Tuesday, January 29, 2013


This has been a tough couple of weeks, partly because I'm teaching a class I've never taught before, partly because instability and uncertainty remain pervasive on campus, partly because on some days I feel as if I don't know people I've worked with for twenty-two years.  Then there have been the largely grey skies, the wind sweeping in from the east, long walks across parking lots without a single windbreak while avoiding ice and admiring a cold moon.  When the plows strip away the snowbanks at the sides of streets, they leave behind an archeology of city life:  layers of grit and grey.  Yet this has been precariously balanced by the riches in my life:  a husband who has seemingly unlimited amounts of TLC; cats who know I'm distraught (right now Sheba is on my left thigh and has parked her paws and chin on the back of my left hand; typing is an amusing challenge); a daughter who radiates calm in the time I spend with her; friends who are wise and yet as befuddled and sometimes as despairing as I am; two classes with curious and engaged students.  Still, this weekend was an occasion for a little excess, I thought, an antidote to grey and uncertainty.

As I've been thinking about my own relationship to minimalism, I couldn't really get my need to quilt to fit my paradigm.  True, quilting in the nineteenth century had an air of conflicted simplicity about it:  quilts were not only women's expression of their love of beauty and their need to be creative.  They were also part of "making do."  You had calico scraps and you worked these leftovers into something at least practical and perhaps beautiful and joyful.  There is nothing minimal in the quilt at the top of my post today:  all the applique required many hours, and the result isn't even big enough for a bed.  Today millions of dollars are spent on quilting:  there is nothing minimal about going to a quilt shop and spending a hundred dollars on fabric to add to your already excessive stash.  Fortunately, the minimalism lurking around the edges of my life has influenced my fabric-buying habits.  I have enough fabric and plans for at least a dozen quilts, and little time to get to them.  (I actually stopped by one of my favourite quilt shops in Moose Jaw early in the new year--The Quilt Patch--and came away with nothing!)

If quilting has a minimalism about it, that is expressed by the most basic block, the nine patch.  But this weekend, I wanted nothing minimal at all in the hand work I needed to do as a respite from reading Hardy's beautiful and despairing (and certainly not minimalist) Tess of the D'Urtbervilles.  So I began "Ode to a Basket," designed by the ladies who run my other favourite quilt shop, Calgary's "Traditional Pastimes."  When you are making nine patches, you simply cut a whole raft of fabric strips, pick two from the pile to combine, and then simply cut and sew squares.  "Ode to a Basket" offers no such short cuts.  Each piece is cut separately, instructions are painstaking, then the applique forces you to search your thread collection for matching thread in three or four different colours.  You cut out the tiny pieces and turn them under a scant quarter inch with your needle as you go, and your stitches should be invisible and less than 1/8th of an inch long.  This requires a maximal time commitment, or at least  temporarily putting into abeyance your sense that you really must get as much done as possible.  You slow down to take your joy and pleasure in great draughts, as you would take in the air on a cool summer morning.

We seemed to need excess in our food as well.  Last Mother's Day, Veronica introduced me to the magic of clay bakers, having found me one at Value Village.  Again there is the paradox of simplicity and excess.  Cooking in a clay baker is simple:  you soak the baker while you peel potatoes, carrots, yams, parsnips, then dump them in the baker with sausages.  Put it in a 450 oven and go do something else (like complicated applique) while you wait for the smell in the house to tell you that dinner is ready.  This weekend, we needed sausages.  You could also roast a chicken or make ratatouille.  The clay baker is probably related to one of our oldest means of cooking, yet in this modern age of fusion food the intensely pure flavours it produces seem like a kind of excess.  I always eat more slowly when I cook in the clay baker.  Then chocolate zucchini cake (Bill's favourite, and a great canvas for almost any kind of nut or dried fruit or flavouring) that we drizzled with pureed raspberries into which I'd slipped an ounce or so of Amaretto.

But even as I thought about the meal I cooked in the clay baker, with the minimal preparation and the intense flavours that result, I wondered if there is a rhythm between minimalism and excess in many of our lives. On my drive home yesterday, through the park, you couldn't quite say that it was snowing.  Rather, the air simply was snow, attenuating the landscape as if it were trying to disappear, trying to make itself as insignificant as possible.  Wascana Park was a mood I frequently have when my energy is waning, I'm feeling discouraged and even on the edge of depression.  Yet into that landscape I was bringing Anton Bruckner's monumental Third Symphony with its vast harmonies and slow, spiritual melodies that seemed to drift on and on in a kind of beautiful ecstasy that demands your attention.  I loved the juxtaposition: Bruckner and a disappearing landscape.  The contrast doesn't stop there, however.  The conductor was Georg Tintner, a man who combined his love of Bruckner's grandeur with the simplest life:  he was a vegetarian and bicycled to the concert halls where he conducted.  Bruckner himself had a deep sense of his insignificance and inferiority, yet he was convinced that his long, monumental symphonies deserved and even repaid our attention.

When we think about aesthetic unity--which indeed we have been thinking about since the Greeks--we look for a certain coherence of style, for occasions when all the pieces of a story or a painting or even a quilt work together in harmony.  Perhaps for the unity of our lives, or the knife-edged balance of a mood, we need something different.  Maybe someday a physicist or a mathematician will find the logarithm or the Fibonacci series that expresses the balance between simplicity and excess that we crave at this moment of our lives, a rhythm unlike the one we will need tomorrow.


  1. Oh, Kathleen, thank you for this healing moment! As I gazed at the 9-patch, tears started rimming my eyes. I was again four or maybe five, sitting in my grandmother's formal dining room with my "old aunties" and her "old lady" friends around the quilting project that had taken over the space. I loved those days. I loved my grandmother. I loved the quilt she gave me. I hate that I no longer have it.

  2. Bernadette--You are more than welcome. When you used the word "healing," I realized that this is what I am trying to do on an almost daily basis. Except I really do have two wonderful classes.

    What happened to the quilt your grandmother made? Would you like to learn to quilt and carry on the tradition that way? Quilts, after all--particularly well-loved quilts, are made for wear and tear; they show time passing in their very threads.

  3. The poppies are ravishing, Kathleen. And as for minimalism in quilting and food preparation -- well, the soul needs excess too, whether expressed in beauty or plentitude. I love nine-patch quilts and I love your extravagant ode to flowers, to gardens. I don't have the skills (or maybe I mean the patience) for applique but it's wonderful to know that others do. (My latest quilt is here, but it's a good thing you can't see the actual stitching, careless as it is...: http://theresakishkan.com/2013/01/29/i-will-sing-the-song-of-the-sky/)