Saturday, February 12, 2011

Craftsmanship and Mortality

My mother, who will be ninety-six next month, fell out of bed a couple of weeks ago in the middle of the night and had to go to the hospital for stitches and to make sure there hadn't been a stroke or some other kind of "episode" that caused the fall.  She hasn't really eaten since then, though she'll drink some chocolate-y Boost or suck on one of those lollypop sponges hospitals provide to moisten people's mouths.  My sister Karen, who is doing all the hard work of going to the hospital in the middle of the night or trying to figure out  the next phase of my mother's care in the confusing context of the U.S. health care system, says the doctor explained two things to her late this week.  First, the body and the mind, whose intertwining we all too often ignore in our healthier years, are almost indistinguishable in our nineties, so that episodes like falling out of bed have a profound impact on cognitive abilities; but when the episode is over, we don't go back to being the same person we were before the minor fall.  The doctor has also suggested that mother's refusal of food is the beginning of the end.  We obviously don't know why, whether she's lost her sense of the point of food, or whether some wisdom not snarled in the dementia says 'I'm tired.' 

First, let's be frank:  for the last ten years, Karen's done the heavy lifting. She's written checks and opened new accounts and filled out endless forms and cut out coupons for Depends--not to mention making frequent and always ill-timed trips to Emergency that are never short.  But that said, being hundreds of miles away has its challenges.  While Karen gives me complete reports, I can't quite grasp what's going on.  I can't simply stop in to see for myself what Mother's demeanour and frame of mind are like.  I have to imagine it.  I have a very good imagination, which is a mixed blessing.  To say someone has a good imagination is not necessarily to say that they have an accurate imagination.  Mine's been working overtime in the evenings and sometimes through the night.

Of course Bill and Veronica have been wonderfully supportive, but they can't simply climb into my head for the hours between 8 p.m. and about 2 a.m. when I wonder.  So I've turned to a resource that I suspect women have called on since time out of mind:  the work of their hands.  I've started a new and very complicated pair of socks.

But it's piecing quilts that has given me the most comfort and pleasure.  Quilting is a combination of zing and zen.  The zen comes at the end with the hand quilting, and as I wrote in my first Craftsmanship blog, when you're quilting by hand, time doesn't matter.  What matters is the size and straightness and evenness of each tiny stitch made with a thread that seems to connect one to every other woman who has tried to still her mind with the zen of hand quilting.  Piecing provides the zing.  The wonderful thing about quilting is that it has perameters--like the designs of particular blocks (there are literally hundreds of these)--that provide a framework for the quiltmaker's creativity.  Choosing fabrics and a block that will show them at their best, combining colour in a way that's harmonious yet unexpected or inventive, sewing the straight 1/4 inch seams and seeing your vision come together as the blocks take shape, deciding how you're going to pull the blocks together and seeing a whole quilt emerge--this is the zing of piecing.

The quilt at the top of the blog is made of baskets; if you look carefully at the design, you can see that many of these are different.  There are probably a dozen ways to represent a basket in the quilter's vocabulary.  This quilt was inspired by the butterfly fabric that you see in panels down the sides of the blocks, but I ended up using most of it to make a small joyful quilt--the colours are bright and snappy--for a friend of mine undergoing chemotherapy.  So I had to find a way to make a quilt with just a little left.  The solution was to make the top borders of an entirely different fabric, and I like the sense of "making it up as I go along" that this border gives the finished quilt.  That's what a lot of quilters do.  The colours in this quilt have given me enormous comfort and cheer over the last couple of weeks.

The two quilts you see above are made in the Amish style--which is to say that you only use plain colours.  I love making Amish quilts because they force you to return to the quilter's most basic vocabulary:  colour.  If you use a lot of black--a classic Amish practice--you can get almost any colours to go together.  The larger quilts, a Sunshine and Shadow, was made years ago.  I've been working on putting together the blocks for the small crib quilt in the last few weeks. 

One of the things that strikes me about Amish quilts is the paradox.  The Amish are a peace-loving people, and they refuse to fight in wars.  Yet their quilts are often characterized by a tension in the colours which makes them feel very modern.  Quite likely the tension sneaks in because they make their quilts out of the scraps left from their everyday sewing:  the quilt is just an instance of making do.  Yet the most gifted Amish quilters make an art out of it.

This photograph is of a quilt that I'm working on now.  It's a simple block, called a four patch.  But I've added small triangles at the corners of the lighest patches to give the blocks a focus when the four-patches are put together.  Here's where craftsmanship comes in big time:  getting all those tiny triangles together to make the little square requires all of one's skills on a sewing machine.  (You can only see the effect in some of the blocks, since I haven't joined them all together yet.)  Here I'm playing with colour yet again.  This quilt will go in a room that is sometimes green, sometimes blue, sometimes blue-green, sometimes grey, depending on the light.  So I've tried to put all those colours together to make a quiet harmony that still has some life.  The easy work is done:  I have a pile of about 150 of the four-patches.  Now I need to choose four that will go together, choose the fabric for the tiny triangles that will be balanced and harmonious when the block is put together, and get all those little triangles to line up into a square.

Unlike my mother's mortality, making this quilt is simply a problem to be solved.  Sometimes I give in to chance, and simply put together the next four four-patches on my pile.  Sometimes I find myself taking both sides in aesthetic quarrels about harmony and balance and the beauty of unpredictability.  Sometimes I sit down at my sewing machine and I'm only eyes and muscles, trying to sew those triangles accurately into little squares.  I cheer myself on and give myself a thumb's up when it goes well.  I'm not waiting; I'm engaged in the present moment.  Yet paradoxically, this escape brings me closer to her, creating a space where it's safe to think about mortality, to imagine my mother's negotiation of these final days, and to allow memories to float to the surface of my mind where they drift in their startling impermanence. Perhaps this is because craftsmanship threads together the traditions from the past, the present engagement in the making, and the imagination's vision.  Perhaps this is because we will always need the beauty and warmth of quilts.

1 comment:

  1. Quilts and heart-strings. It is amazing when you think about it how such a solitary and engaging activity inevitably brings to mind/emotions one's relationships and loved ones. Part of it is who I am making a quilt for - the pieces are imbued with my love for and thoughts of whoever I am building the warmth for. But I agree that there is something about the combination of aesthetics and mechanical skill that makes room for connection. Thanks for your always inspiring thoughts.