Wednesday, February 29, 2012

(Women) On the Edge

When we come to Victoria, we always see if something is on at the Belfry Theatre, which has made a comfortable if worn theatre space out of an old church.  It seems that we've hit a period when theatre audiences want to be entertained, perhaps because of financial instability and undertainty around the world:  last spring when Veronica and I were in New York City, we couldn't find a single play that wasn't either a comedy or a musical, and we even checked off off Broadway and the NYTimes theatre reviews.  Nothing but upbeat stuff.  Regina's own Globe Theatre opted this year for lighter fare, and we opted not to subscribe.  But the Belfry is unafraid of ideas or uncomfortable feelings and they've never disappointed us.  This trip, we saw On the Edge, a new play by Michele Riml.

Susinn McFarlen plays three women, Simone the fashion addict, Jess the cop, and Marilyn the wife trying to clear some space in her life with a yoga class.  Each of these characters has a thirty-minute monologue whose words often imply the questions or demands of another presence.  McFarlen's acting is superb; you'd have to have your lines and your delivery down cold for a one-hander like this, but she goes even farther.  Each character has a different body language, a different approach to the space of the nearly empty theatre.  We can even watch Marilyn manage to get better and better at her yoga through classes we suspect go for three or four months; we can watch her relationship to her body change profoundly.

But the real star here is Riml's script.  I'll admit that I wasn't terribly sympathetic to Simone the fashion addict, whose monologue is her introduction of herself to a kind of "fashion-addict's anonymous," as she explained an upper-middle-class life of entertaining and socializing where she was a kind of mannequin for her husband's status.  I could certainly muster the feminist ire I couldn't quite give Carmen, though:  intellectually I pitied a woman whose identity was a matter of which elite salespeople she knew and which designers she wore.  Simone embodied consumerism at its worse, the kind of aesthetic error Alexander Nehemas writes about in Only a Promise of Happiness:  for this person, the aesthetic has nothing to do with what is original or daring or fresh or expressive of themselves, but only what is already prescribed.  Yet Simone admits that her husband had had enough of her simply showing up "in costume"--this designer for that event.  He too had tired of her lack of self, and when she didn't take the hint he simply abandoned her.  I think my distance from Simone is embodied in that word above:  "pity."  I pitied her inability to stand outside of her own framework for a millisecond, even when challenged to do so.  Nevertheless, I found Riml's critique to be incisive.

It was Jess the cop who really moved me.  Simone's body language was entirely elegant and self-possessed, even when she lacked self-possession.  Jess is the woman who's been taught to be uncomfortable with her body, to take on the mannerisms that serve as protective colouration.  She and a male newbie are getting ready to interrogate a woman whom they suspect of having committed a hit and run that has put a young boy's life in the balance.  We get to hear Jess's mind working and we can see that when it comes to figuring people out and dealing with evidence she's a crackerjack cop.  But she begins her monologue with the newbie with a highly inappropriate anti-woman joke and talks through her monologue about being disgusted by the porn she saw her male colleagues looking at during their breaks.  Her superior officer thanks her for dealing with this problem, but her colleagues take to calling her "mom."  That is, until she sleeps with a co-worker, when the term is now "slut."  The guys have to keep her in one of the simplistic, manageable categories they have historically assigned women to.  By the end of the monologue we can see that this misogyny has taken a toll on Jess's personal life, but it's something we can see her coming to terms with and deciding to change.  Unlike Simone's husband calling her to task, Jess's recognition is entirely personal.  Believe me, she's not getting any help, except for the fact that she has a daughter at home.  Come to think of it, maybe that's help enough.

