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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Juxtapositions and questions

Like many of you, I have spent last night and this morning in front of the TV, like a person watching, in slow motion, a railroad train approach a school bus stalled on the tracks.  I have been waiting for someone to tell me why.  What wounds or vicious extremist lies or precarious mental health prompted a young man to kill six Muslims who were praying.  These were people engaged in one of humankind's most profound acts:  thinking and speaking across the distance between our flawed humanness to some meaningful force larger and more capacious than our daily lives.  That force could be anything:  a belief in kindness, a commitment to the well-being of our communities, a dedication to the exploration of ideas, or any of the many gods we have conceived of to represent the best of ourselves.  

An explanation is not forthcoming.  So I think I will offer instead some juxtapositions.  

First, about sixteen and a half years ago, the west's ill-advised meddling in Middle Eastern religion and governance came home.  We have a long history of intervening in Islamic countries; the attack on New York City and Washington D.C. on September 2001 was a response to those ill-conceived interventions that has been followed by terrorist attacks at home and abroad.  Then George Bush invaded Iraq and executed Saddam Hussein, giving birth to Islamic State.  The Department of Homeland Security now has a workforce of 240,000 people and in 2011 was given funding of $198.8 billion. 

On the same day when 6 people died in the Quebec City Islamic Cultural Centre, Donald Trump was signing yet one more executive order beginning his ban on Muslims in the United States. Once again, he was not paying attention to details, but simply indulging in whim, probably violating international law and the American Constitution in the process.  He has created chaos for families who are living apart and has given the Muslim world one more piece of evidence that the west has declared war on Islam.  Why he has done this escapes me.  First, as I will tell anyone who will listen, more people die of weather than from terrorist attacks, yet we invest much more in Homeland Security than we do in building a green economy.  So this act isn't about the safety of Americans.  Perhaps it is about appealing to the darkest desires of the people who elected him so they won't notice when he and his billionaire cronies make poor Americans even poorer.   Perhaps it's part of his disturbing narcissism:  anyone who is not like me deserves what they get.  I think in some ways it is the response of a deeply unsatisfied man who drank the high-test capitalist kool-aid, and didn't find it satisfying.  Both psychologists and economists will tell you that if your goals are extrinsic--money, power, status--there is never enough of these things to allow you to feel nourished.  He has done exactly what he wanted--placing a ban on Muslims coming to the United States--but do you see him smiling?  If so, does that smile look like the grin of an alpha-male chimpanzee?

I want to name those six men, whose biographies provide a kind of United Nations of Islam--men who were fathers, husbands, uncles, sons; men who worked for universities and the Quebec government, men whose raison d'etre was to welcome and to help other, men who created the foundations of their communities:  Azzeddine Soufiane, Khaled Belkacemi, Aboubaker Thabti, Mamadou Tanou, Ibrahima Barry, Abdelkrim Hassane.

And then I want to juxtapose September 11, 2001 and our reaction to it with our outpouring of sympathy for these men, their families, and their communities across Canada.  Did you think, in your rage and fear after 9/11 that you would be pouring out your grief for 6 innocent Muslims?

Something has happened, and I do not think it has merely happened in Canada:  there have been similar demonstrations of sympathy for these men and their families in London and Paris.  

Us versus them.  Since the days of our simian ancestors, this worldview probably accounts for much of the evil we have done to others.  We saw, with horror, that Donald Trump aroused that outlook in people who feel they have been left behind and who sought someone to blame that fact on.  They can't blame a changing world--one that has shifted from the creation of steel to the creation of technology--because it is impossible to turn back time.  Time is a moving target, much too huge to be brought down by puny human effort.  Much easier to blame the Mexicans, the Muslims, African-Americans.

But at the same time, countless people participate in the human effort to make the human rights umbrella protect more and more groups.  In the time since 9/11, Gay Pride parades have grown to mainstream events and gay marriage legalized.  The Truth and Reconciliation Report has been accepted by the government.  And there are Canada-wide and world-wide vigils for these six men.  It seems to me that despite the efforts of Donald Trump and Alexandre Bissonnette, humanity is determined to continue working ethically and imaginatively until all people of good will are under that protective umbrella with fellow members of the human family.  And like most families, we are laughing and hugging and telling our stories and singing our songs.

We mustn't congratulate ourselves prematurely.  Until this attitude is extended to Indigenous Peoples, until they have clean water, sound and meaningful educations, decent housing and economic opportunities on and off reserve, until the suicides stop, until missing and murdered aboriginal women are a distant memory, we are not finished.  

But we can keep on the way we began.  Be curious rather than judgmental about others.  Keep asking why.  And when you meet resistance, ask why not.




