Sock Monsters Take On The World

Okay, maybe not the world, but these guys are trying.

I started making sock monsters a few weeks ago in hopes of earning some money for the holidays. The monsters require little in the way of new materials other than stuffing and socks. Their features are created out of vintage buttons, embroidery floss, rick rack, even thread so old it’s wrapped around wooden spools. This makes them extra special because these notions were left to me by my mother and grandmother. It’s also, frankly, necessary frugality. I’m grateful every day to be writing and living on our little farm especially when others have greater struggles. But I do notice that smaller portions of bliss pie are particularly sweet, perhaps because each morsel is savored.

As I stitch odd little ears, embroider asymmetrical eyes, string bright tufts of hair and appliqué teeth on these monster faces my thoughts keep turning to a woman I’ve recently begun corresponding with, a woman whose selfless actions call out the best in others.

Her name is Sasha Crow. Back in the autumn of 2005 she read an article about an Iraqi ambulance driver who had been killed during a U.S. bombing raid while trying to rescue the injured. Survivors included his young widow with six small children. Sasha had a moment of connection reading the names of those children. She managed to contact the journalist to see what she might do to help the family. Finally the answer came back. The widow needed a quarter acre of land, two cows and some sheep. Sasha hadn’t expected this request, but mustered up a fundraiser among her Seattle friends to provide the struggling Iraqi family with some assurance of security.

After that Sasha was more crucially aware of the needs of Iraqi refugees, the largest Christian diaspora of our time. The slogan “Not In Our Name” suddenly took on many real faces. And Sasha’s life changed.

Now with activist Mary Madsen and other dedicated volunteers, Sasha runs a shoestring charity based in Jordan which provides direct relief to Iraqi refugees. Innocent civilians, described dispassionately as “collateral damage” in wartime, have inspired her to call the non-profit organization Collateral Repair Project (CRP).

Here I sit in my comfortable house night after night leaning close to a gooseneck lamp as I stitch soft toys. My dogs sleep on the rug nearby. I listen, as long as the Internet connection is good, to podcasts on science or philosophy or spirituality. When my kids come in the room I solicit their ideas for the next sock monster’s face. I hear wind picking up enough to give a delightful feeling of contrast: cold outside, warm inside. I know that my heart won’t let me keep any money I might make by selling these monsters.

Sasha and I have been corresponding in particular about a project she’s struggling to get off the ground. Iraqi refugees in Jordan are not permitted, by law, to work. Before being displaced by war they were teachers, engineers, business owners—-never expecting to lose everything. Now they try to live on small assistance checks while waiting to see what the future might bring. Sasha realized with horror that many of the babies in these families are sickly and malnourished. Their mothers have been separated from close extended family ties, traumatized by war, and too often are unable to breastfeed. Without this vital source of nourishment Sasha knows the infants suffer from the lack of nutrients at this formative stage.  When there’s no money for milk let alone formula, what little milk there is gets watered down. Or worse, families must resort to feeding their babies sugar water. Sasha has tried promoting projects to advance the cause of breastfeeding through peer-to-peer relationships, like Le Leche League, but there’s insufficient funding. Right now she’s simply trying to provide formula and milk to babies in need. But no one, not one major relief agency, will partner with CRP’s Milk Fund because it’s a global goal to advance breastfeeding (a cause she supports, but logic dictates that formula is also needed in this situation). Even older children are not getting the nutrients they need. Hence, the project has to be funded directly.

All proceeds earned by these sock monsters will go to CRP. This first batch will be sold at Elements Gallery, run by artists Steve and Debra Bures. Then, if I’m weary of monster making I’ll come up with something else. Maybe an online art challenge with all works sold to benefit CRP. Or a big mid-Eastern feast this winter, all proceeds going to CRP. Any other ideas? I’d love to hear them.

Wind may be howling outside, but here the monsters are soft and made with love.  In a small way they’re taking on the misery created by larger monsters.

How to Get Involved With CRP

Take a look at CRP Projects


How to Make Sock Monsters

Select a baby or toddler-sized sock.

Remove an inch or so strip from the open end of the sock. Snip open a small space at the toe.  If you choose, make a small slit at the heel where you can sew in a tongue or tasty morsel the monster might want to chew on.