If Jess made me profoundly sad, Marilyn made me cry.  I don't know whether this is part of Riml's plan, but with each monologue we seem to go more deeply into the character.  Simone is all surface; Jess is trying to deal with the way work has boxed her in and shaped her life.  Marilyn is dealing with a partner who is purposefully or inadvertently sabotaging every desire she has.  Marilyn's favourite word, particularly at the beginning, is "Sorry."  She arrives at a yoga class recommended for a problem she's having with one of her hips; she's late.  She apologizes to her instructor.  Her phone rings.  She apologizes again, but explains she's got to get it.  Her resposne to her husband implies his part of the dialogue.  How much is this class costing?  She needs to pick up his dry cleaning and to get him some razor blades.  Does the remember the dinner they're giving tonight?  It's clear that he resents the cost of this class, though he's willing to send her to get expensive wine for the clients he entertains.  Why does she need to do this?  She doesn't dare turn the phone off because that will shut off the GPS and he won't know where she is.  All the same, Jess keeps coming to class, becoming stronger, more flexible.  When encouraged to be in the present moment, to appreciate "now" she goes ballistic.  She hates now.  Now is her husband's demands, his devaluing of her.  Now hurts.  But at the end of the play, during the final meditative part of a yoga class, she meets a serene, older version of herself who is encouraging her to make a leap.  Over the edge.  But obviously that phrase means two things.  You can be pushed over the edge by misogynistic fellow workers or blood-sucking husbands.  But you can also choose to make a hopeful leap into the future.

 Are holidays always one day too long?  Yesterday, Victoria was remarkably windy, and while the natives were out walking their dogs (almost every one of them in a hoodie or a toque, admittedly), we felt buffeted and exhausted by trying to figure out what to do on a miserable day in an unfamiliar city.  We'd done the art gallery.  We'd done the museum, which I should have talked about in an earlier blog.  The unchanging part of the museum was slightly frustrating;  in fact, it hasn't changed an iota since we were first there about eight years ago.  This royal museum, at least, hasn't engaged with the possibilities of the twenty-first century.  But we saw an exhibition of prize-winning wildlife photography, some of them taken by photographers as young as ten.  These artists see the world with an engagement which may be one way of saving us from our apathy.  Nature is too beautiful for us to continue to destroy it.  The younger artists had sometimes followed their subjects for three or four days, looking for exactly the right conditions, the right  light, the right gesture to illuminate what they saw.  The wise old eye of a rhinoceros.  Unimaginable fish.  The beauty of an oil spill, which photographer Daniel Beltra said he attempted to capture on purpose, because if it was beautiful we wouldn't be afraid to talk about it.  (I wonder what Susan Sontag would say?)  A moment to look unfamiliar primates in the eye:  a tiny cream-coloured baby monkey huddled into itself to keep warm.  A gorilla looking at you appraisingly.  What do you have to tell him about his habitat?  About poaching?   A fox who had almost learned to trust the photographer:  wildness personified. 

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Grey and Red: Carmen over breakfast

When you come to Victoria in February, you can get almost any kind of weather.  On the one hand, the snowdrops and the crocuses are up and the tulips and daffodils have emerged.  On the other hand, it can rain for days at a time.  We touched down at about 9 a.m. on Thursday morning, with many days of rain forecast, and so made the most of the sunshine, walking in Sidney and driving to the north edge of the Saanich peninsula, and walking down the rather twee, touristy mall on Government to visit two Victoria institutions, Murchie's Tea and Munro's Bookstore.

Sure enough; yesterday morning the rain and the wind had moved in.  So we drove off to look for a quilt shop west of Victoria and then came back to the city, planing to spend the afternoon in the lovely art gallery here.  There was an Emily Carr exhibitioin on, which made Bill ecstatic.  And it's fun for me to simply stand next to him, listening to his reactions to her work. I'm reminded of how much freer he is to simply have a reaction and to art; unlike me, he doesn't feel that need to reason or analyze, but simply enters the world of the canvas before him. 

I was more drawn to work that echoed the colours of the landscape around us:  beautiful serene greys and taupes of a Japanese Woodcut or an Art McKay that wasn't one of his mandalas. I've often noticed that you leave an art gallery seeing the entire world with more care, curiosity, and intensity, but I hadn't thought about an aesthetic you took in with you.

