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A Lumpy First Quilting Project and the Joy of Discovery

Yesterday it was raining buckets outside, a welcome sight for this gardener.  We hadn’t had this much rain in many weeks and the clay soil was already so baked it was beginning to crack. I was getting tired of carrying buckets of water around the garden to keep my new transplants alive.  Nearly 36 hours of rain later, the garden looks fresh, green and…moist.

It’s unusual to have a rainy Sunday.  I sat down to an afternoon of play.  I finished my quilted pillow. I have no idea what I am doing.  I have never sewed, but I love quilts.  Somehow I managed to collect a bunch of fabric scraps over the years in a variety of blue and yellow hues. I seem to have a fondness for pairing those colors together, the way I like to pair peach and aqua together.  My bedroom is blue, and so I decided to sew together some patches and make a pillow.  I used my Christmas present, the new Janome sewing machine I bought from Sew Simple in Lynchburg.  I can’t say enough great things about the sewing machine or the shop…they were wonderful and this model Janome is like the idiot’s guide to sewing.  Literally.  It has little numbers and arrows showing you how to thread the machine. It’s like connect the dots sewing.  That is my kind of machine.

So here is my lump, bumpy pillow.  It’s uneven. One side is poking up more than another.  It won’t win any prizes.  Many children sew better than I do. I don’t care. I had fun making it.

The reason I share my lumpy bumpy pillow with you is this.  I was raised in a super strict household where play was frowned upon past the age of six.  After that age, work was the watchword.  We were expected to work so hard at our schoolwork that we brought home straight A’s regardless of the subject. We were to  work hard at home and were assigned tasks far beyond what our age normally dictated. This was to “build character.” I was not allowed to play sports and only academic clubs were allowed. These would further my school work; sports were nothing but a waste of time and money.  And so on.

By the time I turned 16 and was able to get a part time job, my parents didn’t just encourage me to work…they practically pushed me out the door. While it’s true that I was highly motivated to take a part time job to pay for my horse back riding lessons (a frivolity my siblings gifted me with for my 16th birthday and a long cherished dream),  my parents saw hard work as the ultimate virtue.

If you sewed, it was to make clothing…not because it was creative expression, but because the clothing was better made or less expensive than store-bought clothing.

If you gardened, it wasn’t for fun.  It was to win prizes (competition) or grow food (money saving.)

If you rode your bicycle, it wasn’t for pleasure…it was to get from one place to the other.

Everything was for a purpose.

I devoured Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project in three days flat, and it was she who inspired me to finish my lumpy bumpy pillow.  In her book, she explores a year of testing the various hypothesis around how to become happier.  But what struck me was her exploration and identification of unspoken “rules” she’d had about herself.  Some “rules” were good, and some kept her back.  Another thing that struck me was that play is good.  Getting away from that hard, grinding approach to work is GOOD for the soul, the spirit, and happiness.

She made me sit back and question this unspoken rule that play was frowned upon and that every activity had to be for a purpose, that every activity undertaken by an adult in our family had to be bigger, better and best.  She made me question the unspoken and odd rule we had growing up that if you wanted to do something your older siblings wanted to do – even if it was some activity that spoke to you, that inspired you, that made you happy – well, you were just ‘copying’ someone else.  For years my sister teased me that my interest in gardening was just me trying to copy another sister.  Well, she is wrong.  I love to garden.  Gardening makes me happy.  I never learned how to sew because that was another sister’s “thing.”  I have one sister who sews beautiful tailored clothes. She made me my first good business suit when I entered the work force and it was lovely. (I still have it even though I have gained too much weight to wear it; I won’t part with it.)  The other sister took up sewing, but her “thing” was quilting.  She made me a gorgeous double wedding ring quilt for my wedding that I have hanging up in my bedroom.  I don’t want to use it on the bed because my cats sleep on the bed and shed all the time.  I keep a store-bought quilt on the bed that I can just throw into the laundry in case of kitty accidents or hair.

But I have always longed to sew. I remember the whirr of my mother’s sewing machine and it is like the background song of my childhood.  She was an excellent seamstress and there are many pictures of myself and my sisters wearing Easter dresses she created.  My favorite was white with flocked purple tulips on it and a lot of purple rickrack. Remember rickrack, the 70s answer to trimming anything? I’m just grateful she never bought the Ronco Be-dazzler.

I tried taking a sewing class when I lived in Floral Park. I dutifully trekked up to Sewanhaka High School for the evening course.  I never took home ec in high school because I was music nerd (still am); my electives were piano, chorus and music theory, which left no time for cooking or sewing classes.

I tried sewing a dress in that class and it was a big, shapeless black tent.  It was so ugly I couldn’t bear to even save the material.  Patterns made me cry.  I got so frustrated. The teacher kept saying to me to have patience with myself, but that old habit ingrained in me from childhood of expecting to BE the best because I HAD to be the best because that is what my parents expected and demanded of us kicked in.   I quit the class.

Now I know better. I know that it is okay to let hobbies be hobbies. It is okay to not only not be the best but to putter around with something that gives you joy and pleasure.  It is okay for me to quilt, garden, sew, and do other things that I enjoy.  So what if my sisters like doing them too? Just gives us one more thing to share when we are together.

Every childhood has its rules and every family has its quirks.  As I read The Happiness Project, I realized that the important thing is not getting stuck in the quirks.  The important thing is that when you get to adulthood, you can be dispassionate and detached enough to recognize, analyze, and scrutinize those childhood rules.  You can keep what works and leave behind what doesn’t.

For my parents, hard work and striving was the key to getting out of poverty.  My grandfather died when my mother was only 3 and during the height of the Great Depression, leaving my disabled grandmother with little income and three daughters to feed.  My dad’s family were immigrants striving to succeed in America during a time when prejudice against German immigrants ran high.  To my parents, the iron-clad rule “Be the best” and “Anything you do must be productive, earn money, and be the best” was necessary to lift them out of poverty.

Their rules aren’t my rules.  I am not living in the Great Depression no matter what the newscasters may say about the economy.  I have good work that I love to do, and I have a roof over my head and a full pantry.  I respect that my parents may have had to strive every hour of every day to get ahead, but I am not in that same atmosphere.  My life is my own.

And so out came the scraps of material.  Out came endless cups of tea and the radio tuned to the Lynchburg classical music station. I set up my sewing machine at the kitchen table, set up the ironing board on the island, and went to work.

While I puttered and sewed, I watched a huge wild tom turkey out in the yard.  In the pouring rain he went from space to space behind the vegetable garden, pecking for insects.   I paused, sipped my tea, and watched this fascinating (and bedraggled) tom turkey in the rain.  And suddenly I thought, “Life is good.  Life is fine.”

So here is my lumpy bumpy pillow and all that it represents. I added it to the mount of pillows on the bed, those decorative pillows men never understand and women crave.  And every time I look at it, I smile and feel alive again.

That’s what creative play does for you.

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  • Cynthia Wood
    April 23, 2012 at 3:57 pm

    I took a quilting project about 30 (!) years ago and found that I really liked to do it. Both of my parents and grandparents were interested and my dad was a master at cutting out very precise patterns and pieces. It’s a zen type of activity.