In celebration of today being National Senior Citizens Day, retired Etsian John Toft shares his story of finding basket-making as a young boy and returning to it in his golden years. For John, basket-making has developed into a much-needed meditative outlet when life’s everyday stresses wear him down.
A few years before I retired from teaching high school in the remote gold-mining town of Red Lake in N.W. Ontario, I remarked to my wife, Anne, that I should do more than golf and garden when I retire.
I recalled to Anne my early crafting experience, growing up in a beautiful English village called Cheddleton. There, at around the age of nine, the “top class” was introduced to basket-making in the arts and crafts course. Traditionally this class was one not taken seriously by the pupils. However, my twin brother, Frank, and I had other ideas. We took to basket-making as another sports competition. “I will show him how much better at this I am,” I said to myself as he likewise vowed to do better than I. So avidly did we compete, that basketry supplies at the school dwindled to almost zero.
Anne patiently listened to this story as if for the first time. But that Christmas, a book on basket-making appeared beneath the Christmas tree. So my basket-making odyssey began. By the time I retired from teaching, I had found a supplier of basket-making materials (Kilby’s of Toronto, Ontario) and had given friends, relatives and passing strangers what I now recognize as somewhat crudely made baskets. But I was hooked.
At that time, I had been the Chair of Harmony Centre for Community Living in Red Lake for many years. This agency serves all people with developmental, emotional, and physical disabilities. Our adult son, Adrian, a person with autism, was a fully fledged member of that Community Living Centre from the age of sixteen.
We decided to move to Ottawa with Adrian so he would be near his siblings. They could then supervise his life in that community when we were no longer living. Surely, we thought, we could find Adrian similar facilities in “The Nation’s Capital.”
We moved to Ottawa in October 2001. We soon discovered that Ottawa did not have the facilities and programs our son needed. He had to live with us in our basement — this after eight years of supported independent living in his own apartment through the Community Living Centre. It was then that basket-making for me came into its own as a therapeutic occupation.
From 2001, Anne and I battled to get Adrian the facilities and services he had had in Red Lake. We became founding directors of the Families Matters Co-operative Inc., an organization for and about people with developmental disabilities. I made presentations to the Federal House of Commons Finance Committee, the Ontario Legislature’s Finance Committee, and the City of Ottawa. I was the primary author of a position paper called “Dare to Care” that detailed what services should be mandated to all people with developmental disabilities, nationally and provincially. And I registered my basket-making business as John Toft Basketry.
It was this business that kept me fairly sane. My basket-making skills by then were getting better and better. And people were saying fine things about them and even buying them. I enjoy talking to people about my work. I enjoy demonstrating my work, and I enjoy the relaxation that comes as I sit and make another basket. I have to concentrate when I work. My mind cannot focus on the worries of the world when I am weaving. The cares and tribulations about Adrian vanish when I sit down and get on task.
Lobbying, protesting, letter writing, sending emails to politicians of all levels and parties became my life. And the stresses soon began to tell on my health.
By 2008, Adrian was settled in with a wonderful agency, Tamir. He lives in a group home operated by that agency and takes part in their day programs. Families Matter had become a viable organization, receiving funding for three years to engage a paid Executive Director. It was time for both Anne and me to move on and leave the stresses to others. And it became the time when, for me, basket-making became a larger part of my life.
I was making enough money from my basket sales to cover supplies costs and exhibition entry fees, and then I heard about Etsy. “Why don’t you sell your baskets on this world-wide virtual sales system?” suggested Catherine Gutsche, a.k.a gutsche, a local artist and Etsian I often saw at various shows in the Ottawa area. I took up her challenge. Little did I know what a steep learning curve I was to face in working to become a successful Etsian.
I still remember when a computer appeared on my office desk at Red Lake District High School. “You will use this computer to change students’ timetables, enter marks, keep track of credits earned, send marks to colleges and universities and register new students.” I gulped and then said, “OK.”
For Etsy, the challenges were different, but the learning curve just as steep. How do I create a banner? What is an avatar, and how do I get it to the right size? For these two problems, and others, the cry was “Anne!!!!!” Anne was a computer programmer from the days of punched cards, but she had kept up and developed her skills and abilities in the intervening years. She formatted my avatar and banner. But I still had to learn about photographs, pricing, descriptions, and tagging.
I soon began developing my blog as a promotional device for my Etsy shop and my baskets. On my blog, I share a great deal about basket-making, and a wide variety of other topics that take my fancy. It also includes occasional posts about our current joys and successes, as well as our trials and tribulations with Adrian as he reaches his 40th birthday this November. The basket-making, the blogging, and Etsy Chat Rooms help me through the day-to-day stresses. When I retired I never thought I would become a chat room addict!
I am a member of the Etsy for Autism Team and I find solace in sharing with members some aspects of our life. I donate 10% of my sales revenue from Etsy to the Geneva Centre for Autism, Toronto. This world-famous research institution for autism is the institution that taught Anne, Adrian and I, his teachers, and the staff at Harmony Centre how to cope with the devastation that autism brings. The donation is one small step I can take to say thanks.
Retirement’s challenges have been many and varied so far. What new challenges will come for us, Adrian, and Etsy? Who can tell? But basket-making will continue to help me survive these challenges as it has done in the past.
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