Afterwards, we drove through the rain up the eastern coast of the island and noticed how this weather hadn't affected the natives.  Three elderly ladies in bright clothes and even brighter umbrellas were setting out for a walk along the beach.  I would have taken a photographs if they had stood still long enough!  Another hardy soul was sitting under an enormous umbrella looking out to sea.  Everyone here is cheerful and helpful, in spite of the grey weather.  Perhaps like Veronica in Cambridge, they simply take the beauty on its own terms.

Then last night we went to see Bizet's Carmen.  I haven't been to live opera in years, having found the productions in Winnipeg difficult to believe in and the singers' voices strained out of tune by the need to project to the back rows of the Winnipeg Centennial Auditorium.  But holidays are partly for doing things you wouldn't normally do and for shaking yourself out of the apathy of habit.  So since the opera was on, we went.  This young cast had wonderful, agile, expressive voices and the look of the whole production was so engrossing that whether to believe in it or not didn't occur to you.  The set designer made wonderful use of a curving openwork wooden structure that moved on a turntable.  It not only served as someplace for the children's chorus to climb, but it marked "inside" and insiders from "outside" and outsiders. 

Carmen is definitely an outsider, a gypsy who is true only to her own desires.  Whether you love her or not doesn't matter; in fact, it might be a disadvantage to love a woman who can't resist seeking what she doesn't have.  As Bill and I walked back to our hotel through the damp air last night, I tried to sum up my reactions, but it took some coffee and a view of the bay this morning to make clear what I'd felt.  I thought (here's me being analytical again) that I should have been able to bring some feminist ire to Carmen's death, but I couldn't.  After all, women have been punished for centuries when they follow their desires, and being stabbed for being unfaithful smacks of the intimate misogynistic violence that feminists everywhere are attempting to challenge.

At the same time, there seems to me something profoundly anti-social to say, in effect, "The only thing that matters to me is that I get what I want.  I don't care what I do to other people in the process."  We can't live that way.  So with beautiful music, exquisite voices, a compelling character whose very attractiveness is her fatal flaw, Bizet unsettled me.  Looking over a cup of coffe at my husband and at a sky that was trying hard to shake its clouds, this seemed a very good thing.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Literature and Memory III: The Hare with Amber Eyes

Ideas seem to ricochet through my nind like bullets in a steel-lined elevator.  For my book on Woolf, I re-read Percy Lubbock's 1921 The Craft of Fiction, which Woolf said was the first book (after James's prefaces, of course) to call the novel an art.  Lubbock was an acolyte of James's, and much of Lubbock's attempt to illustrate the resources of point of view makes use of examples from the master.  Talking about The Ambassador, Lubbock notes that James's use of Strether as a narrator provides us with a kind of doubled layer of narrative.  One layer concerns Chad Newsome and the European life Strether hopes to rescue him from.  The second layer concerns Strether's thoughts, reactions, analysis of the events that are unfolding.  Lubbock's suggestion that James had managed to make someone's thoughts and reactions the centre of a narrative primed me in some ways to read deWaal's The Hare with Amber Eyes.  I read it partly for pleasure, partly because it's written by a fine ceramicist who has a wonderful way of describing the lives of objects, the way objects circulate in people's lives and in material culture.  It's research for Soul Weather.  Hence the ricocheting bullets.

De Waal's narrative is, on the surface, a simple if twisted one.  When he inherits 264 pieces of Japanese netsuke from his uncle, he wants to know the history of the collection.  So he learns about Charles Ephrussi who is the intellect and art historian of the unimaginably wealthy Jewish Ephrussi family who managed to turn their handling and shipping of grain from Odessa into a banking empire that rivalled the Rothschilds'.  During the nineteenth-century Parisian craze for japanisme, Charles (who is part of Proust's source for Charles Swann and can be seen in Renoir canvases), began amassing his collection of netsuke, in between collecting Manet, Monet, and Renoir.  He was an important part of the Parisian art scene, writing about art in the best journals and often serving as the patron who gave financial help when needed, or encouraged an artist to finish a canvas.  When Charles's Viennese cousin Viktor marries, he sends Viktor and his new wife Emmy the collection, which is then housed in Emmy's dressing room where the children come to see their fashion plate mother every night as she dresses to go out.  While she's undergoing her hour-long encasement in layers of undergarments, the children play with the netsuke and she tells them stories about the lively, imaginative figures.

