Piecing It Together: Making a Start

You didn’t just go out and buy all the fabric even if you had the money, which most of the members did not. You made quilts out of what was on hand, like flowered feed sacks or pieces remaining when you cut out a blouse, or from trading scraps with one another. You got pleasure knowing this piece was left over from your high school graduation dress or that one was passed down from your grandmother.

—Sandra Dallas, The Persian Pickle Club

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A gray and glowery afternoon. The house is fairly clean, my grading is pretty well caught up, and my head is pounding. I take my book and sit in the reading chair.

I am asleep before I get through the first paragraph.

I wake up, abruptly, a scant twenty minutes later. There’s a command clearly lodged in my mind: Work on your quilt.

So I stand up, quickly, to comply. Time, at last, to make a start.

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Bookshelf quilt image from Pinterest.com

I think my friend Theresa first sent me a picture of a bookshelf quilt; since then, I’ve seen them on line many times. The squares look like books—neatly standing, straight up; leaning; stacked flat; toppling. The background is black. The borders are brown, like shelves.

So cute, I thought, and then I studied the pictures, enlarging them, looking at the detail. I could DO that, I realized, and I thought about a quilt as big as a bedspread, –a queen-sized quilt with fabric images of all the books we love.

What would be better than that to snuggle under with a book on a raw and windy winter night?

I began gathering and collecting material.

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I have made one other hand-pieced quilt, long ago, back in the 1990’s. My boss’s wife, a skilled seamstress named Jannie, invited my colleague Lisa and me to make simple quilts with her. We would cut fabric into triangles, match the triangles to make squares, and put the squares together in strips. We’d sew the strips together and decide on backing and borders. And, in the doing, we’d have crafting time together—time to talk and savor the feeling of creation.

Jannie and Lisa went out and shopped carefully for material; they were making quilts for their daughters, ten years apart in age: an off-to-college quilt; a now-you’re-a-big-girl quilt. I went home and went through drawers. I found old curtains I’d made in college, blue jeans gentled by time into suede-y softness, leftover material from projects long completed or abandoned. I got out my sewing shears and cut away seams and hems and created squares just the size I needed.

It was Mark’s first year of law school, and money was stretched so thin I could see right through it. I didn’t have the cash to go out and buy fabric, so I’d make myself a vintage quilt, a snuggle-while-watching-television quilt.

I cut away worn spots, and carefully saved the buttons I picked off, sliding them into the button tin—buttons from generations of thrifty women,—my mother had given me. I saved pockets; surely there was something fun one could do with old pockets.

I sat and sewed with Jannie and Lisa and created a crazy quilt top. I quilted it onto a soft old blue blanket. I bordered it with brown calico scraps. We hung that quilt over the back of the lounge chair in the living room, and, for years, and in four different homes, one or the other of us grabbed that soft, warm covering on chilly nights—snuggled up under it and watched us some TV. Last year, the fabric scraps finally wore thin; the blue blanket, pilled and sad from one too many washings, poked through.

There were holes in places. The dog tried to nestle the quilt into a cozy bundle and got her claw caught in one. The claw bent backward; the dog howled piteously; and I realized it was time, at last, to throw that threadbare blankie OUT.

But I didn’t feel bad; the blanket had been a new life for old cloth, old garments. Quilted, they lasted about 15 years longer than their original purposes would have let them live.

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Toward the end of her life, my mother made quilts. I have the first one she made, with Sunbonnet Sue embroidered on it, and solid, brightly colored patches alternating with pretty, country patterns. Some of the patches are worn to gauze; the quilt has been used and used and washed and used again. I save it, now, afraid of its frailty, not wanting to let it go.

Mom's first quilt

Mom decided she would make quilts for all the grandchildren, from the oldest on down, and so Brian and Jason got their quilts. Then her health started to slip, and hospitalizations began to happen. Mom would take her graph paper and colored pencils to the hospitals; when she was well enough to concentrate, she would sketch out quilts.

She made one for Shayne, and one for Meg, one for Matthew, and one for Ben. She had Jessica’s all planned out when she died. I have that soft and flannel-y piece of graph paper somewhere; when I come upon it again, I will send it to Jess, who did receive one of her Grandma’s other quilts. It was a flying geese pattern, made, maybe, when my mother knew that her own flight was imminent and unavoidable.

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I decided that, for the bookcase quilt, too, I don’t want to buy fabric. I want my fabric books, like my real ones, to have been touched, to be a little worn, and to have a history. I’m going to sort through old clothes, cut them carefully apart, make neat and even squares. I have some old black patterned bed clothes (what phase was I traversing when I decided black sheets would be chic? Sheesh. But I’m glad I have them now.) The pattern is soft and faded, and those will be perfect for the dark background the books will rest against.

I have a pair of brown slacks that just never fit right, and I have some brown pillow cases whose feel I just never liked against my cheek. They will become the shelves that frame the books.

I iron out and cut apart an old Hawaiian short of Jim’s. It is blue with beige flowers picked out in black. I cut away the collar, turn my scissors up the side seams. I take the sleeves off.

The hems of the shirt are fraying. I snip away the tattered edges, and I clip off the buttons to save. I salvage a pocket, which I think I’ll use in wrapping a gift for a child— the three-year-old son of a young colleague of Mark’s. I’ll glue the pocket onto the wrapping, which will hold a book; I’ll slide a bookmark, and perhaps a lollipop, into it.

And then I have flat pieces of Hawaiian print material. I take out my template and cut as many 8.5 by 8.5-inch squares as I can get. I stack them in a box, and I trim up the smaller pieces and put them in a basket. The edges and scraps, I put into a plastic shopping bag. I wonder, briefly, if I could use them as stuffing, tie them into a rug, or create a scrap fabric wreath. But I wrench my attention sternly back to the job at hand.

I envision the fabric books, and I realize I need fabric with tiny stripes to look like pages. We have purged all of Mark’s striped shirts, taking the ones that don’t fit, the ones he wouldn’t wear, to thrift shops or donating them to a clothes closet. But I see exactly the kind of stripes I need in my mind’s eye.

