. . . and I also have nature
and if that isn’t enough,
~Vincent Willem van Gogh, (1853 – 1890)
. . . and I also have nature
and if that isn’t enough,
~Vincent Willem van Gogh, (1853 – 1890)
While rummaging around in the old hand-painted storage chest that houses my collection of fabric, embroidery floss, and pattern books, I unearthed a piece of unfinished embroidery I began designing years ago. I imagine I set the project aside to work on making a gift for someone else – a Christmas ornament, perhaps. Life got busier, days dissolved into years, and I forgot all about this half-finished patchwork until I unrolled it and held it again in my hands. I was surprised by the prettiness of the intricate patterns I devoted my time to years ago. I thought to myself, it’s funny how the process of creating a work of art –whether it’s stitched or composed or painted or sculpted or written– can be so much like life: when you’re deep in the middle, you can get so close to it, become so accustomed to its contours, or so annoyed by distractions, or dejected by your mistakes, that you can’t see it clearly anymore; you can forget how beautiful it is.
The embroidery I used to create this piece is called blackwork. Blackwork, which was at its zenith in the days of Henry VIII, was worked with black silk thread on white linen to create patterns that mimicked lace. Only the wealthy could afford to wear costly laces at that time, so those who desired the look of lace and were deft with a needle worked to transform strips of linen into lacy, expensive-looking collars, cuffs, and sleeves. Here’s a photo to illustrate how blackwork looked in its heyday:Although the patterns in blackwork appear complex, they’re actually easy to stitch. Each design is created by outlining a shape with a running stitch, then by sewing one simple, straight stitch after another to form a pattern.
I run my finger over my own tiny stitches and meditate on this unfinished piece of blackwork. The flight of years, the joys, sorrows, sunlight, and shadows through which I’ve passed have made me view this piece differently now than I did when I began it. These stitches have moved from something merely decorative towards something more metaphorical.
I examine the varied patterns. Some are delicate and spare, others are heavy and intense; some step forward with warmth and presence, others are cool and recede. How very like people these patterned squares are; each one is unique, and beautiful, and connected to the others around it. What a diverse, yet harmonious, gathering this is…
You might care to guess which square is my favorite.
I’ll tell you: it’s the unfinished one.
Why? Because it holds possibilities. It’s not too late to go back and begin again with a brand new color, or even an entirely different pattern. Just as in life, it’s not too late to change, and that’s what I find appealing.
However, I’m content with the color and pattern I’ve chosen, so now, all I must do is take up my needle again. It’s been a long time, but I know how to do this, of course I do! Just as in life, I can move forward at any time with a pattern of my own choosing.
How do I begin? It’s simple, really: day by day, moment to moment, breath by breath, stitch by stitch.
Just look at this beautiful work of art I’m creating.
(This is the second in a 5-day Photo/Story Challenge series. I was nominated to this challenge by Kristine, a wonderful writer and friend who blogs regularly at candidkay.)
At Handmade City, a holiday art walk I attended last December, I met a metalwork artist – Steve Todd of Iowa City – who told me he has had a lifelong fascination with medieval chain mail. Among the wares he was peddling that frigid, windswept December afternoon, a collection of pins he had on display caught my eye. Each pin featured a metal flower whose center was decorated with a small circlet of chain mail. As a proponent of the Shop Small movement, I love to support the creative efforts of artists whenever I can, so I happily purchased several of Steve’s chain mail flower pins. (I admired his pins so much, in fact, that I bought one for myself.) I brought them home, wrapped them up, added to each a tag that said, “Put your armor on!” and slipped them into our daughters’ Christmas stockings. I knew the pins would make a big hit, and they did.
My “put your armor on” concept dates back to high school. Although I loved school, was studious, and earned good grades, I’d occasionally grow anxious before tests. I discovered that test days never seemed quite as stressful if I was clothed in a favorite outfit – my own girlish armor. On days I dreaded an upcoming test, I’d dress to the nines. Somehow, wearing my best as I sat down to flex my brain and demonstrate my command of the subject matter at hand gave my knock-kneed confidence a boost – just enough to power me through.
When our children were growing up, “Put your armor on!” was a phrase I routinely employed when I felt they were in need of encouragement. While it sometimes reminded them to choose clothes they felt good in on days when insecurity gnawed their self-worth, they also knew it meant Believe in yourself. Trust yourself. Be strong. Don’t let anyone or anything bring you down or disturb your peace of mind. (Love laced through everything I tried to do to help them, and I did what I could to give them bedrock to build on by making sure they knew that no matter what, come-what-may, I would always, always believe in them. I still do.)