About the time the children leave home to go about their lives, the Nazis march into Vienna.  Mayhem ensues, and families like the Ephrussis have their "ill-gotten" collections confiscated for museums or for the personal pleasure of high-ranking Nazis.  Emmy commits suicide, but Viktor and the children escape, settling down in Mexico or America or Britain.  When the war ends, Elisabeth, deWaal's grandmother, who studied law in Vienna, revisits that city to see if she can reclaim any of the family's property or their shares in the bank that was made over to their father's Gentile partner.  But Vienna doesn't like unpleasantness or uncomfortable memories.  So the partner says he doesn't remember any Ephrussi (whom he worked with every day for years) and Elisabeth returns to England only with a suitcase full of netsuke.  Emmy's maid Anna confiscated them piece by piece as she worked for the Nazis and sewed them up in her mattress for the duration of the war. 

Seen through the lenses of anti-Semitism, the story is anything but simple.  Attempting to understand Charles's social life, de Waal read some of the French anti-Semitic literature, learning, for example, that even in a culture that thrived on duels, Jews were outsiders.  After all, a Jew has no honour; he can hardly duel to get it back.  Jews are insatiable; their taste in bric-a-brack is the taste of children.   Newspaper articles speak slyly or venomously about the various members of the Ephrussi family.  De Waal even finds in his London library a translation of one of the books on the Jews of Paris; next to the paragraph on the Ephrussis, someone has written in block capitals "venal."  De Waal writes "I wonder how these brothers lived their lives in these conditions.  Did they shrug their shoulders, or did it get to them, this incessant hum of vilification, mutterings about venality, the sort of constant, bubbling animosity that the narrator in Proust's novels remembers of his grandfather" (94-5)

Several years ago I went to a concert of Strauss waltzes and music from Viennese operettas.  I remember thinking, careless of my history, that I was hearing the beginnings of Nazism.  There was something about this enthusiastic delight in the saccherine or the sentimental that I suspected was ripe for turning mean.  Yet the picture that de Waal gives us of Austria's rapid capitulation to Hitler, of buses and police cars that are marked with Swastikas mere hours after Hitler begins his march to Vienna, of the Viennese delight in breaking into the houses of wealthy Jews and looting and destroying as if they've been granted permission to be drunken adolescents suggests I wasn't terribly far off.  This was a side of Nazism I knew nothing about.  I mostly knew about Kristallnacht, and imagined small shopkeepers threatened and destroyed; and of course I've read The Diary of Anne Frank and I've seen the shocking footage taken when Allied soldiers open up the death canps.  But even money didn't protect you from anti-Semitic opportunism,  reminding me that it's important to see events like the Holocaust from as many directions as you can.  Emmy's suicide notwithstanding, none of the Ephrussis we come to know died.  But de Waal does not allow the miracle of the netsuke's survival to be some kind of life-affirming, art-affirming miracle or redemption:  "The survival of the netsuke in Anna's pocket, in her mattress, is an affront.  I cannot bear for it to slip into symbolism.  Why should they have got through this war in a hiding-place, when so many hidden people did not?  I can't make people and places and things fit together any more.  These stories unravel me" (283).

