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.

2010 is toast. Here’s what it taught me in a nutshell:

  • With a cheap, plastic sewing machine under hand, I can still sew…..and to my surprise, I can sew wabi sabi quilts.
  • I love to play a video game (who knew?) — Typer Shark — although Ken says my typing all those sharks to death could have environmental repercussions.
  • It wasn’t devastating to have my daughter leave home. And between texting, facebook-messaging, phone-calling and skype, it’s kind of like she didn’t leave.
  • It’s very cool to have sons taller than me, and in the case of Forest, much taller than me.
  • I’m blown away by the compassion and community I saw gather around one friend who lost her son, another who lost her wife, and a group of us who lost mutual friends. Death is hard (understatement), but being here for each other is what makes the unbearable bearable.
  • I can sleep easily with a purring cat on my chest for hours.
  • If need be, I can lift our 80-pound lab-mation and get her into the car and onto the table at the vet’s.
  • True but a little sad: I am MUCH healthier without wheat, dairy or sugar in my diet.
  • True and delightful: I’m most in love with the world and alive — even when not feeling my best — when doing yoga everyday.
  • “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” is a great movie, and I’m glad to have seen it twice.
  • There only seems to be one television show at a time that I like/love, and this time, it’s “Bones.”
  • Sky Islands are singular mountains dotted throughout the Sonoran Desert (and beyond) where the altitude changes creates complete changes in climate.
  • All estimates for most climate changes I know of were vastly understated, and although my family rolls my eyes when I say this, I don’t think much of the coasts will survive beyond my lifetime (and maybe not more than a decade or two).
  • Bluebirds in winter, Indigo Bunting in summer, and all of life is good.
  • I actually like brussel sprouts when chopped finely into stir-fry.
  • I’m better than I thought at wasting time.
  • French farce in theater, when done well, is wickedly funny.
  • Mopping can be magical.
  • Warmed up enough, I can touch my toes without bending my knees, but I still can’t meditate worth a damn.
  • Whimsy rules.
  • Cats are the ones who taught humans all about lying (as in, “No one has fed me for days” ten minutes after they got fed).
  • Minneapolis and St. Paul blur so seamlessly into each other that it’s easy to lost in the Twin Cities vortex.
  • There’s nothing that can’t be made better by playing some Laura Nyro, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, Kelley Hunt, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Joni Mitchell, Greg Greenway or Louis Armstrong.
  • I seriously don’t want to know what or how much my kids drink at college or all manner of other things that happen late at night.
  • Without pressure, and with family I love, I actually kind of don’t always dislike Christmas so much.
  • Macaroons: the wonder food. All manner of squash too.
  • It’s always this question: “How to live?” and it’s always this answer, “With kindness.”

Best wishes to all for 2011!

For three days, I’ve had the joy of hanging out with my pal, Yvette, who stopped in Kansas to kick off a five-city business tripping extravaganza, and to work on her marvelous and inspiring book on women, leadership and narrative. At the Merc yesterday, I was delighted to notice how Yvette blended with the art, in fact, seemed to emerging from it. Later, walking downtown, we stopped in front of Wild Territory, and since part of Yvette’s style and calling has everything to do with patterns of zebra stripes, we stopped again for a photo (too bad she wasn’t carrying her zebra bag and zebra suitcase).

Writing, talking, planning writing, talking more and aiming ourselves toward artfully-prepared meals and rich bouts of coffee has made me think about how art is not something separate that parallel-plays with us, but something meshed with moments, then documented or revealed in word or image of sound or motion. Making art can simply be opening a window or turning around, although it’s more like this art makes us and makes us aware. The art of the cat sleeping in a circle on one particular square of the green quilt. The wind dance in all its winter-haunting dramatics. The nudge of the furnace coming on, in concert with that wind and dog loudly eating the sleeping cat’s food. Wabi sabi art of course, but the art that we can walk right out of or into at just about any moment, whether they are splashes and color or zebra stripes, or just quiet moments to think about it all.

Wabi Sabi is the Japanese term that points to the perfection of imperfection, and the beauty in what’s aging and changing. It literally comes from the beauty of old tea houses, falling apart, overcome by vines and fallen leaves, but still stunningly and vividly alive.  It’s a great term to wrap our arms around as we get older and hopefully even wiser.

Instead of applauding the sparkling new Broadway play with all its bells, whistles and curtain calls, wabi sabi holds out his long arm and gestures toward the bare branch in a tree that had most of its leaves yesterday. Wabi sabi lifts its eyes to the pale gray-blue clouds swimming in the cold front behind the tenderly-moving ponderosa pine. Wabi sabi says, “Look, the world is made of beauty and time pouring right past our vision all the time. Listen, look, taste, smell and touch. All you want and need is right here.” Then wabi sabi serves tea in an cup and saucer from our great aunt, and for once, we really savor the warm and flavor of the tea.

When it comes to counting our blessings, it’s easy to name what’s new and shiny: the first grandchild, the new used car, the big soup of just-made chili. Yet when we look at what sustains us through our life changes, we often see the wabi sabi world: the home where we live which, no matter how big or small, probably needs some small or big repairs; our bodies gathering new wrinkles and extra skin in all the wrong places; our weather-worn friendships and relationships.

For this month’s writing exercise, make a list of your wabi sabi gratitudes. You needn’t go anywhere for this. Just look around, and start typing or writing. From my perch at the back table in the cafe of the Community Mercantile right now, here’s what I see:

Old American flag rushed by the wind in front of the Phillips 66 station.

Last dark rust of the wavering oak trees.

Dull shimmer of three white, one blue and one red car in the parking lot.

The slow twirl of one chandeleir while the others hold stillness.

The quiet hum of two men, one old and one young, talking.

A mother and her son reading their books on high stools in front of the windows.

A gleaming photograph of radishes, reddening at their tops.

My 51-one-year-old fingers on the keyboard, writing themselves home.

Try your own wabi sabi list of observations, and you can also write about other wabi sabi moments in your life when the simple surroundings of your days and nights renewed your wonder and illuminated your vision.

It’s well into November, and many of the trees around here still are holding tight to their leaves although those leaves are often dark brown paper bags of their former selves. Similarly, I’m having a hard time letting go of various things in my life, which lead to that kind of leaf-gripping worry that disrupts my day, aims me toward watching youtube videos when I should be working, and keeps me up at night.

Walking is the only thing that makes sense at times like this, and lucky for me, I got a long walk along the river and through part of the river trail with Danny mid-day and then through the tree-lined fields near Haskell Indian Nations University Kris near sunset. All around, I saw that the wild trees — the native ones — had a much easier time disrobing, standing bare-ish in the too-warm-for-this-time-of-year day while the domestic trees, the one brought here from there, still had a death grip on their lives, mostly rust, dark yellow, or the kind of green about to die.

I think there’s something to that: what’s wild and rooted here can go with the flow much more. What’s trying to make a life here while having evolved in other weather, other climate, has a harder time trusting the change in the season. Meanwhile, the birds flow overhead, heading south. The trees continue to rain down. The wind lifts and falls. What are you afraid of, and what good does it do to hold onto whatever is changing? the world sang to me. Let go. Besides, winter is coming, and it’s okay.