Mending Old Quilts: Everyday Magic, Day 918

A growing pile of old quilts has been staring at me for months, and in the last week, I finally succumbed to the call of the fabric. You see, these quilts held us and our history for so many years, and to see them tattering away without a fight was just wrong. Yet for a long time, I couldn’t figure out what to do to mend the torn squares or disintegrating borders of color and texture.

Some might say to toss quilts with dozens of tears in them, but each quilt, just like each life, has its own story.  Woody and Janet, our cousins, made one of them for me when I was undergoing chemo. Then they sent the quilt to people in our Jewish community so that they could knot the ties in the center of each square while adding their wishes for my recovery. I made several the other quilts over long stretches, the oldest one when Forest, now 22, was a newborn, and I was teaching at Haskell Indian Nations University. I carried cut pieces of fabric with me to long meetings where I listened and sewed, the voices of people from many native nations piercing my heart and the heart of the quilt too.

So how to mend a broken quilt? After a little research, I considered the options of cutting the quilts up to make pillows or even a lampshade or two, but I never wanted to violate the quilts I had spent hours making and dreaming under, washing after an animal or kid threw up on them, or unfurling from the linen closet for the first truly cold night each November. Yet the directions I read for repairing them seemed unduly complicated and beyond my patience and ability.

Then it occurred to me: I could mend the quilts the same way I make quilts (and do most things), with my usual sewing repertoire of trial and error (and a seam ripper nearby).  At the same time, I suddenly got hungry to re-organize my years of fabric, which gave me lots of good ideas on what to put aside for which quilt. Lucky for me, I tend toward batik fabric which tends to look okay next to itself in many variations.

My technique was simple: cut out a square or rectangle of fabric that somewhat matches (or at least doesn’t clash), iron down the edges with a quarter inch turned under, pin it to where it goes in the quilt, and sew like crazy. Then wonderful sewing maven I know mentioned Frankenstein-stitching back and forth over little tears, and I doubled my repertoire.

The results may not be pretty, especially since I’m not all that skilled at sewing straight lines or prone to map out things too carefully. Basically, I sew like I write: fast and sloppy first drafts with lots of revisions. Yet in the end, the repaired quilt (as well as the revised text) blankets me into new dreams. It also feels really good to take something ripped and worn, and give it some new life, reminding me that even in what’s far from perfect or somewhat-falling-apart, when it comes to eeking out a Wabi-Sabi solution, I have all I need right on hand.

If this writing speaks to you, get a copy of Caryn’s new book, Everyday Magic: Fieldnotes on the Mundane and Miraculousbased on over 10 years of this blog. Details here.

Late last night, as I sent my novel Miriam’s Well to my wonderful publisher, Steve Semken of Ice Cube Press, I reworked a summary of this 500-plus page book that’s been at the heart of my writing life for 13 years:

In this modern day retelling of the biblical story, Miriam wanders the political and spiritual desert of a changing America, torn between her roots as the Jewish daughter of a Black father and white mother, her yearning for home, and her brothers, Aaron, a successful New York City attorney, and Moses, a Kansas autistic artist. An astonishing cook and singer, Miriam has a knack for showing up to feed and help people at at landmark events, including People’s Park during the Summer of Love, the Wounded Knee encampment in South Dakota, the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, the Oklahoma City terrorist attack, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. As she seeks the promised land, she shows her people, and eventually herself, how to turn the chaos and despair of our times into music, meals, and meaning.

The amazing painting (sunset on the Platte River) by Anne Burkholder that will be on the cover of the novel.

This morning, waking up to the first day in the many years when I wasn’t finishing this book, I realized, that for all intensive purposes, the Miriam of my imagination is done wandering the desert. I got off easy compared to biblical Miriam’s 40 years of wandering, after which she never even got to the promised land (at least in that telling of her life). I’ve gotten lost, and eventually found, in many sentences in the writing and revision of the book, thanks to my tried-and-true process of writing what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts,” then reworking my words for eons. I’ve read the in-process book in entirety aloud to Ken twice, and parts of it to Brave Voice participants occasionally, but from here on, the “in-process” part of the process is finished.