What is redemptive in this story, and what Lubbock made me attuned to, is de Waal's narration.  The Hare with Amber Eyes isn't simply about the historical context for the netsuke's movement from Japan to Europe and back to Japan before de Waal inherited it. De Waal is a dogged, imaginative researcher and does everything possible to situate these tiny, lively objects in the cultures which appreciated them.  But the most remarkable moments are those where he stops to attempt to understand the inner lives of the people who owned them, like that passage above about the way Charles and his brothers coped with the anti-Semitism that pervaded Paris.  Here is another:  "I have Viktor's passport and a thin shake of letters between members of the family, and I put these out on my long desk.  I read them again and again, willing them to tell me what it was like, what Viktor and Emmy feel as they sit in their house on the Ring.  I have folders ot notes from the archives.  But I realise that I can't do this from London, from a library.  So I go back to Vienna, to the Palais [the Ephrussi family hom in the Ringstrasse]" (248).  There, standing on the balcony, using the details of the story that have come down to him--the six members of the Gestapo in their perfect uniforms who walk straight in, the looters that threw Emmy's dressing table over the balcony and laughed when it smashed, Viktor comes as close as he can to understanding the experience of his family.

It's the attempt to understand someone besides yourself that serves as one of the best ways of preventing holocausts or pogroms or acts of terrorism, and this attempt is threaded through de Waal's narration.   The final part of the story shows de Waal doing this with the lightest hand.  De Waal often travels to Japan, sometimes simply to see his great uncle Iggie, sometimes to work on his ceramic practice, and he comes to know his uncle and his uncle's partner Jiro Sugiyama quite well.  Their living arrangements are carefully described and there are photographs of the two of them, but de Waal never uses the word "homosexual."  Because that's a label like the word "Jew"; it allows you to put someone in a box, to write them off.  Rather, these are two men who went to the opera, bought some land outisde Tokyo for a cottage and bought a plot for their tombs.  Jiro is an excellent cook.  In a moment of remarkable cleverness, Iggie adopts the younger Jiro.  Again, de Waal doesn't comment, but this is clearly a way of getting around inheritance laws.  If Jiro can't inherit as Iggie's partner, he can do so as his son.

It is possible to see netsuke as mere bibelots, tiny, clever carvings.  But de Waal tells a story of a carver who disappeared for several days into the forest and came back to explain he had wanted to watch the deer, which he then proceeded to carve with an elegant, intimate understanding of them.  It's that curious, that close attention to the particulars of someone or something other than yourself that helps us be more humane.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Questions about home

Wednesday night, after a day of banging and sanding that made my house seem more like a beaten drum or a cave beneath an avalanche, Bill and I were driving home in the dark from a workout.  Somehow my experience of home--the retreat to the crowded treehouse, the relentless noise beneath me, made everything strange, and as I drove down a familiar street it was if I was seeing it for the first time.  You could have told my I was driving in an older residential neighbourhood in Edmonton or Montreal and I'd have nodded in agreement and asked for directions.  "Home" has been redefined by the limited space and the limited kinds of space we have, as well as by the ways other people occupy that space, shutting us out of it while they try to make it a more beautiful home.  We can do everything we need to live here--eat, sleep, shower--yet there is no space that's just for living in.  We spend most of our time in my small study (nicknamed the treehouse) where I read, write or work on quilts.

Today, after a short sanding this morning and another coat of stain, the cats and I had a quiet early afternoon in the treehouse.  Some things are becoming familiar for them.  Whether the door is closed or not (as it certainly is when Greg is putting something surely toxic to cats on the floor), they hang out with me.  When someone comes up the walk, they head for the back of "their" closet.  About three, in an attempt to stave off boredom, I put treats in a kong that Sheba rolls over the floor, puzzled but eager, trying to get her favourite food to fall out, while Twig watches.  I read and sleep.  The noise has made me incredibly tired, so tired I can sometimes nap right through it.  Veronica's friend Jenny thinks that we're worn out by trying to ignore the noise below, which is often alarming.  Or perhaps it's a week and a half of being at home in a small room and inside Virginia Woolf's head that is at least partly the cause of my sleepiness.  But today, because we finally had a respite, I was intensely aware of the more peaceful sounds in the house.  Tiny Sheba snores like a lumberjack.  We have two squirrels living in the eaves above the alcove where I have my desk.  They were chatting with one another today over my head and then scrambling in the eaves and up the stucco walls of the house to the roof.  For small creatures, they were quite noisy.  In the middle of Friday afternoon, even College Avenue is quiet, the odd car sounding almost laconic, perhaps even bored.

