Monday, August 9, 2021

On Utility

Philosopher Simone Weil worked for the French Resistance.  While she and her family waited in Marseilles for the papers that would allow them to get into the United States, she did some under cover work for which she was frequently arrested.  Her parents would patiently wait in the cafe across the street from the police station for her to be released.  She was an awkward undercover agent, so awkward that each time the police brought her in, they would conclude that she was too awkward to work under cover.  Once her parents were settled in New York City, Weil went to England where she joined the Free French, headed by Charles de Gaulle.  De Gaulle asked the philosopher to write a proposal for the regeneration of France after the war.  The result was The Need for Roots.  Some day I should write here about the surprising human needs she identified.  Among other things, she felt we needed order and beauty, liberty and obedience, security and risk.  But one of her observations that I found most useful and  surprising, was that money and power needed to be put back into their place:  they were means to an end, not ends in themselves.  Power was useful in shaping a good society; money gave us food and shelter so we could survive.  What surprises me about her ideas is that she came to this long before we hit the period many of us are calling "late capitalism," when the meaning of money, at least for the very wealthy, lies now in empty numbers.  What would she have said, do you think, to billionaires going to space?  Is there any use in that?

The nineteenth-century designer William Morris also weighed in on utility--also in a way that challenged consumption--a dangerous thing for someone whose living depended on people buying his beautiful wallpapers and textiles.  "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful."  Morris's work, as you can see, shared little with mid-twentieth-century minimalism, yet his directive is a perfect way to describe the serene architecture of Philip Johnston or Frank Lloyd Wright.  In particular, I love his verbs.  We can know the utility of something.  But beauty is a matter of belief:  your beauty can be quite different than mine, and that's as it should be.  Yet even useful things can get in the way.  Ten years ago, when we renovated our kitchen, I put less-used kitchen tools in a box and dated it.  Anything I'd not used for six months went to Value Village.  Goodbye the lobster claw-shaped pincers for breaking into lobster claws.  I bought those-----why?


I found comfort in utility this hot pandemic summer.  In her brilliant book, Braiding Sweet Grass, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes movingly of the reciprocity between the human and natural world.  If we take care of nature, nature will take care of us.  She sees this, rightly, as a kind of moral imperative right now.  So I tried to embody that principle as best as I could.  Weeding, deadheading, watering the vegetable garden one watering can at a time was what partly what kept me sane--if you can call me sane right now.  Sometimes I have my doubts.  

These days, it's sometimes "noisy" in our bedroom--which is to say that one of us is snoring.  When that happens, I take myself off to the daybed in my study, which has long simply had a narrow sheet of foam over the slats.  So I finally bought a decent mattress that allows me to roll over without falling out.  The upshot is that I need a wider new quilt.  In 2017, quilting was a $3.7 billion industry.  Given that the production of cotton, from growing it to weaving and dying it, requires a lot of water and energy, that leaves quilters with a rather large guilt load, though at least what we make is useful and hopefully beautiful.  

So I decided that I'd make myself a quilt without buying any new fabric.  When quilters don't have time to quilt, they buy fabric.  Now my stash, relatively speaking, is quite small.  But I still had fabrics that I hadn't even looked at in twenty years or so--fabrics bought when there were few quilt shops and when the fabrics quilters liked was quite traditional.

If you want to make a stash-busting quilt, something made with lots of little pieces is a good candidate for a pattern.  I'd seen an Ocean Waves quilt once that was made entirely of white, cream, and pastels, and had been drawn to it because it broke rules.  As you can see from the photograph above, Ocean Waves quilts are quite graphic.  Making an Ocean Waves quilt out of pastels sort of defeats the purpose.  You can also see that the squares set on point are all of the same fabric.  I calculated that I would need nearly 2 1/2 yards to make a big enough quilt, but also noted that I had lots of half-yard pieces of my favourite colour, a blue-grey-green that matches the walls of my study.  What would happen if I used these randomly?

What happens is a utility quilt. Many gifted women made (and continue to make) art quilts with fabric bought just for that purpose.  But when fabric was scarce and expensive, women made quilts that used up the fabric that was left over from making a husband's shirt or a child's dress.  Sometimes fabric had collected over quite a number of years, and you can see styles changing over the surface of the quilt, making the utility quilt a little varve of that family's history, each of the fabrics a memory for the summer when it was very hot or the fall when Mother needed a new dress for a friend's wedding. I've found myself putting a triangle of celery green batik next to a rather Victorian-looking posy or a crisp geometric next to a blowsy flower because those are the fabrics I have to work with.  

I find utility quilts beautiful for a number of reasons.  One can be summed up in the phrase "Necessity is the mother of invention."  Or I could quote Robert Frost who once said that writing poems without rhyme and meter was like playing tennis without a net.  (Never mind that good contemporary poems seek out their own form.)  Sometimes constraints are useful, in other words, and inspire us to make the best of an ordinary situation.  I like that:  the collision of the beautiful and the ordinary that constraints impose on us.  Often even new utility quilts have a gentleness about them.  

All kinds of things about the literary landscape have changed--a subject for another blog post.  In part, the pandemic has done it. The pandemic has been a long study of human vulnerability, one that's been accentuated by our helpless knowledge that some people are more vulnerable than others, though they shouldn't be. We've also become aware that we're "all in this together," except when we're not, and we don't know what to do about those divisions.  But even before the pandemic, rights movements sought to expand the umbrella that protects people from injustice, and literature has become part of that effort. Recently, these voices have been more insistent with the discovery of small bodies buried near residential schools, with the accusations against Mario Cuomo, with the murder of the Afzal family, with the murder of George Floyd, a murder we helplessly watched.  When I was writing this summer about why I wrote, I didn't quite tell the whole story, though it occurred to me then.  I write to be of use.  I want to illuminate something human, often something ordinary that needs highlighting to understand ourselves. I want to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." I want to give strength to a quiet voice.  I want to question easy ways of seeing the world. The ordinary, in other words, which I try to make beautiful.

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