Thursday, January 26, 2017

Dear Jane 2: details matter

The block on the left is the second block I've made for the Jane A. Stickle quilt.  It's a block I've never seen before:  she has managed to create a kind of sunburst out of triangles.  There are forty pieces in the 4 1/2-inchh block.  I've tried to imagine her creating a pattern, and I am frankly baffled.  In order to produce my blocks, I have an extraordinary set of twenty-first century tools, including clear rulers that help me create any angle and are thick enough that I can use a rotary cutter (think of a pizza cutter--only dangerously sharp) to cut my pieces exactly.  I also have a foot on my sewing machine that gives me an exact 1/4-inch seam.

Jane, in all likelihood, would have had a pencil, a school-girl's ruler, an old newspaper, needle, thread, and thimble.  Remember that blank paper was so precious that letters were written from top to bottom, and then that the paper was rotated 90 degrees to write in the spaces between the lines. In that context, I'm not sure where she would have found enough blank space in old newspapers to lay out her marvelous designs (which could have been drawn much smaller), but when it came to making the pattern pieces to show her the size of triangle, rectangle, or square she needed, she would likely have drawn her design to scale on an old newspaper and cut the pieces out to mark around them on her fabric.  That would be the finished size of the piece.  She would then have to add a quarter of an inch, which she probably did by eye, sewing along the pencil lines--and matching them up exactly.  It is a painstaking process, much more difficult than it would be today.  Were she making a one-patch, like the Ocean Waves below (alternatively entitled the "Tents of Armageddon"), a single template, perhaps made from something more sturdy like cardboard or butcher's paper, would have allowed you to make the whole quilt.   Jane, in contrast, must have made hundreds of templates.  But she did it--and did it accurately--because it mattered.

You will have noticed that my photograph of Jane's blocks seems to be taken at an angle, but it's not.  Rather, the first block I made is about 1/2 inch too small.  Now I'm a "measure twice (at least) and cut once" kind of girl, so you can be sure that my pieces were originally the right size.  So I read Brenda Papadakis's instructions again, only to note that she tells you to make your seam 3/16ths of an inch rather than the usual 1/4 inch.  A seam takes up space--not only where the seam threads join the pieces, but where you lose fabric when you open out the pieces and fold back the seam.  That's true of all quilt blocks, but if you have only 3 seams over a space of 6 or 9 inches, as you do in the nine-patch blocks in the Amish quilt below, that small difference doesn't really register. But when you have multiple seams over 4 1/2 inches, you can lose quite a lot. 
"Details matter" must have been one of Jane's mantras as she worked on her quilt and figured out how to translate her vision--each of those complicated and original blocks--onto fabric.  Or perhaps "details matter" might have simply been part of her temperament or her work ethic--a way of being she brought to everything she did.

Details matter, no matter whether you are building or creating or organizing.  If you are going to suspend all the activities of the Environmental Protection Agency, it helps to know that the EPA doesn't simply do research on climate change, but it helps to get lead-free water to Flint Michigan and helps to build water treatment plants.  If you are going to call coal "clean and beautiful," it would help to know that the World Health Organization estimates that burning coal claims 1 million lives annually.  If you are going to come out in favour of torture, it would help to know that experts believe they very seldom gain reliable intelligence from someone who is tortured--and that in the process of the torture, both the torturer and the tortured lose their humanity.  And in the meantime, you have lost your moral credibility and perhaps made the world even more dangerous.  If you are going to dismantle public education in the country, it would helps to know--as economist Tomas Piketty has taught me--that the best way to ensure economic equality is to give people the educations they need.  If you are going to unfund any agency who raises the issue of women's reproductive health, it would help to know that by so doing you condemning that community to poverty for a longer period of time than necessary--in short that allowing women to control their lives and giving them educations is the best way to lift the whole community's standard of living.

It is easy, outside the provenance of detail and truth, to claim and plan anything you want.  Jane could have said, every morning of her life, "I am going to make one of the most imaginative and inventive quilts ever," but until she gets down to planning the blocks and ensuring their accuracy--that they will all fit together--such plans are simply a convenient fiction.  If you want to create the quilt or the country you need to get your hands dirty with newsprint and ink, with truth and detail and fact (not alternative facts), with evidence, knowledge, information.  Not simply wishful thinking.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Dear Jane 1: The Jane A. Stickle Quilt in the Time of Trump


Jane A. Stickle (nee Blakeley) was born two hundred years ago this coming April 8.  We know little about her that cannot be inferred from her father's will or various nineteenth-century censuses, except for the remarkable quilt she designed and made during the Civil War.  She signed her quilt "In War Time 1863.  Pieces 5602, Jane A. Stickle."  When Donna Bister and Richard Cleveland were working on their book of historical quilts, Plain and Fancy, they visited the Bennington Museum after hearing that it had a collection of quilts.  The Stickle quilt was subsequenly chosen for the cover of their book, and travelled to the Vermont Quilt Festival, the Quilt Market in Houston, and was subsequently hung in the Vermont State House exhibition celebrating the state's quilters.  Brenda Manges Papadakis, who fell in love with the quilt on the cover of Plain and Fancy, who was a math teacher, and who began drafting quilt blocks from the photograph, finally went to Vermont to see what she could learn about its maker.  Very little, aside from where she is buried, where she lived for a time, that her father's will made note of a quilt that constituted part of his inheritance, and that several census records raise more mysteries than they solve.  Why did her husband move away for ten years, leaving her in charge of the farm?  What happened after his subsequent return in 1870 to force them to declare bankruptcy in 1877?  What did she do after his death, during the long time when she lived as a boarder until her own death in 1896?  