Late this afternoon, we needed to collect ourselves and leave again for about four hours.  I'm not good at "killing time," but Bill is an enormous help.  We went downtown for coffee, read our respective books, and then roamed Cornwall Centre.  We went out for dinner.  Then for the last hour, we went to the MacKenzie Art Gallery.

I love the MacKenzie on Friday nights.  There were perhaps one or two other people there, but for the most part we had the gallery to ourselves. You can take your time.  You can look closely at a work and then back up slowly to consider it from different viewpoints without worrying that you'll back into someone.  You can talk out loud without worrying that your inane, clueless--or even perhaps insightful comments will disturb the thoughts of other viewers.  But I think it's mostly the lighting, which is designed for normal daytime viewing.  At night, each work seems to occupy its own penumbra of light, setting it off in a mysterious yet celebratory way. This was particularly true of the Schumiatcher Sculpture Court which has an exhibition called "Hard Rock.  Heavy Metal."  It includes a charmingly foreshortened view of a Joe Fafard cow and a whimsical bench by Vic Cicansky.  Also a pair of overdone Rodin lovers (I preferred the honesty of the cow).  Some of the sculptures, though, were assemblages, and in the unusual light you were sure for a moment you knew what they were for.  Then their wonderful strangeness suddenly returned again.

But my favourite was a video installation called "Sunrise" by David Claerbout.  The scenario is simple.  We see a maid bicycling to work in a modernist glass house, and watch her work there:  washing floors, cleaning glass, sweeping up debris on the modenist deck, cleaning the chrome that envelopes the classic leather chairs.  The camera work is extraordinary, turning the geometry of the glass house into abstract compositions that the maid either resolves or muddles.  Like the maid's uniform, the house is black and white. The simplicity of the space is both appealing and estranging.  There is none of the untidy effluvia of life; rather, the natural world provides most of the decor, beautiful, even on an early spring or late fall day.  But of course you need a maid to keep its impossibility clean.  In one of the final scenes, she puts out the simple white plates, cups and saucers for breakfast and fills up the Bodum coffee press.  The scene looks serene until the camera's vantage point changes and you realize that the house's three inhabitants will sit in a row on small metal stools about four feet apart, removed from one another by verticals holding up the long tabletop so that any intimacy is impossible.  The ideal of the clean white modernist space (perhaps this was built by Le Corbusier or by one of his acolytes--"a machine for living") so free of the untidiness of life, suddenly looks like a prison.  A beautiful, balanced, serene, inviting prison.  The eighteen-minute video asks a dozen questions about home, as does my empty living room with its beautiful floors.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The comfort of slow

Life is chaotic in our household.  For the last couple of weeks, bit by bit, we've been packing up the china and the crystal, the pottery and the plants, getting ready to move the furniture from our living room and dining room into an improbably small PUP that's been parked out front.  Then Thursday a cheerful, amiable, but noisy crew of young people moved in to take off the baseboards and pull up what was probably the house's original hardwood, laid in 1919 when it was built.  It's a noisy process, pulling up boards, pulling the nails out of the diagonal ship lap and screwing it down more firmly in an effort to get some of the creaks out.  I was rather fond of the creaking floors, frankly.  I knew where everyone was; I even knew when a cat was coming around the corner. 

For all the chaos, I'm also aware that we're in the middle of a very well-run machine.  The crew was a day later than expected coming in to take up the floor because they took a day longer on the previous job.  All the same, the fellow who does hardwood floors in old houses is still scheduled to start Monday and needed to bring in the wood on Friday so that it could get acclimatized.  It needs time to get used to my house.  So Saturday morning Mike and Richard were back bright and early. 

