A return to my roots

Prairie Lights, my favorite independent bookstore in Iowa City, recently informed me that this week, May 1 – 7, is Children’s Book Week.

The words, “children’s books” contain the exact number of syllables as the words, “treasure trove”, and to me, these word pairs are synonymous and interchangeable. What marvelous magic a children’s book wields! I keep a running tally of many favorite things, but I’m quite certain children’s books rank among my topmost five.

I can’t let Children’s Book Week slip by without mentioning a book I adored as a child, a book whose wisdom set me on a path that shaped me into the person I am today. When I was small, not only was I certain the book I mention was written just for me, I felt I was its main character – a lonely little girl who lived by a pond and wandered through nature in search of someone, anyone, to play with. I was that child, right down to the light cotton dress and white anklets. Allow me to introduce to you this beloved book: Play with Me, by Marie Hall Ets, The Viking Press, 1955.

Reading about Marie Hall Ets in Wikipedia, I learned that she won the Caldecott Medal in 1960 for her book, Nine Days to Christmas. I also learned that between 1945 and 1966, she was a runner-up five times for the Caldecott, an impressive feat exceeded only by Maurice Sendak, who had seven titles which nearly won the prize. (Books that almost were awarded the Caldecott are today heralded as Caldecott Honor Books.)

In Play with Me, text and illustration weave a beguiling tale. A little girl goes off to the meadow in search of a friend. One after another, she asks the creatures she meets, “Will you play with me?” But each one leaps or flies or bounds or slithers away, and she’s left alone to console herself by sitting quietly on a stone to watch bugs making trails in the pond. She is too preoccupied to notice the tender presence of a benevolent sun.

As she sits without moving, her sadness turns to joy as one by one, the meadow creatures quietly return. She realizes that now, all of them are “playing” with her. By becoming observant and unobtrusive, she accumulates a rich circle of friends.

How many thousands of times did I turn the pages of Play with Me, poring over every detail? Young sapling that I was, I absorbed the book’s simple wisdom and carried it with me to the woods surrounding my home. I learned to sit noiselessly among the trees to better observe squirrels and birds. If I didn’t move a muscle, I was rewarded with chances to watch frogs and turtles and ducks by the pond. Sitting quietly, waiting to catch a glimpse of woodland creatures, I spent entire mornings and afternoons studying spring ephemerals while learning to distinguish the songs of many birds. I discovered that a lonely heart is curiously not lonely in the woods: feathery ferns reached out to caress me, violets and spring beauties smiled up at me, oaks and maples waved with glad hands, birds welcomed me with song. I was rich in friendships, there on my wooded hill… (Years later, not surprisingly, another book that captivated me was Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. I, too, was a dreamer who lived in the woods by a quiet pond.)

It’s really no wonder I grew up to be an introvert. My mother was a poet, and I was raised in her airy home; I spent most of my waking hours in nature, and when inclement weather kept me indoors, I’d page through books or draw flowers or listen to my favorite records. (When I was small, the soundtrack of Bambi was my special favorite.)

For quite a few years now, I’ve described myself as a Hobbit. I vastly prefer nature and the comforts of home and hearth to adventures. I almost always choose solitude over society. Given my inclination to prefer quiet, the terrible accident in October of 2015 that hobbled me for a year and a half was not perhaps as punitive for me, the introvert, as it might have been for an extrovert. Nevertheless, being confined day and night to a chair with a painful, shattered ankle was a trial for me. Once again I was that lonesome child who wished someone, anyone, would come and keep me company…

When one is badly hurt, one can tend to grow quiet, shrink inward. My inner survival mode caused me to withdraw deep into my own roots to wait, to hope, to dream. Just after Christmas of 2015, I decided that since I had to sit day after day in a chair to elevate a throbbing ankle, I might as well put my time to good use. I decided to study my mother’s embroidery books. And that’s just what I did. I spent the early months of 2016 reading about and practicing every single stitch in those books. And in the process, I discovered that all those tiny stitches had become for me a new lexicon, a language I could use to express myself.

At that time, I couldn’t go to the meadow or wander by the river. I couldn’t even get out of the house without a wheelchair. But with needle and thread for a magic carpet, I was no longer chair-bound. I was free to lose myself in a world of my own imagining, a comforting place filled with beauty and peace.