I slip on my shoes, and I drive to Goodwill and buy five striped shirts for eight dollars. They are perfectly page-patterned. I search out and throw away all their labels and price tags, and I throw the shirts into the washer.

Shirts

The bookshelf quilt is growing real in my mind.

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I pull out my beautiful quilted bag to carry my books to class. Terry made this bag, a masterpiece in its autumn colors. The quilting is more detailed and expert than any I will ever accomplish; I have to let that go and know that my funny, homespun attempts will be a different kind of special.

Terry

Terry gave several of us, all of us leaving the same place of work at the same time, quilted bags. When we get together once a month, old colleagues now retired or working at different jobs, one of us usually has her Terry bag with her. The bags are sturdy, creatively made, practical and lovely at the same time. They bring to mind, now I think about it, their creator.

There’s another work connection quilt, one that rests, neatly folded, on the end of my bed. Just before three of us retired, our younger colleague Barbara invited us out to lunch. She wrestled us for the check, insistent she would pay, and when we walked out to climb into our cars, she stopped us. From her back seat, she pulled three beautiful quilts she’d made, in colors that made her think of the receivers. She placed them in our arms and shushed away our thanks and drove off with a smile and a wave. We stood there, we three women of a certain age, jaws open, arms full, light-headed with shock and delight. The quilts were incredibly lovely.

Barb

I couldn’t resist playing with a quilt metaphor, silently, for the three of us so gifted were retiring from positions that would no longer exist. Our work was being spread out and carefully cut apart. Certain patches would be sent to different offices. Some pieces—although we’d thought that fabric was sturdy and strong—would be tossed away.

It was part of the process of leaving, to see what was become something new, but for each of us, it was hard in a different way.

So it is good to meet each month, now, and to spread out the new pieces we’ve acquired, to see a new, upbeat, resilient pattern emerging.

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One of my favorite books, The Persian Pickle Club, centers on a group of women who quilt together during the Depression in dust-bowl Kansas. They are old and young and in-between, married, single, and no longer wed. Some would face starvation if not for her friends, and some have the wherewithal to be generous. All have their sorrows, and all have a fierce loyalty to the other members of the club.

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And then comes Rita, who has married Tom, the son of one of the quilters. Rita is a city girl. She can type and she can do the latest dances; she can write newspaper articles and she can walk into a room of strangers without a qualm. But her country skills—cooking from scratch and scrubbing a floor, keeping a fire hot and piecing a quilt—those are sorely lacking.

And she doesn’t understand; Rita doesn’t see the pattern or understand what weaves things together. The first time she meets with the Pickles, the women, although Rita’s stitches are looped and sloppy, encourage her to take up quilting. And Rita, to be polite, says, sure. Sure she will. Maybe, she says, she can get Tom to take her to the department store, where she’ll buy enough fabric to make a quilt.

There is a shocked silence. How can the women tell her that one doesn’t BUY fabric to make a quilt; that one uses what one has? One rejuvenates the worn-out sheets and tablecloths; one spreads out her dearly loved ‘best’ dress, worn now beyond all patching, and cuts away the finest parts to savor in a quilt.

Every quilt they craft is a kind of living history. The women don’t try to explain this to Rita. But they each reach into their quilting bags, and they pull out pieces of fabric, squares and scraps and shiny silks, and they pass them down to their new friend. They tell her the stories behind each swatch she receives. When she leaves that day, she has enough quilting material to make a baby blanket for a friend.

And she begins, just faintly, to get a glimmer of the pattern the other women had grown up seeing.

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The weather turns; the 90-degree days slide off, backward. Clouds tumble together, thunder rumbles, and the temperature plummets. The AC clicks off and stays off. We open the doors to the screened-in porch. Rain-sweetened air rushes in, and the house is lightened.

I spend my free time wrestling with material. I wash it and iron it; I clip it and I smooth it out onto the dining room table. I trace squares and I save buttons; I pick out seams, and I notice that, even when the seams have been cut away, the buttons and collars removed, there is still a trace and a clue of what’s been before. I can look at squares from the old black pillowcases, smooth them out and know where the sweet spot was, the place our heads rested most of the time. I can see the vibrant, almost new colors of the fabric that waited, tucked away, folded inside the case.

I work at it for days, growing impatient, wanting to get to the creative, fun, pretty part, but wanting, too, to build a strong foundation for the blanket I see more and more clearly in my mind.

I’m just beginning the process, creating the pieces that I’ll put together; making sense of what no longer worked, revitalizing fabric I can’t bear to give away. There is something here, I want to say, about reducing things to their original parts in order to give them a whole new kind of life.

There is something here about making a new thing and honoring the past that made it possible.

I make my templates; I snip away the tatters, and I plan. This phase will be done—soon, I hope,–and then I can begin.

Piecing it together.

Trying to see the pattern.

Creating something new.

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Of Murphy’s Oil Soap and the Patina of a By-Gone Era…

Used furniture 1
Today is a Murphy’s Oil Soap day. Today I am cleaning some brand-new used furniture.

This is how we came to buy it.

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“Solid oak table,” says the posting on Facebook. “Three leaves. Top shows mild wear. $25.00.”

It is exactly what I want for my dining room renovation project. I’ve been prowling on-line second hand sites, wandering through local stores–antique emporiums, junk shops, and re-purposers’ paradises. I’ve gotten lots of great ideas, but nothing has been the bargain I’m seeking.

I want a sturdy round table that can be extended for parties and holidays. I do NOT want the chairs that go with it–my vision mandates three pairs of chairs, different styles, maybe even different colors. One set will have arms and be, when the table is at its full length, anchors at the head and foot. The others, strong and comfortable, but in some yet-to-be-discovered funky, fun design, will slide up to the sides.

And I want it all, of course, for next to nothing.