I have needed an antidote to the constant planning that would make the packing and moving less of a nuisance.  Over the last couple of days I've also needed an antidote to the rush of sound coming up into the room where I was hunkered down with a couple of traumatized cats.  Somehow I needed something slow.  My colleague Craig Melhof had loaned me Carl Honore's In Praise of Slow, which I read rather quickly one night to see if it could explain this odd craving.  Interestingly, it's a very fast book with lots of little examples and facts about who's doing slow in what part of their lives--cooking slowly, working more slowly--without any attempt at reflecting on the hunger for slowness. This way of writing a book on the wonders of slowing down strikes me as counter-intuitive:  isn't time to reflect one of the main things we're looking for when we choose to slow down?  Apparently older people (yes, like me) have slower reaction times because we choose to ponder or consider.  We can be trained to be just as speedy as a 24-year-old playing a video game.  I find this comforting; I want slow to be a choice.

I've long called poetry the "slow food of literature," a form so many-sided that the best way to enjoy it is just to read it (hopefully aloud) over and over until the sounds and the words and the rhythm with its smoothness and its breaks seem familiar enough to make a single effect.  Unfortunately, electric drills aren't conducive to this particular kind of slow. 

Slow food was better.  We're eating up in what we've nicknamed "the treehouse," since everything but cooking is now done on the second floor.  Just because we carry our trays upstairs, though, doesn't mean we have to live on sandwiches.  Being home with the cats meant I could start a casserole of chicken and chickpeas and currents and bulgar, well-laced with cinnamon and allspice, in the middle of the afternoon and let my oven do the work.  Cooking with the banging of hammers echoing through the empty rooms needed extra concentration, but it could be done.  For me, slow cooking is often about the process, about standing at my kitchen window chopping vegetables or kneading bread while I muse about the birds or squirrels at the feeder or the clouds scudding by.  This slow cooking was quite efficient and was about results.

What I found most oddly comforting was applique.  In the quilting world, which is slow to begin with, applique is just about as slow as you can go.  You choose or create a design.  You mark it on your background fabric.  Then you find a way to mark it on the smaller pieces of fabric that you'll be sewing onto the background to create your design.  It may take you half the afternoon to choose the right six fabrics for the petals of a poppy or a morning glory, combining whimsy (why not a plaid leaf of a wild chintz petal?) with the necessary shades of red or blue or green.  You baste these on the background over the lines, and then you get out your thinnest, hardest-to-thread applique needles and begin the process of using your needle and your left thumbnail to turn under, smoothly, a scant quarter inch.  Your stitches are probably a sixteenth of an inch long, particularly around right corners.  They should be invisible, coming up one thread into the folded edge of the leaf and going down slightly under it, and you should tug your thread every third stitch to pull it into the fabric. This time-consuming little self-conscious habit of counting to three and tugging really matters.  Somehow it brings the two surfaces--your background and your leaf or stem or petal--together. 

What I've loved about it is the focussed self-consciousness that still manages to be concerned only with colour, pattern, and line--getting the play of colour right and turning the fabrics so that the edges are smooth.  Each time you round a curve smoothly, or botch it with sharp little points, you wonder "What made that work?  What went wrong?"  And you wonder what it would be like, always, to live with that kind of self-consciousness.  Whether you could make something beautiful from the chaos, or whether it would eventually bring all creativity to a self-conscious halt.  That's what the wild chintz petals are for:  to remind you of another set of virtues altogether--wildly, creatively colouring outside the lines.

This is the quilt I've been working on to create an antidote to the chaos.  It's called a "strippie":  rows of pieced or appliqued blocks are used to create the quilt.  There's another panel of applique and another rows of pieced baskets.  I've borrowed the flower shapes from Nancy Pearson's book, but the arrangement, particularly the winding stems, is my own.  As you can see, even traumatized cats know when you're playing around with a quilt top and have to get into the act!