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!


  1. Beautiful, Kathleen! I love your colour choices. My mom was a dedicated and prolific quilter; quilting always reminds me of her.

  2. Oh, yes, so lovely. And slow but beautiful -- the viny stem, the flowers.

    1. As I was setting the basket blocks I was thinking of you, Theresa. They're the last blocks I made with my old sewing machine, and they vary in size because I didn't have an accurate 1/4 inch foot. The more triangles there are, the larger they get. So my setting triangles were sometimes too small, and I had to ease like mad. I wondered if you had an accurate foot, and if that was the source of the different sizes of blocks that make you crazy.

  3. I like this reno-reflection but hope it (the reno) doesn't go on too long.

    1. This stage of the reno should be done by Friday or early next week at the latest. The next stage--the kitchen--starts in mid-March andmay take several months. I suspect I'll be doing a fair amount of barbequing in the snow!