Logic told her there wasn’t time to do the project the way she wanted. Tova Mirvis decided not to listen.

By Tova Mirvis
Updated September 19, 2017
Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
Handmade stationery
Credit: Kate Mathis

Surely an e-vite would have been easier.

But I was transfixed by the array of card stock and the delicate sheets of shimmering, speckled, and floral-printed paper displayed in the stationery store. My son’s bar mitzvah was a few months away, and an idea had seized me: I needed to make 200 invitations by hand.

The practical side of me stepped up first in protest: so much unnecessary work. Why do this? And then, not far behind, the critical side: You don’t know how to do this.

These were valid points. As a mother of three and a novelist, I had little time to spare. I didn’t think of myself as the artsy type, at least not the kind that used paper, glue, and paint. With my children, I could do projects that were fun and messy, projects you would hang on the fridge. But not something that would come close to looking perfect.

There was another reason that an unnecessary project wasn’t a good idea right now.

Until recently, I’d had what appeared to be an orderly life—married for 17 years with three children and a house in a tight-knit community. I’d gotten engaged when I was 22, to my first serious boyfriend, after just a few months of dating. The story we told ourselves of our courtship was of an innocent, young love: no struggles, no complications. We were perfect for each other, we’d believed.

Yet over the years that version of our marriage had ceased to match the way I actually felt. Quietly, I harbored the concern that my husband and I couldn’t navigate any difficult issue together. The growing differences between us, my discontent and loneliness—these issues needed to be kept out of sight for fear of unraveling the story we were intent on upholding. I thought of myself as the kind of person who would stay in her marriage no matter what. I didn’t know what a person who would upend her life looked like, but I was certain she didn’t look like me.

Yet just shy of my 40th birthday—and a few months before my son’s bar mitzvah—I made the agonizing decision to leave my marriage. Roiled by guilt and uncertainty, I was as scared as I’d ever been: afraid of the pain and upheaval for my children, afraid that I was taking the sheets of paper on which our lives were written and tearing them to shreds. But I realized that as scared as I was, I felt a loosening inside me, a recognition that I could force my way past the internal voices that had always held me back.

Before my divorce, a reproachful inner voice emerged whenever I felt the urge to take a risk. As soon as an idea reared in my mind—become a runner, learn to knit—I saw a wishful, idealized image of how it might turn out. (Those marathons I would run! Those beautiful hats I would make!) Then, just as swiftly, I heard that nay-saying voice. (Those hours I would have to spend training. That long-ago failed attempt to learn to crochet.)

I often remembered the time, a decade earlier, when I hadn’t heeded my naysaying voice, and my younger sister and I had impulsively decided to paint the walls of her bedroom purple. In the wake of a bad breakup, she had moved to a new apartment. I had never really painted before, but we plunged in, as though we could paint over her sadness about this relationship that hadn’t worked out. It turned out we hadn’t adequately prepped the walls. Soon a large wrinkle appeared. As the paint-soaked plaster peeled away, we stood there agape. We called a professional to fix the mess, but the peeling wall seemed like a warning: It’s better not to try something new.

But as I stood in that stationery store, staring at the sheets of paper, a single thought went through my head.

I want to make something beautiful.

I bought card stock, craft knives, rolls of double-sided tape, ink pads, embossing powder, and an embossing heat tool. I planned a design that involved layers of paper in different shades of blue. I decided to make enclosure cards, too, on which I would handstamp swirling lines. The divorce might have marked the closing of one part of my life, but these invitations were a much-needed reminder that happy occasions still lay ahead.

Every day I set up my art supplies at the dining room table. So much of my time now was spent fighting with lawyers. My mind was overtaken by the endless tasks necessary to unravel and reconfigure our lives.

But when I concentrated on making the invitations, the buzz of worry quieted. My thoughts slowed. My mind was still. All I had to do was concentrate on the work of my hands. I stamped rows of swirling lines. I dusted wet ink with embossing powder. I turned on the heat embosser and watched the colors become brighter, bolder. I ran my hands over the raised lines as though I’d performed a miracle.

There were, of course, moments of overwhelm and regret. I cut uneven lines because I didn’t always take the time to measure. I smudged ink because I hadn’t waited for the stamping to dry. I spilled a container of embossing powder on the rug. From each mistake, I learned to work slowly, to be precise and patient. Beauty, I learned, takes time.

My final products didn’t quite match the image in my head. I still saw all the ways my work looked handmade, and not necessarily in the good kind of way. But my friends and family marveled at how well my project had turned out. Their admiration was only a small part of the satisfaction I felt at realizing that I could still take myself by surprise.

A year later, as my divorce was being finalized, my sister, who was almost 40 then, got engaged. I remembered that failed attempt to paint her walls, her heartbreak then and her happiness now. “I’ll make the invitations,” I offered. As I embossed green leaves across the top of taupe cards, I was reminded that our lives rarely end up exactly the way we imagined. We reach the important moments in our own ways, at our own times.

Three years later, I was back at the stationery store, this time to make invitations for my own wedding. Now, embarking on a second marriage, there was no idyllic story of young, unvarnished love. Between the two of us, my fiancé and I had six children ranging in age from 6 to 23. There would surely be complications to navigate as we blended our families, but I’d learned that in life, too, there were mess-ups and smudges and do-overs, that we learn by trial and error, by taking risks and starting over. With patience and time and love, we could create something of beauty.

I had planned to keep my wedding invitations simple—printed white paper mounted on dark purple card stock—when I saw, in a nearby display, sheets of glittery silver paper. My hands, not my mind, made the decision.

Using a template, I cut triangular-topped squares of silver paper that I used to line the purple envelopes. I made glittery bands to go around each invitation. I designed a program for our ceremony that I decorated with strips of silver. When I studied my work closely, I could see where I hadn’t trimmed the bands evenly, where the paper lining the envelopes was slightly off-center. The silver paper shed all over my house and across the front of the envelopes.

They may not have been perfect, but they were beautiful. For days my hands were flecked with glitter.

About the Author:

Tova Mirvis wrote the novels The Ladies Auxiliary, The Outside World and Visible City. Her memoir, The Book of Separation, was released in September.