Nothing too matchy-matchy, I tell Mark bossily. I do NOT want to go out and buy a ponderous dining room suite. I want something unique, something we assemble. I want something we can spin in our own special style, but something that, put together in a new grouping, has not just a history, but a future, of its own.

Mark rolls his eyes. (He has been known to ask, a little plaintively, “Do you think, someday, we could have bedroom furniture that matches?”) He is intrigued by the idea of the mismatched chairs, though, if we could just find the right pedestal table to anchor them.

And then the ad pops up on my FaceBook feed.

“What do you think?” I ask him. “Should we go and look?”

“Why not?” he says. I message the seller.

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We thought we were so organized. We took both cars. We’d cleaned out the trunks and folded some soft, old blankets into them. Mark carefully selected tools he might need for dis-assembly, and we were off, convoying to a set of storage lockers thirty miles away. Young James rode along with his dad to provide extra muscle.

The seller–we’ll call him Tom–was waiting for us. He was a big, bearish, youngish man with a broad, open face, glazed in sweat; he’d been moving furniture on that hot summer afternoon. The table was at the entrance to the storage pod; we inspected the pedestal and the top and the three leaves that would extend it. We looked at each other.

“Yes?” said Mark.

“Perfect.”

Money changed hands. We opened both trunks; Jim and I carried the leaves and slid them into mine. Mark removed the pedestal from the tabletop and angled it carefully into his back seat. Then he and Jim rolled the top itself to his trunk–his trunk being broader and deeper–and hefted it up to slide inside.

There was no way. They slid it back down and got the measuring tape. They looked at back seats and measured them. They rummaged in the toolbox.

Meanwhile, I was talking to Tom in the storage pod.

“I got to get rid of a lot of stuff by Wednesday,” he told me on that Monday afternoon. “I got a sale in Columbus, and I’m gonna need the room. Is there anything else you need? I got a nice dresser back there.”

Part of my dining room vision was repurposing an old dresser,–painting it, adding fun hardware, and then hanging shelves above it for plates–kind of, I thought, a home-assembled china cabinet effect. But the ‘dresser’ Tom referred to was, actually, a china cabinet. It had a glass door and three shelves and a drawer. Swirly bulls-eyes marched down the sides, and the carving was in mint condition: not a flaw or a chip.

It was gritty and dusty, but it was the perfect shape and the perfect size for the space I had in mind. I hesitated.

“Fifty bucks?” he said.

I thought of badly damaged cabinets I had seen in stores and on-line with tags that read, “Solid wood! $300. Great project!”

I bent to open the drawer, and Tom said swiftly, “Oh, that don’t open.”

But it did, revealing plastic place-mats printed with pictures of wine glasses, a deck of playing cards, and a child’s toy, unopened in its plastic bubble.

“Well, I’ll be,” said Tom, and he quickly scooped out all that treasure. He nodded at the cabinet.

“You want it?” he asked.

“I’ll talk to Mark,” I said.

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But Mark and Jim had determined, meantime, that there was no way the tabletop would fit into any area of either car, and that dis-assembly was beyond the tools and inclination Mark had brought along. Tom rolled the top back into the pod, and we drove off to reconnoiter at a Wendy’s we had seen down the street–to make a plan to get that tabletop moved and to talk about the cabinet.

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Friends are a wonderful gift. Sitting in the blast of air conditioning at Wendy’s, I texted Terry, and I asked if there was any way her patient husband Paul would have time to drive his truck and Mark out to those storage pods the next day. And Terry messaged back almost immediately: Sure. What time?

Mark and I discussed the china cabinet all that night; by morning, we had decided to buy it. So we messaged Paul that the load had just gotten a little heavier.

Tom was available at 3:30; Mark came home from work and changed, and Paul picked him up. James went along, too, which meant that Mark scrunched into the bumper seat behind the driver.

He had only twenties in his wallet, Mark did, and Tom did not have change. In the dickerings for the china cabinet, poor Paul, who was already donating his time and gas and resources, had to loan the boy ten dollars.

I was off that day on a wonderful road trip that is another story in itself. When I came home, the tabletop was leaning against the dining room wall and the china cabinet was perched in front of the fireplace. Mark was grilling chicken, and he and Jim were pretty pleased with how the whole day had worked out.

I’m not quite sure how Paul felt about everything.

 

Used furniture 2

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So this morning, I will get to know the newest members of our furniture family. I’ll fill a plastic bucket with hot water and sloosh in a glop of Murphy’s, sudsing it around with my fingers until it melts completely. I’ll take my little hand vac and clean out the china cabinet, suck the loose grit out of nooks and crannies of the table, and then I’ll wipe everything down. And then I’ll dip a soft, white cloth into the bucket of suds, and I’ll begin the long, slow, exploratory process of getting to know my new china cabinet and table.

I’ll work from the inside out, shoving the rag into the smallest corners and nooks, making sure any dirt and residue is washed away. We’ll talk to each other, those wooden fixtures and I, while I scrub and massage and polish.

The treasure Tom scooped out of the drawer already lends me some clues to the china cabinet’s past–that the folks who owned it were practical types who liked a place-mat they could wipe down instead of laundering and ironing; that there was a special child worthy of a new toy (I imagine a grandma seeing a little something she knew the five-year old would just love at the dollar store, bringing that gift home triumphantly, putting it in the drawer, and maybe, forgetting it was there–the right time never quite arriving to give that treasure to the little guy.)

That pack of cards had been well-used; I imagine the china cabinet overseeing long games of euchre at the dining room table.

Washing the cabinet will tell me more–the soap may draw up and wash away layers of tobacco gunk, for instance, and I’ll think of a home like my parents’, blue with cigarette smoke and loud with jokes and laughter. I will imagine card games and jokes and laughter, smoke-free, in this cabinet’s future.