I’m able to get around on my own again, thanks to a pair of custom orthotics, a pair of sturdy, if unfashionable, shoes, and the great good help of my wonderful physical therapists, Laura and Shari. I’m able to walk by the river or visit the woods. I can spend time in the garden. But I continue to spend hours filling hoops and fabric with the things I knew and loved best as a child: flowers and trees and meadows, birds and butterflies. Having grown accustomed to the deep solitude and isolation of an overwhelming injury, I’m less inclined to talk. I’d much rather speak with needle and thread. Whereas writing is often laborious for me, I find that embroidery is light and pleasant and marvelously meditative. When I take up my needle, I’m not only deep in my roots, I’m growing. I’m creating. I’m happy!

These musings bring me back to Children’s Book Week and the charming book that set my feet on a path which led to the quiet joy of making friends with nature. To celebrate Children’s Book Week 2017, I’m going to order a copy of Play with Me and donate it to my local library. There are lonely children everywhere who long for a companion. What better companion than a wonderful book?

(All embroideries shown here are my original designs, © My Path with Stars Bestrewn.)

For the love of an 18th century sampler

0030_For the love of 18th c. samplersII

These two photographs are a companion to my previous post (Love, our subject:). I’m including them here to chart my progress, and to encourage myself to keep working at reproducing this intricate 18th century English sampler. Completed in 1780 by eleven-year-old Sarah Brignell, the original is on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. I chose to reproduce this sampler because of its imaginative floral border and because of the primitive cartouche that appears in the center of the piece. Within this little globe are a girl, a tree, a stag, a bird, a butterfly, a flower, a green meadow, blue sky, a smiling sun – a child’s version of Eden. I’ve never seen another historical sampler that looks like this one, and I find it charming.

0029_For the love of 18th c. samplersI

I’ve spent some of the pleasantest hours of my life with a needle, floss, and a piece of cloth. This Sarah Brignell sampler is the third and most difficult one I’ve attempted. My motive in choosing it is that I want each of our three children to have one of “my” samplers as a keepsake someday. I’ve finished two already: The Chase sampler, which was completed in 1760 in Newbury, Massachusetts by 11-year-old Mary Starker (the original of which is part of the Williamsburg collection), and an English sampler completed in 1832 by 7-year-old Ann Pasfield. (Yes – she was seven years old, a precocious child to say the least.)

As I mentioned in my previous post, the ongoing challenge of the Sarah Brignell sampler is that the words of its hymn are worked with a single strand of black silk floss over a single thread of 35 count linen – which means there are thirty-five strands of linen to the inch. In the case of this sampler, it also means there are thirty-five cross stitches to the inch – incredibly tiny. I’ve had quite a time of trying to see what I’m doing. Although I’ve worn bifocals for several years, bifocals alone are insufficient for this task. I attempted to work with a needlework magnifier perched in my lap, but found it far too cumbersome. It’s the same reason I’ve never been able to work with an embroidery hoop – it gets in my way and feels artificial. I suppose I’m a needlework purist of sorts – I want nothing between me and my embroidery. However, in the case of the infinitesimal stitches required in the Sarah Brignell, I needed help and ultimately discovered that putting a pair of reading magnifiers over the top of my bifocals worked perfectly. And that, my friends, is how I earned one of my family’s affectionate nicknames: Six Eyes.

Sometime, I’ll tell more about my love of samplers and needlework in general. For now, my embroidery chair in the sunroom beckons. I think I’ll put Ola Gjeilo (my latest favorite composer) on the stereo, unite with all the unsung embroiderers of days long flown, and focus (all six of) my eyes on a work of love.

Love, our subject:

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With a single strand of black silk floss, I spend the better part of an afternoon embroidering the word “l o v e” in minute cross stitches  – 35 to the inch – over one thread of fine-woven, ivory linen. (The word is part of an exquisite 18th century English reproduction sampler I’ve been working on for several years.) As I work each microscopic stitch, taking care to keep my thread’s tension light and even, neither too taut nor too slack, I unchain my thoughts and let them wander. I think long on love. I wonder why this four-letter, one-syllable word can be so delicate and diaphanous, so difficult to execute on fabric, to effectuate in life. Love is what we wish to give, what we hunger to receive. It’s what we dedicate our lives to, this sacred, abstruse word we’ve sought to define from the dawn of collective consciousness. “Love, our subject:/we’ve trained it like ivy to our walls,” says the poet, Adrienne Rich. At last, I complete the word, secure my needle, and close my eyes, fabric in hand.

“L o v e.”

I am able to extend a finger, run it lightly over the tiny topography of letters, and read the word whole, like Braille. Somewhere in my heart, a poem yearns to find release. Where are the words to give it wing? I can only ask the roving wind. What I do know, what I can simply say, is that love – prismatic, manifold, undefinable, so worthy of all we can possibly give to it – is not easily captured in black and white.