Lately, I smile to myself, thinking of our girls walking around their winter cities, sporting chain mail flowers on their lapels as an outward expression of an inward frame of mind. When someone happens to comment on the one I wear on my own coat, I enjoy pointing out Steve Todd’s workmanship and clever design. Then I add, with a grin, “I’ve got my armor on today!” Saying these words, knowing what they imply, realizing how firmly I subscribe to their meaning gives my confidence a boost – just enough to power me through. And off I go into my day, wearing my armor.
When the first snow of 2014 blanketed in on New Year’s Day, we enjoyed the comforts of home with Let-It-Snow ease. We had no particular plans and no need to set so much as a toe outdoors, so we made a late breakfast of Egg VanMuffins (similar to Egg McMuffins, but with that certain Belgian flare), poured piping hot cups of coffee, and dreamed the day away. The world was a snow globe, and the snow continued well into the evening. After dinner, a few spartan neighbors braved the bitter cold to clear snow from their front walks and driveways. Snowblowers sputtered and churned as snowflakes drifted down.
By 7 a.m. this morning, most of our neighbors had cleared their driveways, but ours was still a winter wonderland. (Jeff’s back has been deviling him this winter, so I’ve been doing the shoveling, not that I mind it. I love being outdoors in the wintertime, and besides, there’s a psychological advantage to snow-shoveling. A snowy driveway presents itself as a large problem to be solved. The first way to break down the problem is to divide it into manageable parts. Then, with patience and a little effort, the problem vanishes in foot-wide strips. When the job is done, it’s a great feeling. It’s not too much of a stretch to realize that most of life’s problems can be addressed in a similar manner.) I had no particular ambition to shovel first thing in the morning, as neither Jeff nor I had anywhere to go until afternoon. However, around 11:00 a.m., we looked out to find that our entire driveway and sidewalk had been shoveled by our neighbor’s two daughters. One daughter lives here, the other is visiting from Wisconsin. They didn’t have to help with our snow, but they did, just because. It was heartwarming to know their motive was to spare me the effort of shoveling solo. How sweet of them.
Neighborliness. It’s one of the pleasantest things around, and in our Midwestern town, on our street, a beautiful sense of neighborliness flourishes. We trade eggs and cups of sugar, water each other’s flowers when one of us is traveling, take in the garbage cans for an elderly neighbor whose hips and knees ache, help shovel each other out when the snowplow leaves a curbside mountain of snow that blocks all our driveways. It’s just what we do on our little court, but I never take it for granted. Today, as I lugged a huge sack of black oil sunflower seed out of the back of my car, our neighbor called out from his front yard, “Helloooooo, Amy!! HAPPY NEW YEAR!!” He was taking down the white lights from the branches of his tree, and his cheeriness was contagious.
Our first and best lesson in neighborliness came when Jeff and I were newlyweds. Our first house was also on a cul-de-sac, about a mile from where we live now. We bought the house in early autumn and happily set up housekeeping. At that time, we had one car. Jeff would drop me off at work, drive to his own office, pick me up again at 5 p.m., then drive us back home. Winter arrived early and with a vengeance that year, and one day while we were at work, a blizzard swept through town, dumping a good seven inches of heavy snow before 5 p.m. As we battled the snowy streets home, we felt mournful because, as new home-owners, we didn’t have a snow shovel to our name. We drove down our street, figuring we’d have to ring doorbells to borrow a shovel. As we approached our extra-long driveway, we saw to our amazement that someone had already shoveled us out. We were stunned. Our beneficiary was our dear, loving neighbor, Gary, who was temporarily unemployed. He and his family didn’t have money to spare, but he thought nothing of using his snowblower to help a couple of kids out of a snowy predicament. I have never forgotten Gary’s kindness, and because of his sterling example, I delight in paying it forward whenever I can. I’m lucky, because I’ve landed in a neighborhood where I have ample opportunities.
A glow of appreciation for my neighbor’s daughters, who so kindly cleared our driveway, stayed with me into the afternoon. I made a decision and zipped off to the market to buy three oranges — one for each daughter, and one for their parents, who raised such thoughtful women. I studded the three oranges with fragrant cloves and wrapped each one with ribbons, a sweet-smelling winter’s thank you, just because, one kindness heaped upon another in that pleasant back and forth of neighborliness that encircles the seasons.