Then turn the sock inside-out. Sew the ends and sides of the ears closed in a continuous seam. Try making one shorter than the other.

Trim the seam.

Stuff the sock tightly with polyfill or old pillow contents or dryer lint or whatever you’ve got. Start with the ears and work your way down.  Leave the bottom end open for now, as you may want to stitch through this opening as you add features.

Now it’s time to add personality. Remember if you’re making a sock monster for a baby, the safest features are those drawn or embroidered on.

Try some scary felt teeth.

A tongue made from left over bits of sock (yes, monster surgery).

Layered eyes of notions like snaps and binding.

A silly sideways felted mouth and giant button eyes.

Perhaps a bright patch of embroidery floss hair.

Or ring glasses.

Then sew the toe opening (monster rear) closed. You may choose to seam the sides together for a simple bottom, which looks like toes on this head-standing sock monster.

Or insert a bit of sock fabric and sew the opening shut, making a somewhat more stable monster  (standing-wise, not necessarily emotionally).

I’ve been experimenting with feet, hands and wings on my next monsters.  Sock monsters are much more forgiving than actual monsters, thank goodness.


You’re Gonna Fall, So Laugh

statue falling

I’m a terribly flawed human being.

I don’t steal. I’m not greedy. But falling strikes me funny. Friends tell me their falling stories to see me snort with the sort of uncontrollable laughter that continues to erupt well after the conversation has moved on. They also send me video clips of strangers tripping and stumbling. Surely that’s not to feed into an unhealthy preoccupation, but only because they care about my happiness.

I don’t enjoy the falls of children, the elderly or anything looks remotely painful. But ordinary falls, those that tend to be accompanied by awkwardness and shock, show me the vulnerability that unites us as a species. You may be a glamorous celebrity, a rich girl on your wedding day, a confident dare devil, a casual visitor to a muddy llama farm, whatever. But when you fall, this is what we share. A moment of instability. A look of disbelief spreading across your face that expresses, “I’m a bi-pedal Homo sapiens well acquainted with upright posture and this can’t be happening.” Gravity continues to exert its influence as your feet and arms flail in an effort to push time backward. This sequence from stable to unstable is my favorite part, actually. The body slamming I could do without. I’ve had a few serious falls myself; two in my twenties required an ambulance ride with the World’s Best People, paramedics. I’ve learned it’s better to find the humor in our own falls, even when they hurt our dignity and our limbs.

Falling is on my mind after a phone call from a loved one. He tripped recently and can’t seem to stop going over the incident. To him it’s embarrassing, an ugly reminder of his own incompetence. That no one else saw him doesn’t even matter.

Here’s what does matter. What we tell ourselves has tremendous power over the way we store and retrieve memory. Each time we call up a memory we color the details with our current emotions. If you fell down on your way into a job interview, then later while depressed you cite that incident as evidence of your own worthlessness, that memory will be more closely associated with a negative state. If, on the other hand, you relate that incident as a wonderfully funny story to a group of friends who howl with laughter, that fall will be associated with more positive emotions. I probably laugh about awkward falls because I am a person entirely lacking in gracefulness. My own history of dropping over at inopportune moments is only tolerable because I recall it as funny.

So tomorrow I’ll call my loved one back. I plan to tell him one of my many falling down stories. Perhaps the one about what did and did not happen between myself and a boy who looked like Jesus, back in North Olmsted Junior High. Maybe he’ll feel some empathy for my plight, hear my laughter and know that laughing about falling is just another way of seeing that we fragile beings are in this together.

Here’s the story, in case you need a laugh.

Falling for a Guy

Back in hip hugger days, guys and girls flirted slowly. At least in junior high (a term that came before “middle school.”)  Romance started with glances. After a few days or even weeks of glances came long soulful looks. Then the first “hi.”