The wear on the top of the table will tell its own tale, about meals and other projects. Did a woman drag out her portable sewing machine and load it onto this table, shoving the corded foot pedal underneath, mending knees of jeans and sewing curtains for the Florida room and whipping up a special dress for her sister’s youngest’s wedding?  Are there marks and indentations from years of kids wielding sharpened pencils, intensely doing homework or drawing epic scenes of imagined historic battles?

I’ll imagine someone’s joy in getting this piece of furniture new, a long awaited purchase made possible by her hard work at a weekend job. I’ll think of the china cabinet coming into, maybe, a young couple’s home, a gift from his parents, a gift that had stood for many long years in his beloved, and now-deceased, grandmother’s dining room. I’ll imagine that cabinet settling in and watching the young couple become parents, the children growing, and the years passing–passing into a time when the cabinet, loved but no longer needed, gets passed away itself into strangers’ hands.

And I will sluice away the grit and residue of recent postings. If these pieces were kept in dank basements or spider-filled barns, moved about from pod to pod–THAT, I don’t particularly want to know. I want to bow my head to the rich history the pieces exemplify. I want to wash away any storage unit past.

I love used furniture–love it, of course for its bargain-rightness (I do believe that, somewhere out there, just the piece I need is being sold at a fraction of its ‘new self’ price; my challenge is to track it down and bring it back to  vibrant life.) I love it for its workmanship–for the careful joinings, for instance, so different from the glue and staples of discount buys. I love it for the use it’s had and the care someone has taken and for the future it offers us in its new home. I love it for its environmental responsibility, for the re-use of a resource that will not have to be harvested and stripped for my vision to take fruit.

There’s a patina and there’s a promise to the right piece of used furniture, lovingly restored.

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Oh, we have projects. Before I buy the paint for the dining room, I need to finish up the details on the almost-painted car port, and then we need to get the drop-cloth curtains hung and the tables covered and the chairs arranged, and invite dear friends, and celebrate.

Before the painters come to start the house, we need to paint the garage and the long fence that delineates the way back part of our backyard. We need to cut back rambling neglected bushes. We need to root suckers from the lilac tree and buy some hydrangeas and sink them into sad, neglected garden spaces so that, in a year or three or five, there will be, henceforth from that time, an annual bloom of exuberant flowers.

There is a lot to do. But in there, in the near-enough-to touch future, we will be cleaning,  spackling, and prepping the dining room; we will be rolling on bold new paint color. We’ll be repainting the existing low boy. We’ll be treating the venerable wood floor, and we’ll be beating the dust from the heavy carpet.

And then I’ll be moving in the new pieces–new to us, but seasoned in their experience of dining rooms, bringing years of service to this new story we’ll unfold. New story for us, but new chapter for these venerable pieces, lovingly cared for, lovingly restored.

Used furniture–the right used furniture–brings with it a sense of past, a comfortable present, and a promise for the future.

And it brings a smile to my frugal face.

Using What We’ve Got

We climbed the sweeping stone staircase into the Carnegie wing of our local library–into the oldest, original part, lovingly preserved through several renovations.  We walked through an arch into a long, high-ceiling, gracious room; it was a room which curved forward and beckoned visitors in and on.  The late afternoon light gentled in through soaring windows.

People mingled, chatting softly; a man bent to sign a guest book on a little table, mid-room, that also offered visitors a dipper of punch and a sweet little nosh. But mostly people browsed and angled, stepping up close to, backing away from, cocking their heads at, exploring from every angle, the colorful art of John Taylor-Lehman. ( http://www.taylor-lehman-studio.com/)

He’s a bottle cap artist, Taylor-Lehman is.  He pounds and flattens, cuts and trims; he molds and he builds up and out.  He works with the colors of the bottle caps themselves; he gradiates, for instance, the bottle-cap blues of a sky, deepening into the almost navy of Bud Light.

Mark stepped close to see how the caps attached to canvas. Nail gun, he posited.

There was a simple flower in a vase–happiness.  There was an intricately realistic sideview of a car (that one was ‘NFS’–claimed, already) On the grand piano, a dog sculpture stood about two feet high, complete with red, lolling, bottle cap tongue. Animals. Flowers. A leering skull, a preying water beast.

We marveled at the creativity.  We joked about the sacrifice many people must have made to empty all those bottles.

On the way out, we stopped to admire a sign Taylor-Lehman made to welcome people. It’s a carved and polished wooden bottle cap, maybe 18 inches round. “Use what you’ve got,” it reads.

I think about that all week.

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I think about, for instance, another local artist, a man known as the “Old Man from the Mountain,” “Blind Sculptor,” and “Boom Maker,” Rick Crooks. Crooks has been blind since age 16, when a gun accident robbed him of his eyesight, but he sees, ironically, things other people don’t. Crooks takes scraps–rusted metal gas cans, spent spark plugs, discarded tools, and he turns them into pieces of art–dragonflies and pelicans, turtles and alligators, tall giraffes and lumbering elephants. He uses the materials at hand. He hones the senses available to him.

Crooks’ work has been featured in private galleries. At the Y-Bridge Art Festival in Zanesville, Ohio, this August, his art won The People’s Choice award. Crooks takes what anyone else might call trash, what anyone else might throw away,–he takes the things he has– and he makes them into something compelling. (https://www.whiznews.com/2011/08/a-blind-artist-a-clear-vision/)

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I think about a wonderfully crafted, historically rich, mystery novel by Sandra Dallas, The Persian Pickle Club. Dallas tells the story of a group of women quilters in Dust Bowl Kansas in the 1930’s. They are farm wives and widows, mostly, or the businesses their husbands run depend upon the success of local farms to stay afloat. It is a time of parched drought and dangerous winds.

Queenie is the narrator, a valiant, young woman, buoyed by the love of a good man. Which is essential, because she has lost everyone else–parents dead, no extended family, and the baby she and Grover tried so hard to conceive born early with no chance of survival. The women of the Club surround and protect her, and still she is lonely–lonely for spark and adventure and youthful fun.

