Archive for the ‘Portraits of a Creative Life’ Category
Today’s post is really just a couple of pictures of the quilt I made for my daughter’s twin bed. She asked for a Little House on the Prarie themed room, infused with a touch of Barbara McClintock’s Dahlia. Of couse I loved the literary references and set about making a wagon wheel quilt using a pattern and fabric by Denyse Schmidt.
I have two reasons for posting about this quilt. One: I worked hard on those curved seams! And the quilting wasn’t easy, either, on my standard sized sewing machine. It is a very happy feeling to have it finished and see my daughter snuggled under it at night.
Two: I want to go to this. But I didn’t feel like I really qualified without blogging about a quilt that I had made. So now I am legitimate!
“Go to bed, Santa is watching.”
“Don’t hit your brother, Santa will put you on his Naughty list.”
It’s terrible. It might prompt a quick change of behavior, but in the long run all it does is get them way too excited for Christmas Eve. Just yesterday my three-year old asked me, “Is Santa’s magic coming tonight?”
The worst part about this particular method of persuasion is that I get this niggling feeling that by invoking the name of Santa I am somehow manipulating the magic of Christmas, and that thing that is so innocent and pure and unquestioning in my little children: belief.
I know there are people who don’t share the Santa myth with their children at all. They don’t want to confuse their kids. Or lie to them. Or make it difficult to ascertain the difference between belief in magic and faith in God. But the time is so brief in a child’s life when they are open-hearted and wide-eyed enough to let magic be real. Their belief in magic is precious and fleeting, and I want my children to let it fill them up inside with wonder.
When the magic is gone, something is lost. Like the line from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan: “Every time a child says, ‘I don’t believe in fairies,’ there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead.”
My eight-year old daughter seems to recognize this. She is on the brink of relinquishing her belief in Santa, only she doesn’t want to lose the magic. Tonight she asked me to recall a fabricated story from a Christmas past when I’d ‘allegedly’ heard the bells on Santa’s sleigh. “Did you really hear them, Mom?” she asked.
“Yes,” I responded in my ongoing effort to keep the illusion alive. “Because I believe.”
She turned her little face up to mine and said with a wistful voice, “I almost believe.”
It pulled at my heart. The waning of the magic. And her desire to hold onto it for as long as possible. She went on to tell me about a friend at school who has an elf come visit her house every December. “He feels like a stuffed toy,” my daughter explained, “but he’s not. He’s real. He moves all around the house and watches everyone. He’s Santa’s helper.” I could see how delighted she was by the idea of a magical elf, but even more, the importance she placed on her friend’s belief that the doll was real. “Maybe,” she told me, “we could invite an elf to come to our house. Then I would believe.”
She doesn’t want to let the magic go. And I wish she didn’t have to.
But I did. I used to be just like her: convinced of the reality of fairy-folk and all their particular brands of magic. And what I have learned is that even after she loses the fairy-magic, life will continue to bring her another kind of magic, in unexpected ways that are much more enduring than fairy dust. Magic like mine: a little girl with freckled cheeks who wants with all her heart to see the things inspired by her imagination. And even though she won’t be able to continue believing in St. Nick, she’ll find other things to believe in. Things that are more real than he could ever be. Belief might be harder to come by as she gets older. It won’t always be sunny and bright. But I am convinced – and this is my believing - that the wonder will still be there, waiting for her to find it.
The other night I dreamed I was back at Harvard, standing in the Dean’s office, defending myself against accusations that I hadn’t completed all my coursework and that I wouldn’t be able to graduate. My tearful defense: “I made a quilt for each of my four babies!” The Dean checked the course catalog for quilting classes, but there was nothing. No quilting credits. No diploma.
This is a recurring dream of mine. I have it at least once a month. I’m back in college, but for one reason or another, I can’t graduate. Usually its because of math. Or because I’m lost and can’t find my way to class. I don’t understand why these dreams plague me. I did graduate.
I’ve decided I must be carrying around some serious feelings of inadequacy. I said as much to my husband, and he told me, “Those feelings are what got you through Harvard.” I realized he was right. The inadequacy is the dark side to my ambition.
