Handily

Today I finished reading Kate Davies’ new book, Handywoman. I’ll let her back cover supply the tag line. I’ve been following Kate’s work for a while now, but only in the last year have begun investing in it: I now own four of her pattern books, and this one. Despite years of drooling, you see above the first of her patterns that I have actually cast on: a Betty Mouat Cowl (more on which another day).

I followed the lead up to her self-publishing Handywoman while following her on Instagram and reading her blog. The price was very reasonable, so I preordered her book. This despite the fact that I have not read a physical book, aside from the Bible and knitting pattern books, since before I graduated from Seminary.

Despite knowing her story, despite having read excerpts and companion essays, despite reading her account of her stroke in the archives of her blog – I was not prepared for the power of this book. I was not prepared for how much I would identify with it.

Handywoman is, in a way, the story of one woman creatively dealing with a massive set of limitations imposed on her suddenly and irreversibly. That is as clear a description of sudden disability as I can muster, not having one myself. To do this, she had to draw on resources from her own life and past, and from the people and tools around her. It’s a very intimate story, often involving the struggles to do the most basic activities: those moments of hardship that feel so invisible in a culture that is wilfully blind to any difference that makes normal things difficult.

What the book is not is a story of returning to a normative way of life. It’s a profoundly creative journey, through weakness, with a ton of hard work, into a unique, interdependent, and beautifully productive life which is still evolving. Through creatively working within her limitations, she has managed to carve out a niche for herself with a successful design business that has carved new paths.

I’ve done a little bit of exploring of my own struggles with limitations, as a category. That was before having a third child, since which time I’ve felt incredibly limited. I’ve had to contend with new demands on my body, my emotions, my energy, while having fewer resources. Even more than the limits themselves, I have struggled with the fact that I have not coped with these changes in even remotely the way I wanted.

I realize fully how ridiculous it would be to compare having a kid with a disability. Producing a child is something that my body is very much able to do because I am young and, all things considered, very healthy. I have only the mildest glimpse of the life of someone who has to deal with truly chronic pain or with their body not doing what they want it to do. My children are all spectacularly healthy, my baby is a dream as far as babies go, and I am supremely thankful that my children exist. Unlike a stroke, my children are actual gifts from God.

But in the limits I deal with in my calling, to live in the north and be a mother and a priest, I don’t always cope very graciously or thankfully. Crafting is always a blend of production and consumption, but in those phases my relationship with crafting teeters far into the land of consumption.

One of Davies’ most significant points, as she writes about the tools for handicapped persons which helped her, is that they were designed by keeping in mind what a disabled person can do, rather than focusing on what they can’t. Commercialism, by contrast, depends chiefly on making you aware of what you lack. I have found myself at times very vulnerable to this, to the drug-like effect of the promises that if I could just do or make or buy, contentment would be mine. Marketing is necessary, and can be done responsibly, but to those of us addicted to the dream of affluent prosperity, even benign marketing can make us a bit sick.

Perhaps the most surprising similarity between myself and a disabled person is the shame society quietly heaps on anyone with limits. I would think this would not be the case: after all, I chose to have all these children! How dare I complain? If I can’t deal, it must be because I’m not good enough, or I made bad choices. This is also, of course, nonsense. Children are wonderful; they are also challenging. Every mother from time immemorial has known this. Still, our culture quietly (or sometimes loudly) shames moms who struggle. “Maybe you just weren’t cut out for this.” “Maybe you’re too young.” “That’s definitely too many children.” A disabled person, you would think, would be immune to such things, but Davies talks about the quiet (and sometimes loud) shame implicit in the way that disabled people’s needs are ignored, dismissed, or even labeled as imaginary. The message we all hear is, “If you can’t keep up, if you can’t deal, it must be your fault.” Some of us keep up, and some of us can’t, but we’re all harmed by that message.

Davies’ penultimate chapter “Design for All” is about a company who designs tools for disabled people, and specifically how the process of designing well for the disabled has resulted in products that are better for everyone. If this post illustrates nothing else, it’s that Davies has succeeded in writing a book that does the same thing: consider disability in a way that encourages us all to treat others and ourselves in a more human way.

In my last post, what I was struggling to articulate was that my new sweater is, in Davies’ words, fit to purpose. It is fit for my body, my life, my calling, as it is now. It makes use of the designs of others, most of all the empowering adaptive designs by Zimmerman and Herzog. But it has very little to do with a picture in a magazine. It’s for me. And that’s a profoundly caring thing.

So I am asking today, when I get frustrated, what can I do? And I am a bit more thankful for all the things my body can do. For example, my shoulder may be weak now, but I can put baby in an Ergo on my back for half an hour and dance around while I type out my thoughts. Now, to solve the problem of her swiftly dehairing the back of my neck….

So, thanks for your book, Kate. It’s extraordinarily well-written, courageously vulnerable and intimate, and it went down like an antidote. May you have many more years of defying expectations.


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