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“Each of us, as we pass through life, leaves traces of the passage. Sometimes the signs are as slight as a bent leaf, a twisted twig, or a seed dispersed. Sometimes, we leave behind the husks of former selves or castaway restraints. While following these trails, we grow ever more aware of our lives in connection-to our foremothers, to the elemental truths of nature, to the selves we hope to become. Woven together, we begin to see the shifting patterns of our intertwined lives.
The studio work represents my journey, my passage.”

~ Sarena Mann

One afternoon, in the central Phoenix kitchen of an Irish friend, I glanced up from my cup of tea to find whimsy – Sarena Mann’s paper maché ladies floating from the wooden beams above me. Enchanting, they reminded me of the fairies I once imagined in our garden when I was a girl – curious and delicate. Crafted from tiny bits of fabric, colored paper, and wire, they are always on the move. Forever free, graceful, beckoning, and on the dreariest of days, they work their charm. Like fireflies.

I have accumulated over a dozen of them over the years, and now I cannot imagine looking up and not seeing them dance above me, each one a temptress and tempted to soar – standing on her swing, or with butterflies, balloons, a kite, a swath of silken ribbon. Pixies, elfins, fairies – they conjure Van Morrison’s ‘gypsy souls.’

My collection was complete until yesterday afternoon when I spotted scores of them fluttering in a booth at The Temple Festival of the Arts. “Are you Sarena Mann?” I asked the woman inside, bursting to tell her just how much I love her craft and the heart in it.

sarenasophmeModest, she confirmed her identity, and she stood there with her hands on her hips, as my words tumbled out about how much her creations reminded me of the fairies and the folklore that shaped my childhood; about my early years of motherhood when I whispered to my little girl that our backyard was a magical place, home to her own “pixie pals,” flitting from flower to flower, leaving love letters at Christmas or Easter or when a baby tooth fell out.

Of course I had to buy another. And another. A Miko caught my eye, bearing six tiny baskets, and a message of peace and prosperity; and, for Sophie, it was a woman in a boat, strong and sailing away into the mystic, a paper crane at the bow.

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As I watched Sarena wrap her delicate creations in tissue paper and place them in a brown paper bag, I connected again the notion of being good with one’s hands and being in good hands. Soon, I was transported back to another time and place, remembering my mother and father and the artisanal handiwork –  the craft – that imbued the rural County Derry where they were raised.  More a matter of economic necessity in those days, people were “good with their hands” – their dress-making, baking, knitting, turf-cutting, and roof-thatching all shaped by and shaping the townlands in which they lived.  Seamus Heaney‘s poems are peopled with such artisans, men like my father, men like the Thatcher – solitary and stoic.

“Then fixed the ladder, laid out well honed blades
And snipped at straw and sharpened ends of rods
That, bent in two, made a white-pronged staple
For pinning down his world, handful by handful.

Couchant for days on sods above rafters
He shaved and flushed the butts, stitched all together
Into a sloped honeycomb, a stubble patch,
And left them gaping at his Midas touch.”

Surely, somewhere in Heaney’s notion of “pinning down” one’s world, a handful at a time, is where making a living intersects with making art.

For years, my mother has wrapped up bits and pieces of home in brown paper packages tied up with string. They make their way from Castledawson to Phoenix, their contents in one piece, filled with Antrim Guardian newspaper clippings about people I used to know but might not remember, Cadbury’s chocolate, three or four packets of Tayto cheese and onion, and something for me to “throw on.”

Ma’s first job was in Crawford’s shop in Castledawson, where she learned, among other things, how to wrap a tidy parcel in brown paper and string. As she had learned to bake and sew by watching my grandmother, so she watched the proprietor, Jim Crawford, wrap packages for the customers. She reminds me this was before there was such a thing as Scotch Tape, so sometimes she would use a seal wax over the knotted string.

Soon she was expertly preparing parcels of sweets and biscuits for those who wanted to send a taste of home to relatives across the water, Mrs. O’Connor, whose daughter was in England; Jim Crawford himself had devised a way to tie newspapers with string so they could be easily mailed to relatives far away in Australia. My mother still has the knack for it, and to this day I cannot bring myself to open the Mid-Ulster Mail newspaper that contains the news of Seamus Heaney’s death.

Years later, when the girl behind the counter was all grown up and the mother who stayed home with us, one of her favorite jobs was “backing books.” By the first day of school in September, she had saved brown wrapping paper for this special task. There was an art to it, and so naturally it fell under my mother’s bailiwick. I can see her in my mind’s eye, at the kitchen table in our house on the Dublin Road waiting for my brother and me to return home from our first day back at school. It is a September afternoon, and she is ready with brown paper and scissors. She places each book carefully on the middle of a sheet of brown paper, and with a few quick snips, folds, and tucks, she has it covered, ready for us to write our names on the front.

I remember one September, because my mother was ill and in the hospital, I had taken it upon myself to back my new history textbook. Of course I couldn’t do it right. Like so many things, this was something my mother had made look so easy, but unlike my mother I had not learned by watching. Clumsy, I could not fit the brown paper neatly under the spine at both ends, so I gave up and went to school, my book un-backed. For my sins, I was subjected to a memorably sarcastic tirade from a teacher who just didn’t want to hear that my mother lay in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast. She may as well have been on the other side of the world in that instant, and some forty years later, I can still feel the flush of embarrassment on my face – but then I look up and there they are – Sarena Mann’s figures in flight – just waiting to lighten my load.