Our school was hugely overcrowded with grades 7 through 9, so packed that administrators had traffic lines complete with no passing zones painted on the hallway floors. I was in 8th grade. I wore hip huggers and tiny little tops I bought with my babysitting money at the forbidden head shop on Lorain Road. I listened to WMMS, the cool station that played entire albums. I wasn’t interested 8th grade boys. No, I liked a boy whose long wavy brown hair made him look like Jesus, and whose name, Joe Gagliardo, sounded warm and exotic. Being a grade ahead of me made him out of my reach. But, miracle of miracles, he started the “eye thing” and before long he was looking at me and smiling. I knew he’d be saying “hi” soon. I could barely sleep at night.

My friends advised playing hard to get. I bought a pair of the newest fashion, cuffed high-waisted jeans. With these on I could get away wearing a midriff top, a little skin showing as I walked down the hall between classes. Joe’s locker was up ahead and there he stood with a group of his friends. Suddenly those 9th grade boys looked huge and scary, but I mustered up my confidence. Joe was looking my way. He smiled. Then he said, “Hi Laura.” He knew my name!

Exultation took over, limiting what little coordination I possessed. I hurried so that I could pass by while tossing a brief, hard-to-get-girl hello. At the moment I was closest to Joe, my right foot stepped directly into the left cuff of my new jeans. There it stayed trapped. My mouth hung open in shock. I looked straight into the eyes of the boy I was trying to impress as I teetered forward. My knees buckled. I dropped down in a fall that seemed to take centuries. My head landed directly into Joe’s open locker, my butt hung out facing Joe and his friends.

Although I willed myself invisible or better yet, dead, nothing happened aside from some kind of static that replaced my ability to hear. I backed up like a crab, hurriedly stood and skittered away without looking at any one. I never ever exchanged another glance with Joe. It was easy in that crowded school to avoid him after that. But I used that story to amuse my girlfriends, although most of them couldn’t believe I would laugh about it. A few months later I met the taller, smarter and even older boy who later became the man I married.

Still, thinking of the girl who tried so hard to be cute yet hurled herself headfirst into a locker can make me smirk. Especially when I think of the expressions that must have been on the faces of those guys watching a girl playing hard to get.

photo of statue shared by benleto,  Creative Commons

Open-Eyed Optimism


Our dinner table topics tend to be obscure and in-depth because my kids delve deeply into their own interests. Detailed conversations about plant classification, advanced computer cooling methods, arachnid behavior and diesel fine-tuning require little from me except that I keep my eyes open.

But elections are coming up and we also tend to talk a lot about politics. These are conversations I can get into. These are also conversations where I need to temper myself. I know it’s important to stay open to everyone’s perspective around the table so I can hear what they have to say. This is difficult when I have strong opinions built on years of activism.

It’s easy to utter pat answers and give what may seem like trite explanations. It’s more valuable to build bridges of understanding than to be “right.” So I try, often unsuccessfully, to keep myself from snorting in derision about moneyed interests and short-sighted politicians. I want my family to continue to care deeply about things.

I also have to temper myself because politics are one of the few areas where my natural optimism wears thin. Still, it’s terrifically important to me that my family remain optimistic. According to The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and BuildLifelong Resilience by Martin E.P. Seligman, there are major differences between pessimists and optimists. People who are cynical believe negative conditions will last a long time. They give up easily and tend to blame themselves when things go wrong. In contrast, optimistic people look at negative conditions as a challenge and look for ways to prevent the next misfortune.  In fact optimists find life more fulfilling and rewarding. That’s an outlook worth cultivating.

Seligman recently spoke about infusing meaning and optimism into education. In one study, high school students not only read the classics but focused on the strengths of main characters. They also turned good intentions into actions benefiting others. The result?  Greater love of learning and increased social skills.

Looking for what’s valuable, what works, what brings joy is something we can do in all aspects of our lives.

Every day our children observe the direct kindness we demonstrate. They also witness the generosity of spirit we express as we talk about others, discuss issues and yes, listen. Our words and actions show them how to approach to the world.

For the Children

The rising hills, the slopes,

of statistics

lie before us.

the steep climb

of everything, going up,

up, as we all

go down.

In the next century

or the one beyond that,

they say,

are valleys, pastures,

we can meet there in peace

if we make it.

To climb these coming crests

one word to you, to

you and your children:

stay together

learn the flowers

go light.

Gary Snyder

from Turtle Island (A New Directions Book)