It’s a strange feeling to complete a big book that takes everything you think you can do, and asks of you to do more and go farther. So many times, I couldn’t figure out how to develop a scene, flesh out a curve in the plot, or show, with greater transparency but still enough mystery, who a character is. As I tell my students and workshop participants, sometimes you just have to tell yourself you’re not just smart enough to write something at the moment, shrug it off, write something else, then return to the page. Also, writing is a way of knowing: my hands on the keyboard had led me often to language that was far beyond me thinking into words.

Now I’m sitting on the porch in the rain during a morning thunderstorm, reminding myself I don’t need to rework something in the book that I loved writing so much. Despite the glory of being finished, I’m sad. Then I remind myself: I’m only leaving the writing of it. I’ll be doing readings from this novel for anyone who will listen for years, and I’ll be talking at length about its nuances, and what might happen to Miriam after the end of the novel (although I wish I fully knew). Of course, there will be many more times to proofread the book, even after the advance copies are printed and distributed this fall in time for us to garner some reviews for a Passover 2018 release date.

In time, just like Miriam, I’ll be done wandering, and in the case of such a long-term project, wondering how to shape each paragraph, lift and close each chapter. Miriam will find her next story, and so will I.

I’m looking for art for the cover of my novel Miriam’s Well, coming out from Ice Cube Press when the clock strikes 2018. This 12-year-in-the-making novel is about biblical Miriam and her brothers Aaron and Moses, but it’s set in the U.S. and has Miriam wandering the spiritual, political, and cultural desert and lushness of this country for 40 years, starting her wandering in People’s Park in 1969. I describe the book as somewhat like Forrest-Gump-Meets-The-Red-Tent. I’m looking for original art to use that resonates with Miriam, her well (way of feeding people and keeping up their spirits during the long haul), wandering, seeking home, the kaleidoscope of family and life, or any related theme. Little caveat: ain’t nobody getting any advance on this book, so I don’t have a budget for art, but I can pay the artist with extensive gratitude, a big pile of books, his/her/their profile at the end of the book, and other ways to share more about this wondrous artist. Thank you for your help! Below is a longer synopsis of the novel. If you know of any art – photography, painting, pastels, sculpture, quilting, etc. — that might fit, please email me at carynmirriamgoldberg@gmail.com. Thanks for reading this far and considering what images would do the trick!

Miriam’s Well Synopsis

From a young age Miriam sees visions she can’t cope with or stop. Growing up Jewish in Brooklyn with Aaron, her boy genius brother, her black father and white mother, she finds her place in the world best through singing and feeding people, much like her biblical namesake. That sense of belonging is shattered when, as a teenager, her worst nightmares come true. After her high-strung mother gives birth to a third child, Moses, who is more Miriam’s than her mother’s, the family moves to Israel. Caught in a freak accident during the Six-Day War, Miriam’s father is killed, her mother disengages from the family, and Kansas relatives take Moses away from her. Shattered and lost, Miriam and Aaron return to their old house in Brooklyn, now owned by their aunt and uncle, to piece together their future. Miriam embarks upon an opposite journey than her career-driven brother Aaron as she takes to the open road.

For the next 40 years, Miriam wanders, yearning for home and meaning while dwelling in the edges of America. She feeds a giant house full of hippies in Berkeley, attends women’s Black Panther meetings in Oakland, and sneaks into Wounded Knee during the 1973 occupation to cook for everyone. She sings to people at soup kitchens in Denver, homeless shelters in New York City, and a San Francisco hospice during the peak of the AIDS epidemic. She even bakes the Cuban bread the leaders of Key West throw at U.S. government officials when the city tries to secede from America in 1982.

Many of the places Miriam lives, first on her own, and later with her half-Lakota, half-Italian husband Joseph, and their daughter Laura, are geographically, politically or spiritually on the edge of America, from Mount Desert Island off the coast of Maine to the beaches of Key West to an extreme west Texas small town. She tries to salvage a relationship at an Idaho back-to-the-land commune, leads women’s rituals at a feminist potato farm (Mrs. Potato Head) in Utah, and runs a cafe at an Alabama ecovillage. Working with the homeless or the hungry, at-risk L.A. Teenagers or overlooked New York City elders, Miriam reaches beyond the edges of her upbringing.