And that’s when Rita, the flashy, big city wife of Tom, Grover’s best friend, enters the scene.  Rita is rash and blunt and perfectly turned out.  She doesn’t understand the kind of life these women endure–the daily grind of farmwork appalls her.  And yet she tries to fit in, to match her hurried, slapdash stitches to the careful artistry of these women who have been quilting together, in one configuration or another, since the oldest of them received a gift of Persian Pickle fabric from her brand new husband years and years and years ago.

Rita comes to the quilters’ group with her mother-in-law; she admires the work of the women. She says that she wants to be a quilter, too, and she says she thinks that she’ll send Tom down to the five and dime to pick her up some  fabric so she can start.

There is a careful silence; the women don’t want to offend this hot-house flower, this exotic creature with whom Queenie longs, so deeply, to be friends. And then they reach into their bags of scraps, each of them, and they snip off bits of fabric.  They pass them to Rita. They tell her stories of where that fabric came from–whose dress, which shirt, which bridal bower. They anchor the swatches in time and place.  They give Rita the history of the bits and snippets of cloth they pass her way.

Because they know something Rita, for all her city ways and worldly knowledge, does not. They know that true art is created by salvaging the usable parts from the finally unredeemable dress, saving the scraps from the careful piecing of a shirt made for a hard-working brother, cutting the sheet–worn thin in the middle, into pieces for the scrap bag. Real art is made by taking these and crafting them into a blanket, a thing of beauty and vision.

Real art, Queenie knows, but cannot find the words to share with Rita–real art is made by using what you’ve got.

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Quilting wasn’t invented in the United States, but it seems to me a representation of the best kind of American spirit–that frontier, figure-it-out, what’s on hand, kind of passion and ingenuity. So you have the amazing creations of the women from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, an isolated hamlet that somehow encouraged generations of poor women to create bold, imaginative, out-of-the-box creations celebrated in a book called The Quilts of Gee’s Bend.(http://www.soulsgrowndeep.org/gees-bend-quiltmakers)

You have the bridal quilt, carefully folded and wrapped in tissue, kept in an aging cedar chest–a gift to a young bride in 1890 from her new mother-in-law.  Made from scraps, made into what most women recognized as the wedding ring pattern, the quilt warmed the marriage bed, soothed sick children, flapped on a clothes line in an autumn wind, became a treasured heirloom.  A thing created from leftovers, castaway bits, become a family treasure.

Now we try to buy that quality, rather than creating it.

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Don’t get me wrong. There is something wonderful about purchasing a piece of art from a creator like John Taylor-Lehman, about proudly displaying one of Rick Crooks’ sculptures on the family shelves. But it seems to me we’ve lost that urge to improvise, that creative spark that says, Hmm. What do I have that I could use instead?

So we watch Chip and Joanna Gaines uncover and celebrate the ship-lap paneling in an old Texas house, and we think, “I want that!” And we go out and buy ship-lap paneling to apply to, say, our northeastern walls. And it looks great, probably–it’s wonderful to recreate a warm and welcoming household ambience.

But.

The point of a ‘fixer-upper’ is to fix what you’ve got. Maybe I should be thinking, What’s under MY wall?

I think about artistic friends, Kay and Brian, who renovated an old gas station into an amazing sprawl of a funky, innovative, smile-making home.  In their little bathroom, parts of the plaster wall have chipped away, revealing the brick beneath. Brian and Kay, instead of patching or covering, have celebrated and highlighted the exposed brick, and the bathroom’s charm benefits incredibly.  Exposed brick: the north’s answer to ship-lap?

Only if you’ve got it. Use what you’ve got.

There’s a reason we loved MacGyver so much, loved that he cracked an egg into an overheated radiator to plug up its leaks and make his escape in a rusting, supposedly useless, beater he leveraged in an arid southwestern town.  MacGyver could take what was on hand, spread out his choices, pick and choose and cut and trim to fit. He could make machines work and messages fly and bad guys stop.  MacGyver had that thing we called ‘Yankee Ingenuity.’

If he didn’t have what he needed, he used what he had to make it.

These days, we’d often just go out and buy it.

**************
I’m missing something, I think, when I do that. I’m missing something when I run out of disposable wet-pads for my Swiffer and think, Well, I can’t wash the floor! Then I run across a pattern on Pinterest that tells me how to knit Swiffer pads, and I think: Wait a minute. I go searching for my rag bag, and I pull out a batch of soft white t-shirts, worn thin and holey in the armpits, that Mark has just let go of.  I trace a Swiffer pad onto the stack of t-shirts. I cut the soft cloth, which fits snugly onto the cleaning tool. I mix up a batch of cleaning potion, and I dip the improvised Swiffer pad into it.

Huh.  Looky there. I AM able to clean my floor.

I slip old socks onto my duster instead of buying disposable refills for that, too.

I amaze myself by being able to clean without shopping.

Use what you’ve got, I think.

*************
And what else could I be doing? We need baskets for the eternally messy cubbies in the dining room, and I think about running to the home store to buy them. And then I remember the stack of boxes in the basement, shoe boxes and packing boxes–boxes that, when I bring them up and slide them into the openings, fit perfectly into the cubbies.  They’re not pretty, though, and they don’t match, but I’m thinking there’s got to be a way to make them do.

I think of mod podge and my stack of glossy magazines and I think I can morph those boxes into organizing containers that fit snugly into the currently messy spaces.

**************
I find a children’s book in a stack in my closet. It’s boldly illustrated in blacks and reds and yellows–the colors, in fact, are the same colors I favor in my kitchen.  The book is old and tattered and not worthy of sharing with a child, and I could throw it out. Or–I could dig out the old picture frames and my matting tools, buried under those boxes I want to re-purpose. I could cull the prettiest, brightest pictures. I could matte and frame and hang them in my kitchen.

***************
I’m thinking of using the sad, limp veggies in the crisper to make some broth.

I’m thinking of crunching up the last of the frosted flakes to make tiger cookies, a recipe I loved as a child.

