like fruits ripening in the garden (those the chickens don’t get), as the dry and dusty summer finishes off.  Sweet in the mouth, sweeter still in the remembering.

And how glad I am to return to my old schedule! And to grab onto it, to save me from being swept away in the flurry of moving out as Owen’s brother and sisters return to their schools, colleges, dormitories, and apartments. We love them, but increasingly The Return of Loved Ones means chaos as much as delightful family time. It’s always temporary. And temporary is hard. Goodbye is hard. Being second-best is hard.

I must be getting old and rigid.

Owen celebrated his 23rd birthday this August with previously undreamed of feats of athletic prowess.  Maybe he was inspired by the Olympic Games.  The solid wooden gate that his dad and I had built into the stairs early this summer only confounded him for about four weeks before I discovered him on the other side of it early one morning, arms laden with plastic. The idea of course was to keep our early riser safe and upstairs and out of the refridge in the wee small hours of morning.  It is oak, very solid and beautiful, and carpenter Michael Kaub put hours of careful thought into its design.  Mr Kaub tried to anticipate how Owen might try to defy the gate, and built it to withstand that assault.


Owen however does not operate by assault. (Unless it’s the plastics community speaking – and they have a point.)  He is not a ruffian. He schmoozes. He prowls. He persists.  He snatches.  And, apparently, he climbs.

So, there was Owen, naked and laden with plastic.  Being exasperated I said, “Ok, Owen, climb back up.”  And, with great grace and very little hesitation, he grasped the banister, stepped up high onto the ledge outside of the banister, clung, balanced, swung his leg over the banister, still laden with plastic, and (ouch) there he was, somewhat like Pooh bear escaping to the branch with his five pots of honey, somewhat less furry.


Not easily to be bested, Owen’s father took  the walking staff collection, summering on our front porch, and lashed those poles to the first three palings of the ascending staircase above the gate.  That upgrade (?) bought us another week of peace.



And then one morning, there was Owen, outside the gate…

So, Edward re-lashed those poles, higher up the banister! (There! Ha!!)  Well. That might have lasted a night before Jack Be Nimble risked life and limb in a continuing bid for freedom.

And this is where it stops, because much as I like to encourage athletic activity in all my family, and much as I am impressed with the determination and stubbornness of my “low-tone” son (!), the result in case of error on his part could be very painful.  Anyway, the whole failed point of that gate was to contain the guy.

Kathie, Owen’s regular sitter, a mother and grandmother and experienced caregiver, wondered about how likely it was that Owe might try to go down the outside of the entire staircase as we began to build.  Yep – she called it.

Now I would love to post for you Owen-appreciators footage from the video I captured of my son going up the down staircase and over the handrail at 7am.  But since he was naked at the time, it hardly seems fair to him.  The Internet is a questionable place. You will just have to imagine his Gollum-like form, stretched out in the half-light.

So, as Owen sometimes says, “Now what?”  Where do we go from here?  We could try locating the new gate to the top of the stairs – but remember Kathie’s concern – would he go right over at the top?? The best results I have ever had managing Owen’s meanderings have been with distraction methods.  The awful pots of schlock to the right of the front stairs, for instance, hold Owen’s cache of stuff and draw his attention from front or back yard. Like a library he borrows and returns items, sometimes expanding the collection. This is my best insurance against him bolting out of the yard to forage elsewhere. It is not foolproof – but it can buy you time.

And so, for the moment I will put a drink and nice bowl of fruit or veggies, or lemons (did I tell you how much Owen loves lemons?) on the table outside his room – or I will set a new bottle to chop and the blunt nosed scissors beside the drawer full of plastic schlock under his bed. This will make the effort of going over the banister much less appealing.  Maybe 30 minutes less appealing…  thirty minutes between 5:30 and 6am is worth it.

owen stairs A.jpg