Miriam is continually plagued by her visions and driven by an unquenchable desire to save people while puzzling over what do with her own family. She helps a man search hospitals for his wife after the Oklahoma City bombing, rescues a a teen who overdosed during the Whittier-Narrows earthquake, runs toward the World Trade Center during 9/11, and feeds hundreds after Hurricane Katrina–all to the fury and fear of her family. Her many visits with Moses in western Kansas teach her that she can’t rescue her autistic brother from his quiet life among evangelical Christians, but she can dwell with him there. She can’t live the life her brother Aaron wants for her, but over decades, she helps him recover his own visions. She can’t stop missing her father, but over time that deep yearning changes from overwhelming roar to dull ache. After decades of avoiding, blaming, and distancing from her mother, Miriam discovers Batty isn’t who Miriam thought she was, and her family is intact in a mosaic she never could have imaged.

Much to her own surprise, Miriam finds home in a kaleidoscope of family and friends, healing in the middle of cancer, and peace in the thin places between the world lost and the new land on the other side of her wandering.

Photo by Stephen Locke, used with permission

The kids were already in the front seats when I arrived at the Coffey County Library branch in Gridley, Kansas to present “Kansas Weather in Life, Literature, and Photography,” a Kansas Humanities Council (KHC) program. In this town of 341 people, the library is the place to be, and not just for kids. By the time I began, people aged 9 to 90 filled seats, ready to take in Kansas poetry and photography (via Stephen Locke) about how our extreme weather shapes our lives and builds our character. We also shared their stories of communities coming together in the face of wild storms, close calls, beautiful vistas, and what our weather tells us about who we all.

One of many KHC programs, Water/Ways focuses on the impact of water (and by extension, weather) on our history, traditions, daily lives, and in the face of climate change, our very future. Such programs also bring together communities, helping us find the essential dialogue, diversity, and unity that is the bedrock of democracy.

Now a wild storm is threatening all of America, especially far-flung rural areas where there is little to no funding for arts and humanities programs except from state humanities councils. With the current U.S. president calling for eliminating the National Endowment for the Humanities, programs like the one I just did, that bring together people to share stories of hard-won wisdom and emerging visions, would vanish. As well, we would lose initiatives such as KHC’s “Migration Stories” on the experience of Africans in Midwestern communities, “Freedom of Speech in Kansas” on the importance of free speech,  “FLIKS” promoting short documentaries on unique stories in our state, a vibrant speaker’s bureau, a long-standing book discussion program that has reached people in every corner of the state, and the state poet laureate program (which is completely funded by private donors).

I’ve had the honor of being roving scholar with KHC since 1994, as a book discussion leader, speaker’s bureau presenter, and the 2009-13 Kansas poet laureate. Living in a 400-mile-wide state, I’ve rambled many miles to talk about everything from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God to David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars, books that give us intimate portraits of American history, from African-American communities in the Everglades in the 1920s (Huston), to Japanese-American communities before, during and after internment in the 1940s (Guterson). Such discussions help all of us grapple with our collective identity as Americans.

I’ve driven through snowstorms and ecstatic displays of lighting, up and down the Flint Hills by starlight, and across the high plains on startlingly bright mornings to meet Kansans of all ages eager to talk about what the humanities tell them of how to live with greater verve and meaning. In traveling far and wide to also talk about books with Jewish content, such as Alfred Kazin’s Walker in the City, I’ve shared traditions and history of my own faith, and by extension, participated in powerful interfaith dialogues about life and literature.

I’m a humanities scholar because I believe in face-to-face dialogue, community-building that includes many perspectives, and intergenerational exchanges about lessons learned or ahead of us. I love how humanities councils enable us to mek connections between urban and rural residents, and people of various faiths, ethnicities, and histories so that we can truly engage in forming “a more perfect union,” as stated in the preamble to our constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

To keep forming that more perfect union–along with safeguarding justice, tranquility, liberty, and yes, even prosperity–we must save the humanities, which provide us the gathering ground to more deeply understand our birthright along with ways to learn how to better be true to ourselves and our communities.