I’m thinking of long-simmered stews and casseroles and skillets that deftly, tastily, combine the things we have on hand.

I’m thinking of gift wrap and greetings and the yarn patiently waiting in my big craft basket.

***************
I’m thinking, this week, of quelling the impulse to shop out my needs.

I’m thinking of how to embrace the challenge.

I’m thinking I need to get better at using what I’ve got.

Things Break

That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in
–Leonard Cohen, Anthem

***********

Sometimes, things break.

******************

It is her favorite mug, the one with the cherries on it–a thick piece of crockery, sturdy and cheerful.  It came from a local potter who’s recently closed up shop, so there’s that little ping of irreplaceability: This is a piece we will never see made again. It keeps her coffee wonderfully warm.  It is the perfect curved shape to cup with both hands, to spread warmth from palms to soul on days when warming’s needed.

And then she drops it one morning, watches in awful slo-mo as it spirals toward the sink. A big chip flies off the base.  The handle detaches with a sharp, painful crack.

She picks it up.  Oh, this is silly, she thinks, as tears spurt,–silly to mourn for a mug!

**************

The bicycle, thick-tired, unglamorous, sits covered with cobwebs and forgotten in the old garage–a building never, in her tenure here, used to shelter a car.  One day she thinks about bicycling, jogged by a scene in a movie.  Thinks, I could clean up the bike and screw a new basket onto the handlebars, and I could pedal for odd groceries, and to meetings.  Just for fun.

She grabs a pair of gardening gloves and the keys to the garage, and she goes and drags the bike from where it cowers in a far back corner.  She brings it out into the light.

And, oh, it looks sad.  The paint has flaked and the rust encroaches and the seat is flopping, barely hanging on, like a child’s desperately loose tooth.  She crouches down and tries to spin the pedals and she sees that the gears are obstinately, willfully, rusted in place.

Broken, she thinks, and she remembers riding, her son (now almost thirty) in the child seat on the back, both of them laughing at the wind whipping their hair.  She remembers riding that bike to work down the brick streets of a little college town–she can still feel the thrumming of thick rubber on bumpy brick.

She has left it for so long, and now she wonders if it can be fixed.

***************

It is such a stupid lie.  He stares at her, defiant, insistent, and she stops, frozen, unable to respond.  The silence is his undoing.  Had she spoken, had she argued, he could have drummed up righteous indignation, defensive protection, but her lack of words pries off the veneer.  He begins to cry, and the truth comes out, bitter and ugly.

He reaches for her, repentant, but she gathers the frothy cloak of her silence around her, and she turns and walks away.

Can we ever get past this? she wonders.

And then she thinks: Do I want to?

****************

Probably nothing, says the doctor, but let’s just check to be sure.  He uses the word biopsy.

Broken, she thinks. Is this broken? Her hand moves inexorably toward that bland and painless lump.

****************

Things break.

Sometimes, they can be mended.

****************

She sits at the table with the mug and the pieces, and she rolls the mug gently in her hands.  Maybe, she thinks–maybe, she can do this.  She uncaps the glue–oh, it’s pungent!–and she dots the contacts of the handles, presses them to the raw breaks, to where they split from the mug.  She holds it, patient, eyes far away, thinking of a recipe she saw in a magazine, of new curtains for the little bathroom, while she waits for the glue to seep and spread, to send tendrils back and forth in the porous interior of the pottery.  Tendrils to rebuild this well-loved mug.

She sits for five minutes, holding the pieces tightly together, and when they seem to have become one again, she repeats the process with the shard from the base.

***************
Danny from the bike store comes out to the parking lot to help her.  He wrestles the bike from her roomy trunk, sets it on the ground, puts the kickstand down, and steps back. He is silent for a moment.

“I’ve seen worse,” he says, “and this was a good bike to start with.  Worth fixing, if we can do it.”

He pulls a little tablet from his pocket and hunkers down.  His fingers, rimmed in black from all his intimacy with the greasy parts of bicycles, touch the rusty gears.  They trace the brake lines, caress the wheels, ride up to the handlebars as he stands and shifts. He stops for a moment, just looking, and she has the sense he is seeing the finished product in his mind’s capable eye.

Finally he turns.  “It can be done,” he says.  He scrawls a figure on a sheet of his little notepad, rips it off, hands it to her.  “Take me the better part of a month, but I think she’ll be good for another twenty years.”

She puts the piece of paper in her wallet and shakes his hand.  She agrees that this will be worth the wait.

*****************
She meets him in the therapist’s office, and they sit down warily side by side.  He is staying across town; she has surprised herself by enjoying the solitude, the freedom to shape her day.  Some nights she eats a bowl of cereal in front of her computer for dinner.  Others, she cooks up a wonderful stir-fry with vegetables that would appall him. The house is clean and there are long stretches where the anger and betrayal recede, and sometimes she thinks, I am a capable, single, woman.

But there are other times, to her chagrin, when she wonders if he’s all right.  If he’s managing.  She knows his weak spots and his doubts and his need for company.

He is subdued and pale and seemingly eager for the therapy to bring them close again, and so they begin, cautiously, gingerly, looking to see if what’s been badly rent can be slowly, carefully mended.

*****************
The doctor’s face swims into focus.  She is groggy, still punch-drunk, but his words come through the haze.

Looks like we got it all.

Words appear like a banner in her waking brain: Let the healing begin.

Sometimes,–with care and skill, with the investment of resources and a big dose of mindfulness,–sometimes, things can be fixed.

****************

Sometimes things break.

They break, and they can’t be restored to their original state.

But they can be put  to new use.

*****************

She pours steaming coffee into the mended cherry mug.  But when she slides her fingers through the handle, she feels an ominous slipping. Sure enough, with a wiggle and a twist, the handle comes clean from the mug.

She sighs and pours the coffee into her second best mug, puts the cherry mug sadly into the sink.