It could be worse:  at least she signed her work, something many quilters (I'm one of them) did not do, thinking it was merely "craft."  The fact that there are no children, no letters, no diary makes her a little unusual:  these resources are the staples of quilt historians' research.  It has occurred to me that she might have been illiterate.  But math and geometry presented no difficulties to this inventive woman.  We see this first in the most disarming place:  her choice to make her blocks 4 1/2 inches square.  Many quilt blocks are built on a grid of 3 or 4, meaning that the block is composed of squares three across and three down or four across and four down.  Sometimes that grid is supplemented with triangles or rectangles, but the grid itself forms a framework for your math. 

I don't have any simple examples around, but if you stare at this photograph for a few minutes, you can see that it's a 3-grid.  The size of the square in the middle of this churn dash block is the same size as the square made by the two triangles and the square made by the two rectangles.

The Puss in the Corner block is a four grid.  You can see that the rectangles are twice the size of the squares in each corner.  Taking the squares as your basic unit, you can then see that the block is easily divided into four.

 Jane Stickle's decision to make her blocks 4 1/2 inches square means that she can divide it into either a grid of 3 or a grid of 4.  If she's using three, the squares will be 1 1/2 inches; if she's using a four grid, they will be 1 1/8--a very unusual size.  This first decision gives her enormous flexibility. 

The signature on her quilt tells us something about its composition:  that she is purposefully highlighting her quilt's relation to the Civil War.  As I have said in an earlier blog, I can easily imagine her using the challenges of this extraordinary quilt to distract her from historical cataclysm.  Her practice informs mine.  I have decided to make this quilt during Trumptime as a way of meditating on something besides Trump's presidency and keeping alive a set of values antithetical to his.  Whereas he is all carelessness and bluster, Jane's blocks are ordered and inventive.  Where he stands for extrinsic values--money and fame and power, she represents the intrinsic values of delight in invention and craftsmanship.  He makes money and hate; she makes quilts.  How different can they be?

We can have no idea which block Jane made first, but the first block in Brenda Papadakis's book is a variation on the pinwheel.  I have put my block next to a conventional pinwheel block from another quilt I'm working on.  The first thing you notice is that she's got some very tiny pieces if you consider that each square in the grid is a mere 1 1/8 inrches.  You also see that hers suggests a pinwheel almost exploding, pieces flying off from centrifugal force.  If you are a poet or scholar or reader, like me, the block prompts you to intone the opening lines of Yeats's "Second Coming":

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.


Now I don't think it's always a problem when the "falcon cannot hear the falconer" and when the centre does not hold.  There are times in history when revolutionary change is desperately needed.  When apartheid finally crumbled.  When the Berlin Wall was taken down.  When the Soviet Union once again became merely Russia and stopped imposing its ideology on its satellites.  Maybe even the French Revolution, bloody as it was.  In fact, I have a character in a story who finds she needs time to rebel against the centripetal force of motherhood that threatens to reduce her to a single point:  her identity as mother.  So she tells her husband "Maybe the falcon would like lunch for a change.  To eat slowly, not rush back to the falconer."  This desire for centrifugal force in her life also leads her to rebel against the rituals and timetables of her domestic  existence:  "Instead of filling up on Saturday, I want to run out of gas and meet my spiritual teacher on the road, who just happens to have a full jerry can in the trunk."

But making Jane's complicated and exploding pinwheel block gave me a chance to meditate on circumstances when change is not going to be helpful to the majority of people in a country.  The first occurs when language has gone wonky, when we know that a leader's words reflect only his desired version of reality, his self-interested, egotistical version of reality.  The second occurs when that leader is the centre, rather than his ideas about improving the lives of the community he leads.  

Barack Obama's wonderful farewell speech on Tuesday night was an example of how important words are to the act of leadership.  I suspect most of you were enthralled by the clarity and inclusiveness of his ideas and words:  the beauty of the speech caught our attention.  We could also see how effective it is when the words of a leader that mean what we all think they mean and when the intention of those words is to touch us, not simply provide the cloud of fiction for the president-elect to hide in.  We could also see in those words the fact that leadership is meant to  unite, not divide.  Obama's meditation on citizenship did not focus on the individual but on what we can bring to the collective.  

Language is at the centre of the social contract.  We can't even have a social contract without words.  But when words lose their meaning and are employed to elevate the leader, not to rally the citizens behind a nobler vision we can all pursue, we know we are on the edge of a dictatorship, loosely defined.  We are at the edge of the same kind of crisis that prompted Jane A. Stickle to create a quilt block that reflects centrifugal force:  what happens when the centre is empty of meaningful words.