Recently I gained a greater appreciation for that ambition. I was reading ANNE OF GREEN GABLES with my daughter. We were at the point in the book where Anne has left Green Gables and is studying at Queen’s. She has just decided to try for the Avery scholarship and an Arts course at Redmond College. She muses,
Oh, it’s delightful to have ambitions. I’m so glad I have such a lot. And there never seems to be any end to them – that’s the best of it. Just as soon as you attain to one ambition you see another one glittering higher up still. It does make life so interesting.
And it does make life interesting. The challenge. The self-doubt, the searching, the striving. When I think about it, my greatest ambitions stretch far into the horizon. They are life-works that won’t be accomplished in a day, a week, a month, or even a year. They give me something to work toward. To focus on and reach for. I had never thought to be glad for them, or for my ridiculous angst-ridden dreams, but I suppose I should be. They have gotten me where I am, and promise to make life interesting as I continue on my way.
Four weeks ago I posted about the chaos of summer, and the challenge it is to find time to be creative in my home full of busy little bodies. Here was the conclusion that I came to:
My creative life is not compartmentalized. Who I am doesn’t have to be something separate from who my kids need me to be. It is time for me to learn how to feed on chaos.
A good friend of mine, Emily, who is Co-Editor-in-Chief of the The Exponent, an online publication for LDS women, asked to repost my blog entry on the Exponent blog. I received several comments from readers, including one with a frankness that made me laugh. It went like this:
Let us know when you figure out how to feed on chaos.
I appreciated the honesty of this remark. It is one thing to say you are going to feed on chaos, it is another thing entirely to start taking it in in great mouthfulls. But this is what I have learned in the past month.
First – I am a person who needs calm and quiet when I work. I can’t set my computer up at the kitchen table and expect to get anything worthwhile completed on my novel when kids are running in and out the back door looking for more popsicles or crying over bee stings. I know that about myself. It is just how I am, and that is okay. For me, feeding on chaos does not mean completely succombing to it.
Second – I don’t need to set aside long periods of time to be productive. I used to think I needed at least an hour hollowed out from my day where nobody and nothing could disrupt me from my writing. But that doesn’t work when you are feeding on chaos. I’ve learned that ten minutes of quiet can be enough. In fact, if I get up from my computer after just ten or fifteen minutes, I find that I haven’t exhausted my creativity like I would if I sat down for an hour or longer. After ten minutes I leave my quiet office with my mind still open and reaching, and as a result ideas follow me around the rest of the day. Much better ideas than the ones that come while I am sitting at my desk, pleading with my computer screen to somehow make the words come out right.
So I feel like I have, in some measure, learned how to feed on chaos. I’m not going to win any contests for speed or productivity, but I’ve been able to be where I want to be with my family and still keep my creative self alive, and that makes me happy.
I’m back. And I have ten minutes before my kids get home from school. But I’ll take it, because between Thanksgiving travels and upcoming Christmas travels things have been a little crazy around here. Impossible, really. Impossible because life is so busy, and impossible because my kids are so HYPER. But it is snowing outside today, the world is beautiful, and I am cranking Christmas music nonstop.
While I’ve been absent from my blog, I have been working on my young adult novel (no – there are no vampires). I’m so close to the end that it is both thrilling and terrifying. Thrilling because it is turning out so much better than I ever could have planned. Terrifying because I have so much hope and anguish tied up in it. It is precious to me!
I started this book way too many years ago to honestly confess, but here is a clue: The second semester of my senior year in college I was workshopping with Andre Dubus III. He was trying to get us to open ourselves up to our own creative potential – to unlock the imagination and let it take our writing places we might never go without it. I had been trying all semester to script flat stories where I made my characters say things or symbolize things that I wanted to communicate, and it wasn’t working. By the time Spring Break arrived, I had nothing.
I was married my senior year of college, but my husband was busy at a high-intensity consulting boutique and couldn’t take any time off during my break, so I bought a ticket to Italy and went alone. I spent the week quietly traversing the crooked, busy streets of Florence, hiking through the terraced hills of Cinque Terre, and eating tons of food with my friends in Padova. On my return flight to Boston, I had nothing.