But later, home from work, she realizes just how much she loves looking at those bright and brazen cherries, loves the shiny shape of the mug and its cheerful, upbeat colors.  She washes it out and dries it carefully.  She takes it to her desk and gathers up wandering pens and pencils, and she ceremoniously morphs her favorite mug into her favorite pencil holder, a pleasant thing that she’ll still use every day.

*******************
It was a cheap bike in the first place; the price for repairs that Danny quotes is far beyond what she paid for it.  She can, he points out, buy a really good bicycle for less than that cost.

So she bundles the old bike back into the trunk and she drives home.  She pulls it out, sets it up on the black-topped driveway, and she ponders.  She fills a bucket with hot soapy water; she scrubs the old friend down and lets it dry.

The next day she spray-paints it white, uniformly white, from tires to handlebars to basket.

That weekend, she parks it in the front yard, maneuvering it to a completely upright status with sunken blocks concealed on either side of the tires.  She lines the big old baskets–one on the handlebars, two on either side of the back tire, with moss, and she fills the moss with rich, loamy dirt.  She plants the brightest petunias she can find and adds some trailing ivy that waves down the sides of the baskets and sways in the breeze. When the winds lifts, she thinks, it almost looks like the bike is in motion. 

It is cheerful and pugnacious, and she can shop now for a new bike that will serve well her augustly seasoned status.

*******************

Therapy has helped them to be civil, to understand what each of them needs.  But it has not brought them back together.

She revels in her independence, and she thinks now of a condo, a place with no yard work but with enough room to entertain and a kitchen that will allow her to explore her increasingly adventurous cuisine.

He admits that he doesn’t miss her in THAT way, that his interest in his pretty young colleague grows exponentially.

They still have the ability to hurt each other, even while they lose the means to make each other happy.  They work with the therapist; she helps them come safely through those woods.

Because, of course, there is Tess, who is only twelve, and who dearly loves them both. Needs them both; needs them to be civil and caring and moving forward, and moving without bitterness.

It is cautious and awkward at first, but they are both committed to the quest, united in this, if in nothing else.  It requires constant work; it requires mindful vigilance, but they come through.  Where once there was a marriage, a warm friendship begins to grow.

She sees Tess, who has been tense and worried, begin, at last, to relax.

*********************
There are ways to bypass what must be removed, the doctor tells her.  He sits down next to her, shows her a glossy diagram.  They’ll just remove this, re-route that, take a little of this from there to repair what’s missing here…and voila--she will be disease-free and fully functional.

She stares for just a moment at the chart in his clean, clean hands, stares just long enough for him to clear his throat uneasily.

And then she begins to laugh.

He looks at her, warily, and she explains.  She’s a great believer in re-purposing, she tells him.  She just never thought she’d be applying the concept to her innards.

***********************
Sometimes, things break.

And sometimes, they can be mended; sometimes they can be re-imagined.

Other times, nothing helps.

*************************
The mug shatters on the concrete patio, explodes into tiny needling shards too small to do anything but pierce and harm. She sweeps them up and throws them away.

*************************
The rust seeps through the paint, the tires are bent; the bike leans precariously.  Even as a planter, it is untenable.  She puts it out on Big Trash Day; the boisterous sanitation guys throw it into the masher, and she can hear, from where she sits with her writing and her morning coffee, the grinding as her dear old bike is mangled and eaten.

*************************
He has made fervent promises; he does not want, he vows, to lose what they have built together.  She even–where was her head???–sleeps with him again.  The next day–the next DAY: what is wrong with him??–she discovers that he has cleaned out her savings and maxed out her credit card, and her friend Bessie sees him canoodling cozily with his new young thing at the coffee shop.

She is bereft and impoverished in more ways than just financially.  She needs the chance to rebuild.  Resolutely, she dials the lawyer’s number that Bessie found for her. There is no fixing here: a clean break is called for.

*************************

The doctor sits with her in the quiet after their talk.  They have walked a long road together–she has walked it with hair and without, walked it seemingly plump and healthy, and walked it clearly gaunt and exhausted.  He has taken her midnight calls and talked with her through other patients’ appointments; he has been honest and caring and innovative. Together they have tried everything they could find to make her healthy.

And today, he has admitted that they have come to the end of all that doing. They have walked together to the limit of the options.  They are standing at the end of the road, standing together at the lip of the abyss.

But only he will turn and walk back down that road. He grips her hand, as the firm friend that he’s become.

She thinks:  I am going to die.

She thinks: No more treatment.  I will be able to taste my coffee again.  I will be able to sit in the sun.

That is one of the things she has missed the most–sitting in her tiny backyard garden, watching the squirrels fight, enjoying an occasional hummingbird visit.  Her friend Roger has built her an amazing bower with roses and daisies and cone-flowers and trailing ivy; he fills it in each year, sweet man that he is, with splashy annuals and fragrant herbs.  It is her favorite spot in the entire world.

And now, soon, as the medications leave her weary body, she can sit out there again.  Take her books, take her colored pencils.  Take the healing naps she has longed for so much.  Just sit in the sun and prepare.

The end of fixing, she thinks, will lead her back to light.

***********************

Things break.

Things break and sometimes, with long and careful work, they can be mended.

And if they can’t be mended, sometimes they can be re-purposed, becoming something vibrantly new.

And sometimes, broken things are just that: broken.  Broken beyond repair, beyond use, and the decision has to be made to let them go.

Their leaving opens a space, and in that space, there may be growth, there may be silence.

There may be, for a miraculous little slice of time, the chance for bright clear light to shine.

*********************

Sometimes, things break.

Another Fine Mess You’ve Gotten Me Into, Loolie

Ironing the bag

So here I am, in the basement on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, ironing paper bags and tissue paper. I checked my list of ‘Wonderful Things to Do on a Holiday Weekend,’ and you know what?

This activity did not appear. Not even as the 159th entry. Thank you, Loolie.

She’s a madwoman, our Loolie. I have known her since we were both yea high–well, she was always just a yea bit high-er–and it’s always been the same. Loolie reads something or hears something and thinks, ‘Well that’s not right. We have to fix that!’