If you believe in the humanities–in other words, please contact your legislators today. Here’s a link to find contact information. And join us at humanities programs wherever you live: here’s a link to find your state humanities council. It’s so easy to tear down programs that give us greater vision, and so hard to build such programs. Let’s not lose what helps makes us more human.

IMG_0869Quilting is like climbing into a time machine and disembarking in the future with a magic treasure. You start the quilt in one season, end it in another, each step holding its stories, terally for me since I listened to a lot of podcasts of The Moth, This American Life and Radio Lab while sewing these babies together.

I started the bright blue quilt with the crazy quilt squares — controlled chaos is how I see this design glimpsed and phone-photoed from a quilting book — at the end of the summer, thinking this would be a good transition project. I had just finished organizingIMG_0940 the Power of Word conference for two years, and with the last of my sons moving out, it was empty-nest heaven, trembling and confusing heaven at times, but nevertheless a time of extra time. I felt like I suddenly gained an extra hour each day. So off to the fabric store I went.

I cut the squares for hours one night while listening to “A Night on the Town” on public radio, then whatever came on after that, and after that. Thanks for my sister-in-law, Karen, who is a superb quilter, I learned how to use that great see-through plastic ruler and fabric cutter (just like a pizza cutter, but smaller with no crusts left behind).IMG_0976

We laid out the squares — Ken helped since I needed his eyes for the best color arrangement — on the floor of the playroom. This was the room where once babies tried to eat Legos, and bringing in piles of sharp pins would have been unthinkable. It was hot out and in, and it took a long time to figure out how to place fabric together in ways that didn’t clash or repeat too much. Then I started sewing, and here’s where the mistakes came in.

A helpful woman in the sewing store enthusiastically handed me a flyer featuring IMG_0127upcoming quilting classes when I told her how inexperienced I was. Sure, I’ve made about five other quilts, but far more simple ones and always without knowing what I was doing. Yet when it comes to learning new crafts, you’ll find me in the corner with a seam ripper, undoing a six-foot-long body of tiny machine stitches, rather than actually going to classes or reading instructions. Some of us learn best by mucking around in the mud, and I got to learn about the muck generated by terrible mathematics errors that meant re-cutting and re-sewing big sections, and lots of time rushing back to the store to get more fabric.

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Cat above investigating cat below the quilt

In the end, I delivered the whole enchilada to professional quilter Kris Barlow, who did a gorgeous job turning this big hunk of fabric into a nuanced and three-dimensional piece of beauty.

But while the quilt was with the quilter, I started getting itchy to make another quilt, especially after I spied some stained-glass window quilt designs.

Off to the fabric store again, then IMG_0438out with the ruler and fabric cutter. The problem was that this quilt was, to a person to could only do basic multiplication, more like advanced geometry. I spent far more time than you would expect drawing squares and rectangles and counting out inches for what I would need to cut. Then I realized I forgot to figure in the fabric between all the colorful windows, and since some pieces would be long rectangles alongside shorter squares (each with fabric between them), the addition quickly got beyond me.IMG_0437

In the end, though, I found that quilting seems to be 90% adding and subtracting numbers, and cutting fabric. The sewing part, aside from the bothersome refilling of the bobbins just when I’m on a roll, was a lot like, once the car is packed after weeks of planning, hitting the open road for the much-awaited IMG_0363vacation.

The end of any great sewing project is just a pause in between one kind of weather and another. A trip to see the sandhill cranes in Nebraska landed me in front of a pile of golden and gorgeous crane material, and now there’s a whole pile of fabric to measure and cut. That lure of what different things will look like wedded together by many stitches is irresistible. So I’m climbing inside this springtime-leaving, autumn-bound time machine to see where I land. No doubt I’ll be wearing a new quilt like a super-hero cape, pretending I can fly.