So I closed my eyes, used every effort to block out the very loud tour group seated around me, and tried to lose myself to my imagination. In my mind a scene opened up. It was an outdoor Italian market. There was a fruit stand, full of ripe oranges. And then a girl appeared. She reached her hand out toward the oranges, took one, and ran out of the market, disappearing down the crooked alleys. That was my idea. I couldn’t believe it. My imagination had given me a shop-lifter. But I decided to trust it, and here I am, a decade later, finishing up a story that is just so beautiful to me I can hardly stand it.
Thinking about it on my way home from the preschool drop-off this morning I realized that there were three crucial components that initiated this long, laborious, rewarding process. The first was the deadline. I have come to be very grateful for deadlines. The second was the imagination. I had to take the risk of letting my creative side have precedence, even if just for a moment, before I could do anything real or resounding with my writing. The third was the focus. The willingness to trust the creative part of me and pursue it. Years later I find the same three things to be absolutely necessary to me accomplishing anything: deadlines, imagination, and focus.
The kids are home now, looking for mom. Which brings me to this admission: my deadlines are always flexible, my imagination is most active in the shower, and my focus runs in short, madly sprinting spurts!
Tonight I attended a quilter’s guild meeting in my little town. The topic of the meeting was the Jane Stickle quilt of 1863. Several of the women in the group recently returned from a trip to the Bennington Museum in Vermont where they went to view Jane Stickle’s masterpiece, and were exhilirated and inspired by their pilgrimage. Some of them had even undertaken, over the past year, to make their own reproductions of the intricate quilt, which contains a total of 5,602 pieces, and displayed them at the meeting.
As I sat and listened to them recount their experiences reproducing and visiting the Jane Stickle quilt, I wondered at their homage, and at my own feelings of reverence for this woman and what she created.
Census reports tell us that Jane Stickle was born Jane Blakely on April 8, 1817 in Shaftsbury, Vermont. Married to Walter Stickle sometime before 1850, they did not have a family of their own. They did, however, take responsibility for at least three other children. In an 1860’s census, Jane Stickle was listed as a 43 year-old farmer living alone. She eventually reunited with her husband, but during that time alone she lovingly created what is now known as the Jane Stickle Quilt. As a reminder of the turbulent times the country was going through, she carefully embroidered “In War Time 1863” into the quilt.
There is so much left out of that brief history, but also so much revealed. The bare facts and the story they outline put me in mind of master historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and the course I took from her while I was in college. In her book, Good Wives, she is able to glean rich details from the lives of simple women through historical records as sparse as a county probate inventory.
Even more importantly, Ulrich directs students of women’s history to the ways women of all ages have found expressions for their intellect and art, even if it is in the quiet, historically transparent realms of house and home. While I was taking her course, she introduced us to the writings of Alice Walker. Specifically her essay entitled, “In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens.” Walker writes about the legacy of slave women and their descendents. Working women with no time or outlet for their creative, artistic voices. “When, you will ask,” she writes, “did my overworked mother have time to know or care about feeding the creative spirit? The answer is so simple that many of us have spent years discovering it. We have constantly looked high, when we should have looked high — and low.”
Walker then points us to another quilt. One that hangs in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. A priceless quilt “made of bits and pieces of worthless rags,” but “obviously the work of a person of powerful imagination and deep spiritual feeling.”
Walker goes on to describe her own mother’s flower garden — a place “so magnificent with life and creativity, that to this day people drive by our house in Georgia — and ask to stand or walk among my mother’s art.”
And here is the part of Walker’s essay that touches on the feeling – the appreciation and awe – that was present at the quilt guild meeting tonight:
“I notice that it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible — except as Creator: hand and eye. She is involved in work her soul must have. Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of Beauty.
Her face, as she prepares the Art that is her gift, is a legacy of respect she leaves to me, for all that illuminates and cherishes life. She has handed down respect for the possibilities — and the will to grasp them.”
It is this legacy that we cherished tonight at my quilting meeting. We were profoundly moved that a simple woman, through ingenuity, art, and persistence, could create something so astonishing. And we found validation in the work of our souls.