And suddenly there’s this whirlwind gusting through my life.

I say, “Oh, no, Loolie. Not this time. This time you are ON YOUR OWN! I am not going to [fill in the blank.] No way!

But whirlwinds don’t just clear their own path, they suck in all kinds of things–and people—lying innocently tangential.

So I might find myself delivering some kind of earnest, everyone-should- know-about-this, literature door to door. Or cleaning out poopy puppy cages at the pound. Or baking 480 cookies for the Good Cause bake sale.

And it’s not just me. In our group of five old friends, four of us are tangential to the whirlwind.

The other one, of course, is Loolie.

Of the five of us, only Loolie lives in our old hometown, so it’s a challenge to get us all together. This year, by some stroke of luck, we all converged the weekend before the holiday. And–thank you, Facebook,–Loolie figured this out and invited us over for a just-us feast on Saturday night. Our families sighed and said they could spare us.

“I’ll be back early, though,” I assured Mark, who rolled his eyes.

“Uh HUH,” he said. He’s been to this rodeo a time or two before.

So we gathered at Loolie’s house,where she had a pot of make-me-float-on-the -wafting-scent spaghetti sauce simmering. She had made ravioli from scratch, and there was an enormous stack of them–with our choice, she informed us,  of three cheese, meat, and squash fillings –waiting in a colander to dance in the pot of bubbling water.

And Loolie’s beautiful granite counter tops were covered with flour and randomly tossed cloths, a ravioli cutter, and STUFF. My hands started itching to clean and straighten, and Loolie could tell.

“Dining room,” she said firmly, and she steered me by the shoulder to her huge wooden refectory table. Peggy, TJ, and Jeanne were already gathered…and one wine bottle was already empty. Loolie poured me a glass, and I went around the table giving hugs. I grabbed a chair, reached for the cheese and crackers, and jumped into the conversation.

We talked about jobs and houses, gardens, and families. We dug our phones out of our purses and pulled up photos of grandkids, pups and kitties, landscaping, and vacations. We talked about the things closest to our warm and passionate hearts–the locovore movement, programs that help women in trauma, getting whole communities to read, the challenges young adults with disabilities face, the number of unwanted cats in the humane society shelter.

Loolie got up and brought in a huge bowl of steaming sauce and the ravioli. She passed around plates and handsful of silverware and a rainbow of sturdy new washcloths to serve as our napkins. We scrambled for the delicious food, tong-ing field greens into wooden bowls, scooping up snowy grated cheese to sprinkle over our sauce-covered pillowy ravioli.

Conversation died as we tucked into the amazing meal. And then Loolie said, “I’ve been thinking.”

As a unit, the four of us groaned. We put down our silverware, laid our hands flat on the table, and said, in one collective breath, “NO.”

She ignored us. “Do you know how much paper people in the States throw away every year?” she asked. “Do you?”

Can a silence be reluctant? Oh, let me answer that–yes, it can. Finally, after a silence so long it was not only reluctant but awkward, Jeanne ventured, “A lot?”

“Yes, a LOT,” snorted Loolie. “Here, look at this.” And from a stack of paper on a chair, she deftly pulled out an article and passed it around.

It was, of course, about the amount of paper waste generated in the United States yearly. And Jeanne was right: it WAS a lot.

“Can’t you just see it?” Loolie was standing now, so she could gesture without smacking one of us. “Five hundred years from now, researchers will say, ‘They threw out all this paper, and then, at gift-giving holidays, what did they do? They bought new paper to wrap gifts in! So they could then throw that away!'”

Put like that, it was hard to disagree that our society had a behavior that was not just crazy, but destructive.

After we ate, Loolie brought out coffee and cookies–her cookies are right on par, on a scale of one to delicious, with her spaghetti sauce. She swept the table of the dinner detritus, and she set out magazines and scissors and pots of decoupage paste, and she retrieved a teetering stack of boxes from a hall closet.

Soon we were elbow deep in torn paper and paste, turning light bulb boxes into gift boxes for coffee mugs and sturdy shoeboxes into beautiful treasure chests.

Blue and Silver

Then Loolie showed us how to cut strips of paper and make our own matching bows from scrips and scraps of magazine ads. I have to admit we were all enjoying ourselves.

While we were working, Loolie’s daughter, Kerri, came home from a night out with friends. Kerri is smart and funny and porcelain-doll pretty, and I always sideswipe the fact–because it does not seem to be the defining thing about her–that she is physically disabled. She wheeled her chair deftly into the dining room, looked at us all with glue on our noses and a growing pile of sticky, decorated boxes, and she said softly, “Oh, GREAT. You’re joining Mom’s challenge. She said you would!”

Brown paper

It was like that moment in a movie scene, where the hero is in a wood and she pulls an arrow out of a tree, and you see the knowledge dawn: I have just triggered a trap. And the net falls over her, securely, inevitably, and you see the helplessness on her face.

“Oh,” laughed Loolie, “I haven’t told them about the challenge yet! You beat me to the punch, Kerri!”

Read shoe box

And that was how the four of us left Loolie’s house, in just a little bit of a wine-soaked, gluey haze, having pledged that this year, we will not buy ANY wrapping paper. We will make our own from found materials.

So. I have invested in a couple of jars of Mod Podge; I have dug my old magazines out from the basket where old magazines moulder; I have discovered that I am a pack rat when it comes to stockpiling boxes. I have riffled through those boxes and discovered sheaves and crumpled balls and wrinkled sheets of tissue paper. And I remembered that there was a week, not so long ago, when Kroger ran out of plastic bags and gave us all brown paper. I kept those paper bags. I cut them into long flat pieces. I am ironing them, along with that rescued tissue, right now.

The thing about Loolie is not just that she’s persuasive, but that she’s also always so damned RIGHT. So I’ve taken her challenge, and this year, I PROMISE, I will not be buying one bit of wrapping paper.

This could, actually